By Sean Mooney
France elected Emmanuel Macron as their new president this past Sunday in what appears to be a respite from the wave of far-right nationalism sweeping through the Western political landscape. The conversations leading up to this important vote followed the narrative surrounding Brexit, the U.S. 2016 presidential campaign that delivered Trump, and last month’s election in the Netherlands. The West is dealing with an identity crisis that threatens to unravel the post-WWII international order, or at least the European Union (EU). Refugees and migrants are overwhelming the generosity of EU states while global inequality fuels the rage of their traditional working class populations. The rise of the Western far-right has resulted in hyper-nationalist political parties preying on the fears of those that feel threatened by extremist groups and the momentum of a globalized economy that has left them behind.
With fear of the “other” prevalent, it seems an odd time to embark on a project that brings cultural heritage preservation into the spotlight. At first glance, this project might seem to bolster the ideology of those trying to stoke the fire of an insular identity, of nationalism over cosmopolitanism. Cultural heritage has become a talking point used by candidates in an attempt to isolate their countries from the rest of the world. They implore the population to believe cultural outsiders will dilute their national identity and steal their employment opportunities.
However, there is another way to view cultural heritage preservation. Instead of using the food, dance, and music of our past to separate us, we can employ our traditions to recognize shared values with those around the world. The Communities Connecting Heritage SM (CCH)program pursues this goal. Over the next year and half, World Learning will oversee six partnerships between U.S. and international cultural heritage organizations. These partnerships will engage in virtual and in-person exchanges as they develop cultural heritage projects linked by a common theme.
A major aspect of these projects will be the participants each organization chooses to include from their respective communities. The organizations are encouraged to bring in youth and underserved communities such as ethnic minorities, women and differently-abled individuals to participate in project design and implementation. Each community will have a two week in-person exchange with their partner organization. While on the ground in their partner’s country, they will organize a public exhibition to share their project with the wider community. This is where some of the most valuable work of the CCH program will take place.
In a time when nationalist language is being used to pit communities across the world against each other, these projects and public exhibitions are a necessary antidote. The CCH partnerships will provide positive narratives about the practices and values that bring us together, rather than those that tear us apart. Now is the time to celebrate our differences and similarities boldly rather than lash out at those we do not know or understand. The concerns and fears of those who have been on the losing end of an increasingly globalized economy are legitimate and should not be downplayed, but anger at the current state of affairs shouldn’t govern our reactions to those we see as different. Through the CCH program we can encourage people around the world to shift hostility and disdain to curiosity, positive dialogue and hope.
Sean Mooney is a program associate at World Learning.