With its progressive atmosphere, creative students, and emphasis on global understanding, it’s not surprising that Wesleyan attracts so many artists and activists, whether they are students or members of the broader Wesleyan community. Yet, Wendy Black-Nasta stands out from the pack of her similarly forward-thinking and creative-minded peers—she’s both. As the founder of Artists for World Peace (AFWP), a non-profit organization focused on using artistic expression to help charitable causes worldwide, Black-Nasta is both an artist and an advocate for peace. For the past eight years, she has been combining her passion for the arts and for global humanitarian aid. A member of the Middletown and Wesleyan community since 1995, when her husband began pursuing graduate studies at the University, Black-Nasta will be on campus this Tuesday night delivering a presentation on the foundation’s impetus for organizing, the International Peace Belt, and how students can get involved.
Black-Nasta and two apprentices completed the Peace Belt, a jeweled belt comprised of coins and gemstones from around the world, in the summer of 2003, launching AFWP’s global mission. Upon the Belt’s completion, Black-Nasta’s cousin offered to take it on a trip to India to be blessed by a Guru during a large world peace advocacy celebration. The Belt ended up leading the procession.
Since then, the Peace Belt has circulated among peace movements around the world as a symbol of global harmony.
Working as a street artist and sculptor in San Francisco before becoming a jewelry designer in Manhattan’s Diamond District for many years, Black-Nasta received the inspiration for the International Peace Belt some time after her arrival in Middletown. When most European currencies were taken out of circulation following the implementation of the Euro in 2000, a journalist from the Hartford Courant approached several Connecticut artists, including Black-Nasta, to see how now-worthless coins could be put to use.
“Just that week, one of my jewelry students premiered her belly dancing at the Buttonwood [Tree Performing Arts and Cultural Center in Middletown], and one of the things that really turned me on about the performance were the belts the dancers were wearing,” Black-Nasta said. “I thought, why not make a belt like that? An International Belt for Peace using all of those coins, or, if we couldn’t find coins, gemstones from each nation.”
Shortly after submitting a drawing of the imagined belt to the Courant and its publication in the paper, Black-Nasta began receiving calls from dancers looking to wear the belt in performances, not knowing the physical belt did not actually exist yet. Thus began the process of making the belt a reality, which meant collecting world currency from friends, clients, and even strangers abroad.
“It took two years—I put the word through all of my circles, I wanted everyone to donate coins from their country,” Black-Nasta said. “I didn’t want to have to buy anything, because I thought, through donations, we already had instilled this tremendous energy of the world in the belt. A lot of people were suddenly hooking into the concept of the International Peace Belt traveling around the world.”
Following the belt’s jaunt in India, interest in its mission for world peace snowballed, heightening interest in continuing its global adventures.
“From there, a friend of mine put up a website featuring the Peace Belt’s journey, and it began getting up to a thousand hits a day from all over the world,” Black-Nasta said. “We decided to put together a program for volunteer caretakers to take the belt abroad. There are only two requirements for wearing the International Peace Belt: that you meditate on world peace when you wear it so as to put positive energy into the belt, and to agree to part of the world documentary being made.”
Yet, Black-Nasta had been traveling the world and working with clients long before the formation of AFWP and her experiences abroad shaped a worldview integral to the origins of the organization.
“As a jewelry designer, I had clients around the world, so I became very comfortable traveling and working with all sorts of people,” Black-Nasta said. “Having moved around a lot, I now feel that this world community is my community. I’m not a citizen of just Connecticut, or just the U.S., but I’m a citizen of the world.”
AFWP records the travels of the International Peace Belt and produces a yearly documentary of its journeys, eventually to be compiled and released as a full-length documentary. All proceeds go towards helping the foundation provide humanitarian aid around the world.
“Our mission statement, as a group of artists, musicians, and dancers, is to use the arts to do humanitarian work around the world to bring a community together,” Black-Nasta said. “We use the arts as a focal point to rally communities around both abroad and home. We raise money as a group of artists through events, and then we use it for humanitarian projects.”
Current initiatives include the Children of Peace project, which provides living and educational expenses to a child in each nation the International Peace Belt visits, and providing aid to social service institutions such as orphanages in poor nations. With the Children of Peace, the group supervises and helps children, many of whom are orphans, attend school and gain access to tutors.
“When we say we’re going to take care of them, we make a commitment that we’re going to stick with them until they graduate high school at the very least,” Black-Nasta said. “I really think that if some of these kids are able to learn English, we’ll be able to place them in American universities.”
The group is also focusing on building a community health center in the village of Kibosho in Tanzania, slated for completion this summer. Upon completion, the center will serve 2,500 villagers, who, as of now, have little to no access to healthcare. In addition, the group has recently started providing impoverished communities with microloans, providing community members both financial stability and the purchasing power to start their own businesses. Their first recipient was a 30-person co-op in Tanzania. The inflow of money into the community has helped stimulate the local economy, providing villagers with the beginnings of self-sufficiency.
In the United States, Artists for World Peace regularly holds fundraisers to finance their projects abroad, including a recent event at the nearby Wadsworth Manor. The event raised nearly $68,000 last October. Black-Nasta attests to the major impact of both the University and Middletown communities on the foundation’s fundraisers. Businesses such as Cold Stone Creamery on Main Street have helped support and host foundation events such as the 2008 Hats for a Cause fundraiser, which helped fund a women’s shelter in Cambodia. Recently, Wesleyan has become more involved in AFWP’s work. Last Spring, students enrolled in Professor Rob Rosenthal’s Community Research Seminar to help research and redesign scholarships offered to impoverished children in Connecticut, entirely shifting the direction of the project. Black-Nasta hopes to open the organization up to more student participation, including the establishment of two internship positions.
“I love Wesleyan so much—I love the people, I love the students, and the way they think,” Black-Nasta said. “My oldest son actually graduated from here in 2007. For me, we have two positions that I think Wesleyan students would be perfect for—both for managing performances, traveling with us, scheduling things and so on, as well as managing our office day-to-day. We’re also looking for film students to update this year’s DVD for the International Peace Belt’s world travel. I’m thrilled to have students on board.”
As for the future endeavors of AFWP, Black-Nasta is hoping to continue the Children for Peace project and seeks to bring many of the parentless children back to the United States.
“One thing I’ve been thinking about all year is how we, as an organization, are helping raise and truly support children around the world,” Black-Nasta said. “I mentioned to our board that I would like to bring all of our Children of Peace together, here to America, in about 10 years. By then they will be anywhere from 10 to 30 years old—children and young adults from all around the world, being raised by one group of artists and their supporters. I think this would be such an interesting ‘meeting,’ and a unique definition of ‘family.’”
Black-Nasta hopes not only to provide scholarships and humanitarian aid, but also to emphasize the philosophy that serves as AFWP’s underpinning.
“Such a project would show that it’s not about race, religion, class, or any other superficial category,” she said. “It’s all about the love.”
Interested students can find out how to participate by attending Artists for World Peace’s presentation tonight from 7:30 to 9 p.m. in Judd Hall, or find the organization on the web at www.artistsforworldpeace.com.