Before organizing as an independent agency in 1989, Philadelphia Folklore Project (PFP) began in 1987 as a centennial program of the American Folklore Society – as such, it was part of a small but significant movement of newly-created independent public folklife not-for-profits. Committed to paying attention to the lived experiences and traditions of local people, PFP believes that folklife— diverse vernacular traditions, local knowledge, and cultural heritage—are powerful resources for social change and vital and necessary elements of community well-being.
PFP’s work falls under three broad headings: community projects, documentary resources, and services. PFP has produced more than 260 public events, 75 artist residencies, and 23 ethnographic exhibitions. Landmark programs include the concerts of Philly Dance Africa; the exhibition Folk Arts of Social Change; the concert, video documentary, and exhibition Plenty of Good Women Dancers; and Art Happens Here residencies supporting local artists and community members in challenging cultural stereotypes and developing new work. PFP’s documentary resources include 41 magazine issues, 24 other publications, 15 video productions, an active website, and an archive of 64,000 items. PFP services include free technical assistance and workshops which over 25 years have supported 350 local tradition-bearers and their organizations in developing projects and raising more than 3.2 million dollars in grants. In many cases, these were the first outside dollars to be invested in low-income communities of color for folk arts preservation and performance.
In 2005, PFP moved into a building of its own, and, in partnership with Asian Americans United, PFP co-founded the Folk Arts - Cultural Treasures Charter School, a public K-8 school serving 450 students with a curriculum grounded in the study of folk arts. Both city and national awards have recognized the leadership, excellence, and impact of the Philadelphia Folklore Project in its field and in the communities that it serves.
A New Initiative
Prompted by the decline in local, regional, and national funding for emerging folk arts groups, PFP has designed a new initiative, Folk Arts and Social Change Residencies (FASCR). The initiative offers stipends and hands-on workshops on community-based folklife fieldwork and how to link folk arts and social change. These residencies document what communities hold dear and in doing so create critical dialogue across generations and cultural communities.
FASC residencies have four stages of development. During the first stage of Fieldwork and Planning, community residents are supported in sharing their own experiences with one another and documenting significant community folk arts and history. This process stimulates collective consideration of local experiences and generates resources (folk arts, people, guiding questions, and story-lines) for exhibition and performance. Excerpts (recordings, testimonies, images of artifacts and people) are circulated online to solicit community response.
In the second phase of a residency, each team begins to synthesize what they are hearing and learning and to identify themes. Community Gatherings invite an expanding group of community members, artists, and activists to participate, and project leaders use exhibition, performance, story-circles, and reenactments to generate animated dialogue. Outcomes include sharper project themes and story-lines. In the third residency phase, Production, PFP folklorists with the assistance of consultants support FASC residents in developing public exhibitions and performances. The Folk Arts and Social Change Conference is the culmination of the year’s work, where there are performances and exhibitions from the residencies and structured opportunities for both critical reflection and additional community participation.
The open call for 2012 FASC residencies generated 32 community proposals. Three were selected for in-depth development.
- Rites of Resistance is exploring the untold stories of three generations of Southeast Asian immigrants who have faced decades of violence. The project team will create an exhibition sharing the cultural and social history of Asian Americans in Philadelphia, 1970 to present, documenting different generational experiences with cultural traditions and social justice struggles. One goal of the exhibition is to challenge stereotypes across generations and communities. The project team includes Southeast Asian teenagers from South Philadelphia High School who are organizing against anti-immigrant violence; 20- and 30-year olds from Southeast Asian immigrant communities whose early experiences of shattered families and war- zone neighborhoods were a bitter legacy distancing them from elders; elders who still practice their traditional arts; and long-time activist group, Asian Americans United.
- African Ancestors is documenting the history of a local cultural movement that began in 1950 and that has never been widely recognized for its impact on community well-being. As elders in this movement are passing, young people are interviewing and documenting artists who learned and extended Akan, Yoruba, Ga, Guinean, Senegalese and other continental traditions as direct responses to specific community plagues, including racism, drug culture, and gang violence. The project, in collaboration with Dance Africa-Philadelphia, will create an exhibition and annual community ritual honoring elders and opening paths to unity.
- The Liberian Community Drama Project includes local Liberian immigrant artists who are collaborating with Roadside Theater to create an original performance reflective of contemporary concerns in Philadelphia’s Liberian community, the largest in the country. Addressing the impact of two nearly back-to-back civil wars in Liberia and anti-immigrant violence here, the project will provide the means for the Liberian community to tell the stories of its hopes and challenges.