A Hmong-American hip-hop/spoken word artist, a Syrian filmmaker and installation artist, and a Somali-born spoken-word artist shared their talents this month as part of the “Art Illuminating Human Rights” series of talks and performances. The twinning of the arts and human rights reflects the remarkable concentration of those communities in Minnesota. It also speaks to the fundamental nature of both — pursuing the truth of the human condition.

“It’s inevitable that our sectors interconnect,” said Fres Thao, the spoken-word artist and executive director of CHAT — the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent. “We support one another because as artists we are agents of change who have this platform, this medium, this power, this voice to tell the truth about what’s happening in our culture at this time.”

This particular platform came courtesy of a partnership between the Advocates for Human Rights and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (now known as Mia).

Thao said the collaboration “allows art to be even more powerful and more effective and to go beyond art for art’s sake and actually be intentional and meaningful and cause impact that will have a ripple effect.”

The ripple could be a wave if extended to local arts organizations, which have a depth and breadth disproportional to the Twin Cities’ population base. Many factors contribute to this cornucopia, including understanding that art is ultimately about humanity.

“Art is really a reflection of human experience and expression,” explained Karleen Gardner, Mia’s director of learning innovation. “It can really serve as a catalyst for bringing people together to engage in dialogue about really relevant issues in the world today.”

And there’s nothing more relevant today than human rights, especially with disparate conflicts causing desperate refugees in numbers unseen since World War II. Some of the response to the crises has come from a number of notable international institutions with local roots that support a global canopy.

“To me it’s no surprise that people from Minnesota would want to have an impact globally,” said Paul Walters, board vice president of the Minnesota International NGO Network (MINN), which lists 107 nongovernmental organizations, nonprofits, charitable, religious and other globally focused groups. Walters believes the sector is centralized here partly because, “We’re politically engaged, we’re globally engaged, so those two align, and there is a culture in Minnesota of addressing needs no matter where those needs are.”

Human rights academics and advocates at the University of Minnesota have noticed — and helped create — this dynamic. The U will offer a new Master of Human Rights degree program starting next fall. It will be one of a handful of human rights programs in the U.S. that are not part of a law school, and though housed in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, it will be supported jointly by the College of Liberal Arts.

The work of political leaders such as Harold Stassen, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Don Fraser and others helped create the global focus that drives the organizations in MINN, said Barbara Frey, director of the U’s Human Rights Program. Minnesota also became a welcoming new home for refugees over the years.

“It’s hard to measure the chicken and the egg, but we became a center for refugees in part because of the excellent international services here, but then that very reputation ended up drawing a lot of human rights professionals to the Twin Cities,” Frey said.

Working together can strengthen arts and human rights organizations in the region. “Great art has the power to illuminate the human condition,” said Robin Phillips, executive director of the Advocates for Human Rights. “It also has the power to educate, inspire and soothe, and we know that a lot of people relate to human rights on an emotional level in addition to an educational level, and art makes that more accessible.”

And there’s a lot to access, said Essma Imady, who arrived in 2011, before Syria’s version of the Arab Spring turned into what seems to be a permanent winter. Imady told the Mia attendees that the arts scene in Minnesota is “amazing.”

Imady, a Masters of Fine Arts candidate at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, spoke of a universal truth that can influence both art and human rights work. “It’s sad, and yet beautiful, that we humans usually end up suffering in exactly the same way,” she said.


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.