I believe leaders inspire — through their words and actions. Leadership also requires providing a way for people to act. I increasingly think leadership is also about staying true to your values and being clear and vocal about who you are and what you stand for. At the Soul Box Project, we have no political agenda regarding gun ownership. We don’t promote any specific policy or solution. Our intent is to engage people and reach their hearts and minds to promote healing, drive change and create safer, healthier communities.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leslie Lee.
Leslie Lee is a purpose driven, passionate artist and the founder of The Soul Box Project, a national community art project that collects and exhibits thousands of hand-folded origami boxes to raise awareness of the U.S. gunfire epidemic. Each Soul Box holds space for one life lost or injured by gun violence, defense, accident or suicide. In only a few short years, The Soul Box Project has inspired a national movement focused on people — not politics. More than 146,000 Soul Boxes have been made so far, with more being folded everyday. Soul Box Project installations have been displayed around the country and in an Online Exhibit since the COVID-19 pandemic. The largest event to date — an exhibit of 200,000 Soul Boxes and procession involving hundreds of volunteers — is planned for The National Mall in Washington DC in October 2021.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have been an artist my whole life — a designer, illustrator, sculptor and painter — in that order. My husband is also an artist and we share adjoining studios and make a living making art. My work has gone through many incarnations and the older I got, the more I was creating art with a social message, looking to affect positive change. But, unless you’re really well known, not that many people actually see your sculpture or paintings, so there’s not much chance to make a societal impact.
All that changed on the morning of October 2, 2017 when I opened my phone and a news story about a mass shooting in Las Vegas popped up. I swiped it away. It was too much. My sister was in hospice. My niece, a filmmaker, had just been arrested for covering the climate issue. I didn’t want to read about yet another dreadful shooting — I needed to take care of myself. Later, I went to the gym and all six of the TV screens in front of the treadmills were tuned to news talking about the 59 people who had been shot dead, the 422 who had been injured by bullets, and the 399 who had been injured in the panic when bullets rained down on a music festival not far from the Mandalay Bay Hotel.
I was appalled — not only by the massacre, which was horrible, but by the realization that I had turned away from it for my own comfort. Worse, I knew I wasn’t the only one doing this. I suspected a great majority of people in this country were doing the exact same thing. Not because we don’t care, but because we don’t know what we can do about any of it. And I thought: how is this ever going to change if we all turn away?
I was moved to look up statistics on gun deaths and injuries and found numbers so huge they were incomprehensible. As an artist I knew what was needed was a visual — a way for people to SEE the gunfire epidemic, to FEEL the losses in a visceral way — in their hearts — and be motivated to DO something positive. I wanted to create a visual so beautiful and engaging that people would not turn away — something that would count and honor gunfire victims by literally holding space for them. I also knew I couldn’t do it alone. There needed to be a huge number of some kind of unit — something small, lightweight, easy for anyone to make, for everyone concerned to engage in.
I’d recently learned to fold a lidded origami box and thought that would work. From there it was a short jump to Soul Box. I visualized each one representing someone killed or injured by gunfire and we could raise awareness by displaying thousands and thousands of them in public places. My idea solidified, I put up a website, rented a PO Box and within weeks Soul Boxes began arriving.
As people responded I realized we were creating something similar to the AIDS Quilt, which was spectacularly successful with its influence. We were building a national community art Project — an ARTivism movement. This movement has expanded so much, I’m now focused solely on the Soul Box Project and my own art will have to wait. My painting studio has become my office; my easel replaced with computer screens connecting me with others who care.
Like the AIDS Quilt, the Soul Box Project is about individuals finding solace by making art and contributing to a larger cause; something bigger and more beautiful when united, more impactful and memorable than what any single artist could create. Through this Project my long-time goal of art influencing society has started. The goal now is to carry it through by touring Soul Box exhibits all around the country and reaching as many hearts and minds as possible.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I knew from the start that people would appreciate folding origami and embellishing their Soul Boxes with names and messages. Creating Soul Boxes is satisfying. The Box is easy to fold and personalize. Making them is quite calming — even healing — requiring mindfulness and creativity. I hoped folding Soul Boxes could help the makers as well as holding space for the victims.
I had an opportunity to introduce my idea right away because my husband and I were scheduled to participate in a citywide Portland Open Studio Tour. I created flyers describing my Soul Box idea and showed people how to fold the Boxes. We had lively conversations about the power of art to activate change. When the tour was over there was nothing to do but wait.
About a week later there was a knock on my studio door. I opened it to find a woman I didn’t know standing there with a whole armful of Soul Boxes she had made. She was smiling as she handed them to me — and thanked me for the opportunity to be part of the Project. That was the moment I realized my idea might actually help heal by offering people something tangible to do.
But the power of exhibiting this Project really hit me when we took 36,000 Soul Boxes to the Oregon state capitol in February 2019 — one Box for every gunfire death in the U.S. the previous year. A hundred people reverently carried clear bags full of Soul Boxes in procession following me, and a nervous high school kid with his snare drum, into the Capitol building. It still gives me goose bumps to remember how it felt to stand at the top of the steps and watch them enter to that funereal drumbeat. The stack of Soul Boxes in the lobby ended up being 10 feet by 16 feet and 8 feet tall. As I saw police officers, staffers, legislators and random people passing by with tears in their eyes, I realized — this really works. People are seeing the impact of this gunfire epidemic and it is powerful.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This Project is about revealing the gunfire epidemic and that’s a very solemn focus so I don’t have a funny story, but I can give an example of how naive I was starting out. I’m an artist, not an administrator, so there was a steep learning curve ahead of me. When I created my first mailing list, I didn’t know what I was doing so when the data field asked for first names — I entered ‘yes’ thinking — yes, I want to include first names. Every first name on our mailing list became ‘Yes’ and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.
The lesson I learned was — as a studio artist now running a non-profit, I needed competent staff and volunteers to do all the things I can’t do. Thankfully the Project has attracted those people and they are absolutely essential.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
The social impact of the Soul Box Project happens in two ways. First, each individual Box represents one life cut short, one person no longer with us, and one family now grieving. Those individual stories are heartbreaking and showcase the people behind the statistics. Each Soul Box becomes a memorial, whether it’s named for a specific person, has a heartfelt message or image or even if it’s unadorned, because those Boxes represent victims, often suicides, whose names we may never know.
Folding the individual Boxes also gives people a way to get involved in this issue when they are conscious of the problem but not personally affected. Sometimes Box-makers request names of those who have been killed, and they look up those people online to understand who they were and what their lives were like. This can be a real eye opener for a person of privilege and helps build empathy.
Secondly, there is the collective social impact when many Boxes are gathered together in a public art installation. These are incredibly powerful because it’s a way for people to get a sense of the depth and breadth of the losses and how many lives have been impacted by gun violence, defense, accidents and suicides. Our online exhibit, which we started during COVID, adds 3,000 Soul Boxes every month representing the number of lives lost to gunfire every 30 days. There are now over 15,000 Soul Boxes in that virtual exhibit — one for each of those lives. Viewing it can change the way you feel about this issue. At our in-person exhibits we always have boxes of tissue handy; people are often moved to tears with the realization that they hadn’t fully appreciated the scope and scale of human loss. These massive art installations are truly heartbreaking and provoke a desire for action to diminish the bloodshed.
Whether we reach people with hundreds of thousands of Soul Boxes online or in person, we want to inspire change. We want people to have an ‘aha’ moment where they realize they don’t have to wait for legislation — that they, as individuals, can make an immediate difference. One way is by supporting the Soul Box Project to help heal our collective grief and contribute to an inspiring national movement working to save
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Survivor Andrew M. comes to mind. He and his wife Leila lost their 18-year-old son Jacob to suicide. Andrew has spoken so bravely and truthfully about the pain and grief that was almost too much to bear. Despite all the professional help he had sought, he couldn’t find a way to process his heartbreak.
When Andrew first saw Soul Boxes being carried in an Out of the Darkness walk addressing suicide he was curious enough to visit our workshop, but he was upfront about having no desire to make a Soul Box for his son. He was almost offended by the simplicity of the concept. When he finally agreed to sit down with me and do it, he found he had to really focus on the folding. Afterward he shared how, for the first time since his son’s death, he had turned off the part of his brain that had been so overwhelmed with painful grief. He said he was fully present in the moment and he was amazed that folding two pieces of paper could bring him such relief.
Andrew says he also realized, as he looked at the thousands of Soul Boxes in our shop, that he and his family weren’t alone. That is so important because very few people talk about deaths of despair even though they account for the majority of gun deaths in the U.S. There is too often shame and stigma and blame, so the families and loved ones left behind often carry their pain silently and alone. That’s not how grief is supposed to be carried. Andrew explained there was an incredible release for him when he saw the magnitude of other people’s grief and the outpouring of time, empathy and creativity from so many volunteers who — through the act of folding Soul Boxes — are showing they care about the losses others are experiencing. He says he felt far less alone.
The Soul Box Project has also provided a way for those who love Andrew and his family to remember Jacob. This is important because many people struggle with offering support to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide. Making Soul Boxes has given the family’s friends and co-workers a way to do something meaningful. They have expressed gratitude for having that kind of outlet and opportunity. At Leila’s clinic her staff has made thousands of Soul Boxes to honor Jacob and to help his mother cope. Andrew and Leila have become ardent advocates of The Soul Box Project.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
First — the whole point of the Soul Box Project is to inspire people to do something on their own — even if it’s just making sure they are not adding to the problem. We think of what we do as ARTivism — a combination of art and activism. Driving change is our ultimate goal and personal choices may be the most important factor. Ultimately we hope our art and ARTivism inspires people to ask themselves — what changes can I make so my family and community are a little bit safer? Maybe, for the first time, they will consider locking up their guns and taking a firearm safety class. Maybe they will talk with their family and friends about the false justice of retribution and the futility of revenge. They could reach out to a family member, friend or colleague who may be depressed and possibly suicidal. Whatever action they take is one step in the right direction. That’s how change happens. It rarely comes in a sudden, sweeping transformation. More often, change is the consequence of one small personal act after another building on each other, creating momentum and a movement that in time drives progress. Concerned citizens can help by bringing The Soul Box Project to their communities to inspire choices that could save lives.
Secondly, elected representatives can help address the root problem of the gunfire epidemic by making it about people, not politics. I really believe the narrative around guns has to change in America. We need to depoliticize it. We need more emphasis on the gun epidemic as a public health issue — to stress that everyone needs to practice gun safety and appropriate usage. When the pandemic hit, gun sales skyrocketed — more than 4 million more guns are now in households. To make matters worse, first time gun owners may not know how to handle and store guns safely. With COVID restrictions kids are home more, unattended and bored. People are more stressed. Domestic violence is up. Suicides are up; people who attempt to kill themselves with a gun almost always die, there are no second chances. When there is a loaded gun around it too often gets used as a means of self-expression, not protection. We need better nonpartisan national leadership around gunfire as a public health issue.
And third, nonpartisan governance and judiciary need to acknowledge the greed factor in this crisis. They need to look upstream, follow the money and address oversight of the promotion and sales tactics of gun and munitions industries. This is starting to happen with pharmaceutical empires regarding the opioid epidemic. It needs to happen for the gunfire epidemic as well.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I believe leaders inspire — through their words and actions. Leadership also requires providing a way for people to act. I increasingly think leadership is also about staying true to your values and being clear and vocal about who you are and what you stand for.
At the Soul Box Project, we have no political agenda regarding gun ownership. We don’t promote any specific policy or solution. Our intent is to engage people and reach their hearts and minds to promote healing, drive change and create safer, healthier communities.
This mission is also important to other leaders who support our group. They come from all walks of life and have a variety of views on what will make our world safer. But we are united with our collective focus on helping people.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
You never know where the journey will take you. I didn’t have a long-term plan when I started this — just an idea and a mission to make a difference ongoing. When your efforts grow into a movement, it’s very exciting. It’s also unpredictable. At age 72 it’s fascinating and energizing to be part of that. A lot of my friends are retired and I jumped headlong into leading an organization and a movement. It’s a full time job and it gets me going every morning.
Making a positive social impact is the best reward. So much of business is focused on a product or service but you can’t underestimate the power, gratification and meaning that comes from investing your time in a powerful movement that helps drive choices leading to a safer, more civil society.
Committing to a passion or cause will likely become all encompassing. I’ve discovered I can’t be a studio artist and an ARTivist at the same time. There just aren’t enough hours in a day. Leading the Soul Box Project is a full time job right now. I’m committed to this chapter of my career even though I have to put my personal expressions on hold while I do this important work.
Don’t be afraid to learn what you don’t know. There is a huge learning curve to running an organization and those skills, talents and knowledge don’t always come naturally. I’m taking a leadership course because I’ve accepted that running this non-profit has extended well beyond my current expertise. I’ve also learned so much more about our country’s gun culture and what’s behind it.
You need to raise money to raise awareness. Money is necessary in order for any awareness and advocacy effort to succeed and that part of the job takes a lot of time and energy. We must raise funds to pay for experienced help, get our message out, and logistically make events and exhibits happen. Finding financial support is part of the process and critical to keep an organization going. It’s also frustrating — not only because it’s such a heavy lift but because the time and resources spent raising funds dilutes energy for raising awareness.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I hope that our work is inspiring a movement of personal responsibility, where Americans commit to focusing on people not politics to create a thriving society. I want people to be inspired to recognize that there are actions they can take in their own home, their own day and their own life to make the world a safer, healthier place for their loved ones, their community and the country.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I live by two words — tenacity and gratitude.” — Henry Winkler.
I love this quote because I’m never short on ideas but it takes tenacity to embrace those ideas and move forward with them. This quote inspires me to partner my ideas with gratitude, which is so important — if I’m not also tuned into gratitude, I will run out of steam and won’t enjoy the ride or survive the unexpected pivots that inevitably come my way.
Living with a focus on tenacity and gratitude has been critical for me and our team’s work. At the Soul Box Project, we have long been working towards our big national exhibit on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. which was planned for 2020. We had to postpone, of course. Twice! I’m grateful that we’ve been able to reschedule it for October 16 and 17, 2021 and we’re on track to bring 200,000 Soul Boxes to the attention of the nation. A lot of tenacity is required, especially during this pandemic.
More people have made Soul Boxes during COVID than ever before. People are clearly looking for a meditative, creative outlet while quarantined and folding Boxes offers a way to connect with a large group that shares your passion. I’m grateful the Project has created this outlet. We collected 63,920 Boxes in 2020–20,000 more than 2019 and 30,000 more than 2018. The total is now over 160,000. During COVID shutdowns we’ve had time to focus on more partnerships than ever before, including DIY pop-up exhibits in empty shop windows, courtyards and parks.
While COVID has required more tenacity than ever to pivot and adapt, there are silver linings we’ve discovered along the way. Most of all, we are incredibly grateful to all those who have supported us and stepped up to help The Soul Box Project grow it’s outreach, even during this unpredictable and disheartening time.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Truthfully, I’d appreciate sitting down with anyone who cares as much as I do about identifying the root cause of shooting tragedies and has the means — through their voice, actions and financial support — to help The Soul Box Project continue reaching people. The Soul Box exhibits need to go on tour, exhibiting everywhere they are requested until we reach the tipping point where gunfire deaths and injuries are no longer a national health crisis.
However, two remarkable women would top my list for a conversation over lunch. Dolly Parton has been known to pack a pistol and is also universally respected for big brains and a huge heart used for the power of good. Oprah Winfrey is all about love and empowerment and has said, “Can we agree that all families deserve and have the right to safety, in addition to the right to bear arms? I say this respectfully and with regard for the common good.”
These women bridge so many divides. I’d love to engage them in a conversation about dissipating fear. About empowering love. About respect for life. I’m sure they have valuable insights on how the performing and visual arts can get people on all sides of the issue to engage without rage and bring us to a place where we can talk about the gunfire epidemic productively. We all have one wish in common: a safe and sane world where everyone can thrive. Dolly and Oprah are experts at promoting well-being. I think they’d understand the potential of The Soul Box Project. And after lunch and conversation, I’d invite them to fold a Soul Box, too.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can connect with me on LinkedIn. You can follow us @soulboxproject on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and you can learn more about our non-profit and see our virtual online exhibit on our website — soulboxproject.org.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!