Inspiration can sometimes feel in short supply when all the news is bad and all the newsmakers are villains, “celebrities,” or obstinate politicians.
So when real inspiration comes along, I take note. It can come from many directions, but most recently my participation in Leadership Montgomery’s Class of 2012 has been a rich source—and we’re less than one month into the program.
I’ve met Anthony Cohen, a historian who saw a need to bring a painful part of American history into the present, to shine under a light of education. I had heard of Cohen back in the 1990s when Peerless Rockville, a historic preservation organization in my city, brought attention to his reenactment of a slave escaping on the Underground Railroad. He has now done this on three arduous routes, the first 1,200 miles from Sandy Spring, Maryland to Ontario, Canada by foot, boat, and rail. Cohen is now founder and president of the Menare Foundation, a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Underground Railroad. Here in Montgomery County, inside Seneca Creek State Park, the foundation headquarters is Button Farm, a living history center depicting 19th-century slave plantation life. It brings people in for a two-day program called the Underground Railroad Immersion Experience as well as bringing a steady stream of schoolchildren in for one-day programs and tours. Volunteers, both adult and youth, individuals and groups, come for hands-on farming that supports the site’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), light grounds work, and other plantation-era chores.
The same day (an embarrassment of riches) I met Woody Woodroof, founder and executive director of Red Wiggler Community Farm in Clarksburg, Maryland. More than food, the farm sows hope and pride and health. It provides work for local adults with intellectual disabilities in an atmosphere of inclusion. It has a CSA that includes an intentional outreach to less affluent members of the community—25% of members are from low-income households, including low-income adults with developmental disabilities. And the farm reaches out to area youth to participate in the inclusive work of the farm, helping it to produce what the community needs, learning about organic farming, and practicing environmental stewardship.
I’d be remiss not to mention that my fellow members of Leadership Montgomery are a huge inspiration themselves. Suffice it to say that the group includes many people who didn’t wait to be told how they could serve their community—they saw a need, and they stepped up. I hope to tell you more about these visionaries in the future.
Two days after my Leadership Montgomery session, I was inspired through another media, The Ellen De Generes TV show which brings the good in humans daily to a national audience of millions. Ellen’s guest was Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS. In his travels in Argentina he saw that there were children who were being kept out of going to school just for want of a pair of shoes. So he started a shoe company with a “One for One” model where for every pair of shoes purchased, a pair is given to a child in need. Putting shoes on children who otherwise would have gone without prevents disease and injury, and even more awesomely helps educate the world’s children. Started with a small project in Argentina, TOMS has given shoes to more than one million children in more than 20 countries. Mycoskie told viewers he was looking at expanding the One for One model to other products. Next up in a literally visionary move is sunglasses, the sale of which will benefit people who need eye care, giving them prescription glasses, medical treatment for sight threatening conditions, or sight-saving surgery. Wow.
At the same time as watching that Ellen episode I’d DVR’d, I was reading Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s book The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. Her inspiration is an Afghan woman, Kamila Sidiqi, who started a business to help support her family in the midst of Taliban-held Kabul. She didn’t know how to sew but needed to create income from her living room, where she and the rest of the women of Kabul had been relegated. At great personal risk she not only became a tailor herself and cautiously moved about the city creating a customer base from behind her chadri, but ended up creating opportunities for other women, including starting a school so others could learn to sew and support their families, too.
One of my long-time sources of inspiration on a global level died recently—Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist and activist who founded the Green Belt Movement that has planted millions of trees across Africa. She was a Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work. So I was cheered to learn last week that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to three African women who are changing the world for the better by improving opportunities for women: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Tawakul Karman, and Leymah Gbowee, I will have to read more about these women and their work in the coming weeks and months, to add them to my arsenal of inspiration.
Whether it’s on a global level or a local level (and truly all transformations of society must happen at both, as well as an individual level), for me the awe in this is seeing the power of one person to make a difference in the world. I am figuring out how I can best do this. For now I’m focusing on lighting the spark, sharing inspiring stories through my writing, and asking, what will you do to inspire and make a difference?