About Us

Our Vision and Model for Change
At Open Hand we’re not just passionate about culture, but committed to pioneering new ways of thinking about the relationships between culture, education, and development. Does a community really have to abandon its culture and history to find its future? And why is it that most cultural preservation efforts focus on place rather than people? What if culture became an empowering resource again, rather than something to be left behind, in navigating our quickly changing world?

Mission
Open Hand Studios is dedicated to preserving, sharing, and celebrating our world’s rapidly disappearing cultural heritage through innovative, collaborative educational and community development projects. We aim to serve as a creative lab to develop effective new strategies for heritage preservation, as a thought leader for public cultural education and research, and as a catalyst to spark locally-led partnerships for sustainable community development.

Approach
We believe that culture is an often-overlooked development resource–and that cultural survival is a process of constant adaptation. With the tools and space to do so, indigenous communities are fully capable of maintaining their cultural identity as they see fit. As a result, we take a long term approach, first building relationships and then forming partnerships with academics, NGOs, policy makers, and other groups to complete specific, community-led projects that meet local cultural, educational, and economic needs. Those relationships help us stay involved, sustain our impact, and support our community collaborators over time.

Preservation
Cultural preservation isn’t just about conserving a static snapshot or idealized past, but about empowering communities to continue adapting to the present and thus help ensure their own futures. Conservation looks backwards and forwards: respect for tradition informs renewal.

Development
Development is more than creating economic capacity or increasing infrastructure. Too often “aid” is a function of geopolitics and modernization, and just reinforces inequality. Cultural development encourages human flourishing that isn’t exclusive to economics and power.

Education
Ultimately cultural survival is an educational process. It involves the transmission of intangible and material culture from one generation to another, but in today’s world also requires a wider approach that informs and engages outside audiences as to its value. Cross-cultural engagement is crucial.

Our Principles
But the world’s a big place, and what works somewhere may not elsewhere. That’s why we start from a set of principles, rather than using a single method for all of our projects. While each of our projects is unique, these ideals help us adapt to a community’s unique needs while remaining true to our roots and mission. Here are eight values we live by.

Autonomy

We respect the right of self-determination. We only work where we are invited by the communities themselves to participate.

Collaboration

A holistic approach requires multiple areas of expertise. Partnerships enable concentration of focus required to solve challenging problems.

Communication

Crossing language barriers is of special concern in an international context, so our work focuses on methods that harness the power of visual communication.

Conservation

Judicious stewardship of resources — environmental, cultural, logistical — is crucial to creating organizational excellence.

History

The context of our work matters. While we aren’t bound to the past, we are shaped by it. Respect for the past encourages respect for the future.

Justice

The root of our motivation is justice. Maximizing justice means starting with those who need it the most.

Relationships

Building strong relationships is both valuable in its own right, but trust is also a key to success in an intercultural context.

Sustainability

Sustainability is not only committing to remain involved in our project communities, it also means designing projects for long term success rather than focusing only on short term achievements

Our Story

Open Hand Studios started with a simple idea, that the communities Paul and Jeff were working in as anthropology students should not just be giving out information and receiving little in return but rather that the information and resource flow should be a two-way street. Jeff and Paul felt compelled to give something back to these communities that enriched the world with their culture.

Open Hand Studios is a way to engage communities in a partnership – to preserve and celebrate cultural heritage while educating others around the world. Development projects became the backbone of OHS. For the past seven years, we have traveled the world meeting and working with communities to improve their lives while embracing the lessons of their culture. Project sites grew from their dissertation communities to more than a dozen across the globe.

Today, the goal of Open Hand Studios continues to be finding new ways to explore the relationship between culture, education and development. Our current projects span six different countries and many different fields from archaeology to agriculture, from filmmaking to rock carving. In each unique project, our heart remains focused on preserving, sharing, and celebrating the cultures that have shaped the world we see today.

Jeff DeKock

Jeff DeKock

Director

Jeff DeKock is a filmmaker, photographer, and university professor who studied visual anthropology at the University of Manchester. His global experience extends to almost every continent and he has shot films and photographed in over seventy counties. He has run university programs in Central America and East Africa, researched for the BBC and photographed abroad for the New York Times. His book, Faces of Dignity, documents stories of the people he has met around the globe and the corresponding exhibit has traveled across the US.

Paul Christians

Paul Christians

Director

Paul Christians  is a curator and educator who earned an MA in anthropology from the University of Chicago, where he focused on cultural heritage in developing communities. He has worked in museum settings from creating content and community relations to the Petra: Lost City of Stone traveling exhibition. He has also developed databases and GIS archives for clients such as the Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes. In addition, he has served as a professional editor and researcher on academic projects published in university presses. Paul has developed and taught undergraduate courses in museums, history, and cultural heritage.

Kaitlan Spencer

Kaitlan Spencer

Communications Manager

Kaitlan Spencer received a degree in media studies from Cornerstone University where she produced projects spanning all genres from music video and narrative film to corporate video and documentary. With passion for people, story, and the power of culture, Kaitlan has focused on bringing communities together through cross-cultural media creation. She has produced videos for non-profits in the US, Haiti, Kenya, and Jordan, and she documents her travels and daily adventures in her blog “Spine and Beat.” As Communications Manager, Kaitlan is the voice of Open Hand Studios. You will find her writing in our newsletters, website, and Facebook page.

Meet Our Board

Yves Niyirigira

Yves Niyirigira

Board Member

Yves Niyiragira is from Burundi and Executive Director of the social justice NFP Fahamu. He has more than eight years of experience in policy analysis, advocacy and campaign management on a number of charters, protocols, conventions and policy standards of the African Union, especially those related to governance, democracy, freedom of movement and women’s rights among others. Yves also has a solid understanding of international affairs and international humanitarian laws. Before being appointed Executive Director, Yves served under various capacities within the organization and is one of the longest serving members of staff of Fahamu. He holds a Masters degree in International Relations.

Jenifer VanWyngarden

Jenifer VanWyngarden

Board Treasurer

Jenifer Van Wyngarden is a Social Worker working in the mental health field in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She received her BSW from Grand Valley State University.  Jenifer has worked in the nonprofit sector for the past ten years.  Early in her career she was a case management for adults with sever and chronic mental illness and the last five years has been spent in management.  Jenifer is currently the Operation Manager at InterAct of Michigan.  Jenifer likes to use her vacation days to travel to the all the countries and locations that Open Hand Studios has projects.  Jenifer’s extra-curricular activities include being active through soccer, volleyball, camping or hiking, knitting, watching the Detroit Tigers baseball team, going to the theater and reading.  
Muaffaq Hazza

Muaffaq Hazza

Board Member

Muaffaq Hazza is an archaeologist and graduate candidate in History at el-Beit University. Having grown up in Umm el-Jimal, he continues to call it home along with his family. Muaffaq has worked on the Umm el-Jimal Project since his youth and currently serves as an archaeologist and coordinator for its grant-funded programs and field seasons. His research interests and academic publications concentrate on early Islamic dynasties and epigraphic remains in the Hauran plain.

Emily Ward

Emily Ward

Board Member

Emily Ward is a Media Producer at The Field Museum in Chicago, where she plans and produces media pieces telling cultural and scientific stories to museum visitors. Emily has a B.A. in mathematics and is currently working on a Masters of Nonprofit Administration at the University of Notre Dame.

Alisun DeKock

Alisun DeKock

Board Secretary

Alisun DeKock has been involved in non-profit organizations for most of her professional career. While Manager of the Volunteer Program at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, she pursued her Masters in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois which landed her current role as Manager of Information Services and Archive at the Shedd Aquarium. At Shedd she oversees all operations of the library and archive, as well as leading and serving on numerous teams in a research, records and information management capacity. Alisun’s board of directors experience includes past roles of treasurer and president on two different boards and two years as the chairperson for a regional conference. She is currently serving as President for the Special Libraries Association Illinois Chapter, a 400+member professional organization.