Visionaries don’t always make us comfortable. Some use ugly language, like Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis, the Toronto women who have reclaimed the word slut. Some quit their workaday jobs in disgust and turn to new mediums, like David Simon, who abandoned what he saw as the withering journalist trade for the powerful art form of television. Some publicly criticize their peers, like Alice Dreger, an activist who exposes the questionable practices of genital reconstructive surgeons. Some, like farmer Jim Gerritsen, work within the law to attack the status quo; others, like environmentalist Tim DeChristopher, get arrested for their heartfelt actions.
The 25 men and women in the following pages have probably ticked off a lot of people. That’s what happens when you have creative, boundary-leaping, uncomfortable ideas—and you pursue them. These people also have delivered hope and renewed faith and tangible improvements to the lives of millions. Their vision, paired with their action, has literally brought food, shelter, and medicine where it was needed. Successes that can be measured and held are wonderful—and much needed—but equally important are the new ideas, the new words, and the new dreams that they’ve engendered.
Every year, Utne Reader puts forward its selection of world visionaries, people who have that extra twist of imagination and determination and energy, people who don’t just concoct great ideas but also act on them and lay their souls on the line for change. We’re proud to present you with 2011’s lineup of dreamers and doers.
by Utne Reader staff and contributors * Illustrations by Zina Saunders
Through shows like the highly acclaimed The Wire, Generation Kill, and Treme, David Simon has shown that television can be more than a tool for appeasing audiences and stoking ratings. It can be a medium that forces us to reconsider our world.
Alice Dreger has made it her life’s work to investigate, and at times expose, the unethical medical treatment of people who have intersex conditions. As recently as 15 years ago, many people grew up not knowing they were intersex, only that something had been “fixed” down there and that they had spent a lot of time with their legs spread for parades of physicians and medical students.
Health Care Hero
If Peter Beilenson and his organization, The Evergreen Project, are successful, your next visit to the doctor will be at a health care cooperative. Both cutting costs and providing excellent care, the co-ops will have dedicated insurance companies and your doctor will have half the typical patient load.
Organic Food Champion
Monsanto has a well-documented history of aggressively defending its genetically modified seeds. Organic farmer Jim Gerritsen is leading a lawsuit against the corporate agriculture giant on behalf of 270,000 family farmers, gardeners, and consumers who are suing to keep a portion of the world food supply free of genetic modification.
Stanford University cognitive scientist Lera Borditsky conducts groundbreaking research on how language shapes thoughts, making her a figure of controversy among traditional linguists like Noam Chomsky. Boroditsky makes the bold claim that “different languages invite speakers to develop different cognitive skills.”
Economist David Korten is building a framework for a new economy that puts money in its proper place. Drawing a distinction between real wealth and phantom wealth Korten sees placing money, which has no intrinsic value, above community and nature as an act of “collective insanity.”
Scientist and author Diana Beresford-Kroeger speaks for the trees. She has studied their environmental, medicinal, nutritional and even spiritual aspects, and she has a “bioplan” in which they could reforest and heal the planet.
A successful industrial chemist, John Warner helped found the field of green chemistry when he became concerned about artificial toxins in our environment, and in our bodies. Since then he’s done groundbreaking work in promoting a “benign by design” approach to his field.
Gary Paul Nabhan
Mother Nature's Foodie
A Lebanese American living in the Southwestern United States, Gary Paul Nabhan has for decades been writing, speaking, and doing research on the importance of local, sustainable food. His work has been vital to the current conversation about how we eat.
Heather Jarvis and Sonya JF Barnett
After hearing a Toronto officer tell women they shouldn’t dress like sluts if they don’t want to be raped, fed-up feminists Sonya JF Barnett and Heather Jarvis organized the protest march SlutWalk. Since then, SlutWalks have spread to every corner of the globe, drawing tens of thousands of walkers.
The Radical Architect
Architect Peter Williams, who knows firsthand that poor housing results in poor health, is on a mission to design healthy homes for impoverished communities in the UK; Cameroon; Saint-Marc, Haiti; and beyond, through his nonprofit Architecture for Health in Vulnerable Environments (ARCHIVE).
Driven to act for the wilderness and against climate change, activist Tim DeChristopher threw a monkey wrench into a federal auction for oil leases. He’s spending two years in prison, but in the process he’s become a folk hero to many greens.
Representative Keith Ellison
A make-no-apologies progressive surrounded by a party of “moderates‚” the nation’s first Muslim congressman believes true justice begins with tolerance—cultural, racial, and religious.
Dr. Tabatha Parker
A naturopathic doctor (ND) trained at National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, OR, Tabatha Parker sees NDs as perfectly trained to build bridges between modern Western medicine and traditional healing practices around the world. Her organization Natural Doctors International (NDI) is based in Nicaragua and has worked with the World Health Organization to broaden its understanding of natural medicine.
Parker J. Palmer
Founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, this public intellectual and author teaches citizens how to infuse their professional and public lives with purpose, passion, and integrity.
Iraq’s marshlands were drained by Saddam Hussein, leaving rich wildlife decimated and the region’s people cast from their homes. Hydraulic engineer Azzam Alwash is working to restore the life-giving waters through his program Nature Iraq.
A marine ecologist with a deft writer’s touch, Safina has plumbed the depths of the seas’ ecological peril in the books Song for the Blue Ocean and The View from Lazy Point, and he works to save them through his Blue Ocean Institute.
Despite death threats and other monumental challenges, Humira Saqeb launched the magazine Negah-e-Zan to offer a dose of empowerment to Afghani women. Amid war and repression, it is a brave beacon of hope.
If you care about the environment, you owe a debt to Debbie Sease. The Sierra Club’s national campaign director, she navigates the unnatural environs of Washington, D.C., with a savviness that has saved vast tracts of wilderness.
Once a homeless teenager, Orayne Williams earned a college scholarship. Not content with one success story, he wants to create others through his nonprofit Progressive People Movement Inc., which offers hope and help to at-risk teens.
Seeing her Alaskan native community threatened by climate change and oil extraction, Faith Gemmill formed REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands) to fight the fossil-fuel powers. A recent victory against Shell is a measure of the group’s strength.
Working on the front lines of AIDS research, University of Southern California microbiologist Paula Cannon is pursuing a treatment that could enable a patient’s own cells to beat back HIV. If it’s viable, it could be a lifesaver for millions.
As a writer for Grist and now Mother Jones, Tom Philpott draws links between your kitchen, your food sources, your government, and the earth. An organic farmer, he knows how to pull weeds as well as yank the chain of Big Ag.
Monica Vela, a doctor and an instructor at Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago, developed a course exploring how income, sexuality, and culture affect care—and how this could and should change.