The Life of an Idea

The best ideas come to me when I am traveling.

For example, in Boston Logan International airport on my way to Switzerland two years ago, I scribbled in my notebook as the words flowed out for my documentary. Why not do a documentary on sexual assault at Carolina? I was a sophomore with no idea of what media entailed, no idea of what research entailed, no idea of what people the documentary would put me in touch with. I did not know I would meet and make lasting connections with individuals who would teach me everything I now know about anti-violence work. I only knew that I wanted people to see what risk and danger look like and how to prevent it, how to help someone who has experienced it. Two years into a long process of tears and edits and disbelief, I am still working toward something that began as a glimmer in my mind in an airport.

These ideas begin and they grow. In the end, it’s not where an idea begins but what it becomes. It’s who shares the idea along the way. It’s the people who breathe on it, from a flicker into a flame.

I was on a train in the Netherlands in June, off to conduct interviews with an NGO in Den Bosch that works to end sex trafficking, when I got the idea for the upcoming photography campaign. Finding the deepest contentment and contemplation in my window seat, I was thinking about my interviews. In them, I was finding creativity, rejuvenation, and hope. The women I spoke to felt compelled by some intangible power in their work. In what they were doing, there was incredible possibility. Journalists, lawyers, documentarians, professors, politicians – regardless of their titled job, they all sensed they could change the world in small ways and big ways, through many different ways. The key was diversity, not only of people, but of thoughts and methods. Staying fresh.

The idea came to me suddenly through the hatched sunlight of the train window. Creativity. I spilled onto the pages of my journal. Upon arriving home, I immediately emailed my co-chair Sherene about maybe doing an awareness campaign for sexual and interpersonal violence in a way that engages the whole campus and more student groups than ever before, then emailed my two friends Christina and Brittany about using their creative talents for a photography exhibit, then John at Carolina Leadership Development for perhaps finding the funding.

Then, back at school, on a quiet Labor Day weekend, Bethany and Chelsea—two members of Project Dinah—were sitting with Sherene and me in the Union, just lounging around on couches, catching up, and we began talking about the idea for the exhibit, what it would look like, how we could pull it off. Chelsea suggested photographing survivors of sexual violence. Someone else suggested combining the visual with testimonials. Our ideas ran together and channeled into a river.

Now, the exhibit will be next week.

Walking with Christina back to main campus after Chapter tonight, she was telling me how much photographing the survivors has meant to her. Seeing their power and strength through her lens, catching their determination as well as their vulnerability on camera, has given her inspiration. She and Brittany have lent their creative skill to share survivors’ stories in a new way. They have been touched by them and next week the exhibit will be able to reach our campus.

While every event that I have been a part of with Project Dinah has empowered and affected me in its own way, none have suddenly gone to my core like this one. Tonight, Sherene and I were propped up on pillows going through the testimonials for hours. Formatting each document, discussing, debating—the pieces will be going for printing tomorrow. Then, after midnight, as I walked home in the rain, I felt the swell of our collective strength.

Our, meaning the women over the summer who inspired me to catch the inkling of this idea; our, meaning the eighteen women in the campaign who wrote stunning testimonials and braved a photoshoot with strangers; our, meaning the president of CUAB, the director of the Union Art Gallery, and the staff who have strived and negotiated and advocated for us along the way; our, meaning every member of Project Dinah who has offered input, hours of their time, countless suggestions; our, meaning Christina and Brittany who spent days photographing and editing; our, meaning the extended networks of allies and friends who support Project Dinah and everything we do; our, meaning those sending and receiving the 70+ emails-a-day in-and-out of my inbox, the 10,000 daily texts. Our.

The collective strength—we are no one without it.

It is such unity and collaboration we are trying to demonstrate through this photography exhibit and our awareness campaign. That violence is a community problem and no one person is alone in that community. It’s walking through the rows of photographs and realizing I am walking with my peers, professors, and friends; it’s hoping they know they are not isolated; it’s giving them a voice.

Though my best ideas begin when I am traveling, the best idea is an idea that travels. The one that travels distances from where we imagined it. What it becomes when you give it away. As it slips through the hands of others, shaped and prodded into a new life, one idea can become far more than incredible. It can become a mountain.

This exhibit is a mountain built on the efforts and contributions of so many people. So many people and eighteen of them are speaking out about their experiences with sexual abuse. Eighteen photographs and stories to say that they are powerful and unashamed despite those experiences. Eighteen people but they represent hundreds of other survivors who are still struggling to find their voice. Hundreds of survivors but ten thousand ways we can help end this problem. Ten thousand ways to work against violence and they all begin with an idea. What is yours? It’s time to give it life.

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