30 Day Travel Series: The Million Person Project
I'm not shy at all. It's the last word I would use to describe myself. But so many times in the past year, when people have asked me to tell my story about why I started the Million Person Project, I felt shy.
I run the Million Person Project, which is all about stories. On a regular basis I sit with people and ask them to close their eyes and think back to the major turning points in their lives, the ones that brought them to what they do today. I ask them to think back to what led them to the path to becoming a “changemaker.” A lot of times people tell me that they don’t have a good story. I interrupt and insist that everyone has a good story and every good story is valuable. And after doing the storytelling workshop with 625 people over the past four months, I believe in the value of good stories more than ever. And herein lies my big problem: I am still not sure how to tell my story, the story of why I started the Million Person Project.
I'm not shy at all. It's the last word I would use to describe myself. But so many times in the past year, when people have asked me to tell my story about why I started the Million Person Project, I felt shy. My instinct has been to rush past the telling of my story, and move onto telling the stories of the people I met on the trip. My strategy is to say something brief like, “I believe if people around the world unite, we can solve the problems facing our world.” That is true. And I do believe that. But there's something else I believe, something more true, that I am afraid to say in casual conversation.
That is what this final blog post is about. Just telling my whole story, embarrassed or not.
I started the Million Person Project because I believe in the power of love. I believe there is a real connection between each and every one of us. I believe that our society complicates this connection, and makes us appear much farther apart than we actually are. And I believe that building relationships and sharing stories with people from around the world are the best ways to bring that love to the surface.
But if a participant in one of our workshops said something like that to me, I would ask, “Why do you believe that? When was the first time you felt that? When did you realize that you wanted to make a change on the planet?” I'd encourage them to tell us that story.
After thinking for days on end, I realized that I did have a story composed of three real turning points in my life. Some seem random now, but they led me to start the Million Person Project.
The first was a night when I was camping in Yosemite when I was 8 years old. I went to the toilets with my Mom and there was a really sick woman who had thrown up. In all the sinks. I looked at her in horror while I waited for my Mom to come out of the stall. I was so afraid for her. I wanted to bring her water or a wet towel, but I didn't want to get barf on me. Once my Mom was done, we quickly left the bathroom. As I lay in bed that night (and hundreds of nights since then) I worried about that sick woman. I worried she was alone. I worried that she needed help and didn't have it. I worried she was scared. It has taken me twenty years to realize that I'd actually feel better getting a little barf on me, if it would keep me from anxiously worrying about the strangers from my bed at night.
The second event happened when I was a sophomore in college. I was volunteering at a local elementary school for my Community Studies class. I remember sitting with one boy in fourth grade who had just come to Santa Cruz from Mexico. I was working with him because I spoke Spanish too. He was trying to do his work, but he got frustrated because he didn't understand and he was falling behind. He told me he felt stupid. I tried to put him at ease by telling him he'd catch up, but I was overcome by the unfairness of his situation. I started to bawl. I had to excuse myself.
The next week after my Community Studies class, I sat on the curb and waited for my teacher, Stan Otis, outside the classroom. He wanted to discuss how I had walked out of my volunteer gig crying. As I told him the story, I started to cry again. The boy’s situation made my blood boil. I felt like that boy was never going to get a fair chance and he was only 10 years old. Stan Otis, standing a few feet away from me, asked me to look up at him and said, “You are never going be of any use if you just cry and feel bad for people.” I told him I didn't know how to not feel bad for people, but he repeated, “You are never going be of any use if you just cry and feel bad for people.” I looked up at him. He was serious, but I could see that he understood exactly why I was crying.
The third was when my Grandpa died. I loved him so much that even writing about his death brings a smile to my face, just because I get to think about him. He was so cute. He was even cute in his coffin. I feel like that is inappropriate to say but when I stood next to his open coffin, crying and fixing the make-up the mortuary put on him, I was overcome by his cuteness. I was so proud of my Grandpa because I think he had everything he wanted in that moment – to be laying there, surrounded by people he loved who still found comfort in him, even though he was gone.
I can't say for sure that is what Grandpa Box really wanted. But in that moment, I
realized that was all I really wanted from life. I asked myself, “Will you make yourself available? Will you love people freely enough to have someone feel comfortable fixing your make-up in your coffin? Will you let people in enough?” I wanted to answer yes so badly, but I wasn't sure that, at that point in my life, I was making myself available or loving freely enough to say yes. I was working 10-12 hours a day, stressing about grant deadlines and donor reports. I realized I needed to change my life and get out from behind my computer. I needed to do what was (and still is) most important to me: building and facilitating relationships.
A week after my Grandpa's funeral I described my confusion to my mentor, Rha. She asked me to free write to this question: When do you have the most fun and feel the most passionate?
My answers, word for word, were as follows:
- When I am learning about other peoples lives and how they feel.
- When I am thinking about the edges of the earth and what it would be like to be there. I want to know at what point I would feel uncomfortable and want to leave. I want to know the limits of love and human connection.
- I would love to go to every corner of the earth and talk to people about anything: farming, fashion, sports, church, traditions, superstitions. There are some subjects I am more interested in than others but my main interest is watching people express themselves and understanding them better. I just want to find a way to give myself permission to meet as many people as I can in my life. I want to meet the one person in the world that's most different from me. I want to be around as many campfires in my life, with as many different people as I can. The Million Person Project.
Those four words: The Million Person Project. That was the first time I wrote them down together. From there I starting building a project around them. I worked around the clock with Julian and we designed a project about love, storytelling and connecting changemakers. It has been the most incredible experience of my life. Practically speaking, the Million Person Project is about helping changemakers tell their stories in order to garner more support and connect with other changemakers around the world. That’s our mission on paper. But personally, it has given me permission to go out into the world and be more of myself.
This project is helping me find courage to hand her a towel, even if I get a little barf on me.
It's helping me gain a more comprehensive understanding of issues around the world, and replace my tears for that fourth grade boy's unfair situation with resources and support.
The Million Person Project is helping me embody the lessons I learned from Grandpa Box and I’m doing my best to build open, loving relationships. It’s helping me to be my whole self and tell my whole story.
Because that’s all we really can do, isn’t it?
This is one of 30 untold stories of launching a global project (with my boyfriend, Julian) about love, story telling and connecting change makers.
Read all 30 days here: http://www.smithmag.net/community/people.php/HBOX
Throughout Vietnam, South Africa, and Uganda, we engaged with 650 everyday people working to make the world a better place to share their stories. Inevitably, there were parts of our adventures we couldn’t tell while on the road, because we were a start up trying to prove our merits as a serious social change project or because of nervous families monitoring our journey. But the truth is while we worked passionately to bring our dream project to life we also had an adventure of a lifetime. Here are the stories behind the stories of the Million Person Project: http://www.millionpersonproject.org.