Chad Pregracke was 17 years old when he decided to clean up the Mississippi River one piece of garbage at a time. He’d spent his summers on the Mississippi as a commercial diver, fighting his way through the murky water for mussels buried in the muddy river bottom. But along with mussels, he discovered a staggering amount of junk — appliances, cars, boats, bowling balls, tires, you name it — that were simply dumped in the waterway. And he became determined to do something about it.

Edwin Moses, of course, is a legendary Olympic track and field athlete who won gold medals in the 1976 and 1984 games. A physics major who figured out a more efficient way to negotiate hurdles, he won 122 consecutive races, an undefeated streak that stretched almost 10 years. But Moses, whose success came from brains and grueling physical preparation, also witnessed the rise of steroid use among his peers, spurring him to become a pioneer in the battle against performance-enhancing drugs.

And finally, Jay Altman was a young English teacher at a respected New Orleans prep school in the late 1980s who was appalled by low student expectations at many of the city’s public schools. In 1992, Altman opened what was essentially a charter school — before such things officially existed in Louisiana — in the city’s gritty Treme neighborhood. His efforts would become the foundation for dramatic improvement in the New Orleans public school system.

What do these three have in common? All of them spoke at re:public, the Center for Digital Government’s annual leadership retreat held earlier this week in La Quinta, Calif. More importantly, they show how one person can be the start of something big.

These days Pregracke runs Living Lands & Waters, a nonprofit that has organized nearly 70,000 volunteers into cleanup crews that have pulled more than 7 million pounds of garbage from the nation’s waterways over the past 16 years. Moses remains active in anti-drug efforts, and he’s chairman of Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, a global group of elite athletes using sports as a tool for social change. Altman’s nonprofit, FirstLine Schools, now operates five public charter schools in New Orleans, and the group is known as a specialist in turning around low-performing institutions.

Many of us labor inside large, complex organizations where change is hard and innovation isn’t always welcome. But the lesson here is pretty clear: Never discount the power of an individual with a good idea and the perseverance to see it through.

As I write this on the way home from the re:public conference, it’s hard not to be inspired by these stories — and to think that more of us should start something big.

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  |  Editor

Steve Towns is editor of Government Technology, and executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government Technology,Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market.