50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World
“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
—Audre Lorde, writer and activist
“The dreamers are the saviors of the world.”
—James Allen, writer
“Only he who can see the invisible can do the impossible.”
—Frank Gaines, mayor, Berkeley, California, 1939–1943
“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”
—Howard Aiken, computing pioneer
The People’s Artist
Favianna Rodriguez, political artist, activist
She’s going to make you shout. Favianna Rodriguez’s political poster art packs revolutionary punch, fused with crackling colors and don’t-mess-with-us mojo. “Gentrification = Predatory Development” thunders a billboard in her Oakland, California, hometown. “We Say Hell No!”
In an image-saturated world, Rodriguez’s fearless, frank work is impossible to ignore. “I use art to transform global politics,” Rodriguez says.
As the daughter of immigrants and a woman of color who grew up without many role models in the art world, Rodriguez gives voice to the global community, and, stepping outside of the artist’s traditional frame, she’s building infrastructure for next-generation women. Collaborating, educating, organizing, writing books, public speaking, everything—she says—becomes part of the artist’s work. Celebrating the work of other bold souls is also essential to Rodriguez’s vision. She recently coedited Reproduce & Revolt (Soft Skull, 2008), a collection of stunning revolutionary political graphics designed by global artists—all of which are licensed under Creative Commons, free to reproduce.
“Favi is doing something that is extremely unusual right now—declarative political art,” says Soft Skull editorial director Richard Nash. “The dominant trend in political art has been ironic, subversive, which can be marvelous except for the slightly creepy feeling one can get that the only viewers who get it are the ones who already possess the framing techniques needed to deconstruct it. The ones who get it, already got it.
“Favi’s doing the is-what-it-is thing: gorgeous, direct political statements.”
See Favianna Rodriguez talk about what inspires her:
Susan Nussbaum, founder, the Empowered Fe Fes
Every few weeks, the Empowered Fe Fes, a group of girls with disabilities in Chicago, get together to chat about dating, jobs, their parents, teachers . . . whatever they want. They’ve also produced a series of videos tackling sex, bullying, and living with disabilities. “Both as girls and as girls with disabilities, they are extremely overprotected and given very few challenges,” says Susan Nussbaum, the group’s founder. Because their schools and their families often don’t give them space to grow into independent adults, setting their meetings’ agendas and working on various projects “is probably the only chance they have to learn how to make decisions.” Like the young people who show up to challenge one another, Nussbaum’s project raises the bar for those who are working to empower our youth.
Watch a clip of the first Fe Fes video, "Beyond Disability," which they produced with Beyondmedia Education:
Watch a clip of "Doin' It: Sex, Disability, and Videotape," also produced with Beyondmedia Education:
The Visionaries’ Visionary
Bill Drayton, founder, Ashoka
“When we started, social entrepreneurship was so new that we had to invent the phrase social entrepreneur,” says Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, a community of more than 2,000 of the world’s foremost movers and shakers named after a renowned Indian leader. They’re the innovators—driving solutions for society’s pressing issues—who are building progressive movements around green jobs, media reform, and homeless rights. In building this network, Drayton envisions an atmosphere that inspires all citizens to create change. “After all,” he says, “what is the most powerful force in the world? A big pattern-change idea.” And that is what we need more of right now.
Image by Yusuke Abe.
Watch a clip of Drayton discussing social entreprenuers:
Pacifism’s Fighting Chance
Mel Duncan, cofounder and executive director, Nonviolent Peaceforce
In an age when unarmed civilians are apt to get caught in the crosshairs of conflict, Mel Duncan has a radical idea about who should stave off war’s “collateral damage”: other unarmed civilians.
Duncan’s Nonviolent Peaceforce, founded in 2002, dispatches international teams of trained, unarmed peacekeepers to conflict zones where civil society has been caught in the cross fire. Unlike the blue-helmeted U.N. troops, these peacekeepers are immersed in local society to make connections and build trust. Their lack of weapons helps, too. “Peacekeeping isn’t always most effective when it’s done at the end of a gun,” says Duncan.
Sometimes simply being a presence can provide protection, as it did last year when peacekeepers accompanied Guatemalan advocates who were investigating threats and fatal attacks against human rights workers.
Often, serving as a conduit of nonpartisan information is key. On the volatile Philippine island of Mindanao, for example, the group’s carefully tended communications lines recently helped peacekeepers negotiate the evacuation of hundreds of civilians pinned between government and rebel forces.
Duncan’s peacekeepers go only where they’ve been invited by civil society groups, and where extensive analysis determines that their presence and limited resources can be effective. For now, they have 40 peacekeepers in Sri Lanka and 16 in the Philippines.
“No one can make anyone else’s peace for them,” says Duncan. “[We] help create the space where local people can do their work and stay alive.”
Addicted to Faith
Patricia Watkins, Pentecostal minister, cofounder of the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations
“Drug addicts don’t want to be drug addicts,” says Patricia Watkins. She knows. She’s been there, as a young addict in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green projects. Finding faith lifted Watkins out of addiction and drove her to fight the drug dealers plaguing her South Side neighborhood and push for state legislation geared toward healing, not punishing, low-level drug offenders. Now, through the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, the Pentecostal preacher harnesses the collective power of a coalition of multiethnic, multifaith groups to tackle issues—health care, education, housing—that affect them all. “If we win alone,” Watkins says, “we’ve actually lost.”
Racial Justice Gets Real
Rinku Sen, executive director, Applied Research Center
Racial-justice activists, listen up. Rinku Sen is recharging a deadlocked debate. In The Accidental American (Berrett-Koehler, 2008), Sen takes on immigration policy through the story of Fekkak Mamdouh, who has been organizing immigrant restaurant workers in New York City amid post-9/11 racism.
Weaving policy analysis with compelling stories “helps explain structural racism to people in a way they can understand,” says Sen, executive director of the Applied Research Center and publisher of ColorLines, Utne Reader’s 2007 magazine of the year. The ARC helps people battle for racial justice in their communities, and Sen’s approach—informed by her dual background in organizing and journalism—may be the best way to help people understand the continued importance of that fight.
Watch Rinku Sen explain how she became an "Accidental American," and check out dozens of other immigration stories at the book's website.
Caution: Apocalypse Ahead
Derrick Jensen, author, environmentalist
“We’re going to watch the end of the world on television until the TVs go out.” Who’s this cheery fellow? It’s Derrick Jensen, the green thinker and writer who’s out to tell us not what we want to hear but what we need to hear. Call him an anarcho-primitivist, a bomb thrower, or a person without hope—a stance he celebrated in the classic essay “Beyond Hope”—but don’t call him weak-kneed. “I don’t feel particularly courageous,” he says. “If you asked any 7-year-olds how to stop global warming, they’d give you a pretty straightforward answer. I’m just writing what a lot of people are thinking, but don’t say aloud.”
Read interviews with Derrick Jensen in Counterpunch, No Compromise, and the Chelsea Green Bookstore.
Organizers of the Allied Media Conference
Now this is what a “conference” is supposed to look like: 800 concerned citizens and activists, most of them young and denim-clad, many of them people of color, queer, or both, gathered in Detroit on a crisp June day to create and critique media. There are no tote bags, no swag, no cocktail parties. Just tables full of radical literature, free hip-hop concerts, and late-night bowling.
And you can forget about expense accounts and self-serving corporate sponsors. These people spend months raising funds to finance their trips from all over the globe, and conference organizers are squeaking by on their annual budget of $100,000, all of which makes the 2008 conference (the 10th annual) hum with a singularly engaged, productive energy. “It really makes the event user-owned,” says Mike Medow, one of the conference’s five organizers. “Everyone made a personal sacrifice or a personal investment to be here, and everyone has a deep stake in its success.”
What’s more, what goes on at the hundreds of sessions and workshops doesn’t go the way of yet another stodgy PowerPoint presentation. Participants and presenters take what they hear and learn about taking back the media to heart—and back home. The radical parenting caucus, the lunchtime meeting for women of color with disabilities, the Youth Media Lab: no matter the specific subject area, it’s all about using the tools of journalism to strengthen and expand a grassroots push for democracy.
Save the date! The Allied Media Conference is back in Detroit July 16-19, 2009. In the meantime, watch a quick recap of the 10th AMC, created by conference co-organizer Diana Nucera, and check out other videos at the AMC website:
Bright Green Bronx—and Beyond
Majora Carter, founder, Sustainable South Bronx and Majora Carter Group
First Majora Carter took on her neighborhood. Now she’s set her sights on the world. As the founder of Sustainable South Bronx, Carter greened her community by connecting what folks cared about—their kids’ health—to the pollution ravaging their air and water. This year, she left to create the Majora Carter Group. The consulting firm will help other municipalities take advantage of the tactics she honed in the South Bronx: training people who need work to shepherd in new green technologies, transforming polluted sites into lush community spaces, and generally ensuring that everyone has a stake in the clean energy economy.
Read more about Carter's work and the efforts of a new generation of environmental justice activists in Utne Reader's March-April issue.
David S. Bennahum, president and CEO, Center for Independent Media
Robert McChesney, cofounder, Free Press
Anyone who’s seen the news has witnessed what media scholar Robert McChesney calls the “absolutely deplorable coverage of politics in the United States.” Over the past decade, McChesney has written exhaustively about the need for media reform, and in 2002 he cofounded Free Press. The group, which is the largest of its kind, battles conglomeration and corporate bias, and it celebrates and defends local, community-owned newspapers, indie magazines, small-scale websites, and citizen bloggers. Its greatest victory to date: successfully pressuring Congress and the FCC to keep the Internet neutral.
Political forces are still conspiring to restrict what is now a free and open Internet, however, just as Big Media conspires to distract us. Which is why we’re in need of creative solutions, says McChesney, “so we can actually have the information we need to govern our lives. Right now we’re not getting it.”
While McChesney battles in the corridors of power, David S. Bennahum, who founded the Center for Independent Media, is overseeing independent, local news websites in five states that endeavor to sift fact from fiction and deliver unbiased reportage. Bennahum says independent media will continue to play a critical role in shaping our democracy, especially as the mainstream stubbornly clings to its old ways and parrots party propaganda instead of going deep for the truth. For an example of this ethic in action, check out the center’s dogged coverage, via the Minnesota Independent (www.minnesotaindependent.com), detailing police reaction and overreaction to protesters at the Republican National Convention.
Bennahum aims to expand into more states, deepen the scope of the center’s sites, and, as media continue to branch out digitally, reset the standard for online reportage.
Heartbreaking Works of Staggering Humanitarianism
Dave Eggers, author, publisher
After the runaway success of his Pulitzer-nominated memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, literary wunderkind Dave Eggers could have settled into a comfortable career cranking out similarly self-referential fare, holding court at book signings and authors’ roundtables, perhaps doling out a few graduation speeches every spring.
Instead he took a more dynamic path. He founded the small indie publishing empire McSweeney’s, which produces the Believer magazine, and started two nonprofit enterprises with a humanitarian bent: 826 Valencia, a writing and tutoring laboratory for young people ages 6 to 18, now located in seven cities, and Voice of Witness, a series of books that use oral history to tell the stories of the abused, oppressed, and impoverished. Eggers himself provided the template with What Is the What (McSweeney’s, 2006), his gripping fictionalization of Sudanese “lost boy” Valentino Achak Deng’s story.
English professor Jim Dawes, author of That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity (Harvard, 2007), says that an author like Eggers can do good in ways that no international human rights convention can. “Human rights work depends on storytelling, but all too often we only have a chance for sound bites,” says Dawes. “So when you have somebody who can get these stories out, and get them out in a way that people will listen to them—it’s not just going to be upsetting, it’s also going to be beautiful—then it can literally change the world.”
Visit the website of the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which works to provide educational opportunities for Sudanese people both in southern Sudan and in the United States. The site also contains reviews of What Is the What, an excerpt from the book, and an interview with Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng.
Image of Dave Eggers (left) and Valentino Achak Deng by Drew Alitzer above.
Read Dave Eggers' exclusive interview with Utne Reader.
Inspiration of Church and State
Bishop Kevin Dowling
Constance Howard, Illinois state representative
Two facts should end any debate: HIV causes global suffering; HIV is preventable. Instead, the fight against HIV/AIDS is too often mired in party politics, extremist religion, and ignorance. Visionary mavericks like Bishop Kevin Dowling of South Africa and Illinois state representative Constance Howard see only one thing: people in need.
Bishop Dowling shook the Catholic world in 2001 when he went on the record to disagree with the Vatican’s position against using condoms to prevent HIV. “Our pro-life stance cannot be restricted to the beginning and end of life,” Dowling says, describing the shack settlements of Rustenburg, South Africa, where women often are forced into survival sex and nearly half test positive for HIV. His reading of the papal position—that condoms are permissible when lives are at risk—honors the institution even as it defies a doctrine.
“I honestly believe the stance I have taken is in accordance with the Jesus I know and the gospel I believe in and am trying to live,” Dowling says.
In Illinois, Representative Constance Howard has co-drafted a revolution: In 2006 the African American HIV/AIDS Response Act transformed social services within the state corrections system. Inmates now receive free voluntary HIV testing, counseling, and medical services, as well as referrals when they are released.
“It’s one thing to stand on the outside and scream and yell and complain,” says Regan Hofmann, editor in chief of POZ, the magazine about life, health, and HIV. “To effect real change you have to at least be involved with the system. There’s a place for the activist, but ultimately the people who make the greatest change can be and often have to be inside.”
Image of Constance Howard above.
More than Marriage
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, queer activist
We’ve heard just two sides of the gay-marriage debate—conservative talk-radio homophobes versus attractive same-sex couples—because the voices of queer people who are against marriage are consistently drowned out. This perspective is most raucously and frequently espoused by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, an outspoken critic of what she calls “gay assimilationists” who cast marriage—with its “1950s model of white-picket-fence ‘we’re just like you’ normalcy”—as the GLBT issue.
Sycamore, who writes for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and blogs at nobodypasses.blogspot.com, argues that the GLBT movement’s focus on gay marriage distracts from more pressing issues: Rather than fight for marriage, which helps secure access to benefits like housing and health care, queers should band together to fight for universal access to these basic needs—“I do” (or don’t) be damned.
“What I think is so sad about the gay-marriage assimilationist agenda is that our dreams have become so limited,” Sycamore says. “And gay marriage is not a dream—the end of marriage is a dream.”
Sycamore is also a prolific anthologizer, bringing together radical views on queer identities in books like That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (Soft Skull, 2008). These perspectives are rarely if ever engaged by marriage advocates. “It’s really easy for gay-marriage proponents to argue with foaming-at-the-mouth Christian fundamentalists,” she says, “but it’s very scary for them to argue with anti-marriage queers and actually have a conversation.”
Read Mattilda's anti-marriage essays for AlterNet and the Stranger, and see more of her writings and anthologies at her website, mattildabernsteinsycamore.com.
Image by Jeffery Walls.
Growing the Grass Roots
Timolynn Sams, executive director, Neighborhoods Partnership Network
Brahm Ahmadi, cofounder, People’s Grocery
The mendacious politician who belittles the role of community organizers should hoof it to People’s Grocery in West Oakland, California, where Brahm Ahmadi leads the crusade for food justice.
What started as a few people dissatisfied with their lack of access to fresh produce is now a model for how to integrate a sustainable local food system into an inner-city community. Ahmadi stresses the need to “build a set of choices first, and then enable individuals to make those choices for themselves.” He’ll soon take on a new role as CEO of the first community retail market when it rolls out over the next two years.
Elsewhere, another solution-oriented movement is making headway under the direction of native New Orleanian Timolynn Sams. After Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on her city, Sams wrote to the Neighborhoods Partnership Network, asking to be involved with the organization through AmeriCorps. Instead, they put her in charge.
Once leaders truly empathize with citizens, they can leverage the people’s frustrations and make change, says Sams, who faces the same struggles with overcrowded schools and power outages as do the people she serves.
She describes New Orleans as a “laboratory for the entire country.” While the challenges of natural disasters and institutional bungling are universal, what makes Louisiana special is its citizenry’s uncanny resilience and generations of community ties, which have linked to form an unbreakable bond.
Sams knows there will always be another storm but remains upbeat about the soul of her city. As for the rest of the country? She admits to being “a little concerned.”
Image of Brahm Ahmadi above.
You can read Brahm's blog and watch videos of People's Grocery projects here. The following was a promotional spot from last year:
The Urban Angle
Nikos Salingaros, urban theorist/mathematician
When Nikos Salingaros looks at the United States’ mesh of cities and suburbs, he sees a geometry problem: The scale accommodates cars, not people. “It makes humans into a new race of inhumans,” says Salingaros, a mathematics professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His uniquely scientific perspective allows the architectural gadfly to tap the latest laboratory findings to explain how our current urban trajectory is not only aesthetically challenged but also unhealthy. He calls for retrofitting the suburbs with mixed-use zoning, pedestrian byways, and public spaces—small interventions that let people move about, interact with nature and neighbors, and stay human.
Watch and listen to Salingaros' lecture on the fallacy of tall buildings:
The Other Green Guide
Tzeporah Berman, environmental activist
At the 2007 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bali, veteran Canadian activist Tzeporah Berman was horrified to see her country stalling negotiations toward stricter environmental regulations. As cofounder of ForestEthics, Berman has helped protect over 65 million acres of land through innovative partnerships with corporations. In Bali, she keyed in on an alarming disconnect between Canadians enthusiastically adopting greener lifestyles and a government bent on protecting oil industry interests—and knew she needed to mobilize. Her new campaign, PowerUp Canada, blends hard information, civic appeals, and a virtual gathering space to push citizens from lifestyle changes to legislative demands. In the fight against climate change, Berman has developed a model for next-stage community activation.
We spoke to Tzeporah Berman for our May-June 2007 article "Protest is Dead. Long Live Protest." Watch her speech at Evergreen's 2008 Earth Day Vancouver Celebration below:
All the City’s a Stage
John Muller, executive director, DreamCity Theatre Group
People need to be taking responsibility for the safety and conditions of their communities, says John Muller, who cofounded the nonprofit theater group DreamCity to bring arts back to the District of Columbia via youth-led theater. Muller’s plays use real-life events, candid language, and interviews with community figures to spotlight the need for change from within the community—and in turn, he teaches life skills and capitalizes on his cohorts’ potential. Following The 70 (about a city bus), and Southside (based on the aftermath of a 2004 school shooting), Muller envisions building an “underground railroad” of young writers, funders, and event planners to spark a new reality theater movement in Washington, D.C.
See John and one of his actors talk about the play Southside:
The Activist’s Evangelist
Adrienne Maree Brown, executive director, Ruckus Society
Adrienne Maree Brown is the dynamic, take-no-prisoners force behind the Ruckus Society—a group that is arming socially oppressed communities with tools for effective nonviolent organizing. She also has cofounded the League of Pissed Off/Young Voters, sits on at least four boards, and facilitates a handful of other developing programs. All of this, and she just turned 30.
“Adrienne is a visionary because she understands things on the grandest of scales, but she’s attentive to the details of how we translate understandings into action and power,” says Jenny Lee, co-organizer of the Allied Media Conference (see p. 39). “She cultivates power in herself, in the communities where she spends time, and in all the people around her.”
Whether she’s speaking and singing during the opening plenary of a conference or leading workshops for eighth-graders in Detroit, Brown captivates audiences with her call for freedom and direct action—mobilizing folks with the sort of fiery, fearless passion from which generational leaders are born. “She puts her energy out there, with total faith in people’s greatest potential, and people feed that energy back to her,” Lee says. “I’ve seen that in the years that I’ve worked with her through Detroit Summer and Allied Media Projects.”
Brown insists that we need organizations working together, and that people need to take a cue from Ruckus and put their words into action. With Brown leading the discussion in a style all her own, there’s no telling what will happen.
See Brown work her magic at the 2008 National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis:
Greening the Rez
Enei Begaye, executive director, Black Mesa Water Coalition
In 2005 Enei Begaye’s Black Mesa Water Coalition and other groups bested Peabody Energy, the coal giant that was draining the Navajo and Hopi reservations’ drinking water to power Southern California’s urban buzz. The coal mine at Black Mesa, which stretches across northeastern Arizona near the Four Corners region, was shuttered. With it went tribal jobs and revenues. “It was a victory,” says 30-year-old Begaye, “but it was bittersweet.” So the youthful coalition suited up for a new challenge: fostering sustainable Native economies by developing community-based green businesses and weaning tribal governments from dependence on mineral mining. The new path, says Begaye, is paved by tradition: “We’ve been using wind and the sun for generations.”
See Evil, Show Evil
Eric Reeves, Darfur activist
Roy Gutman, foreign editor, McClatchy Washington Bureau
Atrocities easily pass unseen. If people notice, it’s because someone made a ruckus loud enough to pierce media static and social malaise.
For years, Eric Reeves and Roy Gutman have been noisemakers.
Since 1999, Reeves, a Smith College English professor, has been a one-man information clearinghouse on the bloodletting in Sudan. A keen observer of the decade’s long north-south war, he was the first to call the slaughter that began five years ago in the country’s west by its rightful name: genocide. Through his website (www.sudanreeves.org) and op-eds in newspapers including the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, he’s been an unrelenting advocate for intervention.
Gutman won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of crimes against humanity in Bosnia, but he thought he could have sounded the alarm more effectively. So he and other journalists created the Crimes of War Project to school their colleagues and the public on the laws of war. Their recently updated book, Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, is an urgent plea for resurrecting international law. So is the investigation Gutman, now foreign editor for McClatchy newspapers, presided over this year detailing government abuse and incompetence through the stories of 66 former Guantánamo detainees.
While such work tempts despair, the men’s commitment to truth-telling remains unshaken.
In mid-September, the 58-year-old Reeves was preparing for a risky stem-cell transplant to combat his worsening leukemia and getting ready to move into a sterile Boston apartment to protect his eviscerated immune system. “I’ll still have a computer. I’ll still have Internet access. I’ll still have a cell phone,” he said. “I may be limited, but I will not be silent.”
Image of Roy Gutman above.
Radio Free Oregon
Ramón Ramírez, president, Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United
Ramón Ramírez knew that Spanish-language radio stations were instrumental in reaching and mobilizing Latino immigrants. So when his union bought its own low-power FM station in Oregon two years ago, they opted to broadcast in Spanish. Because 70 percent of the state’s farmworkers are indigenous, the station also hosts programs in Mixteco, Triqui, and Purépecha, three languages native to Mexico.
Organizers-turned-deejays make listeners aware of their rights regarding wages, pesticides, and working conditions, empowering thousands of immigrant laborers to have a voice in the community. Coming soon to KPCN’s airwaves: radionovelas, which will use time-tested storytelling techniques to educate women about sexual harassment.
Math Geek to the Rescue
Richard Muller, physicist, teacher
If you hate physics, University of California–Berkeley professor Richard Muller has a message: It’s not your fault. It’s taught badly. Which is a civic shame, Muller contends, because basic physics is easy to grasp and is essential knowledge for everyone, especially folks who decide public policy. Ignorance of physics enables shortsighted resolutions on everything from airport security to climate change—and keeps citizens oblivious to the folly. No more! Muller’s revolution started with a course, Physics for Future Presidents, which became a textbook, now adapted for casual, civic-minded readers. Grounding the essentials in current affairs, Muller has done more than make physics user-friendly; he has also illuminated its undeniable necessity for modern citizens.
Watch one of Richard Muller's lectures:
Mother Knows Best
Robina Suwol, founder, California Safe Schools
On his way to kindergarten 10 years ago, Nicholas Suwol turned to blow a kiss to his mother at the moment when a man in a hazmat suit sprayed the schoolyard’s hedges. “It tastes terrible,” Nicholas wheezed as his mother, Robina, watched from the car. The exposure triggered a debilitating asthma attack, and Suwol phoned the school’s administrators to ask what made their garden so lush. “They said, ‘Wow, thank you!’ and told me about Princep,” Syngenta’s brand name for the toxic herbicide simazine. Suwol still remembers the terror in Nicholas’ eyes when he asked whether it would happen again. “I promised it wouldn’t,” Suwol says. “That’s been the driving force in my work.”
Suwol, a native of Portland, Oregon, was raising sons Nicholas, now 15, and Brandon, 20, on an actor’s salary when she founded California Safe Schools in 1998. She wooed parents, school officials, and teachers into influential coalitions, never filing nor fielding a lawsuit, never stalling in court. In the first year she persuaded the Los Angeles Unified School District’s famously sclerotic bureaucracy to ban all pesticides without demonstrated safety records. Eight years later, California extended that same rule to schools statewide.
“Tell the truth,” Suwol advises aspiring world-changers. “People often halt their dreams because they don’t have the right dress or degree. But if you’re honest and dedicated, help comes.”
Image by Cathy Blaivas.
Architects of Memory
Russ Kick, editor, TheMemoryHole.org
Trevor Paglen, artist, author, experimental geographer
“I don’t foresee a day when there is true government transparency,” says Russ Kick, editor of TheMemoryHole.org. “It’s just not in the nature of government.” So, in lieu of the end of secrecy, Kick tenaciously ticks off small victories, such as finding an IRS guide to prosecuting money laundering, buried in the Federal Depository Library, and using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to unearth photographs of U.S. military prisons.
Since 2002 Kick has preserved hundreds of cultural artifacts, including that five-minute clip of President Bush reading to schoolchildren on 9/11 after an aide whispered to him that the nation was under siege. Kick edits a series of anthologies for Disinformation, a radical media organization. In November, look for an updated edition of 2001’s You Are Being Lied To, called (appropriately) You Are Still Being Lied To. The best you hope for, Kick says, is that an inspired citizen files an FOIA request of his or her own.
It’s a make-of-this-what-you-will approach to probing the edges of government secrecy that artist, writer, and experimental geographer Trevor Paglen would find familiar. Whether he’s dealing in satellite imagery, military patches representing classified projects, or first-person testimonies, Paglen transforms his material into unforgettable, unforgiving art. Missing Persons, for example, is an installation of signatures (culled from records, aircraft registrations, and corporate filings) of people who don’t exist, identities the CIA created to obscure its extraordinary rendition program, which Paglen and coauthor A.C. Thompson exposed in Torture Taxi (Melville House, 2006).
If Kick is a modest archivist, Paglen is a coy enabler, consciously constructing a “visual vocabulary” for the unseen parts of the world. “But I’m not necessarily interested in telling you how to use that vocabulary,” he says. Make of it what you will.
Read "The X Styles," an article we published in May-June 2008 about Trevor Paglen's book I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed By Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World.
Image of Russ Kick (left) and Trevor Paglen (right).
The Climate Kid
Billy Parish, environmental activist
In 2002 Billy Parish became a media darling after dropping out of Yale and devoting himself to building a massive youth environmental movement. This was no whimsical ambition. Six years later, Parish is positioned to collate an even bigger awakening: a shift to green jobs. In 2007 social entrepreneur network Ashoka (see p. 37) named him a fellow, which Parish says has given him flexibility to “take a step back” and strategize for national groups on the green economy forefront, like Green for All and Focus the Nation. Change is coming, says Parish: “A lot of historical factors have come together to make an opportunity to create a massive social movement.”
Watch Billy Parish speak at the Garrison Institute's April 2008 event Satyagraha: Gandhi's "truth force" in the age of climate change:
Catch That Idea
Saul Griffith, inventor
What’s it like to be inside the brain of Saul Griffith, inventor extraordinaire, where ideas are surely whizzing about like neutrinos? Well, for one thing, there’s a physics simulator in there. That’s right: Griffith says that one of the first things he does in assessing each of his many brainstorms is to “run it through the physics simulator in my mind.” Among the innovations that have passed the test: inexpensive eyeglass lenses based on a process inspired by water drops and a “smart” rope that senses its load.
One of the coolest things about Griffith, who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship in 2007, is that he wants to help you be an inventor, too. In his Making Trouble column for Make magazine, he writes about the creative process for do-it-yourselfers of all ages. In the HowToons comic strips that he produces with illustrator Nick Dragotta, he teaches kids how to make things like the Infamous Marshmallow Shooter. And on the Instructables website that he helped develop (“the world’s biggest show-and-tell”), he encourages other people to share their dreams.
Climate change and renewable energy are the subjects most often spinning around in Griffith’s hyperactive head lately, which is why he is promoting “energy literacy” through wattzon.org and working on the Makani Power startup, which involves giant wing-shaped kites that harvest wind energy at high altitudes.
Read a 2007 profile of Saul Griffith from the San Francisco Chronicle; watch him give a presentation on everyday inventions at the 2006 TED Conference, and read a sample of his Making Trouble column (pdf).
Listen to Utne Reader’s podcast interview with Saul Griffith.
Paul Stamets, mycologist
Mushrooms, to many people, are simply a pizza topping choice. To Paul Stamets, they and all their fungal brethren are “the puppeteers of nature,” “Earth’s natural Internet,” and a wondrous and powerful tool that we can use to repair and renew our world. Stamets has deployed mushrooms to clean up toxins, restore soil, and combat pests; he hopes one day to use them to cure tuberculosis, revive entire ecosystems, and even seed other planets for life. His vision: a global network of “mycorestoration centers” that tap into the power of the vast mycelial web under our feet.
Image by Dusty Yao-Stamets
Edward Tick, psychotherapist, director of Soldier’s Heart
Nsombi Lambright, executive director, American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi
Society writes off damaged goods, people whose scarred lives set them apart. Edward Tick and Nsombi Lambright bring discarded citizens back into the fold.
For three decades Tick has served those who, after serving their country in military uniform, have returned home with wounds of war—some that fester on the surface, many that lurk beneath.
His holistic approach to posttraumatic stress disorder taps the rituals of warrior cultures from ancient times to the present. A Native American war dance, for example, becomes movement therapy, a healing reenactment of a soldier’s experience. “Rituals create a large and a strong time-honored container for material that is bigger than we humans can tolerate,” the psychotherapist explains.
Through his Soldier’s Heart center in upstate New York, Tick also reaches out to families, communities, and the military to help them honor and aid their loved ones, neighbors, and comrades. Copies of his 2005 book, War and the Soul, circulate among military chaplains.
Nsombi Lambright’s focus is on those who have served their time in prison.
As executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, Lambright battles the state’s labyrinthine laws, which ban 10 types of felons from voting, to reopen former prisoners’ path to citizenship. The longtime voting rights activist works in coalition with the state’s NAACP on voter education and registration drives, reaching out to those who misunderstand the law or just never thought their vote could matter.
It’s an empirically clear-headed approach, says Lambright: Studies show a correlation between voting and reduced recidivism. But it’s also the right thing to do. “Part of what we value as Americans is based on redemption and people getting a second chance,” she says.
Image of Ed Tick above.
Brave New Feminists
brownfemipower, blogger, writer
Jessica Hoffmann, writer, coeditor of Make/shift
These two women, whose writings consistently challenge the aims and issues of feminism, are the addled movement’s best hope. Their personal-and-political essays light up the blogosphere, forcing discussions about why issues that aren’t typically considered “feminist”—immigration, incarceration, police brutality—ought to be. For this they are often (sometimes nastily) criticized, but for those who haven’t lost hope in the social-justice promise of feminism, their work is transformational.
“What is your feminism for, and why does it matter?” At a time when feminism carries more connotation than meaning, few are willing to engage in this dialogue. It’s a question Jessica Hoffmann put forth in “An Open Letter to White Feminists,” published in the third issue of Make/shift, a magazine that she cofounded last year. The “feminisms” espoused in Make/shift are radical and varied, eagerly taking up the critiques of capitalism, environmental racism, health care, and war that are considered out of bounds for mainstream feminism.
Brownfemipower, whose inimitable blog is the anchor of the pulsing women-of-color blogosphere, began posting three years ago. She writes emotionally and radiantly about gender violence, immigration raids, public housing demolition in New Orleans, sexuality (a recent post on this topic included a video of Aerosmith’s “Crying”), and other “out of bounds” issues, morphing feminism back into a force for social change—for everyone—rather than an “exclusive networking club.”
“Feminists can’t seem to figure out why their movement isn’t growing,” she wrote in June. “Could the fact that feminism uses universities as its major site of recruitment rather than jails, halfway houses, day care centers, churches, restaurants, the streets, mommy blog communities . . . have something to do with it?”
Image of Jessica Hoffman above.
Order Outside the Court
Steve Binder, public defender
From his front-row seat, the justice system just wasn’t working for homeless people. To solve the underreported problem, Steve Binder, a San Diego public defender, worked with city officials to move homeless people charged with misdemeanor offenses away from the courthouse and toward community involvement. To make it happen, Binder took the “courtroom” to the homeless and set up shop—a foldout table, a podium, and two flags—in local shelters to adjudicate petty theft cases, DUIs, and public nuisance offenses. Instead of jail time and fines, judges now sentence people to literacy classes, job training, and chemical-dependency meetings. Binder’s program resolved 3,700 cases this year and has inspired more than 35 similar courts across the country. “People on the street want to live their lives more fully and lawfully,” he says. “They need an opportunity to do so.”
Building Codes Be Damned
Michael Reynolds, architect
Whether you consider him a visionary or “a thumb up the butt of reality,” as one admirer calls him in the documentary Garbage Warrior, architect Michael Reynolds is out to shake up the status quo. Reynolds has advanced green building with his Earthships: sustainable, off-the-grid dwellings with curvaceous, fanciful forms. He’s also helped other designer-builders innovate by pressing lawmakers in his home state of New Mexico to allow “experimental” or off-code architecture. Traveling the globe with a desert-rat crew to spread the Earthship gospel, Reynolds dreams of massively reducing CO2 emissions from buildings the world over. “Architects and lawyers and legislators,” he says, “have the world in their hands.”
Image by Kirsten Jacobsen / www.earthship.com
Alexie Torres-Fleming, founder and executive director, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice
Alexie Torres-Fleming grew up in a neighborhood on fire. Buildings burned as owners cashed in on insurance payments and hightailed it out of town. “Planned shrinkage” ruled the policy agenda. The South Bronx was abandoned, demoralized.
Torres-Fleming fled to corporate Manhattan, but something pulled her back. “I understood public policy happened to me as a child, and I felt that the legacy of this community had been one of powerlessness,” she says.
She opened Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YPMJ) in 1994 to train young people to drive policies, not bear the brunt of them. The group’s holistic approach goes beyond after-school tutoring or providing a place to shoot hoops. “Youth organizers in training” work on campaigns focused on issues ranging from environmental justice to immigration reform. They also work on themselves through meditation, discussion groups, and the center’s mental health services. The idea is to connect personal growth to community service.
A thriving example is the resurrection of the Bronx River. Along with a coalition of groups, YMPJ has cleaned up polluted industrial sites and warded off developers to create waterfront parks. Her work has earned Torres-Fleming widespread accolades, including one of this year’s prestigious Jane Jacobs Medals, which honor visionary urban activists.
“This community now has a generation of people who believe they have power,” Torres-Fleming says. “That’s the lasting legacy.”
Breaking the Chains
Kevin Bales, abolitionist
Paul Wright, prison journalist
Slaves and prisoners aren’t just society’s outcasts. They’re often forgotten—invisible in the shadow of their keepers. Kevin Bales and Paul Wright have chosen to fight for these invisible men and women by holding their stories up to the light.
Bales, cofounder of the U.S.-based antislavery group Free the Slaves, was living in London in the 1990s when he picked up an Anti-Slavery International leaflet. Jolted by the fact that there are more slaves now than at any point in human history, he dug more deeply into the issue and began researching his book Disposable People (University of California, 1999). Meeting slaves face-to-face turned his curiosity into a calling. “It broke my heart,” he says. “I couldn’t just walk away.” Free the Slaves not only raises awareness about modern slavery, it also works in policy circles and on the ground to literally break the shackles—and give escapees the support they need to stay out of the trade.
Paul Wright began publishing Prison Legal News in 1990 when he was serving a 25-year sentence for murder and grew “angry and disappointed” at the lack of decent criminal justice coverage in the corporate media. At first, the paper focused on Washington state, where Wright was doing time, but as its audience and reputation grew, it went nationwide. PLN is no longer just a news source but is also a publisher of practical self-help books and a champion of free speech and human rights. Meanwhile, the U.S. prison system has grown from 1 million prisoners to 2.3 million. “We’ve been chronicling its rise,” Wright says. “Hopefully we’ll be here to chronicle its demise.”
Image of Kevin Bales above.
Read two collections of slave narratives from To Plead Our Own Cause by Kevin Bales and Zoe Trodd. The narratives accompanied the July-August 2008 Utne Reader story “People for Sale,” about the modern slave trade.
Read articles about Prison Legal News and interviews with Paul Wright.
The Young, the Old, and the Climate
Harry Moody, intergenerational advocate
Blaming baby boomers and seniors for climate change and other environmental woes is wrong, says Harry Moody. “Everyone is responsible for why we have problems,” says the chief academic officer for AARP, who’s mounting an effort to bring generations together to fight climate change. Apart from acting as a voice for green issues at AARP, he speaks often on the subject and is writing a book on it. Moody believes that many of society’s biggest problems, from funding Social Security to global warming, can be tackled with an intergenerational approach. “If we get our act together as a species,” he says, “we can do this.”
Hip-Hop the Vote
The Reverend Lennox Yearwood, citizen activist, community organizer
If you want to get out the vote, just tune in to the Reverend Lennox Yearwood and the Hip Hop Caucus. They’re addressing a need that no one else has even bothered to notice.
Launched last summer, the Respect My Vote campaign targets the non-voting, non-college community. It’s not a goal that gets funding, but the caucus, which Yearwood founded in 2004 to mobilize the hip-hop generation, is undeterred. Working with young Katrina survivors, “we began to see that people weren’t engaged in the process, particularly people who weren’t in college or who were poor,” says Yearwood. The problem crystallized in statistics: In the 2004 election, voters age 18 to 24 had the lowest turnout—and those who showed were disproportionately college educated.
“You can’t just go to a college campus and say ‘vote,’ ” Yearwood insists. “We have to go into the barber shops, into the ’hoods, into the byways and the alleyways, from Los Angeles to Minnesota, from Denver to D.C.”
The push is built on a vision of a new kind of politics in which people don’t feel disenfranchised. “We need a human congress,” says Yearwood, “a congress that puts humanity first, that can look at issues and evaluate things that hurt people from feeling human, particularly people of color who are so disenfranchised. If you start to see life through their eyes, you can’t stop fighting for justice.”
Watch Yearwood in the Brave New Films video project War on Greed:
Let’s Get Organized
Seth Green, founder, Americans for Informed Democracy
Lawrence Lessig, professor of law, Stanford University
Seth Green and Lawrence Lessig both harness the multitudinous power of the people to make better public policy.
Green, 28, founded the youth network Americans for Informed Democracy (AID) after being in London shortly after 9/11 and finding a warm welcome in the city’s Pakistani community. “They expressed grief when they heard my American accent,” he says. “The world I got to see was very different from what many people were seeing.” He formed AID in part to improve U.S.-Islamic relations by fostering dialogue on college campuses, and the group now works to get students talking about global issues from health and the environment to peace and security. Green, who is involved in a host of organizations, including Citizens for Global Solutions and Thinking Beyond Borders, is also a blogger and media commentator. “Young people want to be a part of the next great generation,” he says.
Lessig, a Stanford law professor, attained fame as a champion of “free culture,” promoting the freedom to share and modify creative works and starting Creative Commons as a 2.0 alternative to copyright law. Eventually Lessig’s fight to reform copyright ran into a wall called Congress, and the special interest money that controls it. He began what the Nation called “the second act of his career,” forming the group Change Congress to clean up corruption in politics with measures such as eliminating lobbyist and PAC money and establishing publicly funded campaigns. Like a true geek, he’s gone meta.
“We’re not going to be able to solve any of the critical public policy problems that we face—from really important issues like global warming to somewhat esoteric issues like copyright—until we solve this more fundamental problem,” he says.
Image of Seth Green above.
Read Seth Green’s interview with the BBC.
Read Lawrence Lessig's exclusive interview with Utne Reader.
Joan Almon, cofounder and chair, U.S. Alliance for Childhood
Tree forts and make-believe cities have been on the endangered activities list, but they’re making a comeback thanks to Joan Almon, who has long advocated for restoring “play” to children’s lives and believes it’s essential to their social development and well-being. “Today the child’s urge to play is often overrun by the adult’s urge to organize the child’s time and direct it, or influence it,” Almon says. The Alliance for Childhood is embarking on a campaign to reform kindergarten education to include self-directed play that breeds creativity and is introducing the profession of “playworkers,” or professionals trained in fostering imaginative interactions.
What’s the Big Idea?
Dacher Keltner, psychologist
Nick Bostrom, philosopher
Human beings are faced with so many short-term problems—how to raise our kids, how to save the environment—that big-picture questions get lost in the rush. What is our potential, as individuals and as a species? What are we capable of? What should we be capable of? Psychologist Dacher Keltner and philosopher Nick Bostrom are unaffiliated but like-minded in their pursuit of questions like these.
Keltner maps the physiology of kindness at the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, California, exploring the ways we are wired to feel compassion, love, empathy, and gratitude. “We are very cynical about the better inclinations of human beings,” Keltner says of the dim view that posits human beings as inherently selfish, individualistic, and competitive. “But that is half the story.” As Keltner writes in Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (Norton, January 2009), studying positive emotions like gratitude, amusement, awe, and embarrassment reveals a more optimistic picture of human nature.
Bostrom goes even further, investigating what lies beyond our biological makeup. “The smartest thing we could do would be to try to make ourselves smarter and wiser,” says the futuristic thinker, who studies human enhancement technologies and other “macro-questions” at the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, England.
High-minded inquiries often spiral into passionate, ethical debates that can stall scientific inquiry into everyday things such as improved concentration, better sleep, and increased resistance to pain. What’s unique about Bostrom’s more gentle approach, says nano-ethicist Patrick Lin, is that rather than advocating for one “accurate” vision of our future, Bostrom is deeply rational: “He’s not a rabid advocate, he just really wants to figure out what is right.”
Image of Dacher Keltner above.
Read two of Dacher Keltner's essays here and here (PDF), and keep an eye out for his book, Born to Be Good, in January. The book describes the evolution of emotions such as awe, embarrassment, and compassion, and examines how these emotions can foster goodness and happiness.
Watch Nick Bostrom talk about humanity's biggest problems—death, for one—below, and get acquainted with his work at nickbostrom.com.
You Can Go Home Again
Sandra White Hawk, cofounder and director, First Nations Repatriation Institute
Establishing an identity is impossible for those who are isolated from their culture and their past. A Sicangu Lakota, Sandra White Hawk aims to “reclaim our people, give them the names they want to carry, and put their feet on the ground their ancestors walked on.” Those people are American Indian adoptees, like White Hawk, who suffered historic grief propagated by a broken child welfare system that allowed children to be adopted outside of their culture. Now she’s reimagining Native advocacy through forums in several states, where tribes, adult adoptees and families, and community members come together for a spiritual song ceremony and “air out that truth” that foments healing and reconciliation.
Local Star Tribune reporter Curt Brown wrote about a healing ceremony White Hawk organized in Minnesota. There's also a great slideshow of the event.
This Land Ain’t Your Land
Ariel Luckey, performance activist
In the 19th century, U.S. forces displaced American Indian populations, often violently, before white homesteaders moved in to claim “free” land. “If you look at who owns land in this country, the pattern that’s here today was established in the 1860s,” says Oakland-based hip-hop artist and activist Ariel Luckey. To get people seeing the roots of that privilege, he created Free Land, a candid solo show about coming to terms with homesteading in his family’s history. With dance and song, Free Land cuts to the heart of inherited privilege with more resonance than 10,000 self-conscious liberal arts students could ever muster—and in doing so, opens the door for genuine national introspection.
Image by Maryam Roberts
Watch excerpts Luckey performing Free Land:
Contributors: Keith Goetzman, Julie Hanus, Judith Lewis, Hannah Lobel, Danielle Maestretti, and Elizabeth Ryan
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