Stories, art weave victims together

Courtney Doi

CARRBORO, N.C. – The women on the stage speak of violence: the scars, the threats, the beatings, the sirens, the hiding, the terror. Then, they tell you how they survived and found the freedom they sought for so long.

The ensemble of African-American, Euro-American, Latina, South Asian and Asian women are not actors. They have worked with the nonprofit Hidden Voices for an entire year, exploring their own experiences, learning how to tell their own stories, and giving voice to other women just like them.

Violence against women and girls is a major human-rights issue and a global phenomenon of epidemic proportions. It is hidden but it is pervasive.  Violence affects our sisters, our mothers, our coworkers and our children.

In October 2008, “Speaking Without Tongues,” stories of survival and triumph from this ensemble and from women across the state and globe, debuts at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro and on several college campuses.

Traveling with the show is an exhibit of self-portraits in the form of photographs and constructed boxes created by survivors across North Carolina.

“Speaking Without Tongues” is just one example of how Hidden Voices challenges, strengthens and connects our diverse communities through the transformative power of the individual voice.

Since 2003, Hidden Voices has created a venue where those rarely heard and seen by mainstream society take center stage to tell their stories, reveal their histories, and explore survival and the challenges and the exhilarations of life.

Hidden Voices humanizes the faceless and serves as a platform for the voiceless. Today, the organization has more than 100 volunteers and contributing professionals and develops a new project annually.

The organization brings the focus to actual individuals who are struggling with the very real issues in the stories of their lives, from literacy to immigration to gentrification to the criminal-justice system.

With each project, Hidden Voices provides a rare opportunity for community members from different pathways to speak with one another in a safe and open forum, thus empowering participants to create real change in their communities and in their dialogues with one another around these critical issues.

Their most recent project, “Because We’re Still Here (and Moving),” brought to life the oral histories of elders in African-American neighborhoods in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, highlighting stories of slavery, racism, integration, through a shared history that is seldom recognized.

The project featured a walking-tour map of the neighborhood, a photography exhibit, an interactive community map, as well as school and public performances. The response was so overwhelming from both the audience and the participants that the Department of Dramatic Arts at UNC-Chapel Hill, the Campus Y and the Chapel Hill Historical Society are collaborating to re-mount this Hidden Voices project in February of 2009.

Brian Russell, who writes the Orange Politics Blog, still remembers watching the show last spring.

“I can’t stop thinking about it all,” Russell says. “I feel as if I understand my community much better now. When I walk down the street I think about what and who was once there, contemplating the future of all the people in our community.”

The show inspired the performers just as much. Christi Ogu is a local high school student who spoke with elder residents and helped communicate their histories and perspectives from center stage.

“The more I worked with this project, I felt like I was growing as a person,” Ogu says. “I have been asking questions, being open-minded, and trying to be the best that I can be as a person.”

With Hidden Voices’ new project, “Speaking Without Tongues,” participants are similarly empowered.

Project ensemble member Jennifer Evans commented on the project’s process.

“‘Speaking Without Tongues’ has changed my life,” she says.  “I have met the most incredible women  who are now my sisters. Our hurt and pain brought us together, but our love and survival will bind us. I know that not one woman will be the same after this project is over.”

Changing lives and changing communities is what Hidden Voices is all about. Stories make change possible. Stories open minds and inspire action. Stories create pathways. Hidden Voices brings life-changing stories into a public forum so that we develop a stronger, more understanding community.

For more information about Hidden Voices and their upcoming projects, please visit

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