A Snapshot of Inclusion Capturing What Is In Common “A picture is worth a thousand words” is an old cliché, but to Dr. Richard Steckel a click of his camera portrays our human commonality. The Milestones Project was founded in 1998 by Dr. Steckel and his wife Michele. They conceived the idea to capture images of children and stories from around the world. With their art, they celebrate humankind’s most basic common links as we inhabit this planet. And now, after 15 years of traveling the globe, their portfolio includes images of more than 70,000 children from 30 countries. To understand the compassion behind the lens, you must meet the man with the heart for a more peaceful world.
Dr. Steckel is still writing the book of his life and living each chapter. His passion for a better world and social entrepreneurship began as a child with National Geographic magazines spread upon his lap, looking at pictures of people from other cultures and wondering what their lives must be like. Today he still holds that youthful eagerness to explore and learn from others. This inner vision of promoting mutual respect, understanding, empathy and inclusion has never left his core.
He often says his life story would not be complete without his constant companion and confidant, Michele, “Shelli.” Both have dedicated their lives to the greater good, and after fifty years of marriage, Shelli says “he keeps me on my toes” not knowing his next move. At age 70, Dr. Steckel is enthusiastically optimistic about the future as he clearly knows his past experiences got him where he is today.
He says, “I operate comfortably in a high-risk environment and with a tolerance for ambiguity.” These are words that are in the DNA of many entrepreneurs, but Dr. Steckel takes it to the extreme. For example, he began work in Kenya in 1969 on a humanitarian effort during the Civil War. He strapped $20,000 to his waist to bring agricultural seeds to the people for growing crops in this starving worn-torn country.
Ironically, his love of children brought him to the next risky move—save the Denver Children’s Museum. In 1976, he was asked to be the director of the ailing museum that only had five weeks before it would close due to bankruptcy. Through a change in strategy, Dr. Steckel and his colleagues rescued the museum through social enterprise, or earned income strategy, and now the Denver Children’s Museum is the sixth most popular in the United States. He took several shots at entrepreneurship quite successfully and founded the consulting firm AddVenture Network and is co-author of many books including the best-selling book Filthy Rich: Turning Nonprofit Fantasies Into Cold, Hard Cash.
Dr. Steckel and Shelli ignored traditional retirement to seek out other ways to help connect our communities. Combining their humanitarian work, compassion and the love of travel, the Milestones Project was conceived. At an overwhelming risk of taking a small idea with a potential big impact, the couple refinanced their home. Using the equity, they began their new social enterprise with a focus on photography to capture common milestones connecting the human race. They have never looked back. The Milestones Project origin was sparked by injustice. The Steckels were appalled by an uptick in hate crimes in the late 1990s. Weekly news stories appeared describing violence against others in horrific detail—vicious acts committed against one group or another, usually based on a de-humanizing of the other person or group on superficial differences like skin color, eye shape, ethnicity or religious beliefs. Being an uninvolved bystander to unfairness, they asked themselves a simple question: “What are we going to do?” More questions followed. “What is the best way we can help to demonstrate our shared humanity?”
They surrounded themselves with a network of friends and confidants with the common passion and focused their effort on exploring diversity and commonality. The group identified life milestones shared by us all. They discovered that in childhood “we” all lose a tooth, celebrate first birthdays, and cut our hair—that we as human beings have a lot in common. Armed with enthusiasm, no skills or training in photography, no funds to get anywhere, they said, “why not?” and began their journey.
Eventually, the discovery of photography was the perfect mechanism to show the world “we” humans are all the same. “We” can celebrate our diversity but unite our commonality. The Steckels learned the art of photography to perfection and were embraced while they traveled the globe. Today, The Milestones Project’s 35,000-plus photographs, eight children’s books and a variety of teaching tools to celebrate childhood around the world all clearly tell the same story and confirm a universal truth: We are all connected. This connection is where true and believable healing begins.
Results followed … fast. The Milestones Project was published in 2004, collecting notable people like Walter Cronkite, JK Rowling, Jane Goodall, Eric Carle and others, to compare personal milestones with children the Steckels had met throughout their travels around the world. For example, JK Rowling talked about her first experience loving and hating glasses.
Early on, Littleton Public Schools in Colorado bought 4,300 copies of the first edition book for its students’ families. The Steckels also donated 15 photographs of corresponding milestones in the school system’s 15 elementary schools, and held community dialogues with parents, students and faculty about diversity and inclusion. The book went on to receive the Notable Book Award from the Children’s Book Council, and has sold nearly 25,000 copies.
In 2006, another drama involving labeling caught their attention: violence against others whose faith was different to us. They heard a Muslim man lament over the fact that people don’t know him, they just see his clothing and make so many judgments about him. He was dehumanized, and subject to suspicion, feared by some and misunderstood by many. “You don’t know that I love cream soda,” he says. “And,” he went on, “equally sad is that I don’t know you.” That prompted them to ask, what does faith have in common? And again, the Steckels—not uninvolved bystanders— took action and used photography for their third themed book, Faith, describing religious commonalities.
More hardships drove the couple to make their next move. The issue of immigration was a hot topic in 2007. Once again the rhetoric was heated, clumsily racist and somewhat ignorant and judgmental. Stereotypes were tossed around like darts. Commonality of human needs and hope were hardly part of the conversation. So, unable to contain themselves, they acted, and refinanced their home for the second time.
In collaboration with the City of Littleton and educators at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colo., they created an innovative graphical look of immigrants and their positive impact on our society. The project called Littleton: My International Home Sweet Home is a permanent story-telling exhibit throughout the great halls of the college. It features 27 men and women who live, work or study in the area, but who were all born in other countries. A total of eighteen countries were represented through pictures showing a wealth of talent, entrepreneurial spirit, and contributions to a small town in America, the home of the free.
You would think the next move for Dr. Steckel would be to sit back and enjoy a risk-free life. But no, making the next move is what he is all about. So in December 2012, the Steckels launched their next social venture In Common Images, a website dedicated to two things—to demonstrate that people, worldwide, generally underestimate their talents and creativity in photography, and as a means to use photography as a vehicle to raise money for worthwhile charities worldwide. Inspired by Tom’s Shoes and Newman’s Own, In Common fused together photography and philanthropy in an unprecedented way. Dr. Steckel says, “We have incontrovertible evidence that after 70,000 photographs, 13 educational resources, 37 permanent installations of Milestones Project photographs, and over 200,000,000 eyes peering at our work, we need to keep on moving.” Incommonimages.org gives graphic artists, nonprofits, governmental agencies, corporations and individuals, quality and unique photos they can purchase over the internet and use for non-commercial purposes. And with every online image sold, 10 percent goes back to a selected charity.
Social enterprise is not for the next generation; it’s embraced by those trying to move forward and look to the future for a better world. As Dr Steckel sums it up, “May we live in a world where our souls, our character and our actions demonstrate a mutual reach for shared respect, understanding, inclusion and acceptance.”
To learn more about the Milestones Project visit, www.milestonesproject.com. To learn more about In Common Images visit, www.incommonimages.org.
Cristin Tarr is co-founder and managing partner of Business Service Corps, LLC (BSC); a social enterprise helping companies with high impact employee and community engagement programs. The company has developed executive overviews and employee workshops to educate and enhance corporate social responsibility initiatives. To contact Cristin, visit www.businessservicecorps.com.