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Jim Leary
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Jim Leary is professor of Folklore and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Education and Accomplishments: PhD Folklore (Indiana U 1977), MA Folklore (U of North Carolina 1973). Co-founder, Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures (2001); director, UW-Madison Folklore Program (1999-2010); independent folklorist (1985-1999) contracted by non-profits, labor unions, tribes, state and federal agencies to work on festivals, films, exhibits, radio programs, and documentary recordings. AFS member since 1976; AFS Fellow; recipient of Botkin Award and Chicago Folklore Prize; member of Folksongs, History, Nordic-Baltic, and Public Programs sections; co-editor of JAF (2011-2015). Union member: American Federation of Teachers, Industrial Workers of the World. Author of several books on folklore, most recently Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946 (2015).

Question: What is the greatest challenge or opportunity facing the field of folklore studies and how, as an Executive Board member, would you respond to it?

Response: As a veteran public folklorist currently based in two academic departments, my hope is to help AFS look around and back as it moves forward. In 1888, when AFS was founded, cultural genocide waged against American Indians was rampant, the country verged on war with Spain for far-flung colonies, cities swelled with new immigrants (from the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, East Asia) terrifying the powers that be, English-only laws proliferated, Jim Crow restrictions on citizens’ civil rights abounded, public lands were gouged for private gain, and workers scuffling for decency were harried, and even murdered by private armies. The fledgling American Folklore Society’s response was mostly retrospective and myopic, with some ameliorative, reformist, even revolutionary exceptions. We’ve come a long way since then, but the era we live in is, in many ways, disturbingly unchanged. Our main challenge is to sustain and broaden the best work folklorists do: documenting, archiving, conserving, and creating fair, accessible, artful, insightful, collaborative representations of and reflections on expressive traditions and their practitioners; engaging in education, advocacy, and policy formation in alliance with the people and communities with whom we work; recruiting, training, mentoring, hiring, and otherwise supporting younger folklorists; establishing effective programs and partnerships within and across the academy, government agencies, non-profits, community organizations, tribes, unions, and international societies; and striving to work with skill, savvy, inclusiveness, humanity, and a critical sensibility. Experienced with, committed to, but perpetually dissatisfied about our efforts in all these endeavors, I welcome the opportunity to serve the American Folklore Society.

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