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SEAP Co-Hosts Teacher Workshop on Cultural Sustainability

Abby Cohn

By Sally Lee, graduate assistant for educational outreach

“Tanah-air.” “Land-water.” Abby Cohn, Cornell University’s Director of the Southeast Asia Program (SEAP) and Professor of Linguistics, translates an Indonesian language conveying how in Indonesian culture, the people’s experience with their homeland is entrenched in both the land and the surrounding ocean. At this year’s annual International Studies Summer Institute (ISSI) workshop for teachers, Cohn presented to teachers the clash between using a main language for nation building and preserving a country’s linguistic diversity. Language—a window on culture, local knowledge, heritage, and history—is an important piece in the cultural sustainability puzzle.

On July 1 and 2, ISSI, hosted by the Cornell Southeast Asia Program and the Cornell-Syracuse South Asia Consortium, brought together teachers from fourteen different school districts in upstate New York to learn content, tools, and strategies for internationalizing their curriculum.

Engaging teachers of subjects ranging from Spanish to art to social studies, ISSI explored the theme of cultural sustainability across many disciplines and world regions. Presenters discussed how diverse cultures around the world both preserve and adapt their traditions in the face of environmental, economic, social, and political change. Some of the various topics in focus included languages and language policy of Indonesia, perspectives from the Onondaga Nation, cultural sustainability in contemporary art, and promoting peace through community building in Kenya.

As Carol Babiracki, Director of the South Asia Center at Syracuse, whose research explores the ways in which hereditary musicians in India navigate a changing social and economic landscape, discussed how different scholars have defined sustainability, the most well-known being the one outlined by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development—“meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Professor Babiracki argued that any definition must include attention to the cultural practices and institutions of communities around the world.  Professor Karim-Aly Kassam, International Professor of Environmental and Indigenous Studies at Cornell, added, in his keynote, that “cultural sustainability is based on trust and building relationships.”

Many of the speakers recognized the struggle in sustaining local cultures within a more globalized world, yet also touched on the cooperation that can ensue at the intersection of local, national, and global. For example, Carol Hockett, Coordinator of School and Family Programs at Cornell’s Johnson Museum of Art since 2004, illustrated how artists from Africa to Mexico to Japan use traditional methods and motifs to comment on social, environmental, and political changes that their cultures face every day.

Abby Cohn gave a dynamic talk on how Indonesia’s language policy has shaped a main language for nation-building at the expense of losing the country’s linguistic diversity consisting of over 700 living languages. Concluding her presentation, Cohn posed a central question illustrating the tensions between local and national interests: “Should Indonesian be a force for unity at the expense of the diversity of existing languages and cultures, or should national unity be built on a foundation that accommodates and appreciates ethnolinguistic diversity?”

In conversation with Cohn’s presentation, Michael Abrams, a representative from the Cultural Center Skä•noñh - Great Law of Peace Center, discussed the reality of speaking two languages and its implications on one’s cultural identity. As a member of the Onondaga Eel Clan and a lifelong resident of the Onondaga Nation, Abrams presented on the resilience and challenges of preserving the language and culture of his tribe among the changes brought by colonialism. This was a moment in which the teachers heard directly from someone facing the challenges discussed throughout the workshop. Abrams’ presentation was powerful in that it brought to life his personal experiences in cultural sustainability; a previously abstract concept became something more tangible, happening right in front of us.

Many participating teachers felt they could certainly apply content from the presentations into their own class curriculum. “There are resources that I didn’t know were available until yesterday (first day of ISSI),” Maritza Peña, a Spanish teacher at Spencer Van Etten High School said. Brenna E. Fitzgerald, the SEAP Communications and Outreach Coordinator presented on the Cornell Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies’ lending library, which consists of books, videos, DVDs, and culture kits, which are curated boxes of cultural artifacts from all over the world.

Emera Bridger Wilson, Associate Director of Syracuse University’s South Asia Center elaborated on the many resources offered by the Center for educators such as documentaries and films in the Media Library. Peña said she definitely plans on incorporating some of the material she learned at the workshop into her own lesson plans using the lending library books and culture kits.

Spanish teacher Nora Schapira from Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca said ISSI provides her a space for growing her professional network. After attending a previous ISSI workshop, she collaborated with Carol Hockett of the Cornell Johnson Museum of Art to arrange a field trip for her students to visit an art installation on gender topics and plans to bring her students to the Cornell Johnson Museum again to discuss immigration issues this September.

“ISSI is very different from typical teachers’ trainings,” said Meghan Wright, an English as a New Language (ENL) teacher from the Utica City School District. “Many of my students are refugees that come from Southeast Asia, so the content covered today is very helpful and invigorating and stimulates me with the bigger picture.” Wright further explained that the content she learned in the workshop helped her better understand the culture of her refugee students and that she will always keep cultural sustainability in her mind while teaching. 


Karim Kassam
Culture Kits