Social Art, or The Love Bead Safe Harbor Pin Project Rides Again!

Remember when I announced that we had finished The Love Bead Safe Harbor Pin Project?

Turns out we weren’t done — we just didn’t know it yet.

This project really began in late November of 2016. By the end of the election that year, we’d had over a year of arguments, name-calling and accusations All of that comes with an election, but this was particularly virulent. Many of the people we knew had stopped speaking to friends, colleagues, family, us…

We heard stories from friends who had been threatened or who had friends or family members who had been attacked for being different, for not fitting in to someone else’s idea of how people should be.

When I first heard of Safe Harbor pins, safety pins worn to signal your belief that all people should be treated with basic human decency and respect, I loved the symbolism of it. True, no symbol solves a problem on its own, but using the symbol requires a choice on your part. Do you agree with the idea it represents? Are you willing to make that belief part of your identity? That’s not a meaningless thing. Human lives are saturated with symbols that represent how we think the world works, or ought to work, indicate our commitment to ideas, tell the world who we are. Most things carry at least some symbolic meaning. I donned my Safe Harbor pin, knowing perhaps I’d get some push back from people who disagreed with me. Mark put on his pin and wore it wherever he went.

Then white supremacists started wearing safety pins, co-opting the symbol and turning it. I wasn’t willing to relinquish it and have a symbol of decency and kindness come to stand for the opposite. So I started beading pins. I work with wire a lot in sculpting, so I figured out how to bead the pins so I could take them on and off without losing beads. I hung charms on them. I started giving them away.

Honestly, I didn’t know what would happen. I’m an introvert, for one thing. Talking to strangers isn’t my strongest skill. I didn’t know how the idea would be received. They’re inexpensive, humble little things. The first time I did a large giveaway, I told Mark, who was parking the car, that I had no idea if it would take me hours to give them all away, or even if anyone would want them.

Within fifteen minutes, I had none left. Hundreds of pins. Hundreds of people who consciously chose to adopt a symbol. I explained briefly what the pins stand for when I offered them. Each person made a conscious choice to affirm his or her belief that people, all people, should be treated with basic courtesy and respect. Even people they might not understand, agree with, or even like.

We continued giving away pins. Even just giving them away casually in multiple cities, more and more pins found homes. Then we saw that the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love in San Francisco was coming, and decided to be part of the celebration. There was a specific part of the celebration we wanted to honor. When scores of young people, most without jobs, housing or money, descended on the city of San Francisco in 1967, the city was overwhelmed. There was no infrastructure to take care of hundreds of homeless, jobless kids. Something like that, on that scale, just hadn’t happened before.

So some of the residents stepped up. They set up soup kitchens. They distributed clothing. They helped kids find places to stay and health care. Confronted with a horde of hungry kids, those people chose to take care of them. They did urge them to return home to where they had some sort of support system, but in the meantime, they fed and clothed them.

That was the legacy we wanted to honor.

So we set about making over 1400 pins. We stood on street corners and walked through parks, we stood in front of a museum. Over and over, we offered strangers the following choices:

  • Will you interact with a stranger?
  • Will you listen to a brief description of an idea, Radical Respect, the idea that all human beings should be treated with basic courtesy and respect?
  • Will you accept a symbol of that idea?

Accepting the symbol after the explanation means accepting the idea, and making it at least a small part of your identity. It was a public decision and affirmation.  We also tried to keep track of our results. The overwhelming majority of people we encountered chose to talk with me, listen to the idea, discuss it with me, and accept the pins.

All in all, so far, over 750 people have made that choice. People from every economic level, from different cultures, countries and educational backgrounds have stood up in public and affirmed their commitment to supporting human decency for everyone.

On days when the cacaphony of argument and accusation makes me want to become a hermit, I remember some of the people we met and talked with.

We had planned to end the project after the Summer of Love anniversary. It consumed a lot of our lives for almost a year. But we had some materials left, so I offered a free workshop at a program for women and children in crisis. It seemed like a good way to wrap up the project. The workshop went so well, and I had so much fun making pins with some of the women there.

On the way out, the art therapy coordinator introduced me to a member of the Board of Directors of the center. She accepted a set of pins, and asked if they could make pins to sell at an event to raise money. She and the art coordinator were so respectful, asking if what they wanted to do would fit into the goals of the project. I really appreciated their courtesy, and yes, while it’s true that we gave away pins, selling them to benefit a charity, especially one helping people who aren’t often treated with the respect they deserve, is in keeping with the project’s point of view. Anyone who buys a set of pins will get the pins mounted on a card describing Radical Respect, and will also¬† be making a choice to support people who could use help.

So the project isn’t quite over. And I may make a few to sell as a separate-but-related project to raise money for other charities.

Perhaps it’s not consuming my life as it did, but almost a year later, the Love Bead Safe Harbor Pin Project goes on.

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