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12 People Who Made a Difference (and You Can Too!)

Can one person truly make a difference in the world?

Far too many people think not, and thus they sell themselves far too short. A wave of pessimism leads capable people to underestimate the power of their voice and the strength of their ideals. The truth is this: it is the initiatives of deeply caring people that provide the firmament for our democracy.

Take a sweeping look at history and you will discover that almost all movements that mattered started with just one or two people—from the fight to abolish slavery, to the creations of the environmental, trade union, consumer protection and civil rights movements. One voice becomes two, and then ten, and then thousands.

It’s fitting that this time of year marks the 79th anniversary of the sit-down strike in Flint Michigan, in which thousands of workers sat down in a General Motors factory to fight for recognition of the newly formed United Auto Workers (UAW) union. On February 11, 1937, General Motors conceded to raising wages and labor standards and recognizing the UAW, a major win for unionization in the United States.

This is an aspect of the American story that most people love and celebrate, yet sadly are quick to dismiss as being improbable in today’s partisan, corporate-dominated world.  But, as I often say, real change is easier than you think.

The following twelve men and women maximized their power as citizens to improve the lives of millions of people in real, tangible ways. Let their stories serve as an inspiration to you in the coming year.

1. Lois Gibbs. Lois Gibbs lived with her family in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, NY when news of the toxic contamination beneath their feet made local headlines. Lois organized her neighbors into what was known as the Love Canal Homeowners Association. Her movement grew to become the country’s largest grassroots anti-toxic movement. She later founded the Center for Health, Environment & Justice.

2. Ralf Hotchkiss. I first met Ralf at Oberlin College over 40 years ago where he was majoring in physics and moving about the campus in a wheelchair after a bicycle accident when he was in high school rendered him paraplegic. Recognizing a need for low-cost, sustainable and versatile wheelchairs, he startedWhirlwind Wheelchair to teach people around the world how to manufacture their own wheelchairs in small shop facilities.

3. Clarence Ditlow. Once described by The New York Times as “the splinter the [auto] industry cannot remove from its thumb” Clarence Ditlow is an engineer, lawyer and the Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety. He has been responsible for car companies initiating millions of lifesaving recalls, and was instrumental in the passage of “lemon laws” in all 50 states, which compensate consumers for defective automobiles

4. Al Fritsch.  A Jesuit priest and PhD, Al Fritsch was the environmental consultant at the Center for the Study of Responsive Law in Washington DC before returning to his roots in Appalachia to start the Appalachia Center for Science in the Public Interest. Using applied science and technology, Al Fritsch is a driving force for sustainability and maintaining a healthy planet.

5. Ray Anderson. The late Ray Anderson was founder and CEO of Interface, the world’s largest modular carpet manufacturing firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. Disturbed by the hugely damaging effects of industry on the environment, he shifted his company’s directive to “make peace with the planet.” With the ultimate goal of zero pollution and 100% recycling for his company, he managed to move toward these objectives while reducing expenses year after year and increasing profits. Why aren’t more CEOs following his example?

6. Annie Leonard. With her widely successful Story of Stuff project, Annie Leonard scoured the world for the stories that tell the tale of where our throwaway economy is leading us (hint: it doesn’t have a happy ending.) Her imaginative 20 minute Story of Stuff film has been watched and shared online by millions, and was turned into a book, and an ongoing website. She is now the Executive Director of Greenpeace.

7. Wenonah Hauter. As the founder and Director of Food & Water Watch, Wenonah has fought tirelessly for the future of our food, water, energy and environment. A relentless organizer, author and activist, she is a champion in getting citizens involved in issues that matter most―the things we put in our bodies.

8. Rev. Dr. William J. Barber. The Rev. William Barber walks with a cane but he is making big strides for justice and equality through his organizing of “Moral Mondays” protests, which first started in North Carolina.  The protests started as a response to the “mean-spirited quadruple attack” on the most vulnerable members of our society.  In the tradition of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Rev. Barber is fighting restrictions on voting and for improvements in labor laws.  In addition to his work as a minister, Rev. Barber is the President of the North Carolina NAACP.

9. Michael Mariotte For over 30 years, Michael Mariotte has been a leader in successful movements against nuclear power in the United States. As the President of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), Michael has testified before Congress and spoken in countries around the world against the dangers of nuclear power and its radioactive byproducts.

10. David Halperin. David is a tenacious advocate and tireless worker for justice who has launched several advocacy organizations and projects such as Progressive Networks, The American Constitution Society and Campus Progress.  Nothing gives him greater joy than thwarting those with positions of power in our society who seek to profit from unjust practices. Most recently, Attorney Halperin has focused his considerable talents on exposing the predatory and deceptive practices of for-profit colleges.

11. Sid Wolfe. Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe and I started the Public Citizen Health Research Group in 1971 to promote good health-care policy and drug safety.  Dr. Wolfe, through his Worst Pills, Best Pills books, newsletters and outreach via the Phil Donahue show, has exposed by brand names hundreds of ineffective drugs with harmful side effects which were removed from the marketplace.

12. Dolores Huerta.  A legendary activist, Dolores Heurta co-founded the United Farm Workers Union with Cesar Chavez in the 1960’s and has a long history of fighting for social change, worker’s rights and civil justice. She was rightfully awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, amongst many other awards and recognitions.

Our country has more problems than it should tolerate and more solutions than it uses. Don’t allow cynicism to silence your voice―people matter, you matter, and systemic change will only happen when citizens speak out, gather, and believe in themselves and their ideals.

More articles by:

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

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