Call them what you will: “Whistleblowers,” “radicals,” “heroes,” “libertarians,” “extremists,” or “traitors,” but despite the mixed bag of labels we seek to use to define them, their messages are always the same: action. Activists are the people on the front line putting their beliefs ahead of personal safety, security or financial gain. They are the people who are unafraid to stand-up for what they believe is right and just and refuse to remain silent in the face of confrontation. For many of us, the price to pay for living such a life on the front lines of justice is just too high. But for these individuals the reward of being heard and affecting change outweighs the life-changing risks.
Without activists for education, environment, peace and human rights, massive corporations and companies and government entities that often take the law into their own hands would continue unchecked. Without the voices brave enough to question and confront the issues of our day, we could well be living in a very different world. Below is a list of ten of some of the more important activists of the last ten years, whether we stand for or against them they are making a difference and opening our perceptions and understandings of the political landscape around us.
10. Malala Yousafzai – 16
As the youngest name on the list, Yousafzai has no doubt left an indelible imprint on the global fabric of activism over the last five years. At the age of 11, she defied the Taliban in her home of Mingora, Pakistan, with her strong beliefs that girls be allowed to receive equal education rights. She became an anonymous BBC blogger and her early activism brought her international recognition including an International Children’s Peace Prize in 2011. As a result of her work, though, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in 2012 on her way home from school. Not only has she survived a medically induced coma and multiple reparative surgeries, but her voice is stronger than ever, as she continues to pursue her purpose. She gave a speech at the United Nations in 2013, and published the autobiography ” I Am Yousafzai: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.” In 2013, the European Parliament awarded Yousafzai the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and she has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in both 2013 and 2014.
9. Edward Snowden – 30
Edward Snowden is a former National Security Agency employee who became an international and controversial name when he leaked secret information about the NSA’s surveillance activities. While some consider him a traitor, many consider him a hero for illuminating the invasive tactics used to survey American citizens. Born in North Carolina, Snowden has a background in computer programming and is considered, like Assange, an internet activist. In 2013, Snowden was charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified intelligence. Snowden currently hides out in Russia where the government has denied the U.S. government’s request for extradition. As of June 2013, more than 100,000 people had signed an online petition requesting that President Obama pardon Snowden.
8. Adam Kokesh – 32
This former Iraq war vet is now a peace activist and host of “Adam Vs. The Man” YouTube channel, which was picked up by Russia TV (RT) America in 2011. The show purports to provide a voice for the Millennial generation, challenging authority and biased media. Kokesh, born in San Francisco, gained notoriety after his 2013 arrest following a flash-mob silent dance at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., alongside other activists, in the name of free speech. The viral video of what is universally considered a disturbing arrest gave Kokesh further opportunity to rise as a political voice dedicated to the pursuit of peace and individual liberty. In 2013, Kokesh forayed into the movie biz with his portrayal of an army sergeant in “The Prey.” He was recently sentenced to two years probation for a July 4 political stunt with a loaded shot-gun, while protesting firearm possession laws in D.C.
7. Emmanuel Jal – 33
Jal is a south Sudanese musician, peace activist and former child soldier whose autobiography “War Child: A Child Soldier’s Story” was published in 2009. He began his life with the rebel army at 7-years-old, before eventually escaping with hundreds of fellow soldiers of whom only 16, including Jal, survived. Upon arrival at a refugee camp, Jal was adopted by an English aid-worker and moved to England. These days, as a recording artist, Jal provides a voice of hope for those struggling through the chaos of war. His work as a peace activist includes alignment with many African charities such as Amnesty International, where he fights against poverty and for child welfare. He has been featured by Ted Global in 2009, and in 2014 Jal received the Dresden Peace Prize for his ongoing work to protect children in Africa against military abuses.
6. Severn Cullis-Suzuki – 34
Vancouver, Canada born environmental activist, speaker, TV host and author Severn Cullis-Suzuki is the daughter of long-time Canuck icon and environmental activist David Suzuki. Following in her father’s footsteps, the younger Suzuki has been a public face since age 12. She stood her ground in the international spotlight as a youngster with her speech at the Rio Earth Summit. She has since been a global speaker on a wide variety of environmental topics and issues. In 2000, she bicycled across Canada to raise awareness on climate change and pollution. The following year she and a team of other like-minds developed the Skyfish Project, a youth-oriented “think tank” that gave a presentation at the 2002 United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development. As an author, Cullis-Suzuki has published a number of books including “Notes From Canada’s Young Activists.” She is a board member for her father’s namesake Foundation and the Haida Gwaii Higher Education Society.
5. Aksana Panova – 39
This young Russian-born political activist has been stirring the dictator’s pot in Russia as the editor of a web publication www.znak.com in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg. She was behind a series of witty ad campaigns that graffitied the face of Russian politicians over pot holes in the city until the poor road conditions were improved. Panova’s boyfriend Yevgeny Roizman is another political activist who shocked nearly everyone in 2013, no doubt including Putin himself, when he won his campaign for mayor in Yekaterinburg despite his opposition to the ruling government. Panova was charged with a number of criminal offences after her stand against the government corruption in her city and in January of 2014 she was charged with extortion and banned for two years from practicing journalism. Panova has claimed the charges as false. She and boyfriend Roizman were subjects in a 2014 CBC documentary television series Doc Zone episode titled, “Defying Putin.”
4. Julian Assange – 42
Assange is one of the most well-known names on this list, recognized internationally as the Founder of Wikileaks, a whistleblowing website dedicated to globally sharing otherwise confidential information. Born in Townsville, Australia, Assange has a genius IQ and a history of computer programming and hacking behind him. In 2010 he was named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” His site has leaked documents on a huge array of topics from Peruvian oil scandals to the Church of Scientology, climate research and U.S. military prison operations at Guantanamo Bay. Assange is currently tied to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, on political asylum. He is currently under investigation by the Swedish government after allegations of 2 cases of sexual assault. A movie about his life, “The Fifth Estate” was released in 2013, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
3. Gary Yourofsky – 43
As of 2014, Detroit-born animal rights activist Gary Yourofsky has stated on his website to have hosted over 2,495 lectures to more than 60,000 people at 180 schools in 30 U.S. states. His YouTube video “Best Speech You Will Ever Hear” has been translated into more than 30 languages and has garnered over 7 million viewers on YouTube. The pro-vegan activist is especially popular in Israel following the video’s publication. Lecturing these days is a lighter approach to Yourofsky’s activism that in the past has included numerous arrests. He is currently banned from five countries and one of his more memorable pro-animal rights acts was his liberation of over 1500 minks from an Ontario, Canada fur farm in 1997. The same year, Yourofsky founded Animals Deserve Absolute Protection Today and Tomorrow (ADAPTT), a vegan organization opposed to any usage of animals and later resigned from the position due to financial troubles. He has been sponsored by PETA, and in 2012 part of his speech on veganism was featured in the 2012 anti-speciesism movie, “The Superior Human?”
2. Abdullah Ocalan – 66
Ocalan is the Kurdish leader and founder of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which has fought for nearly 30 years in an armed struggle against the state of Turkey in support of political and cultural rights alongside self-determination for Turkish Kurds. Ocalan has been in a Turkish prison outside of Istanbul for over 15 years. During, and despite, this incarceration, Ocalan has established a blueprint for peace, non-violence and gender equality that commits the Kurdish people to tolerance, freedom and democracy. Renowned UK activist Margaret Owen is one of Ocalan’s greatest supporters. After a recent solidarity trip to Kurdistan in 2014 she has expressed her witness to Ocalan’s philosophy taking root in Rojava, where residents determination and self-reliance has driven al-Qaeda forces out of the area, and their policies, authored by Ocalan, include a secured peace deal between the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and Turkey.
1. Navanethem Pillay – 73
In 2008, Pillay took up the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. A South African national, Pillay has dedicated a lifetime to activism beginning as the first non-white woman to open a law practice in her home town. Later, she was a judge of the High Court of South Africa. Over the 28 year career as a lawyer, she defended anti-apartheid activists and helped bring to light the use of torture and deplorable conditions for political detainees. For eight years she served as a judge with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, as elected by the UN General Assembly. In this role, Pillay helped establish that rape and sexual assault be determined acts of genocide. She has received numerous awards and accolades for her dedication to women’s and human rights. In 2012 she was given a second two-year term in her current UN position, and in the same year she signed a document in support of gender identity and equality. She has voiced support for a gay rights resolution in the UN Human Rights Council, which was approved in 2011.