3 people share how their commitment to activism helped them make a difference—and changed their lives
Their stories are the bright spots in the news. Sandwiched between crime bulletins and exposés on the latest corporate scandal are tales of men and women who have dedicated their lives to a cause, giving up their own wealth and, in some cases, risking their own well-being to help others.
It seems that as the world's problems grow, so too do the number of people willing to fight them. "There are more and more folks, particularly in the baby-boomer generation, who want and are willing to make dramatic life changes to pursue personal activism," says Portland, Oregon-based activist, counselor, and author Doris Colmes. "These are the people who can—and are—making a real difference in the world."
Following are profiles of three baby boomers, all now in their 50s, who have committed themselves to bringing about positive change, whether through environmental activism or helping others in need. Their stories show how one person can indeed make a real difference—and change his or her own life for the better while doing it.
Occupation: Toxic avenger
Hometown: Seadrift, Texas
"I am a real quiet person," says Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation shrimper and mother of five. "For most of my life, I had a horrible reluctance to talk in public." In fact, Diane Wilson used to be the type of woman who didn't rock the boat.
All of that changed in 1989, however, when Wilson learned from a newspaper article that Calhoun County in Texas—the place she has called home her entire life—was polluted with more polyvinyl chlorides and other toxic chemicals than any other county in the United States. The news explained why Wilson and other locals could no longer earn a living shrimping and fishing and why the county had extraordinarily high cancer rates. "That was the first time this information had ever been made public," she says. "I was totally shocked."
Unable to sit quietly while corporate polluters continued wreaking havoc on her community, Wilson took action—and before she knew it, launched a second career as a successful grassroots environmental activist. Since 1989, Wilson has taken on Formosa Plastics, Union Carbide, Alcoa, DuPont, and other corporations spewing toxic pollution into the air and water surrounding the Texas Gulf Coast.
At first Wilson tried holding meetings, circulating petitions, and staging demonstrations, but her small community simply wouldn't back her. Too many people worked for or were otherwise connected to the corporate polluters. "I come from a county where people's lives are so linked to industry," Wilson says. "The industry people sit on the board of directors of the bank and are involved with the hospitals, schools, and churches. Everybody felt threatened by me publicly standing up." The lack of support forced Wilson to go it alone.
Using hunger strikes and daring acts of civil disobedience—including attempting to sink her 42-foot shrimping boat on top of one of the pipes pumping record amounts of toxins into one of the area bays—Wilson vowed to have her message heard. And she did. In 1997, after years of intense fighting, Wilson single-handedly convinced Formosa Plastics to agree to achieve zero wastewater emissions into the waters surrounding the Texas Gulf Coast. Not long afterward, Alcoa Aluminum signed a similar zero-discharge agreement for its Calhoun County plant.
Throughout all this, Wilson continued fishing and raising her five children. "All of my activism work is done on a volunteer basis," she says. "I have never received a paycheck, but I like that I do this just because I want to." Wilson, who founded the Calhoun County Resource Watch in her hometown of Seadrift, Texas, is now working with other environmental groups to pressure more polluting companies to adhere to zero-discharge policies. "People love the [zero-discharge] concept because we're not just against something—we have a solution," Wilson says.
Wilson has fought for other causes as well. In August 2002, she joined activists from India and other parts of the world on a 30-day hunger strike to protest the official response to the 1984 chemical leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, that killed at least 15,000 people. (Participants aimed their protest at the Indian government's efforts to reduce the stronger criminal manslaughter charges against former Union Carbide Chairman Warren Anderson to charges of simple negligence.) In November 2002, Wilson again participated in a 40-day hunger strike in Washington, D.C., this time to voice her opposition to an American-led attack on Iraq.
Of course, Wilson's activism has cost her. Her husband left her because she had changed from a quiet shrimper into a vocal activist, and she's made quite a few enemies throughout Texas, including some in her own family. "My brother told me he never wanted to talk to me again," Wilson says. "I've had a lot of difficulties because I've chosen to stand up to the polluters." Wilson even lost her beloved fishing boat. Although the Coast Guard stopped Wilson from sinking the boat onto one of the Formosa Plastics pipes, she ended up having to dispose of the vessel anyway because she had given away its motor. "I absolutely intended to sink that boat," Wilson says. "After I got the boat back, I didn't have an engine, and the shrimping business was so bad I couldn't afford to buy a new one. So I laid it to rest."
Despite these hardships, Wilson says she doesn't have a single regret. "This work has made me who I am and I'm happier than I've ever been." Through her years as a toxic avenger, Wilson has also learned that one person can create positive, sustainable change. "If people realized the enormous difference they could make in the world by committing to something and being willing to take on a little risk, we'd have a lot more people doing what I'm doing."
Occupation: Friend of the trees
Hometown: Portland, Oregon
It wasn't a midlife crisis. It wasn't a need to drastically shake up her life. It was a growing concern for Mother Earth that in 1999 caused Jane Foreman to trade in her $73,000 salary, custom-built home, and Lexus automobile for a new life as an environmental activist.
"I have a 16-year-old son, and I wonder what the world will be like when he is my age," says Foreman, now the executive director of Friends of Trees, a nonprofit group dedicated to planting urban trees in Portland, Oregon. "What will the world be like for his children? Will they have clean water to drink? Or will they be killing each other for food and water because we've depleted all of our natural resources?"
This line of questioning—coupled with a growing realization that material wealth really didn't mean all that much to her—spurred Foreman to leave her job as a top hospital administrator to search for more meaningful work. Two books, Repacking Your Bags by Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro (Berrett-Koehler, 1995) and Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin (Viking, 1992), along with two trips to Africa, sealed the deal. "Reading these books and meeting the Masai people of Africa, who live in dire poverty but are so happy and full of life, made me realize that money and possessions are not the key to happiness," Foreman says. "They set me on the path to where I am today."
Where she is today is at the helm of a community-based organization whose mission is to plant, care for, and educate the public about the importance of city trees. "We are losing our urban trees faster than we are losing trees in the rain forest," Foreman says. "Most people don't understand what workhorses trees are for the environment. They are pretty much the lungs and kidneys of the earth." Trees also appear to have a calming effect on the human spirit, Foreman says. "Studies show that on school grounds where trees are planted there is a lower incidence of aggressive behavior." Since its inception in 1989, Friends of Trees and its army of 4,000 volunteers have planted 230,000 trees each year. More important, the organization has gotten the word out about how trees can contribute to mental and physical health.
Now that she's making about half what she made as a hospital administrator, Foreman has had to change her lifestyle dramatically. She replaced her luxury car with a fuel-efficient hybrid vehicle, gave up buying expensive clothes and makeup, and halted her newspaper and magazine subscriptions. She rarely eats out and can't afford luxury vacations. "I don't regret most of what I've had to give up because I've found those were things I never really needed," Foreman says. "The one thing that has been a sacrifice, however, has been the loss of travel. I admit that has hurt a bit."
Since joining Friends of Trees, Foreman has also become more conscious about conserving natural resources—thanks in large part to the staff and volunteers at the organization. "I have learned so much from them and have drastically changed so many of my behaviors," Foreman says. Case in point: Foreman no longer flushes the toilet after each use or buys products that come with a lot of packaging or that she knows will end up in a landfill a few years from now. "I resist making purchases unless I absolutely need them," Foreman says. "I reuse and recycle as much as possible, and I encourage others to do the same."
This friend of the trees says these small sacrifices are nothing compared to the satisfaction she gets from her work to save the planet from environmental destruction. "One person alone can't change the world, but I believe we all have a responsibility to try," Foreman says. "And I am trying."
Occupation: Humanitarian activist and explorer
Hometown: Colorado Springs, Colorado
Walking across Tanzania on a journey to retrace the steps of the celebrated explorer Henry Morton Stanley, Jim Owens was struck by an idea that has now become his calling: bringing educational textbooks and medical supplies to the impoverished people living in the country's rural villages.
"The Tanzanians are some of the warmest and nicest people in the world, and they are not shy about asking for help," says the former Peace Corps volunteer and longtime business owner who is now a full-time explorer and humanitarian activist.
Owens, who has walked more than 6,000 miles during his five expeditions across Africa, has battled cerebral malaria twice and given up his business career to help the people of Tanzania. "I was bitten by the Africa bug as a Peace Corps volunteer 32 years ago and I've never been able to shake it," Owens says. "I have been willing to give up anything that resembles a normal life to do this work because I get so much satisfaction from it."
During his first African expedition, in 1990, Owens led a handful of people on a 90-day, 1,032-mile journey across Tanzania to retrace Stanley's 1871 search for the missing missionary Dr. David Livingstone. Since then, Owens has led four similar treks, including an ultra-ambitious duplication of Stanley's search for the source of the Nile. At first, Owens' motivations were strictly personal. The adventurer wanted to be the first person in history to retrace Stanley's footsteps, and he sold his 12-year-old silk-screening business to fund the quest. However, Owens quickly added a humanitarian component to his trips when he and his teammates experienced firsthand the poverty crushing Tanzania's rural villages. "We are going places nobody goes on these expeditions," Owens says. "I would go to the village medical clinics, but the shelves were bare. We had more [medical] supplies in my camp than entire villages had."
Unable to turn his back on the gracious and suffering people he encountered, Owens began bringing much-needed supplies to distribute on his expeditions. In 2001, for example, Owens and his team of explorers passed out analgesics, bandages, geography textbooks, toys, soccer balls, and 1,500 toothbrushes during their thousand-mile hike across Tanzania. The group also planted trees and renovated a school while in Africa.
"We've come to the conclusion that this is the best way we can help," says Owens. "You can't believe the gratitude that is shown to us when we give someone a bottle of Advil." Sponsors donate some of the medical supplies and educational materials Owens brings to Africa. Owens and his team members purchase what is not donated.
The adventurer has faced horror and hardship during his humanitarian treks. During an expedition in 1994, Owens and his teammates encountered the bodies of thousands of slaughtered Rwandans, all victims of the tribal genocide that had swept across the warring country that year. In 1998, just finished with a 1,500-mile trek, Owens walked into the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, as a bomb planted by Osama bin Laden's terrorist network exploded. Owens is still recuperating from his injuries (he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome and is legally deaf in his right ear as a result of the explosion) and in October filed a $30 million civil lawsuit against Iran and Sudan for aiding bin Laden.
Owens plans to host another expedition this summer and one next year before he retires. But when he stops walking across Africa, he won't be giving up his humanitarian efforts. Instead, Owens plans to move to Tanzania permanently and use the money he hopes to gain from his lawsuit to renovate and build schools throughout the country. Even if he doesn't win the lawsuit, Owens says he plans to do everything he can to raise money for and help the people living in the country he has grown to love. "I have a chance to single-handedly raise the level of education in Tanzania, and that is what I intend to do."
Carlotta Mast is a freelance writer and volunteer court advocate. "The time I spend helping battered women navigate the legal system is my favorite part of each week," she says. "Like the inspiring activists I interviewed for this article, I wouldn't trade this work for anything."