Heroes and Icons
Facing power with truth, demanding justice and making change possible are things that are easier said than done. It takes courage, resilience and a belief in one's own voice and truth — qualities that Hadizatou Mani, a woman who was sold as a slave at the age of 12, possesses, not out of her wealth or education but out of her simple and most essential belief in human dignity and women's rights to equality and justice.
Mani, now in her mid-20s, was sold into slavery for $500 in 1996. Her home country, Niger, outlawed slavery in 2003, but the practice still continues and manifests itself through the trafficking of mostly women and children — not just in Niger but in many other parts of the world as well.
It is not easy to know you are worth more than what you are being told, to know you have the right to stand up against injustice, to know the world is still beautiful and safe despite its horrors. Not too many of us have the constitution to stand against power as Mani did when she took her country to a West African court for failing to enforce its own laws and denying her right to freedom. "I knew that this was the only way to protect my child from suffering the same fate as myself. Nobody deserves to be enslaved," she said. And she proved it when she won her case in 2008.
Worth a mention:
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Credit: the brilliant Larry
Aaaaand: the only person to appear on this list every year since it began;
Artists and Entertainers
It's funny to think of M.I.A. as influential, because I don't think she ever set out to be influential. The great thing about her is that she doesn't have some global plan. She just has things she cares about and is interested in, from all over the world. She hears huge beats from Angola. She finds a DJ doing amazing stuff in Baltimore. She hears about Aboriginal kids rapping in Australia and thinks nothing of getting on a plane to convince them to do a verse on her song.
I met her right before she put out her first record, in 2005, and she insisted she wasn't a musician. To this day, she doesn't consider herself a musician. She has this wide range of talents and influences — she's a Sri Lankan refugee who didn't speak a word of English before she was 10, yet she's also a child of Chuck D and the Pixies and Fight Club and MySpace. There are no borders for her. She made me realize that you don't have to be from the West to have a favorite Biggie song. We are all listening to the same music.
Last summer she was performing in Philadelphia, and she showed up at the venue, and it was an armory building. She felt kind of weird about it and decided she wasn't going to perform there unless she acknowledged that, so she found a group of Army veterans against the Iraq war and had them come and speak as her opening act. That's her mission — it's personal and evolving, focused but totally spontaneous.
Worth a mention:
Builders and Titans
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the news media and New Orleans itself were inundated with people who were willing to talk the talk. And from this gaggle of talkers emerged one who took the long walk with our city.
Brad Pitt found, after listening to residents, that this horrible man-made disaster created an opportunity to build something better than what had existed before. From starting the Make It Right Foundation, which is building hundreds of affordable and sustainable homes in the Lower Ninth Ward and elsewhere in the city, to his advocacy on behalf of New Orleans with congressional leaders to his filming of the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which featured our city so beautifully, Pitt has remained committed to the people of New Orleans.
Worth a mention:
Scientists and Thinkers
[White House official photography]
True, Favreau is only a speechwriter. But the President of the United States is once again the central mover and shaker in this country and the world. The man who wields the first and final pen helps determine American policy and its place in that world.
True, he is only one of several on the President's talented team and specializes in major domestic speeches. But having served with Obama since the President's first days in the U.S. Senate, Favreau is primus inter pares, consulted on every key pronouncement. Today, as the world depends on America's efforts to strengthen its economy and regain its senses, U.S. domestic policy affects everyone.
True, Favreau is only 27. But when I entered the White House at 32, I was thankful that I had the energy and idealism necessary to withstand the repeated crises, criticisms and lengthy late-night hours of emergency meetings.
And true, he has the good luck to work for a brilliant and articulate President (something I know a little bit about too). But every President — particularly in today's complex world — lacks the time to plan and draft with full consideration and information all the statements that his responsibilities require him to deliver virtually every day.
Revolutionaries and leaders
Time and time again, people have talked of Barack Obama's talent for listening. His real talent is for hearing what is actually said. His rare combination of idealism and realism struck me when I first met him: a natural ability to lead, combined with the qualities of mind and spirit that always seek to reach out and connect.
Of course, his oratory is today unmatched. But his courage — the courage to go first, to lead, where none have gone before — is doubly unmatched. When he speaks, he gives those who hear him confidence: not in him but in themselves. It was said of Cicero that when people heard him, they turned to one another and said, "Great speech"; but when Demosthenes spoke, people turned to one another and said, "Let's march." All around the world people are marching with Barack Obama.