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The Olympics. Your favorite musician. A piece of art. A live speech. I’ve been thinking a lot these days about inspiration and not only where it comes from, but how do human beings use it? I admit, I was diagnosed with Olympic-fever. I am captivated by the games that arrive once every two years. Either the summer or winter Olympics consume the media and even the less sports fanatical become engaged. This time, I was caught like a fish on a lure. I’m not sure what the exact bait was but it surely triggered my senses and awakened a yearning for unprecedented personal achievement. Perhaps it’s the human desire to witness success; to observe the hard work and determination of an individual or team gives me hope that one’s own perseverance could also open up opportunities to stand aside such select and respected individuals with the possibility of finishing with a gold medal in hand. Or, in more realistic daydreams: a promotion, a dream job, acceptance into a graduate program.

Watching Olympians such as Andy Murray overcome odds, and South African’s Oscar Pistorius achieve landmark Olympic measures gives me hope that with enough collaboration, enough support, and enough work, one day, global goals will be met. We can, at the very least, start small; the success in achieving community-based goals will drive us forward toward resolving the more historically-complex situations like liberating the oppressed in Burma, reducing food insecurity in the Horn of Africa, and eliminating the corruption that’s too familiar in Central America. Surely Gabby Douglas and Katie Taylor practiced and studied their sport with immeasurable dedication. So what if we could only turn the amount of enthusiasm and degree of commitment we possess for sporting events into action for solving human rights abuses or social injustices, how would that affect current successes? Would it measure greater or less? For Olympians, their safety and well-being are generally not contingent upon them winning a gold; but what if the security of a community were? Would we maintain our current approach or would we find ourselves stepping forward with more aggressive action? Are we doing enough?

Watching these Olympians raises a magnificent amount of questions for me. While I can’t relate to winning a gold medal or placing in an all-around competition for gymnastics or swimming, what I can relate to, to some degree, is motivation and inspiration. How are athletes inspired? What are their motivations? Can a type of inspiration translate across disciplines? Can it arrive in a cookie-cutter shape nicely labeled so that we know what it is and what needs to be done next? Or is it more ambiguous, amoeba-like shaped involving closer inspection and time to process the how-to’s? I’m intrigued by their persistence and the whole idea of dedicating your life to something so you’ll achieve this grand goal DOES make me believe we can reduce the effect of climate change on indigenous peoples or help impoverished communities stand on their own. Look at the work of the Acumen Fund: Jacqueline Novogratz’s dreams of strengthening African economies, and specifically women’s role in economic development, are powerful examples.

I think inspiration can arrive in both forms – in more concrete shapes and voices, as well as unclear, soft-focused frames. I’m constantly plagued with chronic questions on how to make the world a more peaceful, stable state. Day-in and day-out, through my work at the Foundation Center I bear witness to the thousands and thousands of dollars foundations give to address community development, or health, or education. I see public and private entities bequeath monies to individuals and organizations based on their mission to do social good or to help a specific population. Foundations are inspired through the activities and programs of the organizations they help fund. But how do we, the ones seeking the gold medal, the funds, or the winning ticket (in all its various forms) find inspiration? How do communities who possess little financial support and stable infrastructure start to stand on their own two feet? What variables need to exist? 

Commitment. Inspiration. Community. Drive. These, I think, are the ingredients that place one on the path toward success and improving global social conditions: healthcare, education, food and water security.

I recently finished an intensive month-long continuing education course at the International Center of Photography. As a teaching assistant for the instructor Sean Justice, it was here I felt my levels of inspiration and motivation for photography soar to new levels. I could actually see myself using photography to address social issues. We paraded through slideshows in each class, learning about light and framing from Ansel to Eggleston, and entertaining such questions as, what makes a good photograph? What emotions are evoked? My desire to be more engaged with photography became dynamic and exploded. Like a child who’s recently learned to ride without training wheels, or a surfer who’s conquered their first wave; only through the act of experiencing and being a part of a community can we nurture our dreams and embed our goals into everyday living and thought. Sean told us we can’t wait around for inspiration to find us, we have to be out there, “Shooting images,” and if we wait, we’ll never find it.

It’s true. We’d miss opportunities. Chances. How would we know inspiration if we weren’t actively seeking it out or exposing our senses to the environment? Making the most of life and our days comes through the act of doing, not idly sitting by hoping answers to our burning questions will manifest before our eyes. Athletes can’t wait for the right moment to strike to practice their backswing; Heads of State can’t linger for a conflict to start before they have an emergency plan. This constant practice will build muscle memory and before we know it, certain skills will become natural and intuitive. Perhaps that’s how life moves if we consistently make social justice a daily practice: it would naturally occur in the rhythm of life, as easily as the rise and fall of our breaths.

I say, let’s go. Let’s start building a movement, nurturing a skill, dedicating multiple moments to a passion that lays so restlessly inside of you, the only sensible thing you see doing with it is sharing it with another. As a result, an incessant inspiration spreads. What is your inspiration?

 Inspiration

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

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