RIVER NORTH — It wasn't until Leslie Thomas had worked as an architect and on an Emmy-winning TV movie that the Californian realized what she was meant to do with her life.
Her string of defining moments began when she got stuck in the only middle seat left on an early morning Southwest Airlines flight about nine years ago.
"Sitting next to me was a man from the South Side of Chicago. We talked. We fell in love. I moved here. We had a baby," Thomas said, smiling.
And on another early morning — after her son, Nico, had finally fallen asleep — Thomas was inspired to send "the email" that changed everything.
"I started reading an article by Nicholas Kristof on genocide in Darfur. He was describing a picture of a little boy. The concept of these children being killed struck me. I looked down at my kid, and looked at the pictures, and thought someone could just kill my child because of who he is," she said.
"So I sent the email to every single person I know, saying if someone can kill these children for nothing, the least we can do is something to properly mourn them," she said.
Thomas got an outpouring of support from architects, writers and filmmakers interested in starting "something" that would grow into Art Works Projects, the nonprofit human rights foundation she runs in a social justice incubator in River North.
In 2006, Thomas found museums willing to allow their space to project images of Darfur children on the sides of buildings in hopes that just displaying them might get people to realize the similarities between those kids and their own.
Since then, Art Works Projects has continued to use a mix of film and photography to capture the personal stories of women and children victimized in parts of the world where the concept of human rights isn't always recognized. They've shown their work around the world. On Thursday, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) will host their "Children of Syria" photo exhibit on Capitol Hill.
Now, before you stop reading, it's important to know that Thomas said she's more than aware that she's "another liberal white woman" whose passionate discussions on human rights can "kill a dinner party in five minutes flat."
"But I'm just a woman, a mom of an 8-year-old. I'm just like everyone else," she said.
Thomas is blunt when I ask her a question that she's heard before, "Why not focus your attention right here in Chicago?"
"All my answers are really trite. I think we all are one," she said. "We live in Chicago, a city full of people from all over the world. We don't exist in a vacuum, and more than ever before our stability in the U.S. is focused on what's happening globally. We're tied together. Knowing what's happening in places like Liberia, Bosnia and Congo helps me understand more about how people from there live in our city."
And the goal of each of her films, exhibits, monthly discussions and workshops for school kids — whether the topic is genocide in Darfur or human trafficking in Chicago — aims to better explain the effects of big global human rights issues by sharing the untold stories of real people suffering amid injustice.
Thomas' latest film project, "The Prosecutors," aims to shed a light on the brutal reality of rape suffered by men, women and children in war-torn countries.
The unfinished documentary follows the struggle of two attorneys fighting to get justice for sex slaves and rape survivors in Congo and Bosnia that otherwise get viewed as "collateral damage" in war.
"People say 'rape and pillage' and don't even think about what it means. Does it mean that in war, fighting over each other's land, that I get to rape your wife?" Thomas said. "When the war is over, it's men with guns negotiating with men with guns making agreements to let the other off for who they raped and moving on. So, that culture of impunity that gets afforded helps perpetuate rape forever."
And while that's changing — the United Nations recently recognized rape as " a weapon of war" — Thomas said she felt compelled to make a film that "shows the rest of the world that there are people fighting for victims, and they can help, too."
Just five days after filming started, the documentary was picked to be shown at the Global Summit To End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London this June, which is chaired by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and actress Angelina Jolie, UN high commissioner for refugees.
"It's going to be great to show the film in a place where every single person in the world who works on this issue is going to be," Thomas said, "except we don't have a film yet."
Her crew at Art Works Projects is feverishly trying to raise $30,000 on Kickstarter to put together a short film for the summit and put complete feature-length documentary they hope to release next year.
"It's an amazing process that's overwhelming, inspiring and exhausting, just like anything else you're passionate about. I get up in the morning and think about human rights all day with the incredible people working on these issues in Chicago," Thomas said.
"Our work to tell stories from the point of view of people experiencing human rights violations is really important. And for me, it all circles back to that morning I looked at my son and realized that genocide can happen anywhere. None of us are exempt."
Click here to donate to "The Prosecutors" Kickstarter campaign.
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