If you’ve read my first book and you live in Seattle, you can probably figure out that I’m a big fan of Real Change and their work to help the homeless. I’ve befriended a few of the vendors, one of whom is working on project to spread love, light, communication, and hope between those with housing and those without. It’s my great pleasure to interview Susan Russell and Denise Henrickson today to talk about their project, Love Wins Love.
I’m all about hope and connection, which is why I so love the idea that “Love Wins Love.” How did you come up with this idea, and why prayer flags?
(Denise) We met almost exactly 2 years ago when I had gotten a small grant from the Department of Neighborhoods to make batik hearts at an Earth Day/Connect the Dots event at Seattle University. The day I received the grant award, I attended a Stand for Compassion event in Occidental Square and heard Susan speak. I’d included a small stipend in the budget and in that moment, I decided to reach out to Susan, rather than hire someone familiar. I stepped out of my comfort zone and tracked Susan down through Real Change. We worked really well together. Susan and I became friends. We had supplies left over, so we kept setting up heart-making stations in community settings. We loved the process… “You wear a heart someone else makes and somebody else wears your heart” are the words that Susan uses to describe our process and we noticed that extraordinary conversations would take place around the painting table. Over the past 2 years, we’ve facilitated making over 2000 hearts, witnessed many “aha’s!” and seen new friendships take root and blossom.
(Susan) The idea for making prayer flags came out of that. Originally, we thought of prayer flags because they take a little longer to make, maybe people would stay for slightly longer conversations,… but the day after we first talked about making them, I spoke in support of homeless encampments in Ballard. People talked about how ugly the encampments were. Encircling the encampments with prayer flags would bring beauty to those places and also say to everyone who saw them… “Love Lives Here.”
We decided to set our goal at 4,505 prayer flags because for the past two years, I’ve been at City Hall the morning after the One Night Count to ring the gong. Real Change rings a gong for every person found sleeping unsheltered on that one night in January. This year, the One Night Count was 4,505. It takes hours and people take turns. It was while I was ringing the gong to honor each person that it came to me: we need to make 4,505 prayer flags. Each one a life. Each one a prayer.
We also realized that 4,505 prayer flags will stretch almost a mile when tied together. Wrapping City Hall or the Capitol in Olympia with a mile long string of prayer flags will be a beautiful, honorable way to bring a message of the need for shelter to the eyes– and the hearts– of policy makers.
(Susan) When I see these prayer flags, Love comes instantly to my heart and mind. “We see you. We honor you. We love you.” Without love, some people give up and they die. I’ve seen it.
Tell me your stories. Have you ever been unsheltered, and how did your situation change, if it has?
(Susan) I lived on the streets in Seattle for 6 years. I was a union cement mason, helped build Safeco Field, the Exhibition Center, the West Seattle Bridge… then, one night, on my way home from work, I got rear-ended by an uninsured motorist. It screwed up my hip and my back. I couldn’t do my trade anymore. I lost my job. I couldn’t pay my bills. I spiraled down into depression and, eventually, addiction. I went through SeaDruNar, got off drugs (hardest thing, ever)… Now, I sell Real Change and live in transitional housing- and make art and build community and advocate for shelter.
(Denise) I lived in my car for three months when I drove alone across the country after graduating from college. I had some scary moments, but I knew it was a choice, an adventure. I’ve never thought of myself as homeless. Even when I was really, really broke, like in my mid-20’s when I broke up with a boyfriend and he fired me (he was also my boss) and that same week there was a second arson in my building and I needed to move, I was down to my last $20… I had friends who took me in. I realize now how lucky I’ve been to have always had a safety net of family and friends. Not everyone does. I don’t think anyone chooses to be homeless.
What do you hope to achieve via this work?
There are so many systems falling apart right now- lack of affordable housing, millions of people who still don’t have health care and, like Susan, are one accident away from homelessness…, fewer family-wage jobs, rising student debt… We are both very concerned about the climate crises and extreme weather events and the connection of that to the rise in the number of people around the world who are being displaced.
Through this project, we hope to create opportunities for people to experience our shared humanity. To experience new perspectives and create safe, beautiful spaces to step out of our comfort zones. We are all in this together. When it comes down to it, we can choose to respond to this extraordinary time with either fear or love- and model that for our children who will be facing even more challenges as weather patterns continue to shift.
Through this project, we are choosing love. Love makes us more resilient. And it makes our journey more joyful. Over and over again, in the simple act of talking to each other with brushes in hand, we’ve seen people have “aha” moments around the painting table. It’s a really simple set-up– recycled bed sheets and curtains, non-toxic fabric paint and soy wax– but what we’ve been able to witness has been profound. We think this kind of face-to-face cross-class/ cross-cultural dialogue plants new seeds of understanding and empathy that ripple out into the world. Love has the power to reweave our humanity together. It’s an ancient truth we are rediscovering.
We call our project Love Wins Love because we believe that love is regenerative…. Love gives back so much more than it takes. It is the most powerful force in the universe.
(Denise) When I think about how my life has been enriched since I went beyond my comfort zone to hire “that homeless woman in the Seahawks outfit” to work with me, I am incredibly grateful that I had the courage to acknowledge my own bias– my fear, really– and chose love. Susan’s connection to her heart, her belief in the goodness of people, and her profound gratitude for EVERYTHING, especially in light of all that she has been though– is deeply humbling. Because of our friendship, I have more faith in humanity. In my dark days, I can hold onto that. It’s solid. And it is growing stronger.
We set up a blackboard whenever we have our art stations: one side says “What Do You Value? And the other, “What Do You Need to Thrive?” We’ve noticed so far, that no one has written anything that costs money. This has gotten us thinking about the double meaning of “Transitional Housing.” There’s “transitional housing” like where Susan lives in SandPoint. And then there’s the whole “transition movement” of people and communities who are shifting towards living more lightly on the Earth. We are curious and excited by the connections between these ideas and are continuing to explore them.
Where are some of the places you’ve already posted the prayer flags?
We hung our first string of prayer flags at Camp Dearborn. Within a few days they disappeared. A friend told us she saw what sounds like a remnant of it as part of an altar in Pioneer Square. A week later, the residents of the encampment were evicted (2 days before they were told they would be) and the tiny houses that had been built for them by the community were bulldozed… (City of Seattle- We can do better!!!!!!)
The next string we hung under I-5, in the Jungle. We attended a memorial gathering to honor people who had died there, as part of the Homeless Remembrance Project. That’s where we learned that over 67 people died on the streets last year. People held the string of flags and made prayers before we hung them. We went back a few days later to check on the community and the flags and learned that someone had come into their camp and set the flags– and their couch– on fire.
(Susan) “Apparently, those prayers needed to get up fast!”
We are planning to hang future strings in places that are more stable, like shelters, but we also know that as beautiful as the flags are, it’s the conversations that take place in the process of making them together that are the most valuable— and those experiences never go away.
I’m moved by the plight of those without housing, but I’m never sure how I can best help. What would you suggest?
(Susan) Say “Hello.” Being invisible, being treated as less than human, was the most difficult part of being unsheltered, by far. It’s what led to my addiction. And if you are willing to take a bigger step out of your comfort zone, you can ask “What do you need?” And take it from there. But it’s important that you let go of expectations. What that person needs will likely be so simple it will break your heart. Open.
I want to paint a flag! Where can we find you next?
Last week, we made flags at Julia’s Place, a shelter for women and families in Madrona. We also celebrated Earth Day at the Peace Encampment at 24th and Spring in the CD.
On May 13-15, we will be at Break Free in Anacortes, making prayer flags with people there. We believe there is a connection between rising temperatures, resource extraction and exploitation, rising economic inequity, and the rising number of people who are homeless in Seattle, the nation and the world. We also believe that love and compassion need to be at the heart of how we respond and relate to ourselves, each other, and our Mother Earth. We are all connected.
We have about 4200 more flags to make, so we need your help! We are open to suggestions of places to make them. If you can contribute money towards making them, that would be most welcomed, too.
How can we follow you and this effort?
The best way to stay in touch with us is through our FaceBook page: Love Wins Love (three separate words). If you message us with your email, we can add it to our email distribution list. And we always have sign up sheets at our booth.
How can people support this project?
Come make prayer flags with us! We always have a donation jar at our booth to help pay for supplies. At our booth, we also sell strings of prayer flags that we make to reimburse some of our time. The flags we make to sell are ones we make on our own; the community-made ones go to shelters and encampments and are not for sale.
And we are always looking for people to be part of our team to help us facilitate art-making and conversations, social media support, fundraising, … build transitional villages! … If this project inspires you and you’d like to work with us, we’d love to hear your ideas and what you are passionate about.
Ultimately, this project is just a small manifestation of a bigger vision- To create a more connected and compassionate human family. Any action you take that requires you to step out of your comfort zone with love serves this shared vision. Love Wins Love.
Thank you, ladies. I hope to come to one of your painting events soon. Thank you so much for joining me here today!
Susan Russell is Real Change vendor and housing advocate who has been to the depths of hell and back when living on the streets of Seattle. She believes that if her work helps one person from experiencing what she went through, she will be successful. Love Wins.
Denise Henrikson is an artist and community activist who believes people can change the world. We do it every day. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org