Independence Day: A Multicultural Celebration

One of the many reasons I found living in Washington so attractive was the recognition of the cultural backgrounds of the people who lived and worked in the metropolitan area. Food, music and celebratory observances offered glimpses into the lives of people from around the globe.

As Fourth of July celebrations near (in my neighborhood, firecrackers began popping and whizzing Sunday night), and the United States of America celebrates its birth of independence, it comes to mind that this is a country of many. How do we incorporate our diverse strengths into a celebration of independence?

The Smithsonian Institution offers a great answer — its annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington. Since 1967, it has brought craftspeople, workers, cooks and storytellers to exemplify traditions of more than 90 nations, every region of the United States, various ethnic communities, American Indian groups and a variety of occupations.

Many people find it easier and more comfortable to begin dialogue with people of different countries or backgrounds who are only a tent away. It is also easier to try a new food, and if you mispronounce the name, it’s OK. You know the food servers understand. As a response, you can expect a smile instead of a snicker.

In a video on the Folklife Festival, Richard Kurin, former director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage said, “It is an intimate type of learning where you can learn directly from the practitioners of those cultural traditions. That’s not like a book. That’s not like a movie. That’s not like a web page or any other experience.”

People find similarities and differences. They can converse with people of different cultures. They can actively participate in the festival — singing and dancing along.

Kurin added that the National Mall where the festival takes place “…Is land that belongs to everyone and no one. There is a kind of a certain freedom afforded on this mall.  It stands for freedom. … It’s in a place where people have expressed their freedom.”

He noted, “The festival allows people to cross certain  boundaries that are otherwise there in their normal life. It allows them to cross those boundaries with a power, a significance and an attitude that is tremendously refreshing.”

From now on, I will make it a Fourth of July tradition to learn something new about another culture or tradition; maybe make it part of my celebration. As I go forward, I will think of how I can make it easier, more comfortable for others to learn a little more about America and me, not only in the workplace but in my personal life as well.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival continues July 4-8, 2012.

2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival concerts preview