10 Groundbreakers Who’ve Shaped My Views of Social Change

A few weeks ago Heath Mitchell asked to co-write 42 Errors Changemakers and Humanitarians Make (which ended up being one of the most popular posts here), and now he got me thinking again by asking about the people/organizations that have influenced my ideas of activism and organizing.

Anytime someone asks me to write a post on a certain topic I try my best to do so, even if it takes a few months! I’m especially stoked when I get to write about those folks who’ve fundamentally impacted my life through their own words/actions.

The names that follow are a few of the main individuals and groups who I consistently ‎learn from and wish to share more about.


Elizabeth Martinez


Author of De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century and 500 years of Chicano History, Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez has been called one of the 20th century’s most important activists and progressive historians.

When I read De Colores Means All of Us I thought it had some of the most insightful strategies for social change that we still have not adopted some 15 years later.

So if you’re looking for a clear picture of 20th century progressive activism and unrealized pathways for change, then check out Betita’s work.


Marshall Ganz/Sierra Club


One of my first direct experiences with organizing training was with with the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC), an organization that grew out of the Sierra Club. Much of the SSC’s trainers were based on Marshall Ganz’s frameworks and research for the Sierra Club.

Marshall Ganz was a volunteer with the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, served with the United Farm Workers, created the dominant curriculum for training Obama’s campaign organizers, and now is working to develop the Leading Change Network (LCN).

Check out Marshall’s online module on organizing and the LCN to learn more about values-based changemaking, leadership, and campaigns.


Yuri Kochiyama



Photo: dignidadrebelde via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: dignidadrebelde via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Yuri Kochiyama is one of the most intersectional activists to grace the changemaking world and doesn’t appear to be showing any signs of slowing down. She’s organized around the rights of political prisoners, Puerto Rican Independence, and reparations for Japanese Americans forcibly held in internment camps during WWII.

Not only did Yuri Kochiyama show me how to integrate a range of activist efforts, but she also demonstrated that one can begin to organize at any age and while taking care of family.

There’s a great film called Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice which details her accomplishments and what she has done for cross-issue movement building.


Naomi Klein


Naomi Klein’s journalist and activist endeavors serve as a beating heart of the opposition to neoliberalism in all of its forms.

Her book The Shock Doctrine fundamentally altered my understanding of just how pervasive neoliberalism had become in all parts of our society (e.g. education, government, and international relations).

I’m currently working on a post inspired by much of Naomi Klein’s work that focuses on neoliberalism frames, ideas, and policies along with ways activists can combat this entrenched ideology.


Ella Baker


I’ve mentioned Ella Baker a few times before, in particular about her contributions to leadership development in any type of organizing.

Ella Baker throughout the civil rights movement (e.g. through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) continually pushed for increasing opportunities for multiple leaders and criticizing those that were held up as the only focal points for action.

Now the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is making sure to honor her legacy and contributions, and remind us to look to Ella for ideas on how to build up strong cohesive leadership systems.


Bill McKibben and


Photo: 350 .org via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: 350 .org via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Bill McKibben and the rest of the team constantly mobilize some of the largest and most impactful demonstrations for taking action against climate change and the Keystone XL Pipeline.

When the issue of climate change keeps getting pushed back to the edges of the news, and its partners keep finding ways to refocus attention.


Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)


Though conservative attacks/lies forced ACORN to cease most of its operations to register voters, increase homeownership, and counter powerful banks, ACORN’s still has made a huge impact on social change organizing.

Right now the absence of ACORN’s local-regional-national organizing structure leaves a void that is hard to fill. How many other organizations could bring together so many hundreds of thousands of people to bring forward constructive anti-poverty solutions? Or really any issue?

I recently read John Atlas’s book about ACORN called Seeds of Change and if you’re looking to find out more about how ACORN operated, that book is a great place to start.


Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta


The founders of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta showed how to develop new leaders by going door-to-door and being persistent.

Dolores Huerta exemplified this attitude that every person had important contribution to make when she said “Walk the street with us into history. Get off the sidewalk.”




INCITE! is a “is a national activist organization of radical feminists of color advancing a movement to end violence against women of color and our communities through direct action, critical dialogue, and grassroots organizing.”

One of their most well-known and influential publication is the The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.

This book taught me a ton about the differences between social services and social change, how activists can get diverted into professionalized careers, and the role foundation/government grants have in shaping social change.


Rinku Sen


Rinku Sen is probably the organizer that has had the biggest impact on my personal outlook on social change.

After reading her book Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy I immediately felt a clearer sense of my own purpose.

I’ve written many posts already about Rinku Sen’s work (e.g. about how she “prepares extraordinary movements”) so I won’t go into much more detail other than to say that you should either read some of her articles on Colorlines or just talk to me!

Thanks again Heath for asking about people who’ve influenced my ideas!

This is just a short list of those that have impacted my views of activism and organizing, but who else would you include? Leave a comment below!

Privilege and Oppression

Want Climate Justice? Then Support Indigenous Sovereignty!

The climate change movement continues to demonstrate how to build cross-issue strategies.

We must go beyond the desire to “focus on one issue at a time,” even though I know it follows the traditional Alinsky-style organizing model.


“What’s connects indigenous sovereignty and climate justice work?”


Photo: Tar Sands Blockade via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Tar Sands Blockade via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Nearly everyone I have ever organized with, whether from indigenous or non-indigenous peoples, has described the climate justice movement in terms of a moral struggle against unjust impacts of climate change.

With this ethical stance in place, replacing persistent colonialist structures of control over indigenous peoples with sought after self-governance is a natural extension for those striving to fight oppression.

At an even more fundamental level, native sovereignty would make natural resource management, such as coal and oil, more in line with desired limited extraction (with the acknowledgement that many communities would still face tough choices of whether to use nonrenewable resources or not).

For those like myself who wish to fight climate change on moral grounds, must also extend our efforts to not only the impacts of burning fossil fuels, but also to questioning who controls the land and the ability to extract those resources.


Making steps in the right direction


Many of you know that the indigenous rights movement is already a step ahead in terms of cross-issue efforts, due to its continual support for action on climate change.

Now we just have to get the same commitment from a broader range of climate change folks (e.g. following the great collaboration between and indigenous organizers).

The climate justice movement has often publicly described the disproportionate impact climate change has on indigenous communities and the need to have them more involved in climate discussions.

However, I’ve noticed it’s taken a bit longer for those same climate change activists to direct calls to advance the cause of native peoples to control their own resources and land.

Currently, I see the alignment between the climate change movement with indigenous sovereignty, stemming from the emergence of the Idle No More Movement in the past year as an example we need to build upon.

The Idle No More Movement, led by First Nations in Canada, has put a spotlight on the sovereign rights of indigenous peoples, while denouncing the continuing impacts of colonialism.

With many climate change organizations announcing their solidarity with Idle No More, we’ve got to continue the momentum and push for granting indigenous self-sufficiency.


Next steps for the climate movement


There are many places where the climate movement could support the move for indigenous sovereignty; however, the best place to start is to follow the calls from indigenous communities themselves.

From within the climate movement, we need to incorporate clear and persistent calls to action, messages, and analysis of how to build a cross-issue emphasis that takes into account the struggle of native peoples for their rights (e.g. the Idle No More Movement).

This should come from folks at all levels of organizing.

With an anti-colonial perspective, the climate movement can advocate for the moral claim for indigenous sovereignty and their right to decide how to use their natural resources.

Native communities have joined in the climate change struggle, now is time for much more of the climate change movement to join with their allies for Native rights to self-determination.