The Southwest Folklife Alliance (SFA) is an affiliate non-profit organization of the University of Arizona. It is housed at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ unit The Southwest Center. The Public Folklorist at the Center serves as the SFA Executive Director.
The University of Arizona has a long and distinguished history in folklore studies and public folklore activities.
In 1943 the first campus interdisciplinary committee on Southwest Folklore was created by then University President Alfred Atkinson under the leadership of anthropologist Dr. Frances Gillmor.
The Folklore Committee included faculty from ten different departments across the UA. It served as an early model of university-community partnership long before this became a widespread practice valued at the UA. Under Dr. Gillmor’s leadership, folklore studies thrived. She formed a network of community collaborators across the State who collected folklore and made regular deposits of their findings in the Library’s Folklore Archives.
Dr. Gillmor was followed by Dr. Byrd Granger who taught folklore courses in the university’s English department. In addition to the courses on campus, summer folklore classes were imparted in Bisbee, Morenci, Douglas and Yuma. In 1964, the “Introduction to Folklore” course was one of the first classes to be taught via television through KUAT.
Many professors, museum specialists, librarians, students and university staff became passionate about folklore and contributed documentation throughout the years. While it is not possible to name them all, it is important to note the substantial contributions of Dr. Larry Evers and Dr. Barbara Babcock in Native American oral traditions (Yaqui) and Native American material culture (Pueblo) respectively. Their contributions to the impact that Folklore studies has had in the region cannot be overstated. SFA’s current Executive Director Dr. Maribel Alvarez was a student of Dr. Babcock and her analytical skills, grounding in cultural theory and varied interests in the study of objects, symbols and power relations threads a direct line to Dr. Babcock’s extensive scholarship on these topics.
In 1979, folklore studies at the UA took a turn towards a new unprecedented level of community engagement with the hiring of a young UA anthropology alumnus named Jim Griffith. As a graduate student Jim had spent time in Sonora documenting the mask-making traditions of the Mayo people. He and his wife Loma were following developments in folklore studies since the late 1960s away from an exclusive focus on “lore” towards a more embracing and democratic commitment to living community traditions (what became known as “Folklife”).
While Dr. Griffith (known to his friends and collaborators as Big Jim) taught academic courses in folklore at the UA, his heart and devotion was directed to the then emerging field known as Public Folklore. Jim was first hired at the UA as researcher in a grant that Dr. Larry Evers received from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1974, in partnership with a community-based nonprofit organization, he founded the Folklife festival “Tucson, Meet Yourself” (the original name included the comma). In 1979, then University President John Paul Schaefer created the Southwest Folklore Center as a special unit housed within the University Library. He hired Jim Griffith to lead the center.
By the time Dr. Griffith received his first formal UA appointment, Tucson Meet Yourself was already five years old. Documentation found in the Folklore Archives at the UA Special Collections Library includes a letter from young Jim informing the University President that he would not accept the job unless it included working on Tucson Meet Yourself as part of his responsibilities.
In 1976, the Tucson-based community organization Cultural Exchange Council was incorporated as a legal nonprofit entity. For the next two decades Jim worked closely with the new nonprofit entity to produce TMY as a partnership with the UA Southwest Folklore Center.
Jim went on to create an exceptional record of academic community engagement. For this he is beloved in Tucson and respected and honored nationally. Upon his retirement in 1998, the Jim Griffith Endowed Fund for the University of Arizona Public Folklorist was established for the purpose of hiring and supporting the activities of the Public Folklorist in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
In 2000, the position of Public Folklorist was created at the College’s Southwest Center –an interdisciplinary unit dedicated to regional studies created in 1978. As an integral part of a broader commitment to cultural documentation of the Southwest and Northern Mexico, the Folklore Program at the Southwest Center has extended the legacy of Dr. Griffith’s work, forging new contemporary paths of engagement for the traditional arts and public scholarship.
The College of Humanities, through the English Department, played an important role in serving as the Public Folklorist’s teaching unit during the first thirteen years of the Endowed Fund position. In 2013 the teaching duties of the Public Folklorist were moved to the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’s School of Anthropology.
Dr. Griffith has expressed in more than one occasion how particularly grateful he is to three UA colleagues in leadership positions who have most deeply understood and advocated for the role that Public Folklore can play in an academic setting. They are former Dean of the College of Humanities Dr. Charles Tatum; Southwest Center Director Dr. Joe Wilder; and current Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Dr. John Paul Jones.
In 2004, Dr. Maribel Alvarez, also a UA Anthropology alumnus and a nationally recognized leader in community arts and changing demographics was hired as the Public Folklorist at the Southwest Center. In 2010 she helped lead the transformation of Tucson Meet Yourself from a single event produced by the CEC into a self-standing nonprofit organization with expanded programs and a path of closer alignment between the UA goals and the charge to foster authentic and respectful ties with heritage artists and communities.
In 2014, a larger regional vision for this work was launched with the transformation of TMY into the umbrella organization Southwest Folklife Alliance. Through the support and vision of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, under the leadership of President Ann Hart, SFA became a formal affiliate of the University of Arizona. As the Public Folklorist at the College’s Southwest Center Dr. Alvarez leads SFA in the role of Executive Director. She splits her time between her Public Folklore duties and serving as teaching faculty at the UA School of Anthropology. SFA is housed at the UA Downtown campus, Roy Place Building.
We want to hear from you!
Southwest Folklife Alliance programming extends across the United States border region, extending from Southern California to Western Texas. Engage us in a discussion about a potential project or program in your community today. Address inquiries to our Executive Program Director, Dr. Maribel Alvarez at firstname.lastname@example.org.