The Washington Mystics were already planning to have their Wear Orange game raising awareness of gun violence Friday night. The grocery store shooting in Buffalo on May 14 and the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas on May 24 had already left vocal gun control advocate and Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud exhausted. And then, on Wednesday, someone who may still have been part of the WNBA had his Tulsa Shock not moved to Dallas in 2016, Dr. Preston Phillips, was shot and killed at a hospital where he worked as an orthopedic surgeon. The death of the former Shock team physician is no more tragic than the countless other gun violence deaths that have occurred, but it hit close to home for the WNBA family, including for former Shock head coach Gary Kloppenburg.
The dereliction of duty by the OK legislature and @GovStitt who have failed to protect their citizenry by implementing insanely loose gun laws hits close to home. RIP Doc— gary kloppenburg (@CoachKlop) June 2, 2022
Phillips will certainly be on the minds of everyone involved with Friday’s Wear Orange game, which is the fourth for the Mystics. They team up with Everytown For Gun Safety to run the event. Wear Orange is a movement started by the friends of 2013 Chicago victim Hadiya Pendleton, who was 15 when she was killed. According to wearorange.org, the friends wore orange to honor Pendleton because it is “the color hunters wear in the woods to protect themselves and others.” The first Wear Orange day was June 2, 2015, the day Pendleton would have turned 18. It is now a national holiday observed on the first Friday of every June.
This year, the Mystics are also introducing a new collaboration with a Portland-based nonprofit called the Soul Box Project, which uses art, specifically hand-folded and decorated origami boxes called “Soul Boxes,” to honor victims. Each Soul Box represents and honors one victim; the nonprofit displayed 200,000 of them on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. last October.
The Soul Boxes will be out for everyone to see on the concourse at the Entertainment and Sports Arena and they can be decorated at the game or brought from home.
Soul Box Project introductory video courtesy of founder and director Leslie Lee
The whole point of the Soul Box Project is to approach tragedy by creating something beautiful through the influence of emotions other than anger. Founder and director Leslie Lee wants to give people the opportunity to “enter into action through their hearts, rather than the anger that comes up in all of us.”
“Art energizes action,” she says. “But we can do it in a way that brings solace to trauma and allows us to look at this kind of tragedy with some kind of understanding without shutting down.”
As Cloud alluded to when she spoke on the Uvalde shooting, the government hasn’t been doing its job with gun laws and we don’t know when true progress in legislation will come about. Cloud said we therefore “gotta do our job and come together as a community.” For example, she urged listeners to report anything suspicious they see on the internet to the police. Lee is also offering an alternative way to fight for the gun control cause and she believes an immense amount of change is possible even without legislation.
“What happened when I decided to start this project was I was looking at statistics,” Lee began. “And the statistics were so overwhelming. I didn’t know that less than 1 percent of the gun deaths in this country are from mass shootings. So when we see these mass shootings and they’re so horrific and they so tear us apart, we need to realize that it’s a much bigger issue. And then that really needs to come across (with the Soul Boxes).
“So when you see a box that somebody has made specifically for someone who has been killed or injured by gunfire, it’s putting a real person behind those numbers. And when you see hundreds and hundreds of them together, it’s a very emotional experience. We displayed 200,000 of these on the National Mall last year. And to see people go through that exhibit and weep — because art actually reaches a place in us that statistics don’t.”
“What we are trying to do is have someone walk into these displays and have an ‘ah-ha’ moment. It might mean a person goes home and locks up a gun. Or a mother talks to her kids about the futility of anger and retribution. Or a gun club adds another safety class. Or a voter writes to his legislators. Every one of those actions is a success.”
So it’s not just about convincing legislators, though that is still the most important goal. Lee has shown the country that art can inspire people to be responsible about guns and live lives without anger.
Lee is very happy to be collaborating with the Mystics, a franchise known for helping bring about change in the world. She also believes Cloud’s role in all of this is an important one.
“I think that women sports stars that step up to use their voice is extremely powerful. The fact that people need to have sports in their life in order to have some balance between all the things that feel like they're going wrong. When they can instead embrace a sports star or a team. And then they listen. So it’s extremely important that stars step forward and bring their voices to this.”