How do newcomer arts groups contribute to cultural sustainability, and what exactly do they help to sustain?
First of all, what exactly is cultural sustainability? The Master of Arts in Cultural Sustainability at Goucher College answers this question by stating, "Cultural sustainability is an interdisciplinary field focused on actively identifying, protecting, and enhancing cultural traditions through activism, fieldwork, academic scholarship, and grassroots communications. We advocate an action-oriented belief in cultural equity. Using the tools of cultural and applied anthropology, folklore, ethnomusicology, history, communications, cultural tourism, and other traditionally separate disciplines we encourage communities to consider, "What is it that matters most to your community?" and then act on their response. The cultures, traditions, and communities we try to sustain could be any we actively and passionately care about: a neighborhood, an occupation, an art form, a skill, a village, a city, an ethnic group, a religious or spiritual group, a tribe, or any other community with shared traditions and values."
Cultural sustainability can mean different things to different people. No two newcomer arts and crafts groups are the same, and no two members within those groups have the same interests, needs, goals, or motivations for their participation. As Laura Marcus Green wrote in In My Country: A Gathering of Refugee & Immigrant Fiber Traditions, "diverse fiber traditions are a lifeline threading together memories and lives. When they were young, they sat by their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and neighbors, learning their art forms, among other things. Handwork has seen these women through hardship and transition" (p. 4).
These same ideas about sustainability can be applied to any type of participatory arts group, including dance, music, literature, culinary arts, and more. Sustainable groups share a number of best practices in common. For example, sustainable groups seek out creative solutions to overcome challenges, and they regularly reevaluate their programs and activities to make sure they are still effective. Group members often hold positions of leadership and decision-making authority. Sustainable groups are realistic about their activities and goals. They are focused on their mission and don't try to do more than they can support and handle. Also, sustainable groups have the support of members of their own community, who often donate their money, time, and in-kind assistance. Sustainable groups engage with the broader community through celebrations, demonstrations, hands-on classes, and more. Groups often include a teaching element in their activities to share their knowledge. And finally, sustainable groups seek diversified sources of funding and support and have found ways to generate income from their activities.
Another point worth noting is that sustainability does not necessarily mean that a group will exist forever. It serves a specific group of newcomers for a set period of time as they transition and integrate into life in the US.
Based on my extensive research and interviews with newcomer arts groups nationwide, as well as a number of folklorists, I have identified four different aspects of sustainability below, and groups are usually working towards more than one aspect of sustainability at the same time. For specific examples, see the various narratives about newcomer arts collectives, sustainable models, and support models in the menus above.