In the wake of Ferguson, how ordinary people can make a difference

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When you plug activism, street art and connection into your internal GPS system, where does it take you?

This is a Community Voices submission and is moderated but not edited. The opinions expressed by Community Voices contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the TC Daily Planet.

This conundrum was on my radar last winter when those three seemingly different destinations were all competing for my attention.

Who I wanted to be was someone who had a direct experience in making the world a better place.

Who I wanted to be was someone who reached out into the community at large to connect with other human beings and let them know, “I see you. You matter.”

Who I wanted to be was someone who could breathe some new life into piles of leftover rolls of adding machine tape and barrels full of monkeys that were sitting on a shelf, crying out to be repurposed.

One subzero February evening I was wrestling with how to take some kind of meaningful action in these three areas, and then it hit me–rather than view them as three separate journeys independent of each other, they could be blended into one.

I might not be able to single-handedly change how people treat each other and the planet, but what I could do as an ordinary, every-day person was fully engage my interests and abilities and offer some relief from the backdrop of fear and pain we all live with in a humorous, unexpected way.

And that’s the moment the #street-hug was born.

While I explored several iterations of materials and formats, the working model eventually became an anonymous care package tucked inside a self-closing paper box that fits in the palm of your hand.

Inside the box is a letter addressed to the random, stressed-out modern human who finds it, providing operating instructions for the set of intentionally playful distractions that come with it, because as Mark Twain said, “The human race has only one really effective weapon, and that’s laughter.”

Everyone can benefit from the interruption of the blathering inaccuracies of our Inner Critics, and/or the realities of whatever challenges one might be dealing with at the moment.

Once my prototype was in place, I began manufacturing and dropping off these little treasures all over the area–in restaurants, stairwells, Little Libaries, on Metro Transit.

I was on the bus one afternoon on my way home from work, assembling some of the components for the next day’s drop when a fellow rider sat down across the aisle from me. He thought I’d found a #street-hug, shared that he had as well and asked, “Do you know who’s making them?”

He produced his wallet and plucked one of the “It’s not true” cards from within its folds, where he’d deposited it like a prized strip of cleverness from a Chinese fortune cookie.

I was taken aback. The possibility of interacting with anyone who had actually encountered a #street-hug in the wild hadn’t been a conscious part of my game plan; I was just enjoying pulling them together and finding interesting spots to stash them.

But here was undeniable evidence of having made the kind of difference that had inspired the project in the first place.

Or so I thought.

Until I heard from Nikki.

Fast forward to three weeks ago. Through an entirely unrelated incident, I was reminded to check the “Other” tab in the Messages section on my Facebook page, where greetings from Internet trolls of various types usually go to expire.

There was a message from someone named Nikki, from last March!–saying that she had found one of my #street-hugs at a restaurant.

During that eight month delay, I’d taken a “99 Days of Freedom” challenge away from Facebook, and hadn’t logged in or checked my messages in all that time. I’d gotten involved in other creative projects, and the moving parts of the #street-hugs had sat temporarily out of service.

So when I’d caught up to her message and the photo she’d provided, it didn’t register at first.

“I’m going through a divorce and found your box at modern times this morning and it was amazing! So 30 minutes later I walked out of seawolf tattoo. Thank you.”

I didn’t understand what I was seeing; why would someone track me down and send me a picture of her arm?

Then I recognized the font of the tattoo.

There are only a handful of times in my life when my jaw has literally dropped, and that was one of them.

I immediately wrote Nikki back, apologizing for my oblivious silence and thanked her for looking for me. I wondered how she’d been doing with the divorce and all and asked if she’d be willing to get together. She enthusiastically agreed, and we decided to meet at the restaurant where she’d originally found the #street-hug.

She turned out to be a vivacious, lovely young woman who had emerged relatively unscathed from the divorce process and had successfully moved on with her life.

The afterglow of this encounter was disrupted this week by the non-indictment in Ferguson.

Again, I find myself traveling familiar ground contemplating how–how to shift the worldviews that create the injustice and many levels of violence that led to that decision and keeps them in place there, and everywhere.

On a political level, how deeply entrenched and complex the issues are seem so overwhelming and impossible.

But on a #street-hug level, not so much.

I have first-hand experience of the power that ordinary, every-day people have when they start with where they are, doing what they can with what they have.

Like Ashley Ford and the Ferguson Library.

When you plug activism and connection into your internal GPS system, where does it take you?