Honouring the past and embracing the diversity of the future

We can never assume things are going to stay the same, says Danish American Society president

You can picture the Danish American Society president, Lisa Resling Halpern, standing in the schoolyard, self-consciously trying to explain to the other nine-year-olds that she is both Danish and American, Lutheran and Jewish.

“People wanted to pigeon-hole you,” the adult Halpern recalled. “And put me in a box that they understood. That was hard.” She came home to her parents in tears, unable to see the fortune of belonging to two worlds. “I’m the product of two cultures, two religions and proudly so, but when you’re younger, you want to fit in.”

However, meeting other children with a similar background as a teenager helped her embrace her ‘dual citizenship’ (technically, of course, Halpern is only American) and realise, as she put it, “that I could love both”. And Halpern has now turned her split cultural identity into a strength, nurturing the relationship between her two nationalities as the president of the Danish American Society (DAS) in New York.

For more than half a century, DAS has promoted cultural understanding between Denmark and the United States through a variety of cultural exchange programmes and social events. The most celebrated annual DAS function is the Person of the Year Award, which since 1975 has honoured a number of prominent businessmen, entertainers and royals who have contributed meaningfully to the bonds between the two countries.

Actor Mads Mikkelsen received this year’s award early last month, closing his acceptance speech with the words: “Feeling at home in more than one country is not treason, it’s open-minded.” His statement resonates with Halpern, as that’s been a huge part of the way she sees the world.

Her work is also motivated by a more personal matter. It helps her stay connected to her Danish mother, who passed away when Halpern was young and who was very involved with the Danish-American community. “Doing this is a gift for me, and it’s a tie to my mom,” said Halpern. “But it’s grown in its own right.”

In addition to her presidency at DAS, Halpern is also on the board of the American Scandinavian Foundation, the Danish American Chamber of Commerce and the Hans Christian Andersen Foundation, and she was the former president of the American Scandinavian Society.

Still, her proudest endeavour is supporting the longevity of the Danish American National Exchange (DANCE) scholarship, which allows performing artists from either country to cross the Atlantic to study and expand their repertoire. Halpern’s mother started it in 1983 with Peter Martin from New York City Ballet and Frank Andersen from the Royal Danish Theatre.

“That was originally the thing that drew me in,” she said. “But I also love being a part of watching these young kids get their opportunity.” To honour her mother’s efforts, Halpern has also created a scholarship fund with friends and family in her name, the Neel Resling Halpern Foundation, that annually presents a promising Danish dancer with a grant to study abroad.

“This is where I can make a contribution,” she said of her inspiring work to facilitate cultural exchange programmes. “I’m not a dancer, I’m not a singer, I’m not a painter. But if I can have some sort of role in giving them the chance to do what they love to do, then I’ve done a good thing.”

And yet at DAS’s many formal events, her profession requires her to participate in the arts herself. In anticipation of dancing with Prince Henrik at the society’s Person of the Year Award last year, Halpern desperately tried to recall the steps her grandmother had taught her. “I was terrified!” Halpern admits.

“But it didn’t matter because he was such a good dancer.”

Though humble when talking about her work, Halpern has very strong feelings about promoting understanding across borders, based on many years studying foreign service and diplomacy. Seeing how she has been able to use her split cultural identity to make a positive contribution, Halpern hopes her counterparts are able to do the same and has high hopes for the direction of the world.

“We can’t be xenophobic,” she said. “We can’t afford it.” Halpern contends that populations are becoming less homogenous, and isolated communities are being confronted with diversity they can no longer repress. “We have to find a way to deal with that and not assume that things are going to stay the same.”

Halpern has also introduced new technology to the Scandinavian-American community, placing an emphasis on looking to the future as well as honouring the traditions of the past. In contrast to when her mother was involved, Halpern has taught the community to engage in social media and to branch out of its formal traditions.

“I wanted to bring in the younger element, while respecting our history,” she said. Her hope is for the old and experienced generation to take care of the new, not only by providing them with opportunities, but also by showing the cross-cultural youth how to embrace their global outlook.

“My message in the community is that one thing doesn’t have to be exclusive of the other.”

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