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  • An Open Letter of Appreciation to Our Festival Volunteers

    “Many of our traditions, of our practices, are cemented in this idea of a cypher, of a circle, of inclusivity, where it’s an equal playing ground. We all have a place in that circle.” 
    —Julia L. Gutiérrez-Rivera, dancer and Festival community engagement manager

    Since my arrival in December 2013, I have found it curious that something so identified with time and place—ten days in the summer on the National Mall—is really about things that live beyond it. Called everything from “an exercise in cultural democracy” to “a museum without walls,” the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s founders planted seeds to ensure that it would always be more than just an event. For it to succeed, it would have to grow into a community of people from all walks of life working throughout the year with intention and toward common purpose. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the volunteers who so generously give their time to and share their talents with this unwieldy enterprise. I am writing to thank you and to let you know that you are missed beyond measure.

    This year we have been tested in ways that are simultaneously unimaginable and utterly predictable. The rise of COVID-19 means that we cannot be on the National Mall as planned. The rise of voices in protest throughout our country—and beyond—compels us to rethink what we will do when we return in 2021. In the meantime, it is crystal clear what our next steps must be: we will stand with others to condemn racism, brutality in all its forms, and intersectional discrimination. In doing so, we also double-down on our commitment to use this unique platform to foster the kind of intercultural understanding that can lead to empathy, equity, and what Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the beloved community.” In this way, we reaffirm our belief that culture matters and can be a powerful tool for positive, sustainable change.

    The process of re-visioning what the Festival is and does began in earnest last November with a series of facilitated workshops during which we challenged long-held assumptions and practices. We also looked at strengths that we should carry forward and possibilities we have yet to explore. Significantly, we had frank discussions about what is needed to continue the work of diversifying our staff and audience. This reimagining is incomplete without the input of Festival volunteers. I ask that you consider joining us in the months to come by responding to our call for ideas, concerns, and suggestions.

    No, this is not the summer we planned. There will be no welcoming ceremony, T-shirts, or hotel parties. On the upside, we can all spend the Fourth of July in air-conditioned splendor instead of the heat and dust. While it saddens me that we will not see many of you until we return to the National Mall in 2021, I take comfort knowing that the spirit of the Festival is alive and well. It is in our digital programming, virtual internships, and ongoing curatorial, administrative, technical, and design work. It can be found in continued conversation between staff and volunteers sharing as many thoughts about the future as the past. This, too, is Culture. Out Loud.

    I want to thank you again for your support of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. I encourage you to stay in touch by participating in our digital Story Circles, adding your comments on the Smithsonian Folklife Family Facebook page, or dropping me a note about, well, whatever is feeding your sense of creativity and possibility. Until then, I wish you and the ones you love the best of health.

    In gratitude and solidarity,

    Sabrina Lynn Motley

    Vintage film photo of seven volunteers, arms around each other, posing in front of the tent marked: VOLUNTEERS / LOST & FOUND / ACCESSIBILITY SERVICES
    Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

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