Amy Skillman is the Academic Director of the MA in Cultural Sustainability at Goucher College. Throughout her career, she has worked in non-profit organizations, higher education institutions, and government agencies to design programs that sustain artistic traditions while striving for cultural equity. Highlights of her work include a 20-year initiative with newcomer women using theater and story circles to foster leadership and break down barriers caused by prejudices and inequities; a Grammy-nominated recording of Old Time fiddlers in Missouri; and a co-curated traveling exhibition examining the role of folk arts as a catalyst for social change. An avid participant in AFS since 1978, Amy served on the Executive Board (2009-2011), the Nominating Committee, several prize and travel committees, and was co-convener of the Public Programs Section and co-founder of the Creative Writing Section. She is a recipient of the Botkin Prize and a member of the AFS Fellows. Amy received her MA in Folklore from UCLA and a self-designed BA in Cultural Minorities and the Immigrant Experience from St. Lawrence University.
What are the most significant opportunities or challenges now facing AFS, and how as AFS President would you respond to those opportunities or challenges?
As a field, folklore offers solutions to a dizzying array of humanitarian challenges. I entered the field in the 1970s because I recognized that folklore tools can break down fears of the unknown and build understanding across differences, a need that continues to this day. I always saw myself as a cultural activist, so it is gratifying to see the growth of activism in our field. We encompass diverse points of view, experiences, and career settings. What unites that work is a set of skills and perspectives that make us good problem-solvers; listening, curiosity, the insights to ask deep questions, a respect for local knowledge and multi-vocality, and an ethical responsibility to ensure our work has meaning for those centered there.
One of our challenges as an organization is to serve all these disparate professional needs. As the field changes, we must adapt to be relevant – just like any valued tradition or community. We must address the ways our field and its canon have problematically reinforced the status quo. We must find consensus for who we are at the core, and then shape our activities around that core in a way that fosters belonging for all members.
A resurgence of conservativism around the world threatens hard won rights to equity and agency, not only for our members but for the communities with whom we work. We have the skills and capacity to illuminate these issues in community conversations. I would like to seek funds to support collaborations between our academic institutions and community-based organizations — those housing folklorists as well as those directed by cultural leaders — to facilitate dialogue around key challenges in our world; women’s rights, racism, the banning of books, equitable healthcare, etc. How might we use new technologies and our cultural lens to connect broadly and create these deeper conversations?
Our sustainability depends on remaining relevant—to the next generation, to our communities and institutions, and to the creative ways our members find to do their work. We need our academic institutions as much as we need the innovative work of community scholars and young folklorists breaking the mold and blazing new trails. I am excited to explore these challenges with the Board and the members to strengthen who we are and what we have to offer.