Last year, New York-based activist-artist Molly Gochman read an article about human trafficking, an issue about which she was largely unaware. It cited some dire statistics about this ubiquitous but often overlooked problem: Estimates say nearly 36 million people worldwide are currently living in some form of slavery, whether it’s sex slavery or labor slavery, with 60,000 of them in the US; that 26% of today’s slaves are children; and that the number of slaves has increased in the past several years.
“I was appalled to learn about modern day slavery, and appalled that I hadn’t really known it existed,” Gochman tells Hyperallergic. “I reached out to several human rights organizations to ask what I could do to help. They all told me to ‘raise awareness.’”
Since lecturing everyone she knew about human trafficking would make her a “bummer at parties,” Gochman chose instead to educate the public via a participatory public artwork: the Red Sand Project. She’s asking the public to fill cracks in their local sidewalks with red sand, which she sends out for free in Red Sand Project toolkits, along with fact sheets about human trafficking.
Why red sand, and why sidewalk cracks? Resembling scars on the sidewalk, these jagged red lines of sand are a simple visual metaphor for the millions of trafficked people who “fall through the cracks” and a reminder to not simply “walk over” this marginalized population. It’s also a symbol for strength found in numbers. “At first, human trafficking seemed like such a huge issue, and I thought I couldn’t possibly do anything about it,” Gochman says. “But these little grains of sand add up to transform these sidewalk cracks, and so it serves as a reminder that our small individual acts do add up to something.”
Gochman, who often works at the intersection of public art and activism, was inspired by the red and gray color palette of conceptual artist Barbara Kruger and by land artists like Robert Smithson.
The phrase “raise awareness” is thrown around a lot in activist circles, as educating the public about your cause of choice is generally considered an important step in building a grassroots social movement. But it can be hard to gauge how all this “raised awareness” affects actual change.
The Red Sand Project, Gochman says, has had some small but tangible effects in the fight against human trafficking. So far, 25,000 people from all 50 states and from countries around the world have participated in the project, turning sidewalks in cities around the world into DIY activist artworks. Many participants — including actor Ashton Kutcher, who’s been involved in the anti-human trafficking movement for several years — document their efforts on social media using the hashtag #RedSandProject. In Houston, the country’s biggest hub for trafficking, the project helped push the mayor’s office to focus its efforts on new campaigns against trafficking in the city. The project’s toolkit also educates people about how to detect human trafficking and offers information on hotlines to call.
Many survivors of human trafficking have embraced the Red Sand Project. One woman, a survivor of sex trafficking, has been filling sidewalk cracks in front of the house in Nebraska from which she was trafficked. “It’s a sensitive issue, and I didn’t want to accidentally trivialize it with an art project,” Gochman says. “But when I talk to survivors about the project, they say they think it’s great — one said ‘it gives us an image that doesn’t exploit us and helps us tell our story.’”
You can request a free Red Sand Project tool kit here.