When you hear the phrase ‘nonviolent activism’, you probably think of figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi. The phrase elicited images of these leaders for me, at least, before I took a class on social justice and peacemaking at NYU this spring.
Over the course of the semester we of course learned about these amazing figures, but I was surprised to learn of some modern-day activists as well, who are carrying on the legacies of heroic figures of the past. Here are 5 nonviolent activists that you may not have heard of, who are doing amazing work to bring about social justice in a peaceful but powerful way:
1. Gene Sharp
At 87 years of age, Gene Sharp is still a force to be reckoned with. He is the founder of the Albert Einstein Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the study of nonviolent action, and a retired professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Sharp has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize four times, including this year, and is known as the Machiavelli of nonviolence. His work is based on the idea that subjects of dictatorial states are the source of the state’s power. If subjects refuse to obey their leaders, they will reduce the power of the state and eventually cause it to collapse.
Gene’s ideas have been very influential in real world situations. He has written a handbook called From Dictatorship to Democracy, which has been translated into 31 languages and used to inspire several global nonviolent movements. His writings on civilian-based defense were used by the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian governments during their separation from the Soviet Union.
Gene’s works remain the ideological underpinning for the Serbian-based nonviolent conflict training group, The Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies. This organization trained key activists in the movement that overthrew President Mubarak of Egypt. At almost 90 years of age, Gene continues to advise people who find themselves under oppressive rule.
2. Jody Williams
Jody Williams is an American political activist known for her work in banning anti-personnel landmines, for which she was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Her work also involves advocating for human rights, particularly women’s rights, and her efforts to promote understanding of emerging technologies and their security implications.
Jody founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which she developed from two NGOs with a staff of one (herself) to a network of 1300 NGOs in 90 countries, working with foreign governments, UN bodies and the Red Cross.
Because of Jody’s work, an international treaty banning antipersonnel landmines was created in 1997. The treaty is legally binding and bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of landmines and places obligations on countries to clear affected areas, assist victims and destroy stockpiles. This treaty has impacted the lives of thousands of people who are either at-risk of being affected by landmines or whose quality of life has already been impacted.
3. Arun Gandhi
Arun Gandhi is the fifth grandson of Mohandas Gandhi. Arun grew up in South Africa under Apartheid laws. He was beaten by white South Africans for being “too black” and by black South Africans for being “too white”. He initially fought back with an ‘eye for an eye’ mentality, but learned from the teachings of his grandfather that justice does not equate to revenge but rather to transforming the opponent through love and understanding.
Arun says that the greatest lesson he learned from his grandfather was that of understanding violence. He says, “If we know how much passive violence we perpetrate against one another we will understand why there is so much physical violence plaguing societies and the world.” Arun shares these lessons around the world, speaking at the United Nations, various college campuses and world summits.
Arun was also a journalist in India for 30 years and together with his wife, developed constructive programs to socially and economically uplift the oppressed, which have changed the lives of more than half a million people in over 300 villages. Constructive programs were the backbone of his grandfather’s work, thus he continues his legacy to this day.
4. Mairead Maguire
Mairead Maguire is a peace activist from Northern Ireland. She co-founded the Community for Peace People, which is an organization that encouraged a peaceful resolution to the troubles in Northern Ireland. She was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for her work.
Mairead became involved with issues in Northern Ireland after her sister’s three children were run over and killed by a car driven by a Provisional Irish Republican Army fugitive. Together with Betty Williams she organized a mass movement of 35,000 protesters during the month following the deaths. The protesters petitioned for peace between the republican and loyalist factions, and thus the Community for Peace People was created, which focused on combating violence through re-education.
At age 32, Mairead was the youngest person to receive a Nobel Peace Prize at the time. She continues to advocate for an array of social and political rights around the world.
5. Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu is a South African social rights activist and retired Anglican bishop who is most widely known for his work during apartheid in South Africa. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work in opposing apartheid, which included organizing peaceful protests and economic boycotts as well as advocating for reconciliation between all parties involved.
One of his greatest achievements was spearheading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid, which focused on restorative justice in prosecuting perpetrators of apartheid. Perpetrators were given the opportunity to request amnesty if they admitted to committing crimes, and victims were invited to give statements about their experiences.
The TRC was seen by many as a crucial component of the transition to a full democracy in South Africa. It also allowed both victims and perpetrators a chance to find closure after the horrors of apartheid. Nelson Mandela described Tutu as “sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour, Desmond Tutu's voice will always be the voice of the voiceless.”
Nonviolent activism is so relevant in today’s world of conflict and brutality. Many people are unaware that there are alternatives to opposing and resolving conflict without harmful force. Interested in learning more about nonviolent activism and the role that you can play in inspiring social justice? Check out these organizations for more information:
The Global Poverty Project is an education and advocacy organization working to increase the number and effectiveness of people taking action to see an end to extreme poverty.