US Embassy Head of Cultural Affairs Sherry Kenneson-Hall: Promoting Culture in Bulgaria Is Easy Job
Exclusive interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) with the Head of the Cultural Affairs Office with the US Embassy in Sofia, Sherry Kenneson-Hall.
Tell us something about yourself and your diplomatic career
I have been with the State Department since 2002. Prior to that I was a journalist for four years. I worked as a reporter for a Dow Jones subsidiary in Kentucky.
For my undergraduate studies in journalism and mass communications I went to Marshalls University in West Virginia. I went for my Masters Degree at the University of Rhode Island – which is the same school as Christiane Amanpour and John King, both with CNN. I got my Political Science Masters Degree there with EU studies being my emphasis.
Then I joined the State Department. My first assignment with the State Department was in Africa where I worked as Assistant Director of the American Center in Conakry, Guinea. Then I went to the US mission to the EU in Brussels where a worked as a press officer and a consul officer, which is required for new diplomats.
Then I came here and have been in Bulgaria for a little bit over 2 years.
What are your primary responsibilities as Head of the Cultural Affairs Office of the US Embassy in Sofia?
My work basically focuses on US culture and education. My job is to share US culture and values with people from other countries.
So, I work with all of our exchange programs like Fulbright, the International Visitors Leadership, and various exchanges with students like the Benjamin Franklin program, the Teaching Excellence and Achievement; we sent a lot of Bulgarians to the States on various programs and we also bring lots of Americans here for speaker programs. We now have native-American artist here for 10 days; he is going around Bulgaria doing programs. It's a real exchange back and forth.
How do you see the appreciation for American culture and tradition in Bulgaria?
I keep saying Bulgaria is a very easy place to do my job because wherever I go, the Bulgarians are very interested in American culture, in particular in the more traditional, or the more unknown aspects of American culture. There is a lot of American pop culture here – there is Madonna, Metallica, the pop-culture movies...., but Bulgarians do not always get to see a lot of the traditional arts like blue grass music or very traditional types of jazz music. Whenever we do have programs with people who are a bit different, they are very well received. We had concerts, exhibitions all over the country and I don't think we ever had an event I would call a failure. People always come out for these events. We try to do them free or for very little cost because we want all different types of people to be able to see the events
Is there anything in common between American culture and tradition and Bulgarian culture and tradition?
Absolutely! Like with this native-American artist whom we have now - I was specifically looking for someone who worked with ceramics and pottery, because they are an important part of the Bulgarian tradition. I thought it might resonate well with the Bulgarian audience to have someone who is talking about something completely almost nearly lost which is native-American arts; to be able to talk about the importance of protecting that kind of heritage, which speaks to our message about protecting of cultural heritage as well as diversity and the importance to embrace more diverse cultures in your country.
Like you said, in America there are many, many cultures but native-American culture, sadly, is almost completely gone. So, it's important for us to make sure we preserve that and that we also give a place and even advantages to the minorities who have difficulties for making their way or preserve their traditional culture.
Mr. Peter Jones, who is the artist who is here, is one of the many different potters I looked at, who had art that looks more Thracian. More like traditional Bulgarian pottery. There are lots of potters from the Southwestern US – their art work looks more Latin American. And he is from the Northeast – his pottery looks a lot like what you see here because the climate is similar to the one in Bulgaria
He went to several art schools, had demonstrations with Bulgarian potters. And everywhere he went, Bulgarian pottery makers said – your work is very similar to ours. It is nice to have that connection
The same with some musicians we brought, who deal with very specific timing. There is a joke that Bulgarian live in 8. Traditional Bulgarian music has very fast timing, very untraditional for us. American timing is 3/4 – but some American musicians have specifically come to Bulgaria because they like to write music in that timing and they have done American traditional songs in Bulgarian styles
One of my favorites was an American jazzman, who did "Hubava Si Moya Goro" – at first very traditional, then went to a jazz version The audience at the "Apoloniya" drama festival, two years ago, was floored. We even have it on the Embassies youtube. It is my favorite Bulgarian song and such a good presentation of that nice blending of the 2 cultures
What are the major cultural sphere projects of the US Embassy in Bulgaria? What kinds of exchange and training programs do you sponsor or facilitate?
We sponsor and facilitate a variety of training programs. We also have sponsored many conferences. For example, next week there will be a two-day conference with the Parliament on the role of the lobbyists. We provided the funding for that, but we have an NGO we selected to organize it. We paid for the organization.
We sponsor investigating journalism conferences, conferences with the military on issues of women serving in the military, conferences with the police force. We also do training for teachers. We are trying to work with the Bulgarian Ministry of Education to plan training for teachers for next year, specifically English language teachers. We like to work in curriculum development.
Our exchanges usually surround education, but every year we apply for exchange programs for funding from the State Department for things like the study of the US institute in journalism, in secondary education.
We have been pretty successful in being able to send Bulgarian professionals and professors to different programs. We had several professors from New Bulgarian University, Sofia University who have gone on these programs. They get to go to the US for 3 to 6 weeks and it gives them the opportunity to meet counterparts from around the world and American counterparts.
One of our favorites is Teaching Excellence and Achievement, which sends Bulgarian teachers to the US for 6 weeks to work with American teachers. They learn new techniques and methodology for teaching English, developing curriculum. When teachers come back they say they love the program. In fact we just had permission to bring the American teachers who worked with the Bulgarian teachers in the States here for a series of weeks to Bulgaria. Stara Zagoara is hosting an American teacher in the near future. This builds the bridge between the US and Bulgaria
How do you evaluate the impact of US NGOs and cultural institutions in Bulgaria? Do you believe they have contributed to the Bulgarian civil society?
I think so. It is somewhat difficult to say because they do not always let us know what they are doing. Often we hear later on this or that NGO has sponsored something.
One of the biggest changes is the introduction of the American Foundation for Bulgaria. When I arrived they were not up and running yet. But now lots of people do not come to us because they have gone to the AFB – the Foundation has much more funding than what we can offer. It fills a void, especially in these times of recession. They do a lot of good work – funding "Apoloniya," the Sofia Dance Week, the American Theater series at the National Theater. All these events have some connection to America and they make my job easier. Another example is the recent film festival they sponsored; we paid a small part but it could not happen without ABF
However, there are little projects we don't know or hear about. For example, there is a group of theater instructors from Texas who go every year to Smolyan to run a theater camps. I just happened to meet them because I was in Smolyan for something else. And they told me: "Oh, we are here every year." I said: "Have you told the Embassy It might be interesting because we might be able to help, like cosponsor, something like that."
A year and half ago my husband and I were coming on a plane from the US. There was a group of students and they were talking to my husband, saying they were Shakespearean actors from Chicago going to Varna for a festival. My husband said: "Did you know about it?" I said no, I had no idea. And, that was actually sponsored by AFB.
So, it would be nice to know when Americans are coming here for a variety of reasons to just have a connection with them. We might be able to assist them. Lots of Americans are running around for various reasons.
How would you describe the popularity and impact of the Summer Work and Travel program for young Bulgarians?
We helped some with advertisement and some programs with our Counselor section.
I personally know people who have been on it, my friends have been on the Work and Travel program. They have been really enjoying it. It is a real good opportunity to help improve your English language skills, learn American slang. When you are forced to live in a culture for a couple of months, you really improve your language skills.
The program is also a great way make some money and meet Americans in their own environment and see how they live. When you go to America you see a very different example of American life. Because what is on TV is often very different than real life.
I don't' think I ever heard anybody complain. Students go back as much as they can and they love it. They make new friends; many live with other Bulgarians when they go over there. It is interesting.
Aren't you concerned about illegal immigration?
No, because in order to participate in the program, students have to be in university. Of all of our programs, this has been the most successful one in terms of return rate - almost a 100%. Most of the students are just looking to make good money in the summer and they have to go back to continue their studies. Actually, in reality, it also lets them see it is not easy to live in the US; it is not cheap, especially with the recession now, it is difficult to find jobs. So, I don't think there is much incentive to stay in America – if you have job for the summer you better come back to Bulgaria and go to school. Most jobs also tend to be in the service industry, and many of those students who are in university don't plan to do this for the rest of their lives
Twenty years ago, this might have been more of a threat, the program did not exist then, but it could have been. But today students go to make good money and have fun, and they come back to Bulgaria.
What do you think about cultural life in Sofia?
I was just talking about this with some Americans, who were here for a theater program, observing Bulgarian theater for the week in Sofia. I said again - my job is easy here. Bulgarians, more than Americans, do enjoy high culture. More people go to the theater over here even on weeknights than in many places in America. My hometown does not even have theater. The nearest town wit a theater is two hours away and it has just one real theater that is not a cinema. My hometown does not even have a cinema.
Bulgarians go to the theater; to concerts, they enjoy jazz events, blues events, even traditional Bulgarian music. It definitely is a very cultural capital. They had the Degas exhibit, which was very successful, a Salvador Daly exhibit just opened. To have that many theaters in capital city means something. I know, theater work is never going to be thriving; it is always difficult, always a struggle in the art scene, but to have so many galleries, exhibits, and plays, opening all the time I think is a real testimony there is audience out there for it
And the last one – any major what projects are you working on now?
We are working on some projects. We are planning something for African-American History Month in February. You know, we have to think several months ahead. I am trying to get a grant from the State Department to bring a group for jug music, a traditional band from NYC, who play this type of bluegrass or jug band music and are licensed ne NY. They are all African-American. This is music was very traditional in the South, especially during the transition after the Civil War.
Our African-American event was last year was very well received. We had a hip hop dance duo. They went to several schools, did performances, talked about the history of dance, the influence of African-Americans.
The year before, we had gospel singers and it was overrun at "Zala Bulgaria," too many people came.
But with the Christmas holidays coming – everybody lives town, so we don't plan a whole lot around. Still tonight we have a public event at the American Corner with the potter doing a lecture. We als have the Bulgarian "Eagle" circle, who are native-American appreciation gropu, doing things like Iroquois dances. We have some lectures with American professors coming up in December and January. We always keep busy, but when the weather changes it is more difficult to bring more people from the States, so we send some Bulgarian groups there.
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"My job is to share US culture and values with people from other countries."
Wow! I presume this is just a part-time job, then? I'd say that people from other countries have a good idea of the "culture" and "values" of the US and would prefer to steer well clear of most of them......
Seriously, though - just which "values" are these? Those of a country where selfish people are prepared to withold medical treatment from those who can't afford insurance - and where politicians seriously claim that such humanitarian ideals are "Socialist" (read "Commie")? Maybe ignorant foreigners don't already have enough MacD and KFC obesity-factories? How about the "value" of consuming vast quantities of energy and then kindly sharing the resulting pollution with the rest of us? Or are we talking about the naive efforts of the past to bomb people into liking Uncle Sam - or maybe the current attempts to bribe them into the fold?
And just which segment of US "Culture" are we talking about here? Mark Twain, Gangsta Rap, Walt Disney, Martha Stewart, Bernie Madoff? Poor, uneducated and hopeless people in the Projects or Ivy League smart-asses out there somewhere busily planning the new Enron?
Sorry, Sherry, I'd say you're like the Marlboro Man - peddling your product without realizing that it's eating you alive from the inside.