Portraits of Courage


By KK Ottesen

Read by KK Ottesen

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A speech on the radio. A high school literature class. A promise made to a mother.
Activism begins in small ways and in unexpected places. In this inspiring book, over forty activists from Billie Jean King to Bernie Sanders and Angela Davis to Edward Snowden recount the experiences that sparked their journeys and share the beliefs that keep them going. These are citizens who met challenge with action. Their visions for peace, equality, and justice have reshaped American society—from voting to reproductive rights, and from the environment to the economy.


“A time comes when silence is betrayal.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.


There comes a time for each of us, when, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., we feel that “silence is betrayal.” When we wrestle with the decision of whether and how to speak out against something that deeply offends our sense of right and wrong. Some of us speak out in quieter, more personal ways. Activists are those among us who, in such times, use their voices to challenge conversation or practice in public. They dissent, disrupt, and otherwise get in the way when compelled by conscience.

For John Lewis (page 128), that time came in 1955 when he was fifteen, growing up in the oppressive inequality of the Jim Crow South, and first heard Dr. King speak on the radio, calling on the community—and him specifically, it seemed—to get involved. For Bonnie Raines (page 54), the time was 1970, when a trusted colleague suggested that breaking into the FBI might be the only way to prove that the government was spying on and intimidating fellow antiwar protestors. For Nicole Maines (page 174), the time came as a fifth grader in 2007, when she was suddenly banned from using the school bathroom of the gender with which she identifies, as the school came under pressure from an outside group. These three people, like all the activists profiled in these pages, share the moments and decisions that launched their journeys. And while the circumstances giving rise to each journey vary tremendously, each individual chose to meet adversity with action rather than silence. Action fueled by the dictates of personal conscience, a sense of civic responsibility, and an abiding hope in a better future.

Many of the individuals in this book have been active for more than half a century—Harry Belafonte, Phyllis Lyon, Dolores Huerta, Ralph Nader, Marian Wright Edelman, John Lewis, Harry Edwards, Clyde Bellecourt, Angela Davis, Bernie Sanders, John Kerry, Billie Jean King, Al Sharpton. Others have only recently begun. But all have left their imprint on society through courageous actions, which, individually and collectively, have helped change the United States’ laws, norms, and trajectory.

As much as we may celebrate certain activists now, it’s important to remember that today’s icons were yesterday’s pariahs. It often takes years for the gains of once-unpopular protests, and the sacrifices made waging them, to be appreciated. Consider, for example, Dr. King’s 75 percent disapproval rating in 1968, the year he was assassinated. Like Dr. King, many of the activists in this book have also faced the storms of public condemnation, and have experienced intimidation, surveillance, prison, exile, death threats, and violence by the mob and by the state. And yet these individuals—these activists—have persisted, rooted in a common sense of moral imperative and personal urgency—a feeling that, as John Lewis put it, you “cannot be at home with yourself” unless you act.

Compelled by the abusive working conditions in the fields of California, Dolores Huerta (page 84) left behind a comfortable middle-class life to advocate for farmworkers, even though doing so meant that she had to raise her eleven children in the poverty of the fields. Sister Megan Rice (page 166), feeling a heavy responsibility to “expose and oppose” nuclear weapons, decided, at eighty-two years old, to break into a nuclear-arms facility—her first major action—knowing it would likely land her in jail (it did, for more than two years). Edward Snowden (page 286), compelled by top-secret knowledge that the US government was lying to the public about the extent of its mass surveillance, risked freedom to share that information, and now lives in exile in Russia. These courageous actions to hold power accountable call to mind the words of abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning . . . Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.”

We are in a contentious moment in our country’s history, and it can be tempting to conclude that the level of conflict and division we are experiencing today is without precedent, that the battles over national identity and priorities, and even over facts themselves, are historical anomalies that spell irreversible demise. But as the stories in this volume testify, we’ve faced dark periods before. And from those dark moments have sprung activists—regular people, who have stepped up when the moment and their conscience demanded—to transform society for the better.

We see this happening today, with a powerful new wave of civic engagement, particularly among young people. Individuals from all over society, and in numbers not seen since the 1960s, are finding ways to use their voices, whether by protesting in the streets, walking out of classrooms, lobbying legislators, participating in town halls or social media campaigns, or finding other ways to creatively agitate for change. And they are getting results. Witness recent examples such as the impact of the student-led backlash against gun violence, or the election of the most female and diverse Congress in US history. In meeting the moment, activists are, once again, finding ways to confront power and demand change.

As I sought ways, myself, to understand and respond to the tumultuous times, I turned to my tools: Interviewing and photographing people to capture and share stories. For decades, I have documented people’s lives with a keen interest in understanding both the unique characteristics that motivate and define individual journeys and, at the same time, the common and often more subtle threads that unite us. More recently, I became acutely interested in activists, and deeply curious about one specific question: What leads certain individuals, in the face of considerable personal, social, and political challenge, to choose action? I thought there must be wisdom to glean as well as what felt like much-needed inspiration. So, I set out to talk with activists from across the generations about what motivated their journeys and about their perspectives on the current moment. The stories that follow are in each activist’s own words, edited and condensed, with clarifying information judiciously added parenthetically.

And what a privilege the experience has been. Having initially interviewed ten of the activists featured in this book for the Washington Post Magazine, I realized that I wanted to—needed to—continue to share these powerful stories of civic engagement with the broader world. So I traversed the country, venturing from the halls of Congress to living rooms and humble cafés, speaking with people who were, to paraphrase Angela Davis (page 262), no longer accepting the things they cannot change, but changing the things they cannot accept. Time and again, I was inspired by the activists’ determination and marveled at the sense of agency so many of them demonstrated even in their youth. And they reminded me that there are no permanent victories, but rather that every generation must continue to fight. Their courage has had a profound impact on me, leaving me both grateful for their sacrifices, and hopeful for our ability, together, to confront injustice.

Although many of the stories in this book bear witness to serious adversity, ACTIVIST is, ultimately, a hopeful book for those who dare to dream—and act—in divided times. Its stories of courage, determination, creativity, struggle, and triumphs, small and large, remind us of the transcendent power of individual and collective action to help society—in the past, present, and future—overcome seemingly intractable obstacles. They highlight the shared humanity, optimism, and courage required to heed the call of conscience, regardless of one’s specific beliefs or path. I hope these stories resonate across ideological lines and help rekindle the understanding and empathy—critical ingredients for constructive dialogue—that come from listening closely and fully to others’ stories.

It is a great privilege to share the stories of this magnificent group who represent but an infinitesimal fraction of the struggles, past and present, that have shaped our country and our world. They remind us that activism comes in countless forms and from every segment of society, and that courage and conviction reside in each of us, along with the potential to stand up for what we believe is right. It is my great hope that these stories inspire others, as they have me, to be ready to speak up when the time comes, and to act on our own calls of conscience in our own individual ways. Today, tomorrow, and forever.

—KK Ottesen

“Every action matters.”

—Shepard Fairey


Harry Belafonte is an award-winning singer, songwriter, and actor, and became active early in the civil rights movement, helping finance the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Freedom Rides, and voter-registration drives. He served as a confidante to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and helped organize the March on Washington in 1963.

I became an activist because I was born into poverty. And the experiences of poverty and the cruel way in which it treated my family and the members of my community and the members of my race constantly imposed itself on my sense of, What do I do about it? The indignities that were heaped upon my mother. Her valiant struggle against being undereducated and being unskilled and being a woman of color and being an immigrant was a cruel burden. And as a child growing up, there was always the suggestion that there was a life to be aspired to that was better than the ones we were experiencing. And I never could quite understand why it was denied us. Watching my mother’s melancholy, her anxiety about food and a place to sleep, and how long we would have to be somewhat nomadic, constantly on the move to the Caribbean, to Harlem, to different places, seeking to escape the wrath of hunger.

Those who capitulated to it, I found no glory in that. And those who resisted, I saw some fear because of the penalty you pay for resisting. I used to wonder, when I saw movies with James Cagney and stories about the great Irish Rebellion, the struggle of the Irish against British domination, that those who valiantly resisted the British occupation were heroes, and statues were built of them. Yet, when we did exactly the same things, we were considered malcontents and criminals and unpatriotic and worthy of prison. So, these disparities bombarded a child growing up in a system that held so many contradictions. Why us and not they? Why they and not us?

I think that what to do about it was nurtured by my mother’s tenaciousness, her dignity, her courage, her wit—and her instruction. I remember once she came home from an unrewarding day trying to find work, very despondent and just sitting down and staring at the wall in our one-room apartment. After a fairly lengthy silence, I asked her what was the matter. She stared at me for a while, and all she said was, “Harry, boy, just promise me one thing. That as you’re growing up and you see injustice, never fail to stop and do something about it.” And, though that was a rather confusing and daunting instruction for a seven-year-old, it lingered. The thought rooted itself. And wherever I went, I would find zero tolerance for injustice.

After serving my term in the Second World War, after the great victory against Hitler and fascism, I came back and found that there were no rewards for black people. Those of us who fought the same battle and died the same death, were denied the right to vote, denied access to schools, to places to live. And one day, working as a janitor’s assistant in an apartment building, I was given a gratuity for doing a repair: two tickets to the American Negro Theater. The lights went down, this curtain opened up, and the whole evening was an epiphany. There were black forces on stage reciting remarkable poetry and using language in a way that I’d never heard before. I thought: I like this place! I think I’ll hang around and see if I can dust off the furniture and set up the chairs for the next performance. They gladly gave me the broom and told me to clean up. And in the process of listening to them and doing my tasks, I gravitated toward the magnificence of the art, of the performance. I found that in this platform, people were saying things that needed to be said, defiantly and poetically and with reward.

So, I went to an acting program created by a German Jew by the name of Erwin Piscator, who fled the Nazis and came to America. Piscator was quite a guy. He was fierce on the subject of using the theater and art as an instrument of social commentary. And, fortunately for me, I had classmates like Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger, and Tony Curtis, and began to do things I had never done before. I was a high school dropout, had a great deal of difficulty reading. All sorts of emotional and psychological obstacles were constantly challenging me. But good fortune came my way, with Paul Robeson coming in one day. He loved what we did, and sat with us afterwards. He said, “It’s a wonderful thing that you’ve chosen this profession, because we are the gatekeepers of truth. We not only show life as it is, but our responsibility is to show life as it should be.” I heard phrases like, “Art is the moral compass of civilization.” And, “We’re the ‘radical voice of humanity.’”

I went down and heard Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie—songs of social content. Just talking about it excites me. And through the instruction of people like Paul Robeson, Dr. [W.E.B.] Du Bois, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, and others, I began to understand the power of art. I could do something, say something, about oppression. And I could use my voice in the service of their social agendas.

So I did my “Banana Boat,” my “Day-O,” because these songs, while they entertain, were songs of the peasants in Jamaica working on the banana plantation. I found all the songs I could that were filled with social content. And my tickets became sought-after for an audience that was deeply curious about where I would lead them. I knew I could express points of view that would either rattle them or put a smile on their faces. It was a really incredible power. What do you say? What do you do? Some of the protest material was so influencing, so commanding. Although there were those who denounced me for bringing politics into art, there were those who rewarded me handsomely. And when the blacklist really energized itself to destroy careers, my audience stayed fiercely loyal. So, any television show or sponsor that didn’t want me: Fine. If the [Joseph] McCarthy forces came after me and shut me down in theaters, I could just say, Fuck you, you know. I’ll see you in Paris. Or London or Germany.

And what do we get as a result of that struggle, at least at the moment? Trump and everybody on a campaign to dismantle everything we gained. But it’s not Trump that bothers me. There’s always a Trump somewhere. A McCarthy. You know. It’s that we let the moment get away. But, giving up? How do you do that? You’ve got to believe in life, you’ve got to have a good slice of hope, and a sense of future. We got to go back to the drawing board and say, What did we miss? Let’s put that in the cake for the next time around.

Like my early days with SNCC in the early civil rights movement, I’m working now with a lot of young people, artists, and activists from all over the country. I see rich activists and poor activists and black activists and women activists and youth activists—we’re in abundance. And the truth of the matter is that, with all the angers and pain that we may still feel, you measure each cycle, the progression, and we do make a change. We do get better. There is the human progress.


Ai-jen Poo is a labor organizer and social activist with a focus on domestic-worker rights. She is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and co-director of Caring Across Generations. She was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2012 and published her first book, The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, in 2015.

I grew up with books, [my father’s] books. Writers like Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and people like that. And all these books about China. With him really thinking critically, and asking critical questions about why things are the way that they are. That was definitely an influence. Also, my mom’s a physician because she wanted to take care of people. So, the combination of having political analysis and being surrounded by this ethic of really wanting to take care of people was really important to me.

I feel like my high school years were defined by early learning about feminism and reproductive rights, Rodney King in Los Angeles, and the first Gulf War. Those big, defining social issues and moments really caught our attention and made me want to be much more aware of what was happening in the world and get involved in whatever was available to me. In high school, there was infrastructure for that kind of activity, so I was involved in the Women’s Forum, the Earth Friends group, in community service and student government, and the gay–straight alliance. My first protest was maybe tenth grade. George Bush visited campus and a bunch of us protested for reproductive rights. It was, like, This is happening, and we should do something. What can we do? I don’t think I even knew how to assess if it was the right thing.

Also, I had a teacher who focused on literature from the Vietnam War. So we learned a lot about the social movements and the different people that shaped that time in history through the stories of soldiers, of women in Vietnam, and of people in government. That was really influential to me because I think I got a sense of how movements have shaped history and politics. And I felt there was something important about the fact that all these young people, especially students, were able to combine with veterans and others to stop the war—at least, that’s what I thought happened at that time.

When I moved to New York for college, I was a women’s studies major. I was actually looking to major in ethnic studies, but we didn’t have ethnic studies. There were only a couple of Asian American–studies classes available to undergrads. I took them all, of course. And that’s why, in my senior year, we formed a multiracial student coalition to fight for ethnic studies on campus. Our goal was to win an ethnic studies department so that students, particularly students of color, could study the history of social movements that have fought for justice and equity in this country. We had this really vibrant campaign and it involved a fourteen-day hunger strike and building takeovers and lots of civil disobedience and arrests. A whole bunch of really dramatic actions that got the attention of the administration and forced them to the table. It yielded the establishment of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia. So, now there’s the opportunity for students.

Many of us were volunteering off campus in community organizations. It was during the Giuliani era, and police brutality and police violence were a huge issue. So I was very involved off campus on racial justice issues in particular. It was also in those early years that I was volunteering, working the hotline at a domestic violence shelter for Asian immigrant women. And I was just struck by the stories of women who were struggling to leave their abusers and figure out how they were going to take care of their kids. A big issue was the complete lack of economic security on the part of women who were working in low-wage jobs. It was impossible to figure out how these women could support themselves and their children on their own, doing the jobs they were doing. That’s what got me interested in economic justice for women and figuring out how we make jobs for women better in this economy. Especially immigrant women and women of color. That’s what put me on a path to organizing domestic workers.

We have a thousand everyday heroes who are the backbone of our movement. Women like Juana Flores, a former domestic worker and a survivor of domestic violence. She speaks a little more English now, but she’s a monolingual Spanish speaker. She’s the executive director of Mujeres Unidas, one of our founding affiliates. And she’s been a leader in our movement since the beginning. She is a real anchor for me; knowing that I have this elite education—Andover and Columbia—and that I find it incredibly hard and have to summon every ounce of privilege to try to position our work in what feels like a philanthropic and political environment dominated by a culture that overvalues white men and undervalues everybody else. Yet she’s been at it for much longer, just making it happen with so little, you know? That’s the thing that makes me, like, Okay. I can deal with whatever.

I hear stories all the time of abuse, of nonpayment of wages; you do need to be grounded in that suffering in order to do what I do and stay focused and anchored. But truthfully, from a survival standpoint, I tend to not focus on them too much. Because I think the role that I have in this work at this point is to be able to stay optimistic, creative, and generative, and to be able to see ways forward that are otherwise really hard to see if you are wrapped inside of the suffering.

Activists are a motley crew. We’re as diverse as people themselves. I think people in general are at their best when they’re connected to a sense of purpose. And activists connect to their sense of purpose more than your average person—purpose beyond our individual goals. And the best activists are always learning and are good listeners. And good collaborators. Because it’s really all connected in the end. I think it’s a golden moment for activism right now. And really critical that we channel that energy in the right ways. Because these kinds of moments don’t come around very often.


Bernie Sanders is a US senator from Vermont and the longest-serving independent in Congress. He ran a transformative, upstart campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2016. Sanders subsequently decided to run again as candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential race. Previously, he served as mayor of Burlington, Vermont.

A couple of years ago, my brother and I and our wives went to the small town in Poland where my father was raised. And what we learned is—above and beyond anti-Semitism—it was an incredibly poor community where people were really struggling to eat. So, at the age of seventeen, he left there and came to America. It blows you away to think of the courage to do that. So the idea that I would be a United States senator, let alone a candidate for president of the United States, would have been absolutely unthinkable in the house that I grew up in. A three-and-a-half-room, rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, New York.

Coming from a family that did not have a lot of money, and being Jewish, and understanding what racism was about because some of my father’s family were killed in Poland, the issue of social justice is something that I have felt my entire life. And, I’m not the first to make this point, but [the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn] was a major sociological event for New York City, too. The Dodgers were a team that the whole community—whether you were black or white or whatever—kind of rallied around. As a kid, those ballplayers were not abstract names to us. They were like family. Gil Hodges, the first baseman, lived about a mile away from us, and we used to ride our bicycle past his house. And, honest to God, probably half of our math skills were developed by [looking] if somebody was batting .283, and they went three for four in the game . . . We knew everything. So, when you’re a kid and somebody says “Brooklyn Dodgers,” you assume it’s Brooklyn, not a private entity. It’s Brooklyn, you know, how can you sell Brooklyn? That was a very enlightening moment for me about the power of money over the needs of the community.

I went to Brooklyn College for one year—it was virtually tuition-free then, I should tell you. But my mom had died during that year, died at the age of forty-six, and I didn’t want to hang around the neighborhood anymore; I wanted to get out of the city. Decided to go to University of Chicago.


On Sale
Oct 8, 2019
Chronicle Books

KK Ottesen

About the Author

KK Ottesen is an author and photographer who shares the stories of peoples’ lives through first-person narrative interviews and photographic portraits. Through her work, she seeks to break down barriers and stereotypes and allow for the discovery and celebration of common ground. Ottesen is a regular contributor to the Washington Post magazine where her interviews and photographs have appeared for more than a decade; other credits include Esquire,, and Washingtonian. Her previous book, Great Americans, explored what it means to be an American through interviews and photographs with everyday individuals who share names with some of the country’s most famous and infamous icons. She lives in Washington, DC with her family. More of her work can be found at or @kkottesen on social media.

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