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Die-hard Do-Gooders

6 People who Made the World Better

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • December 30, 2020

An Altruistic Aptitude

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world

Over the course of her short life, Anne Frank didn't have the chance to realize her full potential, but this quote taken from her diary certainly demonstrates that she had a strong desire to make improvements in society. It also does a wonderful job of summing up the theme of this post. As we take stock of the past year and look forward to the next, it's a great time to think about the causes we care most about and what we can do to effect change. Here are six powerful individuals from the past century who have done that in big ways.

Mahatma Gandhi

You must be the change you want to see in the world.

Born in 1869 to a poor Hindu family in western India, Mahatma Gandhi went on to study law in London. After being called to the bar at age twenty-two, he took a job with a Muslim merchant in South Africa and lived there for the next two decades. It was there, due to the abuse and discrimination he experienced, that he began to develop his method of direct social action based upon the principles of courage, nonviolence and truth. His activism there earned him an international reputation as a leading Indian nationalist and community organizer. Returning to India in 1915, he turned his attention to campaigning for Indian independence from British rule, which was achieved in 1947, one year before he was assassinated.

Recommended reading: An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi

For younger readers: I Am Gandhi by Brad Meltzer

And there's also that Oscar-winning film about him!

Eleanor Roosevelt

Do one thing every day that scares you.

As America's longest-serving FLOTUS, from 1933 to 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt redefined the role. Unwilling to limit her activities to domestic duties and entertaining, she was the first presidential spouse to spearhead platforms for social change and humanitarian efforts. She advocated for expanded roles for women in the workplace, the civil rights of African Americans and Asian Americans, and the rights of World War II refugees. Born to a prominent family, Roosevelt's childhood was an unhappy one. Her marriage to fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also somewhat troubled, but from an early age, she worked to help others and became an important leader in her own right.

Recommended reading: Eleanor by David Michaelis or The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt

For younger readers: Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery by Russell Freedman

Nelson Mandela

It always seems impossible until it's done.

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 to a royal family in a village in South Africa's Cape Province. After working to become a lawyer in Johannesburg, he joined efforts to dismantle apartheid, a system of racial segregation that privileged whites. His activism eventually led to arrest and imprisonment. After a 27-year fight for freedom, during which he continued to campaign for racial equality, he was instrumental in abolishing apartheid in the early 1990s. Five years after his release from prison, he became South Africa's first Black president. His lifelong fight against racial oppression won him more than 250 honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize.

Recommended reading: Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

For younger readers: Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

Paul Farmer

The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.

After earning an MD and PhD at Harvard, Dr. Paul Farmer could have chosen a lucrative career in private practice. Instead he co-founded Partners in Health (PIH), an international nonprofit providing healthcare and advocacy to those who are sick and living in poverty. In his efforts to cure infectious diseases and bring life-saving tools of modern medicine to those who need them most, the 61-year-old physician and activist has pioneered novel, community-based treatment strategies that demonstrate the delivery of high-quality health care to the world's sickest and poorest populations.

Recommended reading: Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

For younger readers: To Repair the World by Paul Farmer

Malala Yousafzai

With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism.

In early 2009, when she was only eleven, Malala Yousafzai wrote an anonymous blog for the BBC about her life in Taliban-occupied Pakistan. The daughter of an educational activist, she was inspired by her father's work and determined to continue learning even as the Taliban banned the education of women and girls. Following the publication, she rose in prominence becoming well known, both to supporters and detractors. When she was fifteen, she survived an assassination attempt when she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in retaliation for speaking out. After a difficult recovery, she has bravely continued her work fighting for the right for women and girls around the world to be educated. At seventeen, she became the youngest-ever Nobel laureate.

Recommended reading: I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

And here's the Young Readers Edition

Greta Thunberg

Humanity is now standing at a crossroads. We must now decide which path we want to take. How do we want the future living conditions for all living species to be like?

Born in 2003, Greta Thunberg is a Swedish environmental activist who is internationally known for challenging world leaders to take action against climate change. Her activism began at home as she convinced her parents to reduce their own carbon footprint by making lifestyle changes. In 2018, at age fifteen, she started spending her school days protesting outside the Swedish Parliament with a sign reading Skolstrejk för klimatet (School strike for climate). Her actions have spurred an international youth movement called Fridays for Future. In 2018, Thunberg addressed the United Nations Climate Change Conference, inspiring multiple coordinated multi-city protests involving over a million students each. Her influence on the world stage has been described as the "Greta effect."

Recommended Reading: No One is Too Small to Make a Difference and Our House is On Fire, both by Greta Thunberg

For Younger Readers: Greta and The Giants by Zoe Persico and Zoe Tucker

We draw so much inspiration from people like these who fight the good fight for a better world. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the activists who have (and still do) go the extra mile for the causes they believe in. We would love to hear about who you would add to the list and how we can learn more about them.

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Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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