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Q&A: Meet Folklore Consultant Stephen Olbrys Gencarella

Stephen Olbrys Gencarella

We are thrilled to welcome folklorist and scholar Stephen Olbrys Gencarella as the Pomeroy Foundation’s Folklore Consultant for our Legends & Lore® Marker Grant Program. A tenured professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, Stephen is an expert on folklore, particularly the myths, legends, and cultural traditions of New England.

In addition to his scholarly pursuits, Stephen is equally committed to engaging the public through folklore. That interest, along with a passion for cultural heritage tourism, led him to join the board of the Eastern Regional Tourism District in Connecticut. Now, he’s bringing his folklore expertise to the Legends & Lore program.

We recently caught up with Stephen for an interview about what drives his passion and why our Legends & Lore program matters to him.

What appealed to you about working with the William G. Pomeroy Foundation?

This position is such an unusually good opportunity for a folklorist. Once I saw existing examples of Legends & Lore markers and learned about Bill Pomeroy’s story creating the Foundation, I knew I wanted to be involved. It’s clear that Legends & Lore is a remarkable opportunity for communities.

I also have to give credit to my colleague Kate Schramm for sharing her experience representing the Connecticut Historical Society as a Legends & Lore partner. Kate and I are both folklorists involved with cultural heritage tourism in Connecticut. It was Kate and other colleagues who connected with the Foundation at the American Folklore Society annual meetings and spoke so highly of the program. I knew it was something I wanted to be involved with.

Why do you feel so strongly about the Legends & Lore program? 

One of the main reasons for me is that it fits with the promotion of cultural heritage tourism – and if it’s done right and responsibly – it can have great benefits for communities. For example, I like the notion that it’s local people in communities who are applying for markers about the folklore that’s important to them. It’s not a top down model. It’s generative and lets people in other communities know that they can do this too.

In addition, I like Legends & Lore because it truly emphasizes folklore. It’s celebrating it at the local, regional and even national level, while encouraging the art of storytelling. … Folklore doesn’t come without it’s challenges, but that gives people the opportunity to reflect and have open conversations and think about the influence of the past on tradition.

Why is this emphasis on folklore and engaging the public so important?

One of the things that I love about Legends & Lore is that it reminds me of the Federal Writers’ Project of the 1930s and what they did with folklore. Through that project, they tried to celebrate the folklore of the nation, while encouraging the benefits of tourism and educating people. Each Legends & Lore marker – with its red background and quirky smiling moon – entices the public to get out there and view these sites and places. It’s all about making connections between a place and its stories and folklore. People really enjoy that. For example, I lead folklore hikes and we did one this past fall and about 80 people showed up.

I also see Legends & Lore as a broader metaphor that underscores the power of folklore. It celebrates the immediate and the local, but it also connects to all these other places. It shows the power of stories to influence who we are and how we relate to each other. Take the word “folklore.” Is it the “lore” that makes the folk? The stories that we tell, remember and pass on – each influences our role in the world and our relationship to others.

What are you most looking forward to about serving as Folklore Consultant?

It’s humbling to accept this role, especially for someone who is intellectually curious and has invested so much of their life to the field. It engages both the academic side and the public side. It’s a folklorist’s dream. … I’m also looking forward to working with Legends & Lore partners and grant applicants on their submissions. I know that my experience gives me a solid handle on folklore in America. In many ways, I’m a guardian of this material and will be thoughtfully thinking things through. And in some ways, I’ll also be a student again. Even in my hometown, I know I could learn something new. That’s particularly rewarding.

What areas of folklore do you hope to see gain traction in 2020?

So much traditional folklore entails stories of white male heroes. I’m hopeful what will emerge are alternatives to that. Women, people of color, indigenous communities and immigrants. Stories are told for different reasons and stories can be told by different groups. If you take the existing examples of the Legends & Lore markers that are out there, there’s already a strong mix of what’s being shared by communities and I hope to see that continue to grow.

I’d also love to see more markers that focus on traditions, customs and expressions of community life. Maybe the origins of a local dance for example. I also think there’s an opportunity to engage with the weird, the supernatural and monsters within America’s lore.

In what ways can communities and the public at large benefit?

We haven’t seen an organization committed to something like what Legends & Lore represents in far too long. There’s a huge opportunity for encouraging people to tell their community’s stories. We’ve seen that already. … My hope is that Legends & Lore continues to inspire people, especially young people.

When we look at this at the national level, there will be some applicants who will come running once you let them know it exists. Getting the word out that we really do want stories and other lore that speak to the local experience will be so important. In that sense, I would encourage the partners to do that as much as possible. That is, encourage people to participate and let them know the stories in their communities matter. It’s not just about the greatest hits.

In addition to the storytelling, there’s the benefits of tourism and local pride. Those opportunities can encourage people to go out and experience the markers, which are up 365 days a year unlike a one-off event. I also see them as a call to action for engaging with communities and the stories they hold. That’s a rare opportunity and I’m honored to be a part of it. I admire what the Pomeroy Foundation is doing for stepping up and saying that these things matter.