The Activist Awards


The annual Academy Awards Gala, viewed by one billion people worldwide, is scheduled for the evening of March 2, 2014. Motion pictures and the people who act in and produce them are center stage. Apart from the documentaries, this is a glittering evening of “make-believe” and “make business.”

Now suppose our country had another Academy Awards Gala for citizen heroes – those tiny numbers of Americans who are working successfully fulltime in nonprofit groups to advance access to justice, general operations of our faltering democratic society, and the health, safety, and economic well-being of all citizens. .

This must sound unexciting in comparison with the intensity of the world of film. Until you see what these unsung people do in your local communities, your state, and your country. Then let’s see if you think what my choice of civic heroes do every day isn’t exciting. They are selected because they work in groups associated either directly or indirectly with me over the course of several decades.

1. Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety and an engineer and lawyer. Mr. Ditlow has forced the auto companies to recall millions of defective motor vehicles, has brought auto companies to justice on many occasions in courts of law, and puts out volumes of information to inform elected representatives and the public about the need for stronger federal regulation of the resisting auto industry.

2. Jamie Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International. As a mere high school graduate, he stunned specialists with the brilliance of his written analysis of energy subjects in Alaska. Mr. Love has been on the move all over the world challenging the tax-subsidized, highly profitable drug companies to stop gouging millions of patient-victims with “pay or die” marketing schemes. Big Pharma endured a rare defeat when Mr. Love convinced Ministers of Health and Dr. Yusuf Hamied, head of India’s CIPLA Pharmaceutical, in 2001 to break the $10,000 per patient per year drug treatment for AIDS and bring the cost down to $300 per year (http://fireintheblood.com).

3. Dr. Michael Jacobson was a young PhD student in biochemistry at MIT when I interviewed him for a position with us. I told him we were looking for long-termers. He nodded. Nearly forty-five years later, Dr. Jacobson, having started the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has done more than anyone to document and brightly publicize enjoyable nutritional diets with less salt, sugar and fat. His Center knows how to communicate. Nutrition Action goes to 90,000 subscribers. He sends messages to your stomach in order to stimulate your mind.

4. Al Fritsch, another scientist PhD, joined us at the same time as did Michael Jacobson. He didn’t spend much time in Washington before he returned to his home region of Appalachia where he started the Appalachia Center for Science in the Public Interest. Applied science and technology, as if people mattered most, was his credo. He pioneered simple, old and new ways – for example, to preserve the land and forest, make the drinking water safe, and grow more food – that he conveyed to local people of all ages who then became community scientists innovating themselves.

5. Lois Gibbs started as a mother and housewife until she saw what the chemicals seeping through the ground of their middle-income housing project in Niagara Falls were doing to residents, especially children. She then became unstoppable, moving from protesting for a cleanup to starting theCenter for Health, Environment and Justice in 1981 with chapters and activists all over the country taking on and often winning the battle against the silent violence of reckless industries.

6. Dr. Sidney Wolfe founded with me the Health Research Group of Public Citizen. Do you want to see what a small group of half a dozen people can accomplish in getting rid of hundreds of prescription and over the counter drugs “that don’t work?” Or do you want to learn how Dr. Wolfe has kept the Food and Drug Administration’s feet to the fire and held many doctors accountable to professional standards? Or how about investigating scores of harmful conditions bred by the avarice or incompetence of the medical/hospital/drug industry complex (http://www.citizen.org/healthletter)?

7. Joan Claybrook, went from heading our immense Congress project, that issued magazine-sized profiles of every member of Congress going for re-election in 1972, to running the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for President Jimmy Carter, and then to the presidency of Public Citizen for nearly thirty years without missing a beat. The auto companies called her “the Dragon Lady.” A fixture on Capitol Hill, she roared down the corridors on behalf of safety protections for millions of Americans.

8. Karen Ferguson started, a few years out of Harvard Law School, with my help the Pension Rights Center (PRC) in 1976. Karen and her staff dedicated themselves completely to being a watchdog of Congress, the Department of Labor, and a myriad of corporations, proposing legislative and regulatory changes and responding to the growing crisis of declining or looted traditional pensions for millions of workers. One of the biggest economic injustices in our economy is the loss or shredding of defined benefit pensions which either aren’t being replaced or are replaced by exploitable 401(k)s. Trillions of dollars and millions of families are affected – luckily, the PRC and Ms. Ferguson are there year in and year out.

9. Robert Fellmeth in 1970 brought hundreds of eager law students from Harvard and other law schools to work with us. In a short time he authored or co-authored three large books, then went to California to become a prosecutor, then combined a career as law professor, litigator and leading public advocate for children through his Children’s Advocacy Institute. No one can ever outwork or out-produce Fellmeth. His example has prompted his associates to coin the word “Fellmethian.” His emphasis on children – protection, legislation, lawsuits, exposes, and a unique annual California Children’s Budget only provide a glimmer of this creative civic giant’s prodigious successes.

10. Robert Vaughn, when in his mid-twenties, chose our project on the federal civil servants. His work became a book titled The Spoiled System (1975). Over forty years later he teaches at American University Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C., is an expert on civil servant law and is the world’s leading authority on whistle-blowing in dozens of countries (see The Successes and Failures of Whistleblower Laws, Edward Elgar, 2012). He has inspired hundreds of law students in treating law as justice and practicing along that pathway.

11. John Richard, has worked with us since 1979 becoming a peerless networker and adviser for citizen groups, their leaders and staff on all kinds of subjects. In his thirty-five years, he has participated in more gatherings and action meetings on more topics than anyone. This has nourished the wisdom of his assistance to scores of civic advocates who seek his help. Mr. Richard avoids taking any credit but his daily low-key pushing forward of the train of justice speaks for itself.

These people of significance, and many more stalwarts who labor in the vineyards of a better life for all Americans, receive far less public attention than cartoon characters, misbehaving entertainers and athletes, and carousing politicians.

The more difficult, despairing, and overburdened are the livelihoods of millions of hard-pressed Americans, the more they spend time becoming spectators of mass entertainment and sports as a distraction and relief from their painful and desperate situations.

A drama-filled activist award night for civic courage and creativity will inspire millions of viewers to try their hand at operating the levers of power for the good of our society. And what is more dramatic than real life struggles and successes for justice against the bullies, the greedhounds and the authoritarians who presently make up the few who rule the many?

Dare it be said that the more people immerse themselves in learning about these heroics, the more compelling will be their civic interest and passion. Certainly there is more meaning to their daily lives than watching “make-believe” or someone putting a ball in a hoop or into the ground.

Where is the enlightened billionaire who can launch such a televised national activist awards evening for the greatest work of humans on Earth – which is advancing justice?

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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