Laura Milkins

On the day after Thanksgiving, multimedia performance artist Laura Milkins stood on a corner in her South Tucson neighborhood and offered passers-by free hugs. Since then, she's been doing it every Friday. Her mission? It's as simple as extending kindness in a neighborhood that could use a little.

Can you explain the Free Hugs Project?

This summer I worked at COPE, and one of my fellow temp workers had a "Free Hugs" T-shirt. Every Friday we'd wear the T-shirts and go to lunch and do normal things, but we'd hug anyone who needed a hug along the way. That kind of coincided with a project I've been doing since August: the Kindness Project. It's like doing the most mundane things, like leaving a glass of water in the desert. Really, I've just been working at it my whole life. I did start volunteering at the VA hospital and the federal prison, so when my co-worker was doing her free hugs, I thought that kinda fit. So, I was thinking about my Kindness Project, starting with my body. What goes in and out of my body, and expanding out to friends, family and social interactions and then to my community, state, nation, world, universe. Where is my place in all that in regards to kindness? In thinking about my community? I live in South Tucson; it's a rough neighborhood. It's not awful or anything, but there's a fair amount of prostitution and homelessness. I thought, I want to be more of a part of my community. I was thinking about different ways of doing that, like talking to my neighbors. I know my block, but I don't know my neighborhood. So I thought I'll give free hugs here ... I know there are people here that could use one. I started inviting friends to come hang out and give free hugs on Fridays, just standing out on the street corner and giving out hugs.

What's the reaction been like?

It runs the gamut. My neighbors were driving by, stopped the car, got out and said, "Aww, I'll give you a hug!" I get a lot of "This is so nice of you to do this!" One of the local "ladies of the evening" gave me a hug. And she said thanks, but then she said "Be safe." I worry about people in the neighborhood prostituting themselves or doing drugs or (being) homeless because I feel like they're not safe. What she said turned me around. She knows this neighborhood. She lives in it in such a different way than I do, that she was a little worried for me. I thought that was amazing. A lot of people drive by, honk or (give a) thumbs-up, or smile and stop and ask "What are you doing?"

Is this a worldwide project?

People ask that a lot. My friend Anne Marie Bonito, she created the local Facebook page. She had two events. She did one at Tucson Meet Yourself and at the street fair. We think it's kind of funny when people ask us if it's a movement. There have been many groups of people doing flash mobs and giving free hugs. It's something that's been in our cultural consciousness for a while. This thing is not part of that, it's not like we signed up for the free-hugs people. It's something everybody can do, to be part of something to offer kindness. One of the local homeless guys came up and said, "My friend really needs a hug." He came up and I gave him a hug and we talked for like 20 minutes. When you're homeless, people don't give you hugs, they don't help you out, they don't look at you, they don't acknowledge you. He showed me his birthday card that somebody gave him. I could tell that was meaningful to him, that somebody gave him one. That can make a difference between a good day and a bad day. It's enough for me to make somebody smile.

Are there plans to bring this to other areas of town?

I would encourage anybody who is excited about giving hugs to join our Facebook page and start their own free hugs in their neighborhood. Anne Marie organizes it for special events. She recently suggested we do it at the gem show.

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