By Leslie Lee | published in on April 22, 2022. Last year, late in the day on October 15, I was standing in awe near one end of a 200-foot-long canopy spanning the width of the National Mall. The Soul Box Project volunteer team had just completed installing our exhibit of 200,000 poignant origami Soul Boxes representing the number of U.S. deaths and injuries from gunfire in less than three years. I was thrilled the display reflected the concept drawing I had sketched and titled This Loss We Carry — it was a goal met and another step towards the ultimate dream of freedom from gun violence.

I felt a swelling wave of gratitude for our team and for all the people who had made this possible: Soul Box makers, volunteers, donors. People who believed in the power of art + activism — many of them old enough to remember the powerful impact of the AIDS Quilt decades ago. They cared enough to give their time, money, and expertise to reveal another, even deadlier, crisis of gunfire tearing our nation apart and endangering the physical and mental health of its citizens. They helped make this exhibit a reality with the hope that national exposure would attract a perfect partner to help realize our shared dream going forward.

That weekend in D.C. we achieved an impressive goal, yet we are still dreaming — envisioning living in a society where guns are no longer used to solve problems, or as a means of expression, or to have handy for a sense of security. It’s a vision shared by every individual, group or organization working to reduce gun violence. Exhibiting This This Loss We Carry on the Mall accomplished what we had set out to do and we spent most of our nonprofit’s resources doing it, but was not a grand finale — it was an auspicious beginning for the years it will take to realize our commonly held objective.

Paper boxes can reveal more than statistics.

I started the Soul Box Project in 2017, after a killer shot 59 people dead and injured hundreds at the Route 91 music festival in Las Vegas. That shooting shocked me into looking at other statistics 0n and I was appalled by what I found. In 2017 the number of gunfire deaths was 37,728. Just four years later, in 2021, the number was 44,860. Those incomprehensible numbers tally all the reasons a trigger is pulled — public and domestic violence, defense, accidents and suicide. These escalating losses are enough to make people lose hope for a safer society. I wanted those individual losses to be seen.

There are also stats that focus on the “how” and “why” of gun use which diminishes the “who” — every man, woman and child at the heart of every Soul Box made. The type of gun used, the neighborhood involved, the color of a victim’s or shooter’s skin…this kind of focus creates divisions, making it hard to imagine any unified force for cultural change. Therefore it’s particularly important to be all-inclusive when addressing gunfire deaths and injuries in the U.S. because the gunfire epidemic affects us all. Statistics cannot reveal the loss we collectively carry — loss of life, loss of trust, economic loss, the loss of common-sense firearm regulation. And if we lose Hope that may be the greatest loss of all for future generations.

Seeing how that shared dream was being embraced repeatedly impressed me as the weekend unfolded. There were two solemn processions carrying thousands of Soul Boxes into and out of the exhibit, and a stream of stunned visitors saying “Thank you for doing this.” A gong was rung every 15 minutes to acknowledge that somewhere in the U.S. another man, woman, or child had just died from gunfire.The media’s enthusiastic response resulted in a national reach of over 500 million led by CBS Mornings, The Washington Post, NOW THIS and Matter of Fact as well as local news. I spent most of my time that weekend in front of cameras talking with reporters. Then, with another flurry of volunteer help, it was all packed up to return to the Project’s origins in Portland, Oregon.

How to beautifully reveal the heart-breaking truth

The Soul Box Project’s next goal is to not let Hope die. We exhibited on The National Mall in Washington D.C. because we wanted our entire country to know that anyone can be part of this healing and belief in a better future. It begins with two pieces of paper folded to make a Soul Box that holds a space for a life lost or torn apart by gunfire. It comes together in art installations large and small: from museums to city halls to churches to schools, even store windows. In addition, the mindful act of creating a personalized origami box for gunfire victims is a meaningful source of solace for those who grieve. This healing activity is a vital element of the Project and any group or organization can gather to make Soul Boxes and perhaps display them locally as an ongoing memorial for their area. We can help anyone interested host an event or create an exhibit for their community. In addition, the Soul Box display panels from This Loss We Carry are available to rent and are easy to install.

Who will step up?

As we enter our fifth year, we’ve revised The Soul Box Project’s tagline to reflect a distillation of our mission going forward: Counting. Caring. Connecting. We’re seeking collaborations large and small to continue sharing the beauty and healing of this Project in a more expansive way. We want to extend the tool of ARTivism to more individuals and organizations to help advance their goals, and to realize the Soul Box Project’s potential for reaching people on an emotional level, beautifully revealing a horrible truth that’s difficult to absorb solely from news stories, statistics, and repeated calls for legislation.

To do this The Soul Box Project is looking for partners beyond collaborators and venues. Who’s our perfect partner?

  • An individual or organization that believes in positivity and the power of art to drive social change.
  • People who are more interested in loving than lobbying. The perfect partner will recognize that the culture shift needed to reduce the U.S. gunfire epidemic requires a sustained outreach to hearts, which is where action starts.
  • An entity with the finances, time and talent to expand the work of The Soul Box Project and benefit from our art-based nonprofit’s ability to influence life-saving decisions with a visually stunning call-to-action unlike any other gun violence prevention initiative.

We have faith that somewhere out there this kind of partner exists. We’re eager to meet you and continue this important work. Please let us know who you are.

A society that is safe from destructive gunfire will be decades, perhaps generations, in the making. This is why we need an engaging, inclusive visual to be the thread that connects all efforts working toward our common dream. Hope and activism can be maintained when pain and suffering have an inspirational outlet to recognize our collective losses and to promote nationwide healing from trauma.