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AFS Review: Featured Folklorist

Featured Folklorist: Ashley Minner (University of Maryland Baltimore County)

Friday, September 20, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Alexandra Sanchez
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Ashley Minner will lead a preconference tour in Baltimore, A Walk through “the Reservation”—The Historic Lumbee Indian Community (registration open through September 30).

Ashley is a community based visual artist from Baltimore, Maryland. She also works as a professor in the Department of American Studies at University of Maryland Baltimore County, where she serves as the inaugural director of the minor in Public Humanities. As a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies at University of Maryland College Park, she is completing her dissertation on the changing relationship between Baltimore’s Lumbee community and the neighborhood where they first settled. Ashley is also an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. 

Left: Ashley Minner, Photo by Bruce Weller for Open Society Institute (OSI) Baltimorecourtesy of Ashley Minner.

 

What is your current job and how does it relate to or incorporate folklore?

I'm a community-based visual artist. Most of my art is made either in collaboration with or in response to community. I was also recently hired as professor of the practice in the Department of American Studies at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). This position was seeded and fostered through a years-long partnership between UMBC and Maryland Traditions, Maryland's State Folklife Program. In both roles, I work with people to share their stories, usually with a focus on culture and heritage. 

 

What is a day-in-the-life like for you?

No two days are the same. Ever. Right now, I'm trying to enjoy my summer break and work on a dissertation. (Yes, both.) As often as I can, I hang out on my back porch with my pet turtle and write. My dissertation is on the changing relationship between Baltimore’s Lumbee Indian community and the neighborhood where they first settled, so I'm here sifting through old newspaper articles, oral histories, and photos. I call people when I have questions, or sometimes visit. I take a lot of walks. But I always have a few projects going on, so there is other work here and there. Some days, I don't work at all and go on adventures instead. 

 

How did you get to where you are today? What were some important steps in your journey?

Some experiences that stand out: 

  • Growing up in this neighborhood, with family all around
  • Attending public school grades K-12—you learn so much more than what is being taught
  • Going to art school
  • Working at a bank
  • Running the Indian Education program of Baltimore City Public Schools
  • Going to grad school for community art
  • Driving around the U.S. south a lot, sometimes by myself
  • Spending time in Robeson County, NC
  • Visiting the Caribbean for the first time, and every time
  • Being part of Alternate ROOTS
  • Going to grad school for American Studies
  • Dating (and loving and marrying) Thomas Jones

I'm very grateful to be alive and where I am. I give a lot of credit to God and my family. 

 

What goals drive your work? What kind of impacts to do strive to achieve?

Whenever possible, I try to provide platforms/amplifiers for people to tell their own stories. When I'm representing people in my art or in my writing, I try to do so with the most truth and the most love. In my teaching, I try to inspire students to do whatever they do with goals of equity and social justice in mind. 

 

How does your work impact your community?

As of yet, no written history of the Lumbee Indian community of East Baltimore exists— at least not one written by a member of the community. The work I'm putting in now will hopefully benefit our community such that we can one day point to a book chronicling our presence in the city—one that we really see ourselves in. I'm also compiling the materials I've been collecting from various archives to make them publicly accessible, at both the Baltimore American Indian Center and the Maryland Folklife Archives at UMBC. Our people need easy access to our history.  

 

What sorts of issues are most pressing for your community and how do your personal or professional endeavors intersect with these issues?

I think that Lumbee people in Baltimore would benefit from wider recognition and understanding. Funding for our community organizations that do direct outreach to address issues that are even more pressing would also be helpful. For many years, my work was direct outreach, whether it was volunteering at the Baltimore American Indian Center, working the Indian Education program of Baltimore City Public Schools, or running an after school art program for the same kids I worked with in my "day job." Now I'm more focused on getting our stories out there, which hopefully gets us more recognition, understanding, and funding, which, in turn, will hopefully result in more pride, higher self-esteem, greater self-awareness, etc. in the community. But I still hear from my former students often, and sometimes have the opportunity to help them with things. That's some of the most satisfying work that I do. For example, last week I got to help one of my all-time favorites get some documents she needed to apply for her tribal enrollment card.

 

What do you like best about where you live and/or the communities you work with?

I still live in the neighborhood where I grew up. It's hard to imagine living anywhere else. I love that my family is all around me. My husband and I live in my grandparents' old house; my parents live on the other side of the block, literally across the back yard from us; my sister lives in our other grandparents' old house across the street from them, and my aunt lives across the street, too. I know most of my neighbors and they know me. We live very near the water, which is great and sometimes scary. We're close to every kind of delicious food and all of the things that make Baltimore wonderful. Lots of good accents around here. 

 

What do you most wish outsiders knew about your community?

If we're talking about the Lumbee Indian community of Baltimore, first of all, they should know that we exist. Most Baltimoreans don't even realize that there is an American Indian community here. If they got to know us, they would also know that real American Indian people, in most cases, defy stereotypes about American Indians.

 

Share a bit about one or two of your projects (past, present, or future) that you are most excited about.

Right now, I'm mapping "the reservation," which is what the neighborhood where Lumbees first settled in Baltimore was once called. The coolest part about this project, for me, is learning so much about a place I thought I knew right down to the cracks in the sidewalk. I have really been enjoying interviewing my elders, looking at old maps, and digging through the archives. It's like treasure hunting. I'm also creating a walking tour, which is really interesting because in many cases, I'm pointing to places that no longer exist. You can read more about this work here, on The Conversation

 

What kinds of things do you do with your personal time? Activities, endeavors, commitments that you pursue when you’re not on the job?

I like to go on walks to explore places. I also enjoy talking to strangers and eating different kinds of food. And swimming. And dancing. And playing music.

 

How did you discover folklore and what do you like best about it? Why did you stick with it?

I guess I was really slow to "discover" folklore. Over ten years ago now, I had the benefit of briefly working with Elaine Eff, while I was an art grad student at MICA. I found myself consistently using field methods she had taught me in my practice as an artist ever since. Later, some other awesome folklorists who used to run Maryland Traditions, Cliff Murphy and Michelle Stefano, noticed my work and kept asking me to participate in whatever they had going on— everything from grant programs to folk festivals to written publications. Elaine, Cliff, and Michelle have each sent many opportunities my way, and have sort of informally mentored me over the years. But it wasn't until I took a class with Barry Lee Pearson, as a PhD student at UMD, that it occurred to me I might also be a folklorist. Barry is probably my all-time favorite teacher and definitely one of my favorite people. I thought I was taking his class as an elective. Who knew you could seriously study everything you love? Around the same time, I got an invitation from Chad Buterbaugh to work for Maryland Traditions as a folklorist. 

So anyway, I identify as a community artist first, and I still sometimes call myself a folklorist. I'm not as comfortable with that label now that I'm more familiar with the field, as such, and its colonial history. I have also observed, within the field, that the legacies of that colonial history are still very present. 

But I do the work of a folklorist as I do the work of being an artist, and it's pretty cool. Definitely the best part is getting to know people and learning about all the cool things that make us who we are.  

 

Anything else we failed to ask that you want to share?

Nope! 

 



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