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: