I was first introduced to the principle of “first voice” by Helen Valdez, one of the founders of National Museum of Mexican Art in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. She observed that all the curated exhibits of Mexican American art in the city (and most in the country) were curated by non-Mexicans-Americans.
“This is wrong,” I recall her saying.
“The members of a culture — those that experience it on a daily basis — should have the primary right to define, interpret and present their culture to others.”
It’s not that others’ viewpoints are never valid or that there isn’t debate within a culture about its meaning and value. It’s that the first voice in any conversation about a culture should come from those who live it.
I have found that this principle can be generalized far beyond artistic expression.
Honoring each other’s right to define oneself, including what we value and want to protect, is essential for successful communication, collaboration and effective agreements. No one wants to be trapped in someone else’s preconceptions. Most of us like to express our individuality in some way. It’s fun. It’s natural. It’s important when trying to draw on multiple perspectives to solve complex problems.
And what’s true for individuals is true for self-identified groups of people, as Helen first taught me. Certainly groups of people deserve the same respect.
The challenge here is, Who is able to speak on behalf of the group, if anyone? Of course, that begs a principle on how authority works in groups, which calls for another post…