Pat Jasper is the director of folklife and traditional arts at the Houston Arts Alliance. Before moving to Houston in 2010, she was the leader of Texas Folklife Resources, a statewide organization that she founded in 1984. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, she co-founded the Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston project with the University of Houston’s Carl Lindahl. The project, which was sponsored in part by the Library of Congress, trained hurricane evacuees to collect the stories of fellow evacuees.
H: How did you arrive at your current position with the Houston Arts Alliance?
PJ: I realized in the midst of doing the Katrina project that the folk arts of so many of those survivors—the music, the food, the storytelling, the dance—were incredibly positive ways for those people to introduce themselves to their new neighbors. And so I did a series of program trying to do that. But in the course of creating those programs associated with the Katrina project I realized that the entire city of Houston was dying to be introduced to itself. Over the course of my career, I’ve watched the city wake up to itself—become aware of the value it has in its midst. But at the same time, people don’t have the tools to penetrate those cultures.
H: Why is it so hard for people to see the cultural riches right under their noses?
PJ: You can go to the Menil, you can go to the Houston Grand Opera—they’re incredible cultural experiences. But people don’t know how to learn more about the Hindus who worship at that temple down the street, or the Muslims who are their neighbors and who go to mosque every Friday afternoon. Or that style of music that they’ve heard but don’t really understand. People don’t really know where to start. The city is just breaking open with diversity that deserves to be mined.
H: Was Hurricane Katrina and the evacuees it brought to Houston the catalyst for the city’s desire to learn more about itself?
PJ: That was a moment of incredible generosity. Houston is a tough and challenging town in terms of getting around and finding your way, but I think it’s an incredibly welcoming town. I think there’s always been an openness. As a good ol’ boy who is very high up in an oil company once said to me, “Houston isn’t cool because it’s diverse, it’s diverse because it’s cool.” And I totally agree. Its diversity has grown out of the fact that there is opportunity, there’s a real way to make a life for yourself on so many different levels. As a folklorist, I just get to enjoy the results of that.
H: How do you go about approaching different ethnic groups or subcultures?
PJ: Showing up is what it’s all about. I’ve done this work my entire career, so I’m a pretty experienced field worker. I’m very comfortable with it. You have to identify the places where the community gathers, and be comfortable enough with yourself to go to one of these places. Generally speaking, communities are pretty welcoming. If I can, I find someone who will lead the way for me, but oftentimes that’s not possible. When I first started doing this work 30 years ago, the only way you could do it was to get in your car, go to that place, and knock on the door. It is amazing the way the Internet has cut through a lot of that stuff. You can use the Internet to speed things up, but unless you speak and read Tamil, or Spanish, or Mandarin, it only gets you so far.
H: Do you see your role as being a cultural translator between different groups? Because Houston is very diverse, but it’s also very balkanized—a lot of the groups don’t necessarily know that much about each other.
PJ: Communities have their business to do, and they do it with each other. So it appears as if they’re turning their backs on us when really they’re just conducting their business. Much as if you were non-white and non–middle class, you would feel like the middle class white community turns its back on you.
H: What was it like moving from Austin to Houston to take your current job?
PJ: When people say, “You moved to Houston from Austin?”, I say: “In a New York minute.” For the kind of work I do, Houston is a treasure trove.