25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World
Nelson Mandela didn’t always look like a visionary. In fact, for 27 years, he simply looked like a prisoner, locked up in South African jail cells for his antiapartheid activism. But what seemed like a long exercise in futility is now the stuff of legend: After his release in 1990 he became his country’s president, and today he’s celebrated not as an outlaw but as an icon of commitment and compassion.
Fortunately, visionary thinkers aren’t always imprisoned, but they are often ridiculed, marginalized, or just plain dismissed for proposing big ideas that may sound outlandish to others. Get people to invest in local food systems? Good luck with that. Identify and dismantle the roots of violence? Sure you will. Create a global grassroots movement to halt climate change? Very funny.
Yet these are just a few of the lofty, laudable, and reachable goals of the 25 forward thinkers featured on the following pages. Instead of pushing these women and men to the edges, as our politics and media often do, we aim to celebrate their courage and encourage both admiration and emulation.
The 2010 Utne Reader Visionaries come from many backgrounds and disciplines. What they have in common is that rare ability to dream of a better future–so vividly and so passionately–that it inspires them and others to action. For, as Nelson Mandela proved beyond a doubt, the only thing that can stop forward progress is resignation.
The Sunshine Kid
Launched in 2007, WikiLeaks publishes classified documents–like the Apache helicopter video film of the shooting of the Reuters newsmen–that would otherwise never see the light of day. A notorious Australian ex-hacker, Julian Assange is only one of a dozen, mostly anonymous, people who helped set up the site, but he’s become the face of WikiLeaks and a tireless proponent of exposing the ruling class’s dirty secrets. Read more >>
The Smartest Guy in the Room
“If you’re entertaining people, you can say almost anything you want,” declares documentarian Alex Gibney, offering an aptly playful description of his hard-hitting, info-jammed, message-minded cinema. From Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) through this year’s Casino Jack and the United States of Money and the new Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Gibney coats his bitter pills with the sugar of dark comedy, as the men too big to fail–the men in whom we ordinary schmoes invest our trust, if not our cash–inevitably slip on banana peels.Read more>>
For many of us, sex education consisted of half-truths whispered in the school cafeteria or movies in health class that suggested abstinence and heterosexuality were our only options. In 2009 Tani Ikeda, a new graduate of the University of Southern California (USC) film program, posed the question What would happen if young women took sexual health education into their own hands?Read more>>
The Silver Cloud
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, media outlets too often portrayed survivors as helpless victims or barbaric looters, not only propagating public fear and panic but also painting a distorted portrait of disaster-stricken areas. When an earthquake devastated Haiti five years later, reporters followed the same narrative thread. Activist and author Rebecca Solnit is telling a different story, a story of strength and resilience.Read more>>
Teacher of the Years
The curriculum for K-12 education looks like a vast encyclopedia of human knowledge, notes Kieran Egan, a professor of educational theory at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University. Unfortunately, the information students learn often fades away after only a few years–even if they manage to do well on tests. He posits that this is a result of an education system that values breadth over depth. In his new book Learning in Depth, Egan offers a solution, arguing for an ambitious but simple change in curriculum. Read more>>
When it comes to developing the technical infrastructure of the 21st century, economists tend to look to upscale R&D labs, high-tech universities, and big-buck venture capitalists. Business professor Anil Gupta has a radically different vision, one he calls G2G, or “grassroots to global.” Read more>>
Woody Tasch believes that local, sustainable food is a good investment: in our communities, our land, our health, and, if all goes well, our pocketbooks. Tasch is the founder of the Slow Money Alliance, which aims to get a million Americans to invest 1 percent of their assets in local food systems in the next decade. Read more>>
A Scientist’s Scientist
Every year, U.S. research facilities spend billions on equipment–and dump last year’s models in the landfill. Many of the castoffs are perfectly usable, according to Nina Dudnik. “Equipment upgrades are not so much key functionalities as bells and whistles,” she says. Meanwhile, university labs in developing nations are starved for basic equipment. As a student at Harvard University, Dudnik founded Seeding Labs to address the disparity. Read more>>
More than 8,000 chemicals were used to make the clothes in your closet. Approximately 1,800 gallons of fresh water were used to manufacture the jeans you’re wearing right now. All-too-commonplace numbers like these make it clear that the fashion industry needs an eco-makeover. Natalia Allen is up for the challenge. Read more>>
In 2004 Americans gaped in shame and anger at images of nude, hooded prisoners heaped on top of one another, menaced with dogs or forced to masturbate by members of the U.S. armed forces at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Major media outlets soon settled on an angle for the story: Those responsible for the abuse–keen to exploit Islamic taboos on public nudity and homosexuality–cruelly crafted methods of torture to disgrace conservative Muslims. In her recent book Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler retells this story but boldly revises the conclusion.Read more>>
At the beginning of 2010, about 10 percent of all U.S. home owners with a mortgage were at least one month behind on payments, according to statistics compiled by the Mortgage Bankers Association, with the percentages far higher in some counties and among subprime mortgage holders. And the number of new foreclosures remains roughly double the rate of five years ago, according to the New York Federal Reserve. All of this serves as a backdrop to a successful foreclosure diversion program launched in 2008 and led by Annette Rizzo, a judge in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas. Read more>>
The Virtual Patron
Creative artists typically have just three methods for funding projects: They can attempt to infiltrate the marketplace through gatekeepers like galleries, publishers, or recording labels; they can appeal to nonprofits and foundations that superimpose their own agendas on artistic goals; or they can wait tables. With Kickstarter, Perry Chen envisions a fourth paradigm. The idea is simple: Artists pitch their idea with a video on the Kickstarter website. Read more>>
Michelle Ajamian and Brandon Jaeger
Local Food Lovers
Excited about the burgeoning local foods movement, Michelle Ajamian and Brandon Jaeger took a close look at the food they ate. To figure out how to build a regional system for staple foods–including storage and transportation–Ajamian and Jaeger established the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative in 2008. This year they opened Shagbark Seed and Mill, a prototype processing facility, at the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks in Athens. Read more>>
Sharing is one of the first things we learn as small children, yet capitalism suggests that we set it aside as a naive notion: It’s every man for himself.Elinor Ostrom is one of the first social scientists to specifically study the things we share–from oceans and forests to roads and money systems–and breathe fresh life into an old term: the commons.Read more>>
Her Body, Their Chemicals
A scientist, poet, and cancer survivor, Steingraber makes a passionate and lyrical case for eliminating carcinogens, which are ubiquitous in our environment. A movie based on her book Living Downstream was released in spring 2010. Read more>>
Instead of reheating failed job-creation strategies like tax breaks for corporations, Howard’s Democracy Collaborative helps low-income workers build democratic, worker-owned companies that offer living-wage jobs in America’s depressed cities–and a personal stake in America’s future. Read more>>
Home Health Advocate
MacArthur “genius award” winner Onie runs Project HEALTH, which enlists college students, many pre-med, as volunteer social workers who connect low-income people to housing, heating assistance, and other nonmedical resources vital to health. Read more>>
A simple lack of menstrual pads keeps many women and girls in developing nations home from work and school. Scharpf’s Sustainable Health Enterprises supports entrepreneurs in Rwanda and other countries in devising sustainable pads. Read more>>
Petroff’s Working Villages International provides support and know-how to economically and environmentally sustainable practices in developing countries. Four years into the project, the model village of Ruzizi, Congo, supplies the region with organic produce. Read more>>
An early political blogger, Barry has built a massive network for ecological change. His “global grassroots advocacy” adds muscle to local environmental fights all over the planet, and when mainstream green groups fall short, he speaks up. Read more>>
Biologist Ewald researches the link between infections and cancers, hypothesizing that, as in cervical and liver cancer, there’s a causal link between viruses and other forms of the deadly disease. His radical hypothesis: Simply preventing the spread of viral infection could lead to a lasting cure. Read more>>
The promise of a post-racial society is premature, Wise argues in his book Colorblind. This activist, who cut his teeth on the campus-based antiapartheid movement, observes that because race is still a key factor in American disparities, economic and otherwise, it demands head-on confrontation. Read more>>
Sophocles’ tragedies explore the mental scars of battle. Under a U.S. Defense Department contract, Doerries’ Theater of War brings them to life for modern soldiers and their families to facilitate healing discussions about deep-seated war wounds. Read more>>
Victoria Pettibone and Sasha Eden
Women writers, directors, and producers are grossly underrepresented in film and theater; Pettibone and Eden established the organization WET Productions to advance women in the industry and to challenge stereotypes. Read more>>
Voice of Reason, Man of Action
Bill McKibben basically invented the job title “climate change expert”: He wrote the first general-audience book on the subject back in 1989. Since then, he has continued to draw awareness to the predicament in a prodigious stream of books, articles, and media appearances, always coming off as reasoned and authoritative even when climate-change deniers attempt to paint those who bring this message as unhinged and alarmist.Read more>>
Old Hollywood’s Forgotten Filmmaker
Take a closer look at James Stuart Blackton, a revolutionary filmmaker in old Hollywood who has received little credit.
The Elimination of Fires in the United States
Follow the history of fire suppression in the United States and see how it became the norm in a country where periodic fires were common.
Structural Roots of Food System Inequalities
Take a look into the past, how the food pathways were carved out and the after effects consumers are still facing.