Full text of Naima Mora on Inspiration’s Potential to Change the World at TEDxSacramento conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – Inspiration’s potential to change the world by Naima Mora at TEDxSacramento
Several years ago, I was the winning contestant of America’s Next Top Model. America’s Next Top Model is an internationally syndicated model competition, where young, wannabe models duke it out to the end to become the new face of the fashion industry.
Well, I won. And it was a huge, huge accomplishment for me, to say the least. But my journey getting there wasn’t very easy.
I grew up in Detroit, Michigan.
Yeah! And you know what, I love my hometown. It was very hard for me growing up there in the severe conditions that are prevalent to this city. A warm sunny day in Detroit. Detroit has consistently ranked in the Top 10 Most Dangerous Cities in the United States, oftentimes ranking at number one.
And recent studies based on US census and FBI statistics of 2011 state that the US average to become a victim of a crime in any given city, is about one in 30 people. The same study cited that chances of becoming victim to a crime in Detroit are one in every 12 people.
So compare that to, say, one of the safest cities in the United States, Ridgewood, Connecticut, for example, chances of becoming victim of a crime are one in every 129 people.
And if we look at chances of becoming victim of a violent crime specifically, including murder, armed robbery, forcible rape, or aggravated assault, chances in Detroit are one in every 46 people, versus Ridgewood, Connecticut, one in over 3,000.
So with that said, I was first held up at gunpoint for the first time in my life when I was 15 years old. And my adolescence was colored with things like my closest girlfriends experiencing teenage pregnancy as a result of statutory rape, forcing them to leave school, become young mothers, and forfeit their education.
Metal detectors and police squad cars at entering school, and one of the high schools in our neighborhood was even dubbed “Murder High” for years. And, unfortunately, some of my closest friends were murdered due to drug and gun violence before we even graduated from high school.
So, the idea for me of becoming a high fashion model, or a musician, or even a published author, were the farthest things from my mind when I was growing up in Detroit. That’s me when I was 14, very innocent and naive, just a year before that innocence and naivety was taken from me.
And so that I wouldn’t continue being a statistic, I was desperately searching for some sort of inspiration to believe in myself. So I had these very harsh surroundings. But on the other hand, I had both my parents, whom I love very much. And on top of that, they were hippies! That’s their avant-garde jazz band, I forget the name of it. Something-nine. And my beautiful, avant-garde, hippie parents, you know, it was so embarrassing, but now as an adult, I realize that they gave me life and love, and showed me to perceive the world with joy and compassion. And how else would hippie parents do this for a young girl in Detroit, besides giving her the gift of Nichiren Buddhism?
And it’s interesting because I feel like there couldn’t be a less likely candidate for someone becoming a Nichiren Buddhist than myself. I’m like this, mixed, biracial minority living in low-income, poverty-stricken neighborhoods, adopting this really weird Eastern philosophy in Detroit, one of the most dangerous, violent cities in the United States, a country that epitomizes the Western World.
And there I was though, young, and living in these harsh surroundings but adopting Buddhism as the first step towards seeking inspiration, to in some way transcend some very difficult circumstances.
Well, in Nichiren Buddhism the fundamental idea is that everyone is a Buddha. Meaning that at any given moment, each person possesses the infinite power to express their ultimate human potential in life. So, try grasping this as like a teenager. Well, with that said though, I started seeking inspiration. And I didn’t necessarily find it in others who were part of my immediate environment, but in people whom I could look up to. People like Shakyamuni Buddha or Daisaku Ikeda, or Dr. Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, or Oprah Winfrey, or Venus and Serena Williams, or my grandmother. And the list goes on and on. But it’s funny because we come across these very fundamental life philosophies, but we really don’t understand them until life actually happens.
So this idea of inspiration, which at the time, in my adolescence, I really understood more as motivation, was something that I held on to. And it really helps me a lot, but I still didn’t understand what being truly inspired meant just yet.
Let’s fast forward a couple of years. With a lot of hard work and despite many challenges, and even with some chance, I was selected to be one of the contestants on America’s Next Top Model. And yet I didn’t understand why they had chosen me to be there. I didn’t get it. I felt like I was just this really ordinary girl from Detroit, Michigan, with really meager to almost terrible odds at competing. But I was selected to be in this huge, internationally syndicated, television competition, one in some 20,000 applicants, and yet I didn’t understand why they had chosen me. Because there was something missing. I hadn’t found that inspiration from within me, yet.