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Cultural campaigner

Providing a platform: Heather Whalen, the former director of community and cultural affairs, has enjoyed seeing how the arts bridge the island’s many divides. Ms Whalen retired this month (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Seeing how our culture has bridged Bermuda’s many divides has been one of the most rewarding aspects of Heather Whalen’s 22-year career in the arts.

The former director of the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs revelled in experiencing blacks and whites, rich and poor, locals and visitors come together and bond during countless events.

“I believe firmly that culture and the arts transcend artificial barriers like race and ethnicity,” said Ms Whalen, who retired this month. “They can bring us together and have a healing element. The arts deserve more funding because they provide a way of recognising our shared values and collective history.

“We have so much more in common than that which divides and I hope we can build on what we have contributed to make the island what it is rather than fighting.”

Ms Whalen segued into the department from the Ministry of Education in 1997 — she had been a history, civics and English teacher at the Berkeley Institute since 1978. She joined as head of the former Department of Cultural Affairs replacing Ruth Thomas who retired that year. In 2004, when the department merged with the Department of Community Affairs, Ms Whalen became senior cultural affairs officer before taking over as head of the team. Her title changed to director in 2014.

Going to the Smithsonian Institute’s Folklife Festival in Washington DC was one of her early highlights.

“That was exciting and a good introduction for me,” she recalled. “We took a Gombey troupe, mason Larry Mills; we took our chef Fred Ming ... the regiment marched down the National Mall in full regalia and we demonstrated what a cricket game looks like. There were gospel singers and other musicians and many more participants.

“It was such an enriching and powerful experience that bonded us together and infused a sense of pride in our people. For Bermuda to be invited was such an honour — about a million people came over the ten days and we saw how the world viewed our culture.”

The festival was reenacted in Bermuda a couple of years later and it led to the department’s own Folklife programme coming to fruition. Ms Whalen is also proud of the Emancipation Programme, which she helped to expand. She explained: “We used drama to tell stories about aspects of slavery in Bermuda — some parts are painful — but we also featured life before and after emancipation because we wanted to dispel the notion that blacks had been slaves for ever.

The programme celebrated the roles of the friendly societies, the lodges, the black entrepreneurs who were successful … those who gave structure to the former slaves so that they could live and provide.

“We honoured community heroes when we developed our Trail of Our People Series. We are responsible for the induction of the national hero since 2008, which has been significant in building a sense of pride for our island. The programmes in this department have mushroomed. We used to say we had a slow season and high season but now it feels like there is never a slow season.”

Most recently, the department launched www.creatives.bm. A catalogue of people working in creative industries here, it also gave them a platform to launch and promote their careers. “This has been in the making for several years. We have been wanting to have a registry for all of our artists, musicians, dancers, visual artists, jewellers, video games, film-makers, writers, authors, graphic designers … The idea is to give them a platform so that not only are they recognised locally but internationally. Anyone who wants, for example, a poet can go to our site and search and hire them.”

Of all the artists Ms Whalen has worked with over the years there are some who have a special place in her heart: drone photographer Kyle James of Fly High Media, artist Sharon Wilson, the Wall Street Band and gospel singer Toni Robinson.

“It’s been stimulating to have met such wonderful, dedicated people who love our heritage and our culture and are passionate about promoting it. It has been humbling to work among these people and realise how talented and gifted our people are.

“I should also give credit to my wonderful colleagues at the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs. They are a fantastic group of dedicated, committed, passionate and hardworking people. I’m blessed to have had such a meaningful and wonderful career.”