Collaboration for Heritage Conservation

The Communities Connecting Heritage program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, aims to protect the cultural heritage of underserved communities around the world through exchange projects, exhibitions and more.

Storytellers, artists, musicians and other such creative individuals are at the center of vibrant societies, and are in a unique position to preserve the cultural heritage of a community. Recognizing this aspect, the U.S. Department of State sponsored the Communities Connecting Heritage program. 

Administered by the nonprofit organization, World Learning, the program seeks to empower youth to protect the cultural heritage of underserved communities around the world. It supports new partnerships between U.S. and international cultural organizations and the communities they serve through virtual and in-person exchange projects and exhibitions. The program aims to help preserve tangible and intangible cultural heritage and reinforce positive narratives, through community outreach and public education. “Communities Connecting Heritage creates international partnerships among cultural institutions around the world,” says Deanna Wertheimer, program manager, Exchange & Training Unit at World Learning. “The program provides training and support for partners as they develop and implement unique projects that empower individuals to explore and protect cultural heritage, both their own and that of underserved communities around the world.” 

More than 74 cultural institutions have been trained under the program. This training includes the development of proposals and strategies for project implementation, as well as specific training on the carrying out of proposals once they are enacted. “Utilizing the training,” says Wertheimer, “these partners have carried out 16 cultural heritage projects, which have engaged more than 380 community members and staff in hybrid virtual and in-person exchange programming.”  

Of particular interest is the “Reclaiming Heritage: The Intercultural Heritage Exchange Project,” a collaboration between Bhasha Research and Publication Centre in Gujarat and the University of Northern Colorado’s Anthropology Department. This 2018-19 project trained up to 30 participants from the Chhara community in India and Native Americans, the African American immigrants and the Karenni Burmese refugee community in the United States to use virtual reality technologies to explore and document their respective cultural and natural heritages, including family and spiritual traditions, festivals and performances. Participants used Google+ to interact with 360-degree images that included ambient sound captured by lead participants and viewed through Google Cardboard Goggles. Additionally, five-member teams from Bhasha and the University of Northern Colorado visited the focus communities of each country on a two-week in-person exchange.

For many people of these communities, with histories of social and economic marginalization and insecurity, the recognition and preservation of their cultural heritage gets overshadowed. The exchange project worked to ignite the passion for cultural heritage stewardship in these communities in both countries. As a public presentation of the work done as part of the project, Bhasha organized a public exhibition on the communities’ issues in June 2019 in Vadodara. 

This is a typical example of organizations collaborating with overseas counterparts to develop engaging cultural heritage projects. “The program has been honored to engage with a variety of underserved communities in the United States and abroad,” says Wertheimer. “Examples of cultures we have engaged with include the nomadic Chhara culture in India; the Karenni and Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugee communities in the United States; deaf culture in the United States and Belgium; African American and Native American cultures in the United States; and traditional artistic communities in Kyrgyzstan, Bosnia, Serbia and India, among others.”

Particularly apt at the moment is the astute use of virtual programming, which has become ever more necessary in the current global health crisis. “We are grateful that virtual programming was already built into the projects and the training for partner institutions,” says Wertheimer. Once the pandemic made it unsafe for participants to cross borders and engage within the local communities, World Learning supported its partner institutions in shifting quite seamlessly to focusing on the virtual exchanges that were already taking place. “Our ability to pivot quickly,” she adds, “demonstrated in a very real way that hybrid programs are versatile and adaptable to changing needs and circumstances.”

Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.