By Anita Vasudeva
Not everyone who changes the world is a household name, much less a martyr.
They are people like you and me, who refuse to say: “This is how it’s done;
this is how it is,” and especially, “I can’t”
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
—Margaret Mead, anthropologist
Every real and good change of significance, every revolutionary idea, every heartfelt gesture that changes one life or a thousand, was once seen as eccentric. Leaders are few and followers many for a reason—change requires bucking the status quo, and bucking the status quo requires a willingness to be perceived as crazy, dangerous, or ridiculous. Like entrepreneurs, revolutionaries, activists, and changemakers of every stripe lead because they cannot follow that with which they do not agree, or which limits their imaginations. They change the world because their passion and conviction will not allow them not to.
Not all revolutionaries set out to change the world per se; they set out to change their worlds. And in so doing, often change the way one person, or a few people, or whole communities, or entire nations, or the world thinks and operates in some significant way. ‘The world’ doesn’t have to be literal; real change can be small scale and still be revolutionary. All it takes is an ability to see other possibilities, and the willingness to help others see them, too. As someone once said: “We are only limited by our imaginations.”
I, for one, didn’t set out to change the way business operates. I just wanted a means to support my two daughters and myself. When I first applied for a loan to start a small hair-and-skin-care shop in Brighton, UK, in 1976, the man behind the desk looked as if I’d asked him to shave his head. A woman? Running a business? How preposterous, he obviously thought. Weeks later, I went back to the same bank with my husband in tow. We had the loan in minutes. That banker could not see beyond his own nose.
My company went on to show how business can be done differently worldwide, showing that women can indeed run successful businesses, and that businesses can indeed have compassion—and just plain passion—at heart instead of pure profit motive. Many people had said it was not possible. Today The Body Shop is among the most recognised and admired brands in the world, with shops in over 50 countries, and fair trade agreements in a dozen more, benefiting local communities in some of the poorest places on earth. Time and again, I was told it couldn’t be done, that it would not work, that I was insane. I was not limited in my thinking to believe that business was just financial science; I sensed that it was about trading and bringing your heart to the workplace.
People may not see me as a particularly pious type, but I was raised in the Catholic Church and my experience there has informed my moral path ever since. In fact, my worldview was first and most powerfully shaped by two Catholic women, one a saint to the world, the other a saint to me. Sister Immaculata, a teacher in my convent school in the South of England, taught us the power of language. Everyday we prepared tea and beds in a room in St Joseph’s Convent set aside for the ‘tramps’, the term we used to refer to the homeless in those days. But Sister Immaculata banned the word. Instead, she insisted we call these men ‘Knights of the Road’. And in keeping with a kind of Catholic morality that seems out of fashion in some parts of the Church today, we were also being taught that service to the weak and the frail was part of our moral education and that education or knowledge without action was no education at all.
It was the story of Joan of Arc that gave me moral imagination. My first heroine, she stood up for something in a way that set my mind reeling. She fought against the false gods of conformity and apathy, and more than anything, as a child, I wanted a little bit of her to live in me. As I grew, I came to respect and admire other spiritual rebels and leaders, like Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr, and Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. They took their spiritual traditions out of the abstract and applied them with the most profound and moving results to the world around them. They put their bodies on the line, and they got their hands dirty, rejecting an easier path. None was a proselytiser; each simply lived his beliefs actively, bravely, boldly, and in many cases, downright radically.
In my travels for The Body Shop in the 27 years since it started, I have met thousands of activists and businesspeople, entertainers, theologians, women’s groups and anti-globalisation activists, native tribes and vagabonds. I have met the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela. I have spent days deep in the Amazon rainforest and on the streets of London among the homeless. And I can spot a revolutionary from 100 paces. First clue: Everyone thinks they’re crazy or dangerous. I think some of my personal heroes and see how they fit this description: Jesus Christ, Joan of Arc, Gandhi… the list goes on. They were tenacious and driven in the extreme. They refused to say: “This is how it’s done; this is how it is,” and especially, “I can’t.”
Not everyone who changes the world is a household name much less a martyr, but they, too, can and do change the world. I think of the 20 employees of The Body Shop who went to Romania with me to help repair and re-equip orphanages there, and the two who ended up staying and starting Children on the Edge, a non-profit that is systematically de-institutionalising the children of Romania. I think of the shops that joined our campaign with Amnesty International and mobilised thousands of shoppers to sign petitions and send letters, ultimately freeing 17 prisoners of conscience around the world.
I think of 12-year-old Craig Kielberger in Canada who read an article in his local newspaper about child labour used in rug manufacturing in Pakistan, and started Kids Can Free the Children. As a result, the Canadian government changed its policy on child labour. I think of Charlie Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee who has almost single-handedly focused international attention on the issue of sweatshop labour and kept it there.
I think of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the rest of the Ogoni people in Nicaragua who stood up to Shell Oil, which was occupying and polluting native Ogoni tribal lands. Their bravery cost many of them, including Ken, their lives. But it focused international outrage on exploitation by multinational corporations, especially that which is backed by corrupt military regimes.
I think of the Zapatistas in Chiapas who refused to accept the status quo in their country with its corrupt government, abuse of native communities and lands. I think of their language of revolution, which does not include the words ‘proletariat’, or ‘bourgeoisie’ or any of the words associated with Marx or Lenin. Instead of appealing to the ‘workers’ to rise up, they are calling on something they simply called a ‘civil society’ and the rebirth of democracy. They deliver their manifestos not in books or long-winded speeches, but in poetry; they tell stories and riddles and describe the corrupt system of government in Chiapas as “an object of shame dressed in the colour of money”.
I think of the five or six people who helped The Body Shop Foundation establish the Amazon Co-op in Brazil, where eleven tribes who had been on the verge of being driven out of their native territory by disease, illegal logging, and the incompetence and corruption of the local government now have decent healthcare, clean water, and three of their own businesses—a ‘green pharmacy’, an ‘eco-lodge’, and an internet café.
I think of the Angola Three, Black Panthers who stood up against corruption and abuse inside Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, and who were framed for crimes they didn’t commit and thrown in solitary confinement for 31 years. They are still there, but their hope and determination does not fade with time. When they finally are free—and I have to believe they will be—I hope the corruption and injustice at the heart of their stories will be exposed in a way that changes a deeply broken criminal justice system.
I think about every person in my new book Brave Hearts and Rebel Spirits: A Spiritual Activists Handbook. Like Daniel and Philip Berrigan, American Catholic priests who burned draft files with homemade napalm in 1967 to protest the Vietnam War and the Church’s complicity in it. Or Kevin Buzzacott, an aboriginal elder who rallied his tribe to reoccupy their homeland in order to resist the presence of a massive mine that was poisoning a sacred lake.
There are thousands more, of course, whose impact you feel every day, even if you have never heard their names. You’ll know them by that slightly crazy gleam in their eye. And then you will see how this world really does need more of these wonderful heretics.
Dame Anita Roddick founded The Body Shop in 1976, selling eco-friendly beauty products. It now has 1,700 stores in 49 countries. Roddick is an outspoken activist devoted to making business morally and environmentally ethical. She is author of Body And Soul: Profits with Principles, Business as Unusual, Take it Personally, and has edited A Revolution In Kindness. These are available at www.anitaroddick.com.
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