Culture is a human right

by Lynden Harris

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)


As participatory artists, we’re often called to cross lines drawn in sand or history, barbed wire or entrance fees. Lines grooved in our minds by the academy or the nagging fear that our work needs a larger scale, a sexier façade, an institutional imprimatur in order to matter. For us to matter. 

The new US Dept. of Arts and Culture, a collective imagining designed to catalyze art and culture in the public interest, opens its Statement of Values with words that are obvious, historical, and radical: Culture is a human right. 

All lives have meaning. At Hidden Voices our mission is to connect our diverse communities through the transformative power of the individual voice. All stories matter. We are all artists-in-residence here. Art is the pattern language of our DNA, creativity the shaping force. If we practitioners embody the truth that access to and the creation of culture is foundational and inherent, what changes in our practice?

How about everything?


The most fundamental change for a participatory artist is that we shift into a pattern of trust. When we understand our role as opening space for what is emergent, we loosen our grip on results and walk into new communities wide-open and patient. We are willing to wait, attentive, for potential to take form.

There has been much media attention to the slow money and slow food movements. I like to think that the work we do at Hidden Voices is helping create a Slow Arts Movement. Engaged art requires our receptive presence. Being right here, right now makes us deeply available to each other. We trust the specificity of the local and intimate, leaving the broader, universal ramifications to their own devices.


For most of us, whole-hearted presence requires some practice. The good and bad news about participatory art-making is wherever you go, there you are. For better or worse you bring yourself with you:  beliefs, expectations, resistances and all.

Before walking into community, it’s imperative we know ourselves. Our wounds can be a source of sustenance or they can derail a process in ways that seem unpredictable and mysterious. A truthful inventory helps. What brings us here? What do we need to learn? Something specific has called us to this endeavor, something personal and alive.  What is this that animates our interest?

Knowing ourselves also requires whole-body alertness to what arises in the moment of walking the path of relationship. In community, our gut and heart are often better leading indicators than our heads.

The 100,000,000 nerve cells surrounding our guts shape our feeling life. Something like 90% of the fibers in the visceral nerve transmit information not from the brain to the gut but from the gut to the brain. We listen to gut feelings.

We also listen to our hearts. Turns out the heart may send more information to the body than the brain. Studies suggest its electromagnetic field radiates several feet outside the body. We sense this already:  Follow your heart. Apparently, we have no choice.


At its core, sustainable engagement means being present with a community in such a way that its members want to remain in relationship with you. Why you wish to engage a community is one thing. Why they want to engage with you is something else entirely.

Don’t tell participants they matter; show them. Show respect by arriving prepared. Understand the nuanced culture of that community. Consider well how your personal history intersects with those specific historical patterns. To collaborate effectively you must know the relationships that precede you, the shoreline they shaped. Patterns continue replicating, wave after wave. Choose intentionally which ones to enhance, which to disrupt.


How do we assure community members (and ourselves) that we are not culture-diving for stories in order to forward our own professional agenda? How do we reckon against using others’ lives to better our own ends?

We create processes and structures that will sustain relationships as the project evolves and eventually ends. Our particular process emerged from years of attending to the four E’s: engage, empower, envision, enhance.

At the inception of each project, we gather a steering circle of diverse stake-holders: men, women, and children whose lived experiences will guide us. These are community members for whom the stakes are high and to whom we will be accountable. The steering circle for our project No Difference: Ending Sexual Violence includes those who have experienced rape by family members, by clergy, by strangers with weapons, by acquaintances on campus, by trusted family friends. These remarkable visionaries range in age from 18 to 60.  They are African American, Latina, South Asian, White. They are the story-holders.

We enter the circle with no agenda.  We offer generative questions about outcomes, outputs, and outreach. What changes do we want to see in our communities? What changes do we want to see in ourselves? What might we create together to make those outcomes possible? Who else needs to speak? Who needs to listen?

This initial gathering may take hours or days. However long the process, once the stakeholders feel complete, we take that rough vision and, together, lob it into the larger communal waters.

Let the ripples begin.


From that steering circle comes the impetus for community workshops. It’s worth noting that however deep we go in these workshops, we are not doing therapy; we are doing art. We are doing relationship. Ours is a place of possibility rather than pathology, assets rather than needs. We stake that ground by acknowledging these evident truths:

Every person is creative. Everyone has the capacity to create connection and change. The journey requires all our talents. This keeps us humble. Not with the false, patronizing humility assumed for purposes of gaining access but humility born of recognizing truth. We are co-creators. The skills we bring as artist-catalysts are as crucial to the process as any other. But no more so.

Every story matters. Diversity is nourishment. Competition isn’t. Welcome what shows up, without judgment. Allow stories to open naturally; don’t pick at scabs in hopes of drawing blood.  

All stories are true.  This will make your fundamentalist tendencies crazy, but it’s key to holding space for a multiplexity of voices and understandings.

People know what they need. People may not have an abundance of tools or platforms but they do not lack wisdom or capacity. If we’re quiet, they will tell us what they need.

The end is the process. In other words:  It takes as long as it takes. Often participants are sharing stories they’ve never told before. We will be moved, but we will not be hurried.


We begin each workshop with a few deep breaths, bringing attention into the circle and into our bodies. This small communal act establishes a place of return, a safe haven from the waves of emotion that sometimes threaten to overwhelm.  A place where we can catch our collective breath.

We share one word describing how we feel about being here, in the circle, with each other. That one word after one word after one more braids us together. We are nervous. We are hopeful. We are terrified. It’s all fine. We are seen.

We acknowledge that everyone in the room has been wounded. Those wounds will provide the energy to connect us with a larger vision and purpose.  Everything said will be anonymous and kept in confidence.

Our workshops move from conversation to writing to creating art.  The flow is intentional, shaped by the natural arc of an intensifying dynamic conversation through the inner work of writing to a culminating hands-on artistic expression of the journey. By the close of any given workshop, we are all transformed.


With resonant and generative questions, the conversation assumes its own rhythm. Perhaps offering a few questions here will spark your own.

One provocative and often overlooked query is “What does your community look like once this issue is resolved?” 

Often this question is met with a somewhat baffled silence. Is that outcome even possible? Who knows? How identified are we with the problem? How identified are we with the status quo continuing?

What does our world look like when violence against women is a thing of the past, when all residents are housed, all children have caring families, when prisons are replaced with less toxic solutions, when everyone’s history is known and valued, when all immigrants are welcomed and diversity is recognized as vast positive resource?

Turn your Etch A Sketch upside down and shake.

Just as there are many answers to those questions, there are many pathways forward. A coherent vision doesn’t mean everyone walks the same pathway; it means we’ve envisioned together a destination. Our work is to help communities create as many pathways as they can commit to walking.

“In order to move from where we are now to that transformed vision, what needs to happen? What stories need to be shared? Who needs to listen?” Unexpected answers arise.  In La Vida Local, a project with undocumented youth, answers ranged from teachers to the legislators at the state capitol.  In one prison project, the inmates suggested potential jurors. 

What do others not understand about your life? Over and over again, when working around domestic violence the answer was “Why we don’t leave.” In Because We’re Still Here (and Moving): Mapping Black History in Your Own Backyard, a project working with traditionally African American neighborhoods around their relationship to the University and gentrification, the residents answered poignantly, “We just want people to know we existed.”

What blocks others’ understanding? Participants in Home Is Not One Story: Exploring the Heart of Homelessness, ranged from foster youth to veterans to refugees to families fleeing violence and others. Their response was “the media stereotype of a homeless person.” For the African American residents dealing with gentrification, one answer was clear:  their community’s physical structures had been destroyed by development and student housing. Their history was invisible.

What can we create together that will address those blocks and offer pathways for connection? With the participants, we develop performances, interactive touring exhibits/installations, and digital media. The final shape is as varied as the issues. Full theatrical productions with original music, cycles of monologues for community readings, school shows—the list is evocative. For the project on gentrification, we developed a printed map that evolved into what was likely the world’s first text-message tour, a solution born of our own limited resources and the abundance of cell phones.  We stickered meaningful spaces with a number for a text-back message describing the story where you now stood.

For the Speaking Without Tongues installation, participants created Pandora boxes, the outsides of which mirrored their public self. Opening the lid brought a more intimate and dangerous view. What is not spoken, is still heard.


Whatever creative actions evolve from collective visioning, they must be passionate, personal, and possible. Some participants discover the power of sharing their stories publicly and willingly join an ensemble of performers. Others gather participants for additional workshops. Some find venues for the exhibit or bring friends to witness the installation. Others become community leaders around the issue. Many will say the process has changed their lives. Some will say it saved theirs.

Stories need to be told. They take shape unbidden in our individual and collective consciousness. When we allow room for them to be shared and received, we release their emergent potential. Participants tell us they feel lighter. Audiences sometimes leave heavier. This is as it should be. We are sharing the burden. We are strength-training a new community.

As engaged and participatory artists, we cross boundaries and face fears; we venture into uncharted territories. Working in community we pattern a future with fewer lines but grander scope. We create a new map, together, as artists-in-residence of a shared world.

Lynden Harris is the Founder and Director of Hidden Voices, whose mission is to “challenge, strengthen, and connect our diverse communities through the transformative power of the individual voice.” During her decades of work as an artist facilitating community connections, Lynden developed the Hidden Voices Process, a participatory workshop model designed to engage, empower, envision, and enhance participant and community vitality. Project components include scripts, performances, audio tours, interactive exhibits, walking tours, critical mapmaking, print and digital media.

The 2014-2017 Hidden Voices projects include No Difference: Ending Sexual Violence; At Ease: Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide, and Central Lives: Exploring Death Row.

Currently the Visiting Artist-in-Residence at Duke University, Lynden also writes about community voices, the arts, and social justice issues for the News and Observer family of papers.

She lives on a farm in North Carolina, a state that has been home to her family for more than 300 years.