Recentering Marginalized Histories in the Evolving Fabric of the American Identity
In March 2022, 39 ExchangeAlumni from 24 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, gathered in Minneapolis, Minnesota for the first in-person Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminar (Alumni TIES) since 2019. In the midst of unexpected snow flurries, these extraordinary anthropologists, educators, journalists, artists, archaeologists, and writers from 29 different exchange programs shared expert strategies, methods, and resources on how to cultivate and preserve the stories, language, heritage, and culture of marginalized and underrepresented communities in the United States.
Participants were welcomed by Matthew Lussenhop, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDAS) for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) at the U.S. Department of State. Lussenhop, a native of Minnesota, spoke about the work that ECA is engaged in across the United States to share the true “American” story and reiterated the role ExchangeAlumni have in sharing their stories in their home communities and abroad: “Each of you has a unique history, culture, and heritage, and memory to contribute to the larger story of what it means to live the American story.”
Following a lively discussion between PDAS Lussenhop and the participants, alumni presenters facilitated a plenary discussion on “Exploring the Foundation and Examining the Implications of the ‘American’ Identity.” Panelists tackled the political, historical, and cultural landscape of the “American” identity. They highlighted the role that marginalized stories can play in transforming the way that one shares history, culture, and heritage, and memory and in building inclusive communities. The conversations continued throughout the week, with alumni discussing topics such as conscientious cultural tourism; narrative and linguistic history and preservation; sharing marginalized stories through the arts; employing diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible engagement practices; and authentic community engagement.
The learning continued outside of the conference rooms as participants met with a number of local organizations to hear more about their programs and initiatives to share and preserve the histories and diverse communities that make Minneapolis so unique. Alumni visited the following organizations: Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota State Capitol, Twin Cities German Immersion School, American Swedish Institute, Green Card Voices, and Minnesota Historical Society. At each site, participants saw first-hand how these organizations are working with minority communities to actively engage marginalized and underrepresented citizens to share and preserve stories for future generations. Additionally, alumni were able to meet with local exchange alumni in a casual setting at Kieran’s Irish Pub. There, they were able to converse about their exchange programs and more deeply connect with one another on their personal interests and fields of expertise.
During the seminar, participants had several opportunities to collaborate as they designed community-based projects to tell and preserve the histories and cultures of marginalized and underrepresented peoples that make up the identity and foundation of the United States. Following every Alumni TIES seminar, participants are eligible to apply for a grant of up to $10,000 to implement a community project related to the seminar theme. By the final day, many had shared their desire to maximize their new knowledge and skills developed at the seminar and use the grant to create sustainable change in their communities.
Concluding a packed and lively week of seminar sessions and activities, alumni participants enjoyed each other’s company for a final night during the closing dinner. As they mingled, laughed, and shared their favorite moments of the week with one another, the connection that the group developed during their time in Minneapolis was evident. They started the week as strangers eager to learn how to “decenter whiteness, dismantle white fragility, share power, and get out of the way in order to move community narratives from the margins to the center,” as a participant so aptly put, and left with friendships and networks that will continue to thrive long after the Alumni TIES program ended.
The Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and administered by World Learning and the Office of Alumni Affairs, in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), at the State Department.