Workshop for Teachers Discusses Cultural Sustainability

Sally Lee

On July 1 and 2, 2019, the annual International Studies Summer Institute (ISSI) workshop, hosted by the South Asia Center and Cornell’s South Asia and Southeast Asia Programs, brought together K-12 teachers from fourteen different New York school districts to learn content, tools, and strategies for internationalizing their curricula. Engaging teachers of subjects ranging from Spanish to art to social studies, the workshop explored the theme of cultural sustainability across many disciplines and world regions. Presenters discussed how diverse cultures both preserve and adapt their traditions in the face of environmental, economic, social, and political change.

Carol Babiracki, Director of the South Asia Center at Syracuse, whose research explores the ways in which hereditary musicians in India navigate a changing social and economic landscape, discussed how different scholars have defined sustainability. The most well-known is the one outlined by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development—“meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Professor Babiracki argued that any definition must include attention to the cultural practices and institutions of communities around the world. Professor Karim-Aly Kassam, International Professor of Environmental and Indigenous Studies at Cornell, added, in his keynote, that “cultural sustainability is based on trust and building relationships.”

Spanish teacher Nora Schapira from Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca said that, while she teaches Spanish, she also teaches about immigration and the relationship between humans and climate change. Previously a farmer, she found a personal connection to Kassam’s presentation on biocultural diversity with the central idea that one cannot preserve culture without also being mindful of taking care of one’s habitat. Schapira also said ISSI provides her a space for growing her professional network. After attending a previous ISSI workshop, she reached out to Carol Hockett, Coordinator of School and Family Programs at Cornell’s Johnson Museum of Art, to arrange a field trip for her students to visit the museum.

“ISSI is very different from typical teachers’ trainings,” said Meghan Wright, an English as a New Language (ENL) teacher from the Utica City School District. “Many of my students are refugees that come from Southeast Asia, so the content covered today is very helpful and invigorating and stimulates me with the bigger picture.” Wright further explained that the content she learned in the workshop helped her better understand the culture of her refugee students and that she will always keep cultural sustainability in her mind while teaching.