|by Jenna Ashton Winton
“What’s that?” is the most common question I’m asked when I tell people I work in cultural sustainability. My go-to explanation is “It’s supporting communities in maintaining their collective cultural identity during times of crisis or great change.” Cultural sustainability practices retain the social resources of a community’s unique local knowledge and experience for future generations; it ensures that significant traditions are not lost and that long-standing cultural values drive community development.
Culture is more than art and music; it is an expression of collective history and identity. It is the roots that stabilize us and connect us to our ancestors.
Why is sustaining culture important? Community is sustained by culture, and culture is, in turn, sustained by community. To quote Cultural Analyst Jon Hawkes, “A sustainable society depends upon a sustainable culture. If a society’s culture disintegrates, so will everything else.”
Culture is a complex concept, but for simplicity’s sake it can be described as a system of knowing, meaning making, and being that shapes a community. Cultures are expressions of human knowledge that have evolved over time to changing environments. Culture is more than art and music; it is an expression of collective history and identity. It is the roots that stabilize us and connect us to our ancestors. From huge annual religious celebrations down to the way you greet your neighbor, culture is vast and we’re often not even aware we’re contributing to it on a daily basis.
Supporting a culture’s sustainability can take many forms. For instance, revitalizing a neighborhood celebration, safeguarding places of significance, or ensuring marginalized voices are heard in policy. Cultural sustainability practices contribute to community development and resilience in many different ways; I have peers who apply cultural sustainability practices in medical anthropology, fashion, advocacy, and politics.
Preserving tangible and intangible cultural heritage is an essential part of cultural sustainability practices, while preventing aspects of culture from adapting to changing times weakens sustainability. Cultural sustainability practices support culture without insisting people and practices remain static in their identity. A key concept is sustaining culture through the development of tradition. As each generation makes the tradition relevant to themselves and their generation, transmission is strengthened and culture evolves.
In recent years, cultural sustainability has begun to emerge as a crucial domain of holistic sustainability practices, alongside ecological, economic, and social sustainability. It can be seen as the basis supporting all other domains of sustainability. When a community ensures that long-standing cultural values drive community development, its ecological, economic, and social sustainability practices can be more successfully adopted. In building on the foundation of endangered cultural resources, communities can sustain their community infrastructure and take ownership of new, adaptive projects supporting other forms of sustainability. The value of connecting and working across sustainability fields in this way is that sustainability is being approached from several different angles.
While there are definitely challenges to cultural sustainability, there is a growing movement towards not only resisting these, but towards cultural revitalization! A great example of this is Jessie Little Doe Baird, who, in collaboration with an MIT linguistic professor, reconstructed and revived the Wampanoag language after it had been extinct for over one hundred years.
As every community is unique, so is their vision of a sustainable culture. So, I ask, what would cultural sustainability look like to you in the Lehigh Valley? What traditions are significant? What public places nourish the community you are a part of? What distinct activities do you participate in that expresses and confirms your personal and communal identity? What have you learned from your ancestors that you’d like to see the next generation embrace? What risks to these do you see? The answers to these questions are more important than you may realize.
Jenna Ashton Winton is a cultural sustainability practitioner working as a folklorist and program director for the Folk Art Alliance in Eastern Pennsylvania.