A 'Free Pass' for Spontaneous Compassion and Conversation

by Rachel Cyrene Blackman  USA

“Compassion: a sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress with desire to alleviate it.”

We all have mishaps, conflicts, self-consciousness from internalized and/or societal shame, distractions, over-extensions, self-criticisms, fear of public mistakes, private thoughts that weigh us down and unfinished business. These thoughts and feelings are distracting and can generate isolation. Getting or finding permission to suspend and release this psychic mess through a peer -to-peer social engagement and creative discovery builds a connection that keeps us and our communities healthy.

A “Free Pass” is a two-word story that urges momentary suspension of these internal and external conflicts through mutual recognition of the need for opportunities to resolve conflict within a shared journey towards community health and social justice.

“Compassion is an undefended heart.”  - Pema Chödrön

The heart center of the Free Pass Project is the giving (or gifting) and receiving of handcrafted ‘Free Pass Tokens.’ When in hand, individuals are empowered to concretely express, share and enact compassion. This is called ‘free passing’, and the art is generated by mindfully engaging with another.  

 “Simplicity and complexity need each other.”  - Designer John Maeda

The Free Pass Project is a social practice of spontaneous compassion and conversation. It’s a long term public art, and multidisciplinary social engagement platform. Its simplicity is four-pronged:

                    Free Pass Tokens made.

                    Free Pass Tokens distributed.

                    Free Pass Token individual engagement takes place.

                    Free Pass story of the social engagement is shared.

There are ten steps to customize vintage repurposed poker chips into ‘free passes.’ 
  1. Layout custom template in PhotoShop.
  2. Print pages with text for the front of token and pages for text on back.
  3. Use one-inch hole punch to punch out the 16 token sides per sheet.
  4. Apply paper to one side of token and let dry.
  5. Spray UV protectant spray to one side of the token and let dry.
  6. Apply paper to other side of the token and let dry.
  7. Spray UV protectant spray to the other side of the token and let dry.
  8. Apply polyurethane to one side and let dry.
  9. Apply polyurethane to other side and let dry.
  10. Set aside for days for polyurethane stickiness and smell to fully go away.

In the total process it takes much more than an hour for a Free Pass Token to be fabricated.

At the onset of the project it was intentional and folded into many layers of the project that the making of tokens is meditative and generates a state of flow as a very focused task in and of itself.

More than 1,800 Free Pass Tokens are assembled and in circulation. 

As the originator of the project, I cannot emphasize enough my awareness of the health benefits so many portions of this project support. Neuro-chemicals get fired up when we positively connect with another human, most especially an act of kindness. Both parties get a shot of dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins. And it is a scientific fact that good deeds do carry through the day to other good deeds. I’m aware that this simple repurposed poker chip improves people’s days. Frankly, on occasion, I’m told lives have been uplifted.

There is so very much to write about the process, intent and creative outcomes with the Free Pass Project. But in the end it is by you, and about you. 

If you had a free pass token in hand right now, where would it go? What would you think about? Who would you express and share a moment of compassion with? Who would you shy away from? Where might you hide it to be found later?

While under a long term revision more detail and content about the Free Pass Project can be found www.thefreepassproject.org. On Instagram the fits and starts of aspects of the project are @freepassproject. Patreon is https://www.patreon.com/freepassproject.

Collaborators and funders are always welcome.

Rachel Cyrene Blackman


“This is genius.”  - restaurant server recipient of a Free Pass Token

Made my own project …

“I mentioned that I wanted to share them with my two sons and my niece, each of whom was joined by their significant others at our family Christmas and all of whom are setting in to new lives and new cities. I hoped the tokens would offer a fun way to do that.I created a scavenger hunt and sent emails to two “teams”, with clues that included pop references as well as some inside family jokes and that sent them to outdoor sheds, attics, freezers, recycling bins, etc. I wouldn’t give them a direct answer when they asked if it was a competition but the truth was they needed to combine their clues to find the final package….I am happy to report they figured that out.My father was really taken with the whole project – it’s just the kind of thing that he loves, so I gave him some tokens as well. All together, tokens are now in Providence; Vienna, VA (outside DC); Berkeley and Cupertino, CA; and Haddam, CT. I’ve attached a picture of some of the “teams” as they read about The Free Pass Project and one of my dad with his proud quarry. Below is one of the teams’ clues…
There once was a fine hunt scavenger,
With hints divided ‘tween him and her.
Ah, with goodies at stake,
All winners will partake,
And their version of stories confer.”

Kindness of Strangers

Last year, I found myself in tears on a grassy hill on the Carnegie Mellon campus, attempting to make it through the final morning of the Open Engagement conference. I believe it was you, Rachel, who approached me. You provided me with every sort of support and reflection I needed in that moment, as I faced all the fears and unknowns that ensued after learning my four year old nephew was not waking up in the hospital after having a major seizure. While I was away from home and out of touch. You gave me the Free Pass so I could utilize it on my rush home that day, on busses and through terminals and in a plane. When I got on a bus and lacked the fare, I clung to the Free Pass. While I sobbed on the place I felt my pulse against the token. Over the next year (plus some), as I struggled through various processes, and as we learned of my nephews diagnosis while watching his recovery, I carried the Free Pass in my pocket or left it on my desk, using it and needing it for the reassurance it provided me: that kindness is always an option and a potential. That everyone needs it at different moments, and that I can provide it. That sometimes I need to provide it to myself. Just a few weeks ago, I finally reached a point where I felt I could pass it on. I mailed it to someone who needed the same affirmations, an individual whom I had long been disconnected from. Their appreciation knew no words.

Gratitude and mindfulness …

Token #331

My free pass was given to me by my cousin who visited from the East coast. It was given because of the situation my family has found itself in. My mother has been diagnosed with ALS, and I, her 21 year old daughter, am her caregiver. I left my senior year of school to move home and take care of my parents (my father is also elderly) and my mother is declining very quickly. I know very few people in this town, and am going through a turbulent and heart breaking chapter of life, watching my mom decline. Gratefulness has enabled mom and I to see the best in the time we have left, enjoying each day and dwelling on what we have, not what we don’t (or won’t). Because of active gratitude, my mom is able to inspire those around her and those who read her blog to pursue this positive, mindful way of life. One does not need to be on death’s doorstep to see the beauty in the everyday, and the sacredness of friendship and family. When you’re feeling down, just remember that in everything and everyone there is something to appreciate. If my almost paralyzed mom can be happy, so can you! (And me.)

Random find #958 in Oregon!

How and where did your free pass token land in your hands?

Found it just last night, in a pile of free stuff left by the sidewalk near the New Seasons-7 Corners grocery store in Portland, Oregon. Probably left behind by someone moving out.
What is the story of your free pass? how was it needed/used?

I just discovered this site and this art project through the chance finding last night.
Have you passed it on, yet?
Have not passed it on yet.
- Lynx636

Shopping line …

“I was grocery shopping one afternoon and made a bee line for the shortest line. The couple ahead of me had a full to overflowing carriage and a screaming, red-faced 2 year old, clearly in need of a nap, which her mother kept calmly repeating, each utterance met with another wail from the child. I hate screaming like that, but I remembered that I had put a couple of free passes in my pocket before i went into the store. Instead of suffering in silence along with the family, I approached the mother and asked her if she needed a free pass, and handed her one. She smiled, said yes and expressed interest in the project…I gave another to Dad. As I was packing my groceries into my car, I happened to look over my shoulder to see Dad pushing the carriage of groceries, and Mom carrying her giggling daughter. Made MY day!” 

- Cranston, RI

When the moment is upon me …

“Token found at Three  Sisters Cafe watching the general public eat ice cream. After checking out every flavor combination of ice cream there is, I saw the token jar resting by the door. I  took one as an ‘opportunity’ to pass onto someone else. I look at it as a “free ticket” to, well, free yourself, and be as expressive as you can be at that moment. I plan on using the token for just that reason for someone who may be in a moment where they feel constrained by whatever rules they abide by. My plan is to carry it at all times and use it when the moment is right. I will know when that moment is upon me.” 

Joe, Providence, RI


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