Vt. Folklife Center begins its next chapter; new leader seeks greater outreach

MIDDLEBURY — Kathleen Haughey, an accomplished cellist, has always seen music as an avenue through to gain a better understanding of people, their cultures and traditions. She successfully put that to the test as a student while honing her musical skills in South America and beyond.
Haughey has now exchanged her cello for a metaphorical conductor’s baton to coordinate the Vermont Folklife Center’s ongoing effort to preserve the collective heritage of the people of the Green Mountain State. Haughey was recently named the new executive director of the VFC, a Middlebury repository of thousands of Vermonters’ stories that she wants to share with the region and the world.
“The folklife center’s mission is perhaps more timely and relevant today than ever before,” Haughey said. “Our statewide partnerships and programs demonstrate the profound impact that deep listening and thoughtful conversation can have on our communities, especially in uncertain times. It is an honor to lead the Folklife Center’s efforts to document, sustain and present the diverse cultures of Vermonters.”
Haughey is 28 years old, though looks even younger. But she is far from a neophyte when it comes to the study or different cultures, languages and countries. She has already compiled an impressive resumé and a passport inked with immigration stamps from such countries as Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina.
Her travels have helped inform her understanding of folklore and have stoked Haughey’s passion for the important work of capturing people’s stories and talents for future generations to appreciate. Music was — and still is — central to her outreach.
Haughey grew up in a family of musicians. In addition to the cello, she also plays piano, fiddle and a four-stringed Brazilian guitar known as the cavaquinho. And she can sing.
“I became interested in how, through music and dance, communities and individuals can express so many different things — identity, even politics,” she said. “Through music, we can learn a lot about people and the human condition. It’s a powerful platform for human change, as well.”
After earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish Literature and a Bachelor of Music in Cello Performance from Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Wash., Haughey enrolled in Brown University’s ethnomusicology program, earning her master’s.
Ethnomusicology is the study of the music of different cultures. Haughey is currently a Ph.D. candidate in that field at Brown.
Haughey joined the VFC in 2015 as its education director. She quickly engaged with the new American and refugee communities of greater Burlington, establishing strong, lasting relationships with — among others — Bhutanese-Nepali refugee communities.
As leader of VFC’s education offerings, Haughey found herself in a lot of Vermont schools, presiding over folklore workshops and delivering the center’s “Discovering Community” program.
“The premise of that is to get young people out into their communities, using media to tell their own stories and the stories of people in their community,” Haughey said. “Part of that program also includes providing professional learning opportunities for educators, teaching them our method of community-based research, using media to represent people’s experiences.”
But Haughey’s work was not confined to the academic year. She helped run the center’s Summer Institute, which schools educators on good research techniques for capturing people’s stories and cultural traditions. Folks at the institute get lessons in ethnography, which is the systematic study of peoples and cultures.
“It’s a way of trying to understand experience from the point of view of the people to whom that experience belongs,” Haughey explained of ethnography.
“We’re showing people there’s so much diversity here,” she added. “It just takes a little time to unveil it.”
The VFC also runs a Cultural Sustainability Institute that teaches people good interviewing techniques (to collect oral histories), audio recording, and getting people together to talk about things they care about.
Realizing that art is a key part of the broader folklore mosaic, the VFC has, for the past 25 years, run an Arts Apprenticeship Program. It pairs a community-recognized master of some form of traditional art — such as Somali-Bantu embroidery, Nepali folk dancing or blacksmithing — with an apprentice or group of people who want to learn those skills. The ultimate goal is for the apprentices to learn the traditional dance, craft or art technique and eventually pass it on to future generations.
During the past several months, Haughey’s role with the VFC began to broaden, to the extent that she became part of the conversation in a leadership transition that’s been in the works for the past year. Co-director Gregory Sharrow, the VFC’s folklorist emeritus, has been eager to retire after having spent 30 years building the center’s reputation and reach. Fellow co-director Andy Kolovos has wanted to re-dedicate himself to bolstering the VFC’s archives and research efforts.
When the VFC board asked Haughey if she’d like to take the reins of the organization, she quickly agreed — after the organization hired a new education director, Mary Rizos, whom Haughey described as “an ideal person” to take her place.
“It has been a seamless transition,” Haughey said.
She has already mapped out an ambitious to-do list for the VFC.
First, she wants to make the VFC more visible to more people, through promotion of its exhibits, programs and giving greater exposure to its vast archives that have captured the stories of thousands of multi-generational and newly minted Vermonters.
“I’m working on a new VFC podcast,” Haughey said. “We have a multi-media initiative, and our hope is to get a lot of our content from our archive out into the world. People will be able to see it and hear it.”
But much of the VFC’s archives are on paper and there is a lot of recording tape that needs to be digitized in order to make it widely available online. And that’s the second of Haughey’s priorities.
“Our archives are like a gold mine,” Haughey said of the material, which includes around 1,500 photos, diverse artwork and more than 5,000 recorded interviews with people whose memories date back to the late 1800s.
“It is a repository of Vermont’s living cultural memory.”
Digitizing those memories will be expensive and time consuming, according to Haughey. The VFC is in the early stages of a raising $1 million-$3 million to endow the digitizing work, Haughey noted.
Also on the new director’s list: Strengthening the VFC’s strategic partnerships with such organizations as Vermont Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System to share Vermonters’ stories.
Haughey is confident she and her VFC colleagues will be up to the tasks.
And they have already built a solid foundation.
“The staff here and what the previous directors have built is highly valuing conversations with people, listening and making people more visible to one another through the work that we do,” Haughey said.
Yes, Haughey will be spending less time with her cello, but she’ll keep her ears open.
That’s how you learn.
“Listening is part of being a musician,” Haughey said. “The act of listening and coming together with people has been a thread in my life that’s always been present.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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