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Inspiring communities

A healthy landscape provides us with food, resources, fresh air, well-being and a stable climate. Yet, many people are disconnected from their landscape. How can we bring back hope and inspiration into a landscape? How can we truly connect to local and indigenous ownership and wisdom, reconnect consumers to their food, and strengthen local communities? Learn more about this in this module.

Cover photo: Women harvesting in Chhattisgarh, India. By Els Romijn.

This chapter gives context to the element ‘Taking Action. To learn more about this element read the 4 Returns publication, the 1000 Landscape’s Practical Guide to ILM and the accompanying Tools guide.

Practical guidance for an elusive concept

When a landscape is degrading, people stop seeing the beauty in their landscape, stop feeling pride in their roots, lose their connection to nature, and stop caring for the land. Place is an important part of many people’s identity and identifying yourself with a landscape that is being degraded can lead to a lot of pain, even loss of that identity.

Landscape restoration initiatives help bring back a sense of hope and pride to the local community. It shows that there are alternative ways of doing things, that it is possible to rehabilitate degraded ecosystems, and that it is possible to change things. The future isn’t written yet.

This sense of inspiration can provide a much-needed boost to the landscape restoration work. Science has shown that inspiration sparks creativity, facilitates progress towards goals, and increases well-being.

Inspiration plays a key role in the 4 Returns framework. The Return of Inspiration sets the 4 Returns framework apart from e.g. People, Planet, Profit or the ‘triple bottom line’. It may be the most elusive or difficult to explain of the 4 Returns though. It is a topic with lots of layers. In this chapter, we will start unpacking it with the help of scientific insights and practical learnings from our landscape partners.

Understanding what inspiration is

What is inspiration? Linguistically, inspiration relates to our connection to the spirit (inspire, spirit, and spiritual come from the same linguistic stem). This also makes it so important to the regeneration movement.

"Biodiversity is a manifestation of the spirit"

Oral McGuire, Director of the Noongar Land Enterprise Group

There are as many definitions and meanings of inspiration as there are people. While there is no one definition of inspiration, insights from our landscape partners and scientific research help us capture the essence of inspiration.

Let’s start with our landscape partners. When reflecting on 7 years of experience working on the Return of Inspiration, we distilled the following insights.

  • Inspiration can be anything to anyone – What inspires us is personal, and inspiration is not something you can do over again if you follow the same steps. Inspiration is something that either emerges or it doesn’t. This is an ongoing process.
  • Inspiration comes from mindset shifts about the way we relate to each other and the land. We discovered that a return of hope and a sense of purpose is also connected to changes in thinking and a new perspective on life. Often, this starts with connecting and listening to other people and moving from ego to eco-thinking.
  • Inspiration is a self-reinforcing loop. Self-reinforcing inspiration loops can emerge by moving beyond experimentation in theory and doing things in practice. It can be fuelled sustainably by seeing and celebrating small steps forward and by new people joining the action. Inspiration is not a single one-off activity that can be finished; it needs to be nurtured over time. Inspiration activities take different forms and focus on different community groups.

And what does science have to say about inspiration? Dr Todd Thrash and his colleagues developed a scientific model of inspiration which has been researched for more than 20 years (Thrash & Elliot, 2003). According to this model, inspiration is always triggered by an external source but manifests itself within the individual. This happens in three steps. 

First, the individual, if inspired, experiences a unique subjective feeling of illumination, a sudden insight, a thought, or a spark of an idea. In the illustration above of a visit to a kitchen garden, this can trigger thoughts like ‘’Ah, I could start my own garden too”.

In the second phase of evocation, the individual becomes consciously aware of the trigger that caused the insight and expresses gratitude and a new sense of purpose towards the eliciting object. For example, if the eliciting object is a person, gratitude might be expressed as a ‘’thank you’’ towards the person and a new sense of purpose as a feeling of “I know what I can do” or “Now, I want to do this next step”. If the eliciting object is the kitchen garden, appreciation, and a new sense of respect towards the kitchen garden develops.

Finally, illumination and evocation phases trigger an internal motivation that leads to inspired action. A shift from thinking about the herbs in the kitchen garden to selling tea (action) takes place. Inspired actions cause a transmission effect of inspiration, meaning they trigger other inspired actions which lead to more inspiration. As this process continues, the person who experiences inspiration will benefit from increased physiological and physical well-being.  

There are important preconditions, though, that increase the likelihood of inspiration occurring. For one, people must be open to new experiences. Secondly, they must have a specific need to do or realise something – like a need to diversify the farm to make sure the farm survives into the future. That is when a trip to a kitchen garden can be stimulating. If people do not have the need or do not believe in the concept of a kitchen garden, they will not get inspired.

Research also shows that inspired people share certain characteristics, such as openness to experience, a strong drive to master their work, intrinsic motivation, a belief in their own abilities, self-esteem, and optimism. Consequences of inspiration are found to be Mastery of work, absorption, creativity, perceived competence, self-esteem, and optimism. Read more about this research in this article.

Because inspiration is such an important part of our work, Commonland is currently conducting an inspiration pilot in a landscape in Chhattisgarh, India. Read more about the Inspiration pilot in this story.

Bringing about inspiration

How can we now apply this knowledge about stimulating inspiration in our own landscapes and communities? Inspiration is not a project; it is all about continuous daily practice. We give you 5 ingredients to help you incorporate inspiration into daily practice. Then, we’ll help you identify a concrete inspiration initiative for your landscape.

5 ingredients for daily practice

In the same learning journey with our landscape partners as mentioned above we found 5 basic ingredients for daily practice in inspiration.

  1. Place-based work Our work doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is set in a particular place, with a particular culture and history. Cultural traditions, self-esteem and pride are part of landscape restoration and inspire projects, which in turn inspire people. You can sometimes make use of local values and traditions that are conducive to caring for the land. However, in the same way that cultural history can spark inspiration or action, it can also carry a negative historical load that impacts the stakeholders to this day.
  2. Head- and heart space Consciously create the time and headspace for people to be able to reimagine and dream up a new future. If you are in survival mode, people have limited bandwidth to go into a dialogue or work together with other people, let alone dream into the future. You need to create space for them to be able to tap into the ‘heart’ space. You can’t change people by just giving them information, you have to engage with people’s hearts to inspire them and to make changes happen.
  3. Oxygen mask principle Invest in your team first before inspiring others. Working with inspiration in landscape restoration does not only mean inspiring your stakeholders but most importantly, also inspiring your team. You cannot expect an uninspired team to inspire others. This can be done by actively celebrating steps along your landscape journey and connecting an inspiring moment to the next action.
  4. Can I trust you? People tend to be a lot less open to new experiences if they don’t trust you. Be a transparent and trustworthy partner, for example, by putting your time, energy, and money where your mouth is. Clear and transparent communication, also (especially!) when things don’t go well. Always carefully managing expectations. Before organising a new experience for a stakeholder, make sure you think carefully about how relevant it is for them.
  5. Courageous conversations The reality of landscape restoration can be rough, so make sure you can facilitate honest conversations. For farmers, for example, living and working on the land is their whole life, their family life and it is often generational. Changing course potentially puts all that on the line. Not knowing exactly what it will look like, what the income will be, whether you can pay off your mortgage, and the risk of losing the family farm. What we ask of people in the landscapes is tough – we cannot guarantee that it is going to work out well. That is why inspiration is so important. Conflicts can – and will – arise, that might even require professional mediation and ultimately it requires trust, transparency, honesty and inclusion of all stakeholders. The best way to deal with this is to go through them and tackle them head-on, if you brush them aside they will fester.

Read more about these ingredients in this story, or watch an explanation of them with examples from the ground (minutes 9:50-15:15).

Setting up inspiration initiatives

Next to incorporating these principles into your daily practice, you may want to set up events or initiatives with a core focus on sparking inspiration. Here’s a little guidance to identifying an initiative for your community.

First, let’s investigate the concept of inspiration in your landscape. We’ve learned that inspiration is highly personal and cultural, so this is an essential step. What does inspiration mean to you? What inspires you? What inspires your team, what inspires the stakeholders you work with? How does it relate to culture and tradition? To identity? What does this mean for how we can build and foster inspiration? To facilitate a process of investigating this collectively, here are three steps you could follow to explore this.

  1. Reflect. Write down what has inspired you in your work/to do your work in the past. Useful journaling prompts can also be found in the Guided Journaling tool from Presencing Institute. Invite others in your team to do the same.
  2. Connect. Explore inspiration on the team and/or community level. To do this, you need to get to know your community. What are their frustrations, what are their dreams? Presencing Institute offers three tools that may help you have meaningful conversations about this with your community members: stakeholder interviews, dialogue interview, and listening exercise
  3. Capture. Sometimes an image can say more than a thousand words. That’s why it may be a good idea to capture your personal and community sources of inspiration in a visual. A technique called visual scribing can be a powerful way to do this. Putting up such artwork on a wall in your workspace can help remind you of your personal and collective ‘why’. Learn more about visual scribing here.

"Inspiration has a personal component (to be inspired inside, inspired to do something creative) but it can also happen at the community level (we can inspire each other as a group or as an organisation). So, the very first question to ask ourselves is: What inspires me?"

Astrid Vargas, founder of Inspiration4Action

This clearer picture of the concept of inspiration in your landscape and community inspiration will help you find ideas for inspiration initiatives that may work well in your landscape and get into action.

"We are very focused on action. [..] Small steps of action together make one big step. These are reinforced by the inspiration of seeing the results halfway through already, seeing them with your neighbours, and evaluating that along the way. We find that very powerful."

Lotte Duursma, Community & Inspiration, Wij.land

To find your inspiration initiative, get inspired by these existing inspiration initiatives:

  • Inspiration 4 Action is founded on the belief that we need to be inspired to act with a sustained commitment to improving ourselves, our communities, and the environment in which we live. They, therefore, develop inspirational approaches to help people re-vitalise communities, landscapes, and nature through co-creation, collective leadership, art, and creative bottom-up initiatives.
  • The movie Head, Heart, and Hands features the voices of Santiaga, Alfonso, Loly, and their community, who offer practical and real solutions to desertification and the decline of life in their landscape. Next to these action-oriented solutions, the movie showcases various inspiring landscape initiatives such as living sculptures and international festivals.
  • The Inspiration Route, organised by Wij.land, is a cycle route through the Dutch Peat Meadows that connects citizens, the landscape and farmers by combining art, knowledge and technology.
  • Danjoo Koorliny is a large-scale, long-term, systems-change project designed and led by Aboriginal leaders to help us all walk together towards 2029 (200 years of colonisation in Perth) and beyond, on Noongar country, throughout Western Australia, nationally, or around the world.
  • Wild Zebra Return to the Baviaanskloof. The return of endemic wildlife can be a major boost to a community’s connection to the history of their landscape.

We observe some recurring elements across most of the practical examples of inspiration activities in our network. Use these as a source of inspiration to come up with your own inspiration initiative:

  • Celebration – celebrate successes, the collaboration, the team, traditional celebrations, the seasons, the moment to harvest, or simply nature itself.
  • Connecting with others – make matches between people that can bring about unexpected opportunities.
  • Connecting with yourself – create opportunities for people to connect to themselves. For example, you could create places in the landscape where people can sit down to reflect & journal.
  • Connecting with nature – encourage the use of the senses that you otherwise wouldn’t use. Help people listen, taste, or smell the landscape.
  • Connecting with culture & the past – connect with the generations before us that have lived on the same land.
  • Art & creativity – connect to artists in your landscape.

"It’s important for inspiration to celebrate together. We don’t celebrate enough, and it’s so important to fuel up our energy."

Astrid Vargas, founder Inspiration4Action

Further reading:

What is inspiration to you and your community? What initiatives have you organised or attended that sparked inspiration? Let us know in the comments!

This chapter was written by and with input from: Shekhar Kolipaka, Milena Engel, Willemijn de Iongh, and Roos van der Deijl. 

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