Performance artist and TEDMED 2015 speaker Laurie Rubin and her wife Jenny Taira founded Ohana Arts in 2014, a non-profit whose mission is to promote peace and world friendship through the universal language of the arts. They recently performed at a special ceremony in Hawai’i in memory of the recent 70th anniversary of the tragic Hiroshima nuclear bomb calamity. We caught up with Laurie to learn more about her and Jenny’s work to promote cross-cultural understanding and healing.
TEDMED: How did you first become interested in focusing on cross-cultural healing in your work?
LAURIE: From the time I was seven years old, I was in Hebrew School learning about the Holocaust, and the devastating loss of six million Jewish people that happened less than half a century before I sat in the classroom. The Holocaust made several appearances in my history classes throughout my elementary, middle, and high school education. I learned then what war and hate could do to human beings, and how mutual understanding and the necessity to heal was part of the universal human experience. Therefore when my wife Jenny, who is Japanese American, told me the effect the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum had on her, as well as Sadako Sasaki’s story, I had many mixed emotions. I first thought, “Why have I never heard about Sadako and her international peace movement?” My second thought was about the message that was consistent throughout my Hebrew School education, “Never again!” It was of the utmost importance to hear from Holocaust survivors about the kinds of things human beings are capable of doing to other human beings so that future generations don’t repeat the same behaviors and make the same grave mistakes. Yet, the only unit I remember doing on Hiroshima was in the 8th grade, and it was just luck that I had that particular teacher put John Hersey’s book, “Hiroshima” in his syllabus at our progressive school where teachers had leeway to create their own curricula. I realized that as a Jewish artist, it is my responsibility to keep enforcing the message of “Never again” by telling more stories beyond those of my people. “Peace On Your Wings,” is a musical Jenny and I wrote about Sadako Sasaki, a 12 year old girl who died of Leukemia resulting from radiation caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and who became famous for starting an international peace movement through her thousand origami cranes. It is an example of how one’s universal story can help to heal others who suffer from the atrocities caused by war, and an educational step toward preventing history from repeating itself. I realized that if you educate the world about one piece of history, it would simply get placed into a box that people would take less and less seriously over the decades. However, if you make people realize that human cruelty has happened to many people and nations, it drives the point home that it could happen again, and to us. Jenny and I have been trained as classical musicians, and have realized over time that we could use art, music, and theater to make a difference. It is our life’s work and mission to make sure we accomplish this in our unique way by telling as many poignant stories as possible and providing a sounding board for underrepresented voices.
TEDMED: Could you share any experiences you’ve had that have shaped your drive to play an active role in cross-cultural healing?
LAURIE: As a blind student mainstreamed in regular schools, I received a great education, but often felt isolated, and at times bullied. My braille books and adaptive equipment often made me feel like the alien that had unceremoniously waltzed into the lives of sighted children, disrupting their sense of normalcy. It wasn’t until high school when I joined summer programs for advanced musical study that I started making the kinds of friendships I felt deprived of in my school setting. Music was the level playing field for all of us in spite of our differences. Jenny had also gone to similar summer programs. Music brought us closer to youth from other countries, economic, and ethnic backgrounds. When we moved to Hawaii, where Jenny was born and raised, we decided to start Ohana Arts to provide a similar kind of formative experience for the youth here, and the rewards we see are so incredible. We see ourselves through the eyes of the students we work with. We see how the performing arts fosters acceptance, self expression, and a safe haven for those who have felt “different.”