Achieving personal transformation through the arts

(originally published at

I have seen the transformative power of working from a view of the world that places love at the heart of our actions and the power of the arts to facilitate this experience.

In the last 10 years, I have witnessed the extraordinary power, courage and tenacity of a group of impoverished migrant women in China who have taken their love for theatre to over 24,000 women and children to build one of the most respected socially entrepreneurial theatre companies in the country. Despite financial challenges, opposition and the fear of failure, the love for that moment of transformation that occurs when a small child starts to see herself in all her beauty, potential and creativity in a workshop has kept the vision alive and thriving today.

At the upcoming Summit on the Global Agenda in Dubai, the World Economic Forum will be launching a new Global Agenda Council on the Role of the Arts in Society. I am, along with other Council Members, already exploring linkages between the arts and education and skills, design, women’s empowerment and neuroscience, and looking to build bridges with many of the other Councils.

In a time of austerity and political crisis, the discussion on the role of the arts in society seems like a luxury few can afford. Actually the opposite is true.

As the world looks now, we have built our norms for progress along the lines of Mazlov’s hierarchy of needs – basic food and shelter being of utmost importance; self-actualization and the quest for spirituality a rare priority in the everyday scramble to ensure we all manage to get by.

Yet, I would suggest that the need for art lies at the very heart of the world’s most intractable problems and it is through the arts that we can best experience the transformation that brings about progress in all areas of human endeavour.

What I saw during my years of working with theatre and migrant women in China was that arts truly can transform a human being – the way a person thinks and feels and how one considers their place in the world.

Zhong Na, a migrant woman from Shandong, has pursued her dream of being a theatre teacher of children in the face of pressure from her parents to return to her village and marry. Her personal transformation lays open the possibilities of what this shift in perception of a woman’s role in society could mean for China’s future. What would happen if more women followed in Zhong Na’s footsteps?

This is just one example of the role the arts has in transformation; there are countless others all over the world. And I look forward to the role of this new Council in showcasing and highlighting such examples of best practice.

For me, the case is fundamental. The more we continue to wallow in the mud of ignorance, fear and corruption of power, the less we will find the genuine authority and leadership needed to bring the world forward in the way we all at our core know to be our rightful heritage. This honours both those we lead as well as ourselves as leaders who are committed to acting with the integrity that lies within each one of us. We cannot stay within the confines of the problem. Rather, we must work from the love within us to break through the barriers that prevent us from singing, dancing and expressing our highest vision for humanity.

Caroline Watson is Director and Founder of Hua Dan ( and Chair of the Global Agenda Council on Role of the Arts in Society. 

Published by Caroline Watson

Founder of Hua Dan, a China-based social enterprise that uses the power of participation in theatre as a tool for personal and social transformation. Young Global Leader 2011 of the World Economic Forum. Writer, speaker and entrepreneur.

2 thoughts on “Achieving personal transformation through the arts

  1. SO so cool! I am a theatre major in college and I want to help bring the arts to countries where they don’t get regular opportunities to be involved. It’s encouraging to know that things like this are already happening!

  2. Caroline what an extraordinary, yet ordinary – in the sense of being so truthful and basic – vision you have. I look forward to hearing how you go in “exploring linkages between the arts and education and skills, design, women’s empowerment and neuroscience”. It’s such a powerful combination.

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