From February through July, 2019, New York Folklore engaged in a unique partnership project through the United States Department of State and the non-profit organization, World Learning. Involving both a virtual exchange and an in-person exchange, New York Folklore partnered with Youth of Osh of Kyrgyzstan and the US-based Schoharie River Center, as well as Utica College and Duanesburg High School, to involve almost thirty youth and young adults in an exploration of cultural heritage from the vantage points of New York’s Mohawk Valley and the Alay Valley of the Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan.
The project came to fruition with two back-to-back visits by a small delegation from each country. The first visit took place in June 2019, as three Kyrgyz students and two adult leaders were hosted by New York Folklore. After a whirlwind afternoon in New York City, the group was transported to the rural Mohawk Valley to experience the region’s traditional art activities involving textiles, stone, and wood. They attended and participated in the Cooperstown Community Dance, explored the Schoharie Creek watershed by canoe and on foot, and examined the region’s vernacular architecture. As one of the goals of the project was to participate in a service project, the Krygyz and American students worked together to create a timber-framed sign kiosk that they were able to donate and erect for a youth program in Middleburgh, New York. Toward the end of their visit the project presented a mini folklife festival with crafts demonstrations, and music and dance performance that took place at the Duanesburg High School in rural Schenectady County.
As a counterpart of the June visit by Youth of Osh and their students, New York Folklore Executive Director Ellen McHale, Schoharie River Center Director John McKeeby, and three students traveled to southern Krygyzstan in mid-July for a ten day visit. In keeping with the shared themes of cultural heritage and tourism, we were treated to hands-on workshops with folk artists and fine craftspersons; explored the building technology of the yurt (and got to both build one and sleep in one); and explored the Alay Valley through hiking and exploring its high pastures. A service project took the form of erecting a series of three signs that provided tourism information to those hiking the base of Lenin Peak. At the trip’s conclusion, Youth of Osh staged a community folk arts festival that included traditional music and dance performances, folk arts demonstrations, and children’s games and other activities.
Lessons learned are too numerous for enumerating in this forum. For my part, and for New York Folklore, our circle has widened and there are possibilities for future shared projects and initiatives. We have also made dear friends with Youth of Osh, an important organization that works to ensure a brighter future for Kyrgyzstan and its youth. For the participating young people, they were able to experience another culture – either directly or indirectly. What was perhaps most energizing for the participants, however, was that through the vehicle of cultural exchange they were able to learn about their own culture and to gain a greater appreciation for the dynamics of folk arts and folklife in their home countries.