Amanda Stuermer, 50, outside her home

Rose Archer recommended Amanda to me, which is just one of the many things I have to be thankful to her for. When I asked Rose to think of some folks to refer me to, she mentioned Amanda’s name immediately. And we managed to just catch Amanda in her last window of availability before heading out on some extensive international travels. She welcomed me into her home and we seemed to connect instantaneously. I had the chance to briefly meet her husband and one of her sons and her trio of dogs and each of those interactions was quite warm and lovely. Amanda is dedicated and accomplished while maintaining humility - a rare and admiral combination of qualities. We don’t talk about it directly during the interview, but she is the founder of The World Muse, an organization focused on inspiring social change for women and girls.

Who are you and how would you describe yourself?

That's such a funny thing to think about 'cause I think the obvious things - wife, mother, all these things - those are all in relation to somebody else. In relationship to my husband, I'm a wife; to my mother, I'm a daughter; to my children, I'm their mother; and even with work, I'm a non-profit leader or a writer. In some ways those are all ways that I'm defined by relationship I have with others. And I'm not sure I'm answering the question the way you want me to because I think it's hard when you turn it around and think, Who am I to me - in relation to myself? You know? And I think I'm still figuring that out. I think, at the core of who I am is, I'm a student; I just always want to keep learning. Each question kind of leads me to a different question, a lot of times, instead of to an answer. And I'm learning to accept that about myself. So, I'm a curiosity even to myself. A work in progress. A me in progress, maybe (laughs). 

What matters to you?

You don't start out with the easy ones, do you (laughs)?! Better to just dive right in. What matters to me is realizing that I'm here for a finite period of time and how can I make the most of that time? How can I figure out - like what we were talking about, our gifts - what my greatest gift is? And I don't know why I'm getting teary...  I guess 'cause I'm on the verge of a transition right now. Figuring out what my greatest gift is and how that can be of service to the good of all at this point and time in the world. That matters to me and it excites me. I think that's what we're all here to realize is what our gift is and how it can be of service to the good of all. And it terrifies me because I'm like, What if I never figure out what my gift is? Oh, my gosh! I've just been here fumbling around and I never found my gift! Oh, my god! And I think that is one of the things that happens when you realize you're half a century old. Talk about midlife - and I don't see it as a negative thing - but hopefully I'm at my midlife right now; that would be a wonderful thing to have another 50 years to figure out some more stuff. So, if I'm at the midpoint and I look back and it's like, I know I've learned a lot, but have I learned IT yet? Like, have I really gotten what my gift is and how I'm gonna share it? And that sort of scares me; that maybe I haven't and maybe I won't. But it is what matters to me most, I think, is that each one of us has that self-realization - you know, what we're here for and how we can use that. 

Is that the same thing that motivates you?

Yeah, I think that is what motivates me. I have this deep desire to realize my fullest potential. And I have that desire for others, as well. It's not all about me being here to recognize my fullest potential, but I do feel that when I recognize my fullest potential, it invites other people to recognize theirs. It's one of those things that can get kind of tossed around... Recognize your highest purpose and all that, but I really believe very deeply in that. I believe that's why we're here. I believe that's why we bump into each other from time to time; because we're here to help each other figure that out. And it's what motivates me to keep going; to feel like there's a purpose to all this stuff. It's not just, you know, another yoga class or another run with my dog - those are wonderful things, but what's the bigger purpose to this whole thing we call life? What motivates me is to try to figure out well, what am I learning from it and how can I teach others by learning? And how can that be something that helps all of us move forward, further down the path? 

What do you think we mean to each other on an individual basis? 

Like I was saying, I believe that each one of us serves as a teacher or a mirror for each of us. You know, everyone you run into and come into contact with. I feel like I do believe that it's intentional. I believe that we run into people - we meet people - at the times when we need to learn from them or to have something mirrored back to us. And so, I think we mean the world to each other, right? If I didn't see myself mirrored in you and I just had myself to try to figure all this stuff out from, that wouldn't be very interesting; I probably wouldn't get very far with it. There's that quote, Ram Dass - I might butcher it - We're all here just walking each other home. And I feel like that's kinda at the heart of it for me. We're all here, and sometimes it feels like it's random, but I feel like in reality we're all here to support each other and just walk each other home. And home is when we figure out who we really are. Or whatever - nirvana or whatever terminology you want to put on it, divine love, all of that stuff. But I think that's what we mean to each other; we're all helping each other get there. 

What does community mean to you?

Community... it's so interesting because it's kinda like what I was talking about... we're all here, I believe, to support each other's growth so that we can all serve the greater good. And that's what community is and that's what community does. And a lot of times when I think about community - and we talked about this earlier - I guess I see it as concentric circles. There's our family - a familial community that hopefully is a very loving and supportive one, but there are also always lessons and conflicts that come up from our familial community; and then we have our friends, which a lot of times are the family of choice - the people that we really choose to come in and support us; and then we have the people we work with, the people we're surrounded with, and our very physical community of Bend, Oregon, or wherever you're located; and then there are so many other communities beyond that, though. I want to build a community that's local and supportive and with friends and family, but I also get excited about those communities that are more abstract - just the community of people who are all trying to create positive change in the world, you know, light keepers some people might call them or people who are becoming more self-realized and trying to really activate their sense of purpose and their gifts in this world. There are all these different communities that we're a part of that we don't even realize that we're a part of, you know? Like people who love to jump out of airplanes - that's a community even if they don't all know each other. I love to travel 'cause it expands what I think community means. I realize, Oh, when I come into connection with you, into contact with you, we're in community and suddenly my community just gets like bigger and bigger. That can be scary, but it's also really exciting. And I think it is one of the big lessons in life - is to expand our sense of what community really means. I mean, it can be that really small, close-knit group of support, which is wonderful, but there are other definitions of it; there are broader... I ramble a lot (laughs). 

What do you have to say about individualism, about greed, a loss of values or a weakening of character? How does that all fit into things for you?

It's so interesting because I was just listening to this speaker earlier today and she was talking about, We're all love at our core, but we all have a different flavor, a different varietal of love. It's what makes you uniquely you and me uniquely me. And the way we figure out our individual shape, form, variety of love is we have to figure out the L 3. How we live, which is our values. And it's not that we can just say I value authenticity and integrity and resilience. If you really want to see how you live, you can't just state your values, you have to live your values. How are you living? Are you just stating that you value helping lift everyone up or are you actually going out and doing something to lift everybody up? Then the second one is how you love. And that's what your gift is and what your unique way of showing up in the world us. And then, how you lead. How you use what your gift is to better the world - you know, the impact you're gonna have. And I think when we talk about individualism versus community support... I think more of us need to ask ourselves those questions. How do I really live my values? How do I love? How am I finding my gift that I want to share with the world? And how do I lead? How am I sharing that? Because I think if more of us did that, then there would be less of that tendency to use our gift for the purpose of greed. Because if you're constantly leading from a place of How do I use my gift to help others? not just How do I use it to help me? Like if I was an amazing, gifted speaker and I could go on a speaking circuit and I could make... I mean really gifted, right... and I could just rake in a hundred thousand dollars for every speaking gig and I was just raking in the money, that would be using my gift, but it would be using my gift just to benefit me, right? But if I was a very gifted speaker and with every time, every gig that I booked there was a purpose behind it and there was something I gave back to and it was something that I believed in and I was sharing something that lifted other people up in some way, well then that's a way to use your gift in a positive way. I think more of us, collectively, need to figure that out. Gloria Steinem has this great quote, We have to recognize that we are linked and not ranked. And we live in a world that ranks people based on what they've acquired and all these other kinds of things. If we realize more that we're all linked, that my growth and my well-bing is linked to your growth and your well-being. And to the people I don't even know who are suffering on the border. We're all linked. We're never gonna get out of this scot-free unless we're recognizing that my actions.... are connected to what's happening to other people around the world. Right? Does that make sense? Again, I like to ramble. 

I'm experiencing a shift through the help of a lot of the people I've interviewed about what we should be standing for as opposed to against. So, what are you doing to support social justice?

I love that. I love, love, love that you've made that shift. We had this incredible speaker one of our first years at conference - Lynne Twist, she's amazing - and that's one of her big things is she talks about What do you stand for? And she explains that whenever you stand against something, you immediately create opposition - there's this immediate opposition. But when you stand for something, it's more of an invitation for other people to see what you value and to come on board. You're not immediately saying, I'm against that. It's like, No, I'm for this. It's not that I want to fight against injustice; I want to fight for, I want to stand for justice. I want to stand for all women and girls recognizing their potential to create positive change in their life and in their community and out in our world. And I believe that when I stand for all women and girls to realize that potential, that feels like my highest calling, so far in this life. Really helping women and girls recognize that. And I believe that when more women and girls realize that, more men and boys realize it, as well. I do believe in the adage that when you make the world a better place for women and girls, you make it better for everyone. It's just right now we're trying to balance things out a little bit because the world's not a very equitable place at the moment. In a lot of different realms. Everyone has their different piece to play. And I guess when you talk about how do I stand for social justice, my piece in it at this point has been working with women and girls specifically and that feels like that's where my greatest impact has been able to come through. And I've been really grateful for that. And I'm grateful that there are people who are working on, you know, specifically on poverty or hunger or immigration issues. They're all linked, all these issues, just like all of us as humans. They're all linked, but sometimes we each have to recognize like, I can't do all of it. How do I take my piece and handle my piece with the trust that you're handling this other piece and that we come together and we collaborate and we partner and we make sure that we're all working in support of each other's goals? Which is really exciting and it is one of the things I love about working in sort of a social justice field is that there is a lot of collaboration and a lot of partnerships. That's been a really a fun thing to witness and to be a part of. We need more energy in that sort of way of being together - working in collaboration and saying, No, I don't need to take all these pieces of the pie. I'm glad you have your piece of the pie. Let's just make sure our pieces jive together. It's coming from a place of abundance and going, Okay, we all have something that we can work on and if we all are working on our piece... there's an abundance of work for everyone and there's an abundance of good that can come from it and that can surround all of us.

I'm wondering how we can get to a place where everyone is working towards the core that the many different social justice movements share. What are your thoughts on that? 

My limited understanding that I have around it is that it's human evolution. We're getting there slowly, right? We're starting... more and more of us are recognizing that each of these different movements has validity. And we start looking for the common threads that run through all of them. And I think that at some point, hopefully, we will evolve to a point where we all can stand together and say, No, my need is no greater than your need is not greater than your need. But, I think, again, from my limited understanding, what's hard is that we have this history. We have this history of inequity across race, gender, all of it - all the things you just mentioned - and until we can... get everyone on the same level and then we can march forward together. But right now, we're not there. And I do think that's the ideal. I think more and more, it's happening. Like I said, with collaboration, I do think more and more of that's happening. I felt it really strongly at the Women's March on D.C. - the first women's march, the day after the inauguration - and you saw all these different people come in and you read the signs. They were there for various reasons. It was actually one of the criticisms you heard a lot about the women's march. Well, it was so convoluted because there were people there with Black Lives Matter and there were people there with LGBTQ rights and environmental activists and this, that, and the other. But what it felt like when we were all there is everyone felt very unified. Even if they were coming from a stream, you know, we were all flowing into the same ocean. And we were all mixing and mingling and moving forward together and that felt really amazing. Of course, it's not always that simple to keep that energy, but I do think there are moments when we do. I think when Obama was elected, we all came together around, in a positive way, around hope. And it was such a powerful moment to see. I think a lot of people came together. We just gotta figure out what's the next... who's got the message that enough people can get behind? And that's hard because we look to politicians a lot of time to be the ones to create those messages that we all get behind and I'm not sure they're the people that we need to be looking to for the answers at this point. I think we've created a system that doesn't work in that way. I think Obama was a very atypical politician in that way. Again, that's just my personal view of it. But it's gonna be hard to find someone who's in the political arena who can also be that sort of an inspirational, rallying voice. It's a pretty rare person who can play the political game and you know... So, we have to keep looking where it's gonna come from. There's so many amazing voices that are getting lifted up right now. The youth voices, they're just so incredible. Those Parkland students, I mean, when you listen to them speak out, it just gives me so much hope that we're starting to recognize that we have to speak up... If the voices in political power aren't saying the things that we need to hear to get behind, we gotta start listening to who is saying it and give them more power, I guess. 

What do you want more of in your life?

I want more curiosity. I love curiosity in me. I feel like we get stuck when we don't stay curious. And that we have to keep learning. Elizabeth Gilbert - I was reading something recently that she'd written and she said, The most interesting people are those who stay interested. And that hit me. You have to stay curious. So, I guess that's what I want more of is just more experiences that spark my curiosity. I think that when we're curious, we're more open to inspiration. That's when I think we get those ideas that move us on to whatever's next. That move us forward. I think that's individually and collectively in a way, right? I think when we as a human race are closed, like -This is just the way it is. It's the way it's always been. It's the way it is. We don't have anything else to learn. - we get stuck. But when we stay curious and we say, Well, how could this look? What would it look like if we did something different? What is around the corner that I haven't seen yet? What is a new power structure that we haven't even begun to realize yet? And that's part of my excitement about going over to London with my daughter, too, is that it's new. I don't really want to live in a city - I'm not really a city person - but for a small period of time, what a wonderful place to go and be curious and be open and learn and take in a different way of living and a different way of being in the world. You know, I'll come back a different person - the same person but a more evolved version of me. That's exciting. 

You have anything else you'd like to put out there? 

(Laughs) You know, I love what you're doing because I do believe human connection leads to compassion that leads to when we know each other we have a harder time doing something that's not in the best interest of each other. I think projects that help us to really bear witness to each other's lives lift us up in ways that you may not even realize as you're putting this project together. But you're creating pathways for people to bear witness to each other and to share their own stories and to be heard and seen and to hear from others and that just creates these ripples in a community that I think are really important. And my hope for Bend as Bend grows as a community, both in size and hopefully in depth of character, is that we have more projects like this so that we don't just grow in size; that we do grow in depth of character; that we do still have those values of a small town that, you know, Bend likes to pride itself on; of being friendly, and caring about each other, and knowing each other. I think these are the kind of projects that really inspire that. 

Do you have a question that you'd like to ask me that I'll answer online? 

What do you feel like your ultimate purpose for this project is? Not the first layer of it. What's your why, but three layers down (laughs)? 

My ultimate purpose? Ultimate is a big word, but I’ll give you my best version of an answer now. I am compelled to do this project. I can’t find exact language around why, but I can say that I’ve been curious about people for as long as I can recall. Years ago, I introduced myself to a stranger every single day and photographed them on the street where we met. We would chat for as long as they were able and then I’d go home and write about our exchange. I was seeking commonality. I did that every day for 625 consecutive days and published the content daily. In the years between that project and this one, I’ve felt a void. Again, I am not sure what to call that void; a feeling, a compulsion, a draw, my purpose, maybe. 

As I look around, I see people either not engaging at all or engaging on the surface. How many conversations are necessary about the weather or office politics or the new restaurant? I catch myself doing it to, but I redirect right away. I ask people other questions. And I do that because I think the more I know about someone, the more I will like them. The less I will be concerned with their politics or their outfit or their religious beliefs. And I am finding that the more people I engage with and talk to and learn about, the easier it is becoming for me to assume the best about other people, too. This is helping me. And I am of the opinion that it will help other people. 

I have a natural proclivity for meeting people, an acquired skill for photographing them, and I am honing an interview style. And I have found inspiration in other projects that I’ve encountered; Studs Terkels’ book Working and Simon Hoegsberg’s The Thought Project, in particular. I understand that not everyone has this combination of skills and passion and others may not have the desire to approach people in this way. So, I’m doing the work and providing it for whoever is willing to spend some time exploring it. I hope that meeting these people vicariously through me will encourage others to engage with the folks they encounter in their daily routine. Or, at the least, begin to give people the benefit of the doubt. The more we know about each other, the more smiles we give, the more help we offer, the more gaps we can bridge, and the more wounds we can heal. That will lead to feeling better, breathing easier, finding peace easier to access, forgiving, and many other forms of growth and progress. My ultimate goal is for this to contribute to a movement and become a contagion that will positively alter the course of the future. Of course, I’d love for it to be sustainable, too.