This Bulgarian human rights activist gave one of the most chilling yet hopeful TED Talks of all time

When Yana Buhrer Tavanier was 17 years old, she lost her best friend.

Tavanier’s aunt Delyana committed suicide after spending more than 10 years in Bulgarian mental hospitals, where she received soul-crushing psychiatric “help” for a misdiagnosed disease.

Anger compelled Tavanier to act. So, along with two other TED fellows (artist Julie Freeman and social entrepreneur Pavel Kounchev) she
cofounded Fine Acts, a global initiative that curates and commissions works of art that further conversations on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and mental health — and then inspires action.

Tavanier recently recounted her journey on stage at the TED Fellows Retreat in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California, marrying politics and human empathy in a way that left the audience reeling with emotion.

Yana buhrer tavanier, ted fellow, delyanaCourtesy of Yana Buhrer TavanierTavanier’s aunt Delyana.

An artist and free thinker, her aunt Delyana grew up in Communist-era Bulgaria refusing to accept the constraints of the regime. She mocked the rules, challenged her teachers, told political jokes, and wore clothing that fell outside the state-approved fashions. These small acts of rebellion were enough to catch the Party’s notice.

In those days, the government had a way of making trouble-makers disappear.

Before reaching her 20th birthday, Delyana was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a condition she did not actually have. But it gave the regime the authority to place her in a mental hospital, where she received electric shock therapy without muscle relaxers or anesthesia, and suffered bone, muscle, and tooth damage.

Tavanier describes her aunt’s treatment as torture, not therapy.

Yana buhrer tavanier, ted fellow, delyanaCourtesy of Yana Buhrer TavanierHer aunt Delyana hugs Tavanier as a child.

Delyana remained in and out of mental hospitals until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Communist presence diminished. Still, more than a decade of systematic efforts to crush her spirit had broken her, Tavanier says.

Delyana commited suicide at age 37.

“My sadness was swallowed whole by my anger,” Tavanier says. It was her anger that led her to journalism.

As a former investigative reporter, Tavanier researched state-sponsored social care institutions for people with intellectual and mental disabilities. Created during the height of Communism, these centres aim to hide people who are ill, different, or otherwise fail to fit into eastern Europe’s idea of a “perfect society,” according to Tavanier. Unlike the mental hospitals that contained her aunt over the years, patients often enter and never leave.

There, Tavanier witnessed disabled children, as old as 10, who had never left their cribs. Adults were caged or chemically retrained with medication. They were “stored, not treated,” Tavanier says, “until it was time to die in an unnamed, unmarked way.”

Despite the unspeakable torture she described in her writings, it was years before an institution closed its doors because of an article Tavanier wrote. Progress was slow, so she left journalism and linked up with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a leading human rights organisations in Bulgaria.

Then Tavanier encountered a new obstacle. She and other workers struggled to translate political issues into a language that made people care and compelled them to act.

In moments of despair, Tavanier reflected on conversations with her aunt Delyana. They would often sit by the table in their pajamas and discuss the intersection of life and art.

Yana buhrer tavanier, ted fellow, delyanaCourtesy of Yana Buhrer TavanierA self-portrait by Tavanier’s aunt Delyana.

“We would talk about how art operates outside all norms,” Tavanier said. “No one can own it — no regime, no group.”

Even in the face of oppression, Delyana painted until the day she died. It healed her. It sustained her.

Then, Tavanier found a solution to her problem: art.

“Mere facts and statistics don’t do the trick, and neither do words or statements on their own,” Tavanier says. “Art can create a visceral response. Art can make the distant feel personal.”

In 2010, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee investigated over two dozen Bulgarian institutions for children with intellectual disabilities and found 238 deaths occurred between 2000 and 2010 — two-thirds of which were avoidable. The information offered undeniable evidence that these facilities were unsafe for children.

Tavanier recruited a local artist to create an infographic based on their research.

The resulting graphic looks like it was drawn by a child using Microsoft Paint. A sun hangs low over a row of tulips, which represent the different causes of death: malnutrition, neglect, disease, abuse. The sun’s rays indicate that most children died in winter.

Tavanier and her team printed the image on postcards and disseminated them across the largest cities in Bulgaria. Soon after, recipients flooded the mailboxes of government authorities, demanding justice and reform.

“People said it gripped them by the throat,” Tavanier says. What appeared to be a child’s drawing brought awareness and sensitivity to the issue, and ultimately fuelled a larger campaign that lead to the current closure of all children’s homes in Bulgaria.

From that point on, Tavanier bolstered her activism with art. In 2014, she cofounded Fine Acts as a platform to bridge activists and artists’ work. Though the organisation is still new, it has made significant progress in the last year.

One of the group’s most talked-about projects is Postcards from Ferguson, a limited edition set of photographs depicting unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, last August. They included images of children walking in front of a line of riot police, and men with their hands surrendered in the air.

Fine Acts encouraged senders to write messages of hope for racial justice and mail to family, friends, colleagues, or representatives.

“My favourite one is by Tyrone, a high school student from New York City, to Santa,” Tavanier says, reading aloud, “‘Dear Santa, I want a pony and a riot shield.'”

Another installation, by artists
Alicia Eggert and Safwat Saleem, explores the status of peace around the world.

Two-hundred and six light bulbs spell out “FUTURE,” but only 33 are lit, representing countries that are not currently involved in conflict.

“The project aims to inspire people to reflect on what can be done to achieve a brighter future,” Tavanier says.

Tavanier admits there’s much work to be done. Still, in times of frustration, she’s reminded of a saying that she stumbled upon while flipping through her aunt’s old journals.

“Am I alive?” Delyana scribbled between the lines. Over and over.

“I believe we are only alive through others,” Tavanier says, her voice unwavering.

“We have a voice only if we help others speak,” she says. “And our power is measured not by how many people you crush, but by how many we are able to lift and carry on our shoulders.”

With that motivation in her heart and artists by her side, Tavanier is poised to change the world.

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