2009 BHFA — Kirsten Mullen: Folklorist

Kirsten Mullen: Folklorist
by Joy Salyers

Kirsten Mullen has been an active force in North Carolina folklife since moving to Durham in 1983. In 1998, as a graduate student in the Curriculum in Folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill, she was awarded the North Carolina Arts Council Folklife Fellowship and the Ackland Art Museum Graduate Student Internship. In 2000 she received an Archie Green Occupational Folklore Fellowship. Mullen served on the advisory committee for The Rich Heritage of African Americans in North Carolina, a guide to exploring the history of African American communities in the state, published in 2004 by the NC Department of Tourism. She is also the former literature director for the North Carolina Arts Council and member of a team of consultants who researched and created text for the North Carolina Museum of History’s “North Carolina Legends” exhibition. She has written and lectured on North Carolina folklife topics from tobacco warehouses to the African American string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops. As a member of the North Carolina folklore community, Kirsten Mullen has presented at American Folklore Society annual meetings, worked on the ceremony for North Carolina Folk Heritage Award winners, and conducted workshops for the Community Folklife Documentation Institute. She is currently president of the North Carolina Folklife Institute.

But what exemplifies Kirsten Mullen’s body of work is not what she has done, but how she engages in folklore practice. Her wide-ranging skill set—writing, grant writing, project management, and interviewing, among many others—informs her work as a folklorist and cultural diplomat. Her true gifts lie in taking folklife beyond academic study and into the world. As I interviewed people about Kirsten Mullen, they confirmed that the qualities of translating, connecting diverse groups of knowledge and people, and placing folklife within a context of cultural capital and self-determination characterize how she “does folklore.”

Mullen has contributed to documenting and preserving North Carolina folklife and traditional communities in many ways, often from behind the scenes. Rather than an advocate, who speaks on behalf of communities, she prefers to function as a kind of midwife, helping communities discover and hone their own skills and project plans. In 2002 she helped the Meherrin Indian tribe in eastern North Carolina write a grant to document the building of a traditional long house. She worked unofficially with the Sandhill Family Heritage Association, which won the North Carolina Folklore Society’s Community Traditions Award in 2008, connecting members with people and resources who could help craft their desired presentation from the information they held. Kirsten Mullen helps communities navigate the space between traditional local culture and the institutional world of granting agencies; she helps them make connections between cultural assets and opportunities for economic development.

She also helps institutions understand and reach out to local cultures, whether through formal presentations to folklorists on topics like building trust in communities of color, or through guidance and suggestions to an agency in the midst of a project. When Mullen consulted with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum on an exhibit of African American artists, she made sure the Ackland did not miss the opportunity to connect with local African American communities. When she began working with the Conservation Fund on a cultural asset mapping project in North Carolina’s Tyrrell County, her keen sensitivity to the socio-political dynamics in the area led to a reshaping of the project’s focus and methodology. When Mullen created her own project—Carolina Circuit Writers—that was founded on an ambitious partnership among 23 community organizations, she persuaded the North Carolina Arts Council that building those partner relationships and planning in a truly collaborative way had to be included in the budget. Wayne Martin, the Senior Program Director for Community Arts Development at the Arts Council, says that even Mullen’s first fieldwork as the Council’s folklife intern was influential. Martin told me that her fieldwork with African American musicians “planted the seeds for the African American music project the North Carolina Arts Council is now working on in eight counties in the central part of the state.” According to Martin, her work helped the Arts Council “think more broadly” about African American music traditions, connected traditions to heritage tourism and sustainable economic development, and “influenced her colleagues about important resources of that area and in North Carolina.”

One of the reasons Mullen is so effective is her wide-ranging knowledge of people and topics, and her ability to form connections among them. In Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book, The Tipping Point, he describes a class of people he calls “connectors”—those who know everyone and have a special gift for bringing the world together. When you speak to people about working with Kirsten Mullen, they mention this characteristic again and again. As the education director for the Ackland Art Museum, Ray Williams created the Five Faiths Project, an educational series using works of art, photographs, storytelling, and community events to help people explore the diverse religious communities in North Carolina. Calling Mullen a leader in public humanities, Williams remembers, “Connector is absolutely the right word for her role in this. She helped keep the communications flowing with a variety of individuals and faith communities. She was a key player in the grassroots aspect of that project.” Perhaps Wayne Martin says it best: “The thing about Kirsten that is such a strength is her wide-ranging knowledge—history, literature, jazz and other kinds of music—with folklife a theme that weaves through all of it. She not only knows other fields, but what’s going on in them currently and she makes it her poetry to connect these different types of knowledge.”

When people talk about working with Kirsten Mullen, they describe the experience as personally transformative. Sofía Quintero served as an artist-in-residence for Carolina Circuit Writers, a literary consortium Mullen founded in 2003 to build community using literature by writers of color as a bridge. When I asked Quintero to speak to her experience as artist-in-residence, I expected her to address the ways she saw the program affect local communities. Instead, she was moved to speak about how the experience changed her: “Why, even our car rides were tremendous learning experiences for me as Kirsten pointed out certain landmarks and developments and broke down their historical relevance and current significance. She’s truly a knowledgeable and devoted ambassador of not only the state’s history but a reflection of its current promise, both artistically and politically.”

It must be said, however, that working with Kirsten Mullen can also be uncomfortable. If you bring her on to your folklife project, she will not only point out all the items you need to add to your budget and suggest three additional people you should meet. She will also immediately deflate any romantic formulations in your plans. She will ask you to examine the ways that racism, classism, and elitism are holding back the project. She will push you to articulate just what the community is gaining from your work and wonder how the project could be framed more collaboratively. Mullen knows that not all dynamics that form part of the fabric and heritage of a community are polite, pleasant, or pretty. She insists we honor and include the fullness of folk experience in our state. She wants us to focus not just on folklife as tradition, but also as resistance. Not just folklife as a source of pride, but also as a response to fear, loss, and betrayal. Mullen insists that we situate our study of folklife and traditional
culture firmly within historical and social contexts and that we make it matter.

Just one example of Kirsten Mullen in action makes clear the impact of her presence on a project. Mikki Sager, a vice-president at the Conservation Fund who hired Mullen to work on the Tyrrell Places Matter project in eastern North Carolina, calls her work there “a cultural version of shuttle diplomacy.” In a socially divided and racially charged environment, Mullen is facilitating the transfer of stories, histories, and issues to people who otherwise might never have heard them.

Tyrrell County is the least populous county in North Carolina and one of the five poorest, with over 25% of residents living in poverty. Tyrrell Places Matter began as a cultural asset mapping project, interviewing local residents about their cultural connections to place and mapping those important locations for future heritage tourism possibilities. But Mullen quickly discovered that different communities within the county—white, black, Latino, Vietnamese—had very different stories to tell and different ideas of what made a place important. This caused her to advocate a rethinking of the project’s strategies and goals. Plans to make interviews publicly accessible shifted to creating ways to protect privacy while making important stories known. Plans for creating an internal cultural tour to help local people understand differing perspectives on place became a prelude to promoting external tours.

Mikki Sager shared with me that Mullen’s work is “not only helping to document and understand traditions, but also helping to break down barriers, some of which have been in place for 400 years. She is helping people to understand in a very quiet way the other sides of the story, particularly as it relates to place.” Sager adds, “She’s helping the community to organize themselves as well, within their own communities of color or interest as well as creating some bridges across where possible.” Mullen helped to organize a completely bilingual community meeting for Hispanic residents of the county to discuss the project (publicizing it with what was perhaps the first bilingual ad in the local newspaper). Mullen is currently reaching out to other area resources, such as the Center for Sustainable Tourism at Eastern Carolina University. She is also writing grants on behalf of the Conservation Fund, doing active fieldwork, and collaborating with the Arts Council on its eight-county folk music project. It is an honor to bestow the North Carolina Folklore Society’s Brown-Hudson Award on a folklorist who sets the bar so high and accomplishes her goals
again and again.

Joy Salyers is a folklorist, consultant, and anti-prejudice worker who lives in Hillsborough, NC. She teaches courses for the certificate in documentary studies at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and raises two small children.

Original publication:
Salyers, Joy. “Kirsten Mullen: Folklorist.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 56.2 (Fall-Winter 2009): 22-27.

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