Holly Khan: from Nurturing Talent to Board of Trustees

Holly Khan facilitating a workshop

Holly Khan is a professional musician and facilitator. In October 2021, we appointed her a Trustee of Create.

Holly balances her time between music composition and running workshops with a wide range of people, including our Create participants. She first came into contact with us through our emerging artist development programme, Nurturing Talent. We invited Holly to take part in Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership training this year, along with eight other Create colleagues.

We spoke to Holly about her journey with Create, her work with other organisations – including her own social enterprise, Heartstrings – and her passion for championing climate action.

Your journey with us began with Nurturing Talent. How do you feel about the programme now, in hindsight?

I found it incredibly useful. I already had a lot of the skills and tools, but Nurturing Talent gave me the connections and confidence to establish myself as a facilitator. Working across the year with such a vast demographic of participants, from SEND young people to older people living with dementia, really empowers you to feel like you can walk into any room and lead a workshop. After just a few months on Nurturing Talent, I started to feel confident in applying for paid positions, and I’ve never looked back. Now, 50% of my income is facilitation and 50% is composition. That really wouldn’t have been the case if I hadn’t done Nurturing Talent.

Holly Khan playing the Viola

Can you tell me about the social enterprise you’ve set up?

It started years ago in my brain; it started more tangibly about a-year-and-a-half ago. I applied for/was recruited by an organisation called Year Here. You get put on the front line of social injustice, you work in different areas, you research, you prototype, and you end up making your own social enterprise. On my cohort of people there was someone who has worked as a coder for NASA, there was a financial editor. I was there as a composer and I had massive imposter syndrome.

I am still working on it, but Heartstrings is running. It’s a creatively conscious childcare service. We provide workshops for six-month-olds to six-year-olds, and we focus on music, movement and mindfulness, to develop milestones and encourage empathy. We do this by employing refugees – refugee artists and care experts – to lead these workshops. There’s a unique cultural exchange in every workshop because we share songs and stories from around the globe. It’s a subsidised model so more affluent families pay more and lower income families pay less so there’s a social economic mix of people in the room. The vision is to expand all over London and regionally as well.

How does composition fit into this mix?

I’m very lucky to do not only what I love but multiple things I love. My first love is connecting through music. That’s in composition and in facilitation. I never like music for the technical aspects. I learnt very early on, when I was about 18, that if you’re not practising for eight hours a day then you’re not going to get super far as a classical musician or a session musician, so I said: ‘That path isn’t for me.’

I try to compose for things that have a social mission. I’ve written music for plays that raise awareness about undiagnosed heart conditions (Ticker by Tom Machell is currently at the Turbine Theatre raising money for CRY charity); and I wrote a piece called Their Voices, which was part of the Global Health Film Festival in the Barbican, about children in Iceland seeing their landscapes disintegrate. It was about climate change. And this last week I composed for Amal Meets Alice, which was commissioned for The Story Museum. Amal is a refugee puppet, based on a real Syrian girl. Handspring Puppet Company – the people who made War Horse – and Good Chance – the people who made The Jungle – have created her and she’s walking through cities from Syria. She was just in Oxford, and I was composing for that performance. It was amazing. Seeing 20,000 people turn up and support this cause. Everywhere she goes is an arts festival. And then yesterday I just closed an audio installation commissioned by Let’s Do London, the GLA, Mayor of London and Battersea Arts Centre. My piece was a provocation, that more could and should be done about women’s safety in light of Sabina Nessa and Sarah Everard. That was really great to do.

How did you find the Climate Reality training, and how do you think it will affect your work?

It was very eye-opening. It was very disturbing. The most disturbing thing to me is not only that these things are happening, but they’re not being reported. Having said that though, it was very hopeful. I really enjoyed learning about the ways to be hopeful; and how hope is a practice, how you don’t have to be a scientist to be able to take steps in solving the climate crisis: you can be an artist, you can be a musician. That was really important to hear. Because you can feel helpless.

How can we make it easy for people to buy into this movement? I’m half-Guyanese and half-British, and Guyana is incredibly affected by the climate crisis. When I look at my landscape in London, when I look out of the window, nothing has changed because of the climate crisis. So it’s really hard for people to connect to the fact that human beings in other parts of the world are having their houses ripped apart by flooding or fires. Having that understanding and thinking of the world as a borderless place is something I want to take forward and use as a practice, to get people to think about where they’re from, not just where they wake up, but where their ancestors are from, where their friends and family are from.

“I’m very lucky to do not only what I love but multiple things I love.”

Holly Khan

You’re championing this issue on our Board of Trustees. How do you think Create can take this issue forward?

First and foremost, it’s really exciting. It’s very common with a board of Trustees that I’m not only the youngest, I’m also currently the only person of colour and I’m a woman. These things all intersect. So my ideas about the climate crisis, and how I want to present that, all intersect with this historically not being a place where people like me would be able to do that. I’m very pleased to be that voice.

At Create, we’ve spoken a lot about how over the next 5-10 years we’re going to reduce waste, not only practices of recycling, but how in travel and transportation, in deliveries, in materials, we can make a difference and an impact. But also what I think I’m most excited about is how we can raise awareness thematically. Create interacts with hundreds of participants. How can we use the climate crisis as a theme to inspire people to take action? The environment is something that older people, young people, anyone can relate to, so what if we use this as a theme for the workshops and use that as a trajectory of change?

How does it feel being part of the Create Board?

It sounds like such a simple thing, but actually feeling represented and being represented is so important. What I’m most proud of is that anyone coming through Nurturing Talent, or any participant, young girls who experience racism, can see that it’s possible to get into these rooms. And not only get into these rooms but have a voice and use it.

How do you feel about your journey with Create, now that you reflect on it?

I feel very lucky. There aren’t many times in a freelance, self-employed or creative person’s life where there are tangible stepping stones. A lot of the time it’s side to side, you finish a job and you’re back to square one. But with Create there has been this amazing trajectory for me where everything I’ve done has added up and has become a ladder for me to climb. That is amazing. I would never have anticipated when I started Nurturing Talent that it would open all these doors and bring me to where I am now. It is down to the organisation trusting me and believing in me, and I want this to be a lifelong relationship.

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