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We are the World Heritage: Labor Organization in Jordanian Archaeology and Cultural Heritage
Heritage discourse has historically reified the concept of a shared, universal, or world heritage (Smith 2006). In recent decades, however, there has been a shift toward an emphasis on traditional knowledge and empowering local communities in heritage management (Silverman and Ruggles 2007; Keitumetse 2013; Van Balen and Vandesande 2015). This change in rhetoric appears consistent across declarations by transnational organizations like UNESCO and WMF, statements by state governments, and demands by grassroots communities. Despite this supposed agreement, however, places, spaces, and processes for decision-making about heritage futures paradoxically remain inaccessible to many local communities. One company in Jordan, however, has managed to find purchase within this context. Since 2016, I have been conducting an ethnography of the Sela company, which aims to organize local labor in order to empower host communities to have greater determination over the heritage sites where they live. In the past six years, Sela has created a database of certified archaeological workers, produced children’s programming including a book series, and even written new national law. Sela’s singular success points to the structural traps and contradictions of the global heritage regime and of contemporary sustainable development– while also revealing a possible, hopeful means of navigating these brick walls (cf. Ahmed 2017). Rather than being pinpointed as local or foreign, Jordanian or global, nonprofit or entrepreneurial, the possibilities for transformative new models of community empowerment within cultural heritage and development rely on the ability to flexibly and inventively perform these opposing modalities at once.
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