3 times courageous groups of people changed America for the better.
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Aspen Institute

We've all heard the inspiring Margaret Mead quote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

For many Americans, it sometimes feels like the closest we come to change-making is the one vote we cast at the polls every four years — an unfulfilling process that can leave us more frustrated with the system than hopeful that the changes we desire will ever come. It's tempting to trade in optimism for apathy.

But no person is powerless to create change. History has shown us time and time again that even the smallest groups can make their voices heard and inspire a positive change in not only their immediate communities, but across the country.


Here are three examples you may not know about of individuals and small groups taking a stand and creating big change.

1. The Delano Grape Strike boosts migrant farmworkers.

Image by Joel Levine/Wikimedia Commons.

The life of a farmer has never been an easy one, but it has improved significantly in the past 40 years thanks to the efforts of Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, a community of like-minded people, and ... grapes.

Huerta and Chavez, frustrated with the low wages, lack of health care, and poor conditions their fellow farmers were forced to work in, formed the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. They went door-to-door to unite local farmers — who were discriminated against and sometimes even pitted against one another whenever they demanded better wages — to create a community of workers seeking the basic rights they deserved.

Through a series of organized boycotts starting on Sept. 8, 1965, and lasting more than five years, the Delano Grape Strike aimed to bring national attention to the injustices facing migrant workers.


Image via iStock.

And it did just that. More than 14 million Americans joined the boycott aimed at two of the largest corporations involved in the grape industry in Delano, California: Schenley Industries and the DiGiorgio Corporation.

The corporations were eventually pressured to renegotiate their farmers' contracts, raising their wages, giving them access to health care, and bringing an end to "labor contracting," a system wherein jobs could be assigned by favoritism and bribery.

Huerta and Chavez knew that relentless persistence was one of their greatest allies in the fight for farmers' rights, and that the best way to go about obtaining those rights would be to hit their oppressors where it hurt them the most: their wallets.

If there was ever an accomplishment that called for a celebratory glass of wine, it was this one.

2. Ralph Nader helps start a revolution of the American auto industry.

The 1960s was one of the most innovative and just plain awesome decades that the American auto industry has ever seen. The Big Three (aka GM, Ford, and Chrysler), the Mustang, the GTO, "American muscle" — life was like a tattoo of a bald eagle wrapped in barbed wire back then.

Image via iStock.

Of course, there was a downside to all this coolness: safety. With little regulation to guide them and even fewer laws to govern them, many automobile manufacturers opted to cut corners in their production process in order to meet growing demand as quickly (and as cheaply) as possible.

That was until safety-conscious rebel Ralph Nader published "Unsafe at Any Speed" in 1965, a revolutionary book that called out the Big Three (among other automakers) for the dangers their negligence was placing upon the public.

Ralph Nader aka "The Nadester." Image by Sage Ross/Flickr.

The book became an instant bestseller, and The Big Three's subsequent efforts to blackmail and drag Nader's name through the mud only further spurred the public to action.

When faced with Nader's cold, hard data and increasing demand for accountability, Congress soon passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966, which not only established the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but also implemented several safety regulations — chiefly, seat belts, front head restraints, and stronger windshields — that have saved over 250,000 lives in the past 40 years alone.

One man taking on a booming industry in a time when it could do no wrong, and winning. Sometimes the pen truly is mightier than the sword.

Speaking of automobile safety...

3. MADD changes how we think about drinking and driving.

Founded in 1980 by Candace Lightner, the mother of a 13-year-old girl who was tragically killed by a drunk driver, MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) has been instrumental in implementing many of the modern laws and safety features on vehicles related to drunk driving over the years.

The organization was a crucial part of Congress' decision to lower the national legal blood-alcohol content limit of a driver from 0.10 to 0.08 in 2000, campaigned for breath alcohol ignition interlock devices to be installed in the vehicles of drunk driving offenders, and helped develop a dedicated National Traffic Safety Fund.


Alcohol ignition interlock system. Say that five times fast. Image via iStock.

The punishments for drunk drivers weren't all that severe — or even defined before MADD came to be — and the results the organization has engendered in the time since have been nothing short of astounding.

Thanks in large part to the awareness MADD brought to the issue of drunk driving, alcohol-related vehicle fatalities have decreased 52% since 1982.

In states where ignition interlock devices have become mandatory for all drunk driving offenders, fatalities have been reduced by over 30%.

Even advocates for decriminalizing drunk driving like Radley Balko cannot deny the effect MADD has had on society.

"In fairness, MADD deserves credit for raising awareness of the dangers of driving while intoxicated," Balko wrote in a 2010 article. "It was almost certainly MADD's dogged efforts to spark public debate that affected the drop in fatalities."

Those "dogged efforts" were part of Lightner's quest to turn a personal tragedy into a means of educating the world about the dangers of drunk driving. The massive public awareness campaign included press conferences and candlelight vigils, protesting at state capitols, tying red ribbons onto cars, and popularizing the term "designated driver," to name a few.

MADD was able to create an immense change by simply shining a light on an issue that many people didn't realize was an issue in the first place. And now, there is at least one MADD office in every U.S. state, as well as each province in Canada.

I guess you could say that if you really want to get things done ... (*removes sunglasses*) ... you gotta get mad.

It's easy to feel powerless when looking over the average day's headlines. But change is possible.

It's disheartening to see our government locked in seemingly endless squabbles that garner little to no results. We see the same haunting reminders of centuries-old hatred and bigotry being revived on our streets. For every step we take toward a brighter world, it sometimes seems as if we take two steps back.

But as Winston Churchill once famously declared, "To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often."

Change is something we're all capable of, no matter how insurmountable the odds, and one step toward it is recognizing how it has been achieved before.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less