Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2011: For the Peace Corps, finally some good news
- Kutner, right, in Guatemala
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala in 2008 and 2009, Laura Kutner came up with a creative answer to two pressing problems in her community: the abundance of trash and the need for more classrooms for children.
Kutner, now 27, developed a way to fashion walls out of discarded water and soda bottles that she stuffed with non-biodegradable trash, then stacked inside chicken wire and encased in cement. That system helped her Guatemalan community build several school classrooms in a region where it was difficult to get enough concrete to fashion entire buildings.
Visitors to this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, which starts tomorrow, will be able to see — and help build — one of Kutner’s walls, using plastic bottles and trash collected in the area.
The Peace Corps is one of the “cultures” being highlighted in this year’s festival, in part because of the organization’s 50th anniversary. The choice also fits well with one of the Peace Corps’ main goals, says Smithsonian curator Jim Deutsch, which is to “help Americans better understand the people and cultures that America is serving.”
In turn, that jibes with the mission of the Smithsonian overall and the festival, which is about understanding and valuing world cultures, says Deutsch.
Volunteers, ranging from the Peace Corps’ original volunteers to Ghana in 1961 to current volunteers taking a leave from their host countries to bring their projects to D.C., will demonstrate crafts, cooking, and dance.
A positive reflection on the Peace Corps comes not a moment too soon for the organization which lately has been beset by controversy after a volunteer in Benin was killed in 2009 and other volunteers claimed that they had been raped and then faced with insensitive treatment by the Peace Corps.
Peace Corps spokeswoman Kristina Edmunson says that the organization has hired a victims' advocate who will be a liaison “for all volunteers who have been victims of a serious crime or rape, to help them through the process.”
It’s a far larger and more diverse organization than the one begun with President John F. Kennedy’s call for public service. Early photos of the Peace Corps volunteers show a group of fresh-faced young men and women, the men in jackets and ties and the women in crisp shirtwaist dresses, about to board a plane for Ghana.
Today, the Peace Corps serves in 77 countries, says Deutsch. Although it would have been impossible to bring representatives of all 77 countries to the Mall, the festival did manage to include 15 countries, and visitors will get to watch grape-stomping for wine from Georgia, shea butter-making from Ghana, rug-weaving from Morrocco, and basket-weaving from Kenya.
A tent will be set up for former volunteers, with a message board and times for volunteers from different countries and time periods to reconnect.
But it might be Kutner’s trash-packed walls that stand out, possibly looking more at home in an Earth Day celebration than a festival heavy on the basket-weaving component. Even so, Kutner, who will be helping to build this new wall at the festival, embodies the enthusiasm and idealism that seems a built-in part of Peace Corps types. Of the Guatemalan wall-building, she says, “That’s what was so great about the project: the entire community had to come together. I don’t know if there was one person in that community who didn’t help.”
Besides the Peace Corps, this year’s folklife festival highlights the country of Colombia and the rhythm and blues tradition of the United States. In other words, visitors can watch a demonstration of Ukrainian cooking, check out a tango workshop, and end the day doing a little hand dance. The festival runs from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from June 30 to July 4 and from July 7-11 on the National Mall.
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