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Heather Hodges Headshot
Heather Hodges is the new Chair of the American Folklife Center Board of Trustees.

AFC Board of Trustees Names New Chair Heather Hodges

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Heather Hodges was elected chair of the American Folklife Center Board of Trustees at the fall board meeting September 15, 2023. Lori Pourier, CEO of the First Peoples Fund, was elected vice chair. Heather replaces Amy Kitchener, Executive Director for the Alliance of California Traditional Arts, who served as Board chair from 2019-2023.

Heather is the Director of Institutional Advancement at the Historic New Orleans Collection, where she raises awareness and finds resources to support the museum’s work. Heather has served on the AFC Board since 2020, and her collaborations with AFC date back to 2017.

We are thrilled to have her leading the Board in the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of AFC in 2026. She sat down with me recently to talk about her background and her vision for her new role.

Q: Can you tell us how you became connected with the American Folklife Center?

A: When I became Executive Director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor in 2017, I began trying to identify all of the institutions across the nation that had collections of documentation of Gullah Geechee culture. We needed that for developing public programs and for responding to scholarly requests. Most importantly, I wanted Gullah Geechee people to know where this material lived. Many Gullah Geechee people knew that folklorists, musicologists, sociologists and anthropologists had historically spent time in their communities. But once this documentation was extracted, it rarely made its way back to the Black people who were the subjects. The American Folklife Center immediately responded to my inquiries and also produced a Research Guide for their Gullah Geechee collections that I could easily share.

Q: In what ways does your training and professional experience in law, as well as your previous leadership of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, inform your work as AFC Board Chair?

A: It allows me to see the work through multiple lenses. The experiences of being a lawyer and a chief executive in a cultural institution (the GGCHC) have been invaluable for my ability to instantly and meaningfully engage with the Director and staff in decision making about operations, development, strategic planning, and governance within the AFC. I also am keenly aware of the immense responsibility of the Trustees’ role as stewards of one of the largest ethnographic collections in the world and what these collections mean at the community level. I have had the honor of sitting in Gullah Geechee community spaces and playing AFC archival sound recordings for a descendant hearing for the first time an ancestor singing. AFC’s collections have the power to be transformative, restorative and regenerative for communities invested in rooting themselves even more firmly in their traditional cultural practices. I have seen it happen. I bring that perspective and enthusiasm for the project to the role of Chair.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about what you do in your current role as Director of Institutional Advancement at the Historic New Orleans Collection and how it resonates with your work on the AFC Board?

A: The Historic New Orleans Collection operates a free history museum, research center and publishing house in the French Quarter. Stewarding the historic record of the diverse and multicultural peoples who have called New Orleans home is at the heart of our work.  Our collection of historic materials exceeds 1 million objects and it contains expressions of traditional culture. I am responsible for planning, managing and implementing activities that raise awareness of the institution with a broad range of individuals, organizations and communities in order to grow engagement, generate financial support to advance the mission of THNOC and to timely achieve the goals of our strategic plan.  This mirrors in many respects my role as AFC Board Chair and the responsibilities I have for raising awareness of the AFC and the Veterans History Project (VHP) with my fellow Americans — and finding the resources to help sustain its work.

Q: What are your hopes for the Board, especially in the lead-up to AFC’s 50th anniversary in 2026?  

A: The AFC Board of Trustees represents the great diversity of our nation and all of the Trustees bring unique talents and experiences to their service.  The Chair is tasked with deeply understanding and weaving together the strengths, interests and ambitions of all of my fellow Trustees to better support the work of the American Folklife Center. The milestone commemoration in 2026 is serving as a catalyst for reconceptualizing the role of the Trustees to serve a new set of institutional needs including development and fundraising. We also have a critical role to play in collaborating with the American Folklore Society, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian and other institutions across the country to ensure both the viability and sustainability of folklore as a profession and the preservation of traditional culture as a collective national priority for the next 50 years.

Q: What, in your view, are ways that AFC can further support communities of origin through our work and within our capacity?

A: Identifying and resolving barriers to accessibility of collections materials is key. The vast majority of Americans will not make it to Washington D.C. to engage with the AFC and VHP. In the next 50 years, we will have to be creative and entrepreneurial in thinking of more ways to continue to leverage community partnerships, outreach initiatives, social media, technology and philanthropic support to connect the collections deeply into communities. The Mellon-funded Community Collections Grant initiative was a wonderful example of what we can do. I sat on the review panel for the initial range of Community Collections grants. We received hundreds of applications. It was astonishing and reassuring to see how many of my fellow Americans care deeply about preserving the traditional culture of their communities. The American Folklife Center remains an important bulwark for the preservation of the traditional culture of the United States. Not just as an archive but as a catalyst for community engagement.

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