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Naomi Natale

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Art Inspires Activism on a Grand Scale

Posted: 03/12/2012 1:25 pm

Today, like every other day for the past four months, I spent hours working with students throughout New Orleans to make bones. Handmade bones. Sculpted from clay into individual ribs, femurs, skulls, any bone in the human body that fires their imagination. But, this is not a study of anatomy. These workshops are part of a national campaign that my team has been working on for the past two years to cover the National Mall in Washington D.C. with 1,000,000 handmade bones in 2013.

On April 7, 2012, hundreds of students and volunteers from around New Orleans will gather to lay 50,000 bones in the famous Congo Square. This city-wide event represents a preview of what will be produced on the National Mall next year -- a provocative installation that will create a collaborative site of conscience as a symbol of our collective loss, a visible petition against ongoing mass atrocities, and will represent our shared humanity and responsibility to speak out on behalf of those who can't.

Those who can't, live in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where 5.4 million Congolese have died in the deadliest conflict since World War II. They live in Somalia, Sudan and Myanmar, where millions continue to suffer from ongoing conflict and famine. In these places, the international community has neglected to effectively intervene, and the violence, which has ravaged these countries and their people for years already, continues.

In my personal experience, it's not apathy that prevents many of us from taking action. More often it's that we are overwhelmed or feel hopeless that our contribution will make a meaningful difference. Taken from this perspective, the problem has a very clear solution: Offer people a compelling, tangible way to make a difference and they will seize it.

This is the guiding principle behind the One Million Bones project, and the work of our partners at Students Rebuild. We are working to give these ongoing tragedies, often muted by our physical distance from them, an emotional presence and a powerful voice. We are working to unite people and provide participants with the means to both demand government intervention and to raise support for the conflicts' many victims. We are tapping into students' and individuals' creativity to effect change.

Through One Million Bones' ongoing work and our partnership with Students Rebuild, we are reaching tens of thousands of people across the globe. We are building a movement connecting youth and lifelong learners worldwide with a creative call to action called "A Path Forward": Take a collective stand against humanitarian crises by crafting a handmade bone. Through Students Rebuild, every bone received by the One Million Bones project generates $1 for CARE's work rebuilding lives -- up to $500,000. Together we have registered over 100 teams for the Path Forward challenge -- teams from Tehran, Iran to Tohoku, Japan and from nearly every U.S. state -- building on thousands of youth One Million Bones reached in our first year.

Out of this work come hundreds of conversations about what we value, human rights, our global connectedness, and personal responsibility. In New Orleans, many of these conversations reveal stories of personal encounters with violence -- unnecessary and unexplainable violence that individual students are left to consider and confront every day in their own communities. In one of many classroom encounters, I witnessed a 9-year-old girl comfort a classmate who broke into tears while sharing an experience of violence and intolerance in her family.

These children completely understand the idea behind One Million Bones. They made their own bones, from their own stories, but recognized that they were also making them for people all over the world who were not seen or valued in their communities or by their governments. I promised that we would bring their bones to Washington so that world leaders could bear witness to their actions. And Students Rebuild is leveraging their creative contributions into dollars for CARE's work with young people in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.

Carl Wilkens, who was the only American to remain in Rwanda during the genocide, said in his moving speech at a recent One Million Bones event, "When we make something with our hands it changes the way we feel, which changes the way we think, which changes the way we act." I think this message impresses on us how art is an incredibly powerful tool with which to build and inspire a community and to connect people with an issue in the most personal of ways.

Just a few weeks after the 50,000 Bone Preview installation in New Orleans is One Million Bones and Students Rebuild's April 28th National Day of Action. This is your call to action to be part of a dedicated day where students and others across the country will participate in bone-making workshops, host bone-making events, and collaborate on small installations of handmade bones in all 50 state capitals as part of our "Road to Washington." Each of these handmade bones will be among the 1,000,000 covering the National Mall next year. Will yours be among them?

Learn more at www.onemillionbones.org and register at www.studentsrebuild.org. Watch the 4-minute film of a 50,000 Bone Preview Installation in New Mexico.

Naomi Natale is the founding artist behind One Million Bones.