Presented in partnership with Penny Appeal USA.
2017 has been a year of constant sociopolitical conflict and natural disasters, and our spirits are thoroughly worn down.
Yet despite the numerous pitfalls, humanity has proven, time and time again, that humanitarianism, empathy, and raw resilience make life worth living and give us hope for a better future.
We’re taking you through some of these instances, to reignite your fire – and make a difference. Don’t forget to sign up for your chance to make a real change!
1. When the Nasty™ Women marched to let the world know exactly how they felt
We refused to shut up when Trump was elected, and that snowballed into what would become the largest – and most lit – organized demonstration in global history. On January 20th, 2017, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America, but on January 21st, 2017 more than 3 million people expressed political, social and ideological dissent with the new administration in Women’s Marches across the world.
People from every continent marched, speaking out on every cause under the sun: from women’s reproductive rights to the Black Lives Matter movement. The march set a precedent for the proactive demonstration that the US and the world would come to follow as the months wore on. Seeing that many people demonstrate their right dissent really inspired the activist in me and set the tone for the fight we’d all have to continue as the year wore on.
2. Terrorists didn’t hold us back from reuniting under music and jamming for unity and strength…
It spoke volumes to me that Grande rose so quickly to take action against terror. Celebrity activism has been superficially forged for so long, seeing something so genuine was inspiring.
After the devastating terror attack during Ariana Grande’s Manchester concert, that killed 22 people and injured approximately 500 more, the singer organized a benefit concert on June 4th to raise money for We Love Manchester Emergency Fund and the British Red Cross. Grande’s message of resilience, love, and hope is especially important for her younger fanbase who were so prematurely exposed to this kind of senseless violence. The singer’s ability to organize such a massive benefit event that raised approximately $23 million on such short notice really demonstrated an innate sense of strength and a fortitude of the human spirit.
3. …and it didn’t stop us from honoring the 49 lives lost to the Orland Pulse Shooting
One year after the tragedy that was, for a time, known as the worst mass shooting in US history, the city of Orlando gathered to remember and honor the 49 lives that were lost in the Pulse nightclub shooting.
In Orlando, I watched as masses gathered around the rainbow-colored amphitheater in Lake Eola Park for a service that included 49 volunteers symbolically dressed as angels, survivors and family of victims speaking their hard truths about that night and how life has progressed since. Despite living there for so long, I’d never felt so lifted by an entire community, never seen so many gather in a show of fortitude and strength.
On June 12, we all finally understood what it meant to be #OrlandoStrong.
4. We found out that lifeguards don’t have to be the only heroes…
I can think of nothing more terrifying than being swept away by a powerful ocean current, with no one around to help. But when a family of nine was stranded within a riptide, 80 strangers on Florida beach formed a human chain to pull them out.
The family was both grateful and a little surprised at the number and speed with which people were willing to get involved. Those rescued fortunately suffered few injuries, thanks to the quick thinking of their fellow beachgoers. And suddenly the rubbing suntan lotion on your grandparents back is not the most heroic thing you can do at the beach.
5. …and that those everyday heroes crowd airports when you threaten to take people’s rights away
This is the only time this much airport traffic is a good thing.
Following the current administration’s introduction of the first travel ban, an executive order that would block immigration from 7 majority Muslim countries for 90 days, citizens flocked in the thousands to local and international airports across the country.
The vagueness of the order’s implementation, the overt unconstitutionality of it and the ensuing chaos drew masses to organize in protest of the order and solidarity with Muslim travelers directly affected by the ban. Civil rights attorneys worked tirelessly to mobilize and offer their services to travelers whose travel statuses were suddenly on the line. Besides airports, demonstrations flared across university campuses (including my very own), Muslim and non-Muslim students stood up against Islamophobia. The weekend’s protests displayed an American public fighting to protect a country that promises to protect the “huddled masses” that seek refuge within its borders and ultimately resulted in a successful temporary block of the executive order.
6. The peaceful fight against injustice was recognized with an incredible prize
The Sydney Peace Prize honors those who base the fight against injustice on peace, and this year it was awarded to Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi; the founders of Black Lives Matter.
The movement was started after the gross mishandling of the Trayvon Martin case and has garnered international attention in its mission to educate and fight against the discrimination and injustice.
The founders place heavy emphasis on the importance of protecting all black lives, in that the intersectionality of black identities are always addressed and also support a range of other issues including things such as the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The movement continues to bring black issues to the forefront of conversations of social justice through organized protests, teach-ins, social media presence, and involvement in the political sphere.
So maybe Australia does do more things right than kangaroo-focused tourist traps and gun regulation.
7. We stood up to Nazis at the University of Florida
College campuses are the hearts of free speech and assembly, but this space can be abused by hate speech like it was when the University of Florida hosted Richard Spencer to speak on campus. Student activists tirelessly worked to urge the administration to rethink the decision and eventually organized a demonstration that brought people from all over Florida to join the protests against hate.
I can’t tell you how it felt to see masses of people, screaming until their throats were dry, weary feet marching on hot asphalt, and fists raised in power and dissent. I was even elated to see my orgo professor came out to fight against injustice (and it made it easier for me to explain why I wasn’t in class that morning). The demonstration wasn’t just successful because it forced Spencer’s and his small party to leave early, but because it also reinstated a sense of strength in the face of supremacist rhetoric. And all with a little fighting Gator spirit nonetheless.
8. No matter what, the steadfastness of interfaith solidarity continues to baffle bigots
There’s more to Muslim/Jewish solidarity than the fact that both live by a lunar calendar that enlists the use of high-level calculus, a super powered telescope, and in-fighting amongst religious leaders when trying to determine when holidays are.
But this year has definitely been one to test both faith groups, from divisive administrative rhetoric to one of the sharpest spikes in Islamophobic and anti-Semitic hate crimes, religion has been an area of contention this year.
Yet despite the bigotry circulating the media, there have been some truly inspiring instances of interfaith solidarity. Muslim residents have helped rebuild a church destroyed by ISIS in Iraq, there have been fundraising efforts to restore a vandalized Jewish graveyard by Muslims in and out of St. Louis and a Jewish group helped raise money to restore a Florida mosque that was the target of a hateful arson attack. Religion has always been a way to keep faith and hope alive in tough times, and that hasn’t been made clearer than it has been this year.
9. For these children, access to education unlocks a brighter future.
Mutter incoherently all you want about your morning classes, but you can’t deny the importance of education and its role in shaping you for the future.
Penny Appeal USA understands how particularly powerful education and a healthy, supportive environment can be for orphans from disadvantaged communities, and so they’ve decided to do something about it. They’ve started a program in which communities are built to sustain groups of orphan children in an environment, where they can rely on a steady, loving support system (including other children and a trained foster mother!), as well as opportunities to grow academically.
The program looks to support these kids holistically, providing them with the basic tools of success and happiness, all the while remaining culturally sensitive by integrating the program into local communities.
10. When we saw the once-banned Afghani female robotic team absolutely beast their competition
There has never been a more powerful force than a group of intelligent girls determined to kick butt.
Despite the many setbacks this Afghan robotics team faced in the past year, the girls were able to win a major European competition in November.
The team became the subject of media circulation when they were denied visas to enter the US (for a still unknown reason) for a competition and garnered international support for their cause. Seeing talent like this quashed by something as dangerous as xenophobia makes this triumph especially sweet.From the legal team that represented the team’s case to the girls’ own ingenuity and persistence, this win is one that they can all celebrate.
11. Time stopped when this man saved lives in the Vegas shooting while risking his own
True heroism exists, even if gun regulation in a trigger-happy country riddled with gun-related tragedy does not.
Once again, the United States was host to one of the worst mass shootings in history when a country music festival in Las Vegas became the site for chaos in October. But a 30-year-old copy repairman, Jonathan Smith, risked his life and a bullet to the neck to lead at least 30 individuals to safety when the bullets started flying. Smith escorted concert-goers to a handicapped parking lot when he was shot, with a bullet that may never come out because of medical complications.
When asked why he put himself in so much danger, he expressed simply that he would “want someone to do the same for [him].”
12. Football players took a step forward in holding our nation accountable
2017 became the year that I ceased being so painfully disengaged with professional football.
Colin Kaepernick’s silent NFL protests sparked divisive dialogue on the topic of civil unrest and how protest should or shouldn’t be executed. It resurged into national consciousness after the sitting U.S. president suggested that players who kneeled during the anthem were “sons of bitches” who should be let off the league.
On the Sunday following this statement, players from the San Francisco 49ers to the New York Giants to the LA Rams continued to demonstrate dissent by locking arms, kneeling or raising fists during the anthem in protest. What Kaepernick and other football players strove to demonstrate was not just solidarity in the face of an adverse public, but also shone a spotlight on the original subject of these protests: police brutality, systemic racism and a dismissal of issues that continue to disenfranchise black Americans.
13. Houston has a very “do-it-yourself” rescue attitude post-Harvey
They do everything big in Texas, including the capacity for empathy and rescue.
Sociopolitical conflict comprised only one half of the chaos in 2017, while the other half belonged to more extreme weather and natural disasters brought on by a rapidly changing climate. Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, Texas with 100-mile winds and excessive flooding, but also brought out the heroism of local citizens and first responders.
From motorists stalling on highways to push other people to safety to neighbors using their own motorized boats to carry other civilians to safety, Texas residents approached the disaster with what the Washington Post called a very “do-it-yourself” attitude. Rescuers also included Mexican relief responders from organizations like the Mexican Red Cross, crossing the border to help those in need. Volunteers didn’t let the disaster hinder their ability to help those around them, instead, it boosted their need to serve a fractured community and try to make it whole again.
It really is true that you can’t mess with Texas, even if you’re an almost biblical tropical storm.
14. Though the world continues to starve, there are people who are ready to feed the masses…
When I walked through the marketplaces in Bangladesh a few years ago, I learned what starvation looked like. Suntanned ribs jutting out into obtuse angles, twitching fingers as merchants swatted away beggars hoping to snag a piece of fruit unnoticed and a small girl who looked my sister, but so much smaller.
Marginalized communities around the world continue to suffer from problems related to hunger. I’m not talking about craving Whataburger or living off dollar store ramen when you run out of flex bucks. Starvation and undernourishment continue to plague countries from Bangladesh to Yemen to Tanzania. But Penny Appeal USA has a unique way to help stimulate income and also provide nourishment to rural communities around the world.
The answer to world hunger is simple: goats.
Okay, maybe not the TOTAL answer to world hunger, but Penny Appeal USA is able to provide goats to rural households that provide food for the family as well as a livable income. This livestock project is sustainable for such families, stimulating for economic growth and a more nuanced answer to the lack of resources that so many times incapacitates poorer families.
15. …and José Andrés is one of them
José Andrés is a loving abuelo, but instead of feeding his grandkids, he’s trying to feed an entire country.
Following the catastrophe that was Hurricane Maria and the lasting damage it left on Puerto Rico, chef José Andrés created World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit committed to feeding the communities hit hardest by the storm.
The organization has already served approximately 2 million meals, not including the 40,000 they served during Thanksgiving. With power lines down and limited electricity from generators, citizens struggle to find a stable source of food, making what Andrés does so important. Andrés and his group hope to continue serving the people of Puerto Rico through Christmas.
16. Teens on bikes are unlikely heroes after earthquakes devastate Mexico
Following the earthquakes in Mexico, volunteers rushed to collapsed buildings to rescue those trapped in the rubble.
One of the many groups of responders included a pack of teenagers with backpacks full of supplies-medical and otherwise-biking throughout the rubble sites to bring much-needed equipment to other volunteers. One of the teens, 18-year-old Emiliano Gutierrez, spoke to NPR about the various tasks he and the other bikers complete to help the rescue efforts in any way they can, be it delivering medical supplies or bringing sandwiches to other responders.
It goes to show that wheelies aren’t the only fantastic feats one can perform with a bike.
17. We’ve finally made it a mission to bring clean water to the world
You don’t truly understand how lucky you are when you turn on the tap and see clean, running water flow out. It’s difficult for myself and others who are privileged enough to have access to clean water to understand that that same access is rare in some areas of the word also account for approximately 1.5 million deaths yearly. Water born illnesses from dirty water as well as the basic necessity that we all have for water intake is responsible for death in a number of developing countries.
Penny Appeal USA understands this and has created “Thirst Relief” as a way to combat the world’s water crisis. Plus, this access also promotes a healthier society overall as well as a more weighted emphasis on education and innovation. A society cannot progress without first having their basic needs met; access to clean water is one of those needs and is still one that many populations are denied. But groups like Penny Appeal USA provide hope of a brighter, and better-hydrated future.
18. Fasting Muslims save London residents in a burning building
In West London, residents didn’t hear the alarms when a 24-story tower caught on fire.
Luckily, Muslim neighbors who were up in the early morning hours because of Ramadan quickly ran over and alerted sleeping residents to evacuate as the blaze worked its way through the complex. I found nothing more befitting of Ramadan than this random and miraculous instance of humanitarianism. This religious month has always been one to promote empathy, compassion and sown a need to help others within myself and fellow Muslims. So when Muslim residents then proceeded to donate food, water, clothes and other services to those evacuated, it didn’t just an instance of true human empathy and kindness in a year so full of hate and division, but also helped show us all that we can all help one another out, fasting or otherwise.
I’ll try to remember this in the upcoming Ramadan, and maybe I won’t feel like a fossil when I wake up for early morning suhoor.