Three cheers for crazy ideas

This world really does need more of these wonderful heretics

Anita Roddick| June 2007 issue
Every real change, every revolutionary idea, every heartfelt gesture, whether it transforms 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. Revolutionaries, activists and change-makers of every stripe—just like entrepreneurs—lead because they cannot follow something with which they do not agree or which limits their imaginations. They change the world because their passion and conviction won’t allow them not to.
Not all revolutionaries set out to change the world per se; some set out to change their own worlds. And in so doing, they 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 powerful. 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 when I founded The Body Shop. I just wanted a means to support myself and my two daughters. When I applied for a loan to start a small shop in Brighton, England, 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, proving that women can indeed run successful companies, and that these companies can have compassion—and just plain passion—at heart instead of pure profit motive. Many people had said it was not possible. Time and again I was told it couldn’t be done, that it would not work, that I was insane. But I refused to limit my thinking to financial matters; I felt business was about bringing your heart to the workplace.
In my travels over the past 30 years, I have met thousands of activists, entertainers, theologians, women’s groups, business people, anti-globalization campaigners, native tribes and vagabonds. I have met the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela. I have spent days deep in the Amazonian rainforest and on the streets of London among the homeless. After all of this, I can spot a revolutionary from 100 paces. First clue: Everyone else thinks they’re crazy, dangerous or ridiculous.
I understand now that some of my personal heroes 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” or especially “I can’t.”
Not everyone who changes the world is an iconic figure, much less a martyr, but they too can and do change the world. I think of 12-year-old Craig Kielburger 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 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 Nigeria who stood up to Shell Oil, which was occupying and polluting their native tribal lands. Their bravery cost many of them, including Ken, their lives. But it focused international outrage on exploitation of poor people by multinational corporations, especially those that are backed by corrupt military regimes.
I think of the Zapatistas in Chiapas who refused to accept the status quo in Mexico with its corrupt government, its abuse of native communities and lands. I think of their language of revolution, which does not include the word “proletariat” or “bourgeoisie” or any of the words associated with Marx and Lenin. Instead of appealing to the “workers’ to rise up, they called for a rebirth of “civil society” and democracy. They delivered their manifestos not in books or long-winded speeches, but in poetry; they told stories and riddles and described the corrupt system of government in Chiapas as “an object of shame dressed in the colour of money.”
I think of the Angola Three, African-American activists who stood up against corruption and abuse inside in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and who were then framed for crimes they didn’t commit and thrown in solitary confinement for 31 years (See “Seeking truth in Louisiana,” Ode, April 2007). Two of them are still there, but their hope and determination does not fade with time.
I think about spiritual activists like Daniel and Philip Berrigan, American priests who burned draft files with homemade napalm in 1967 to protest the Vietnam War and the Catholic Church’s complicity in it. Or Kevin Buzzacott, an aboriginal elder in Australia who rallied his tribe to reoccupy its homeland and resist the presence of a massive mine poisoning a sacred lake.
Closer to home, I think of the 20 employees of The Body Shop who went to Romania to help repair and re-equip the orphanages there, especially the two who ended up staying to launch Children on the Edge, a non-profit organization that is systematically finding homes for the institutionalized children of Romania and helping youth at risk in many other nations.
You feel the impact of thousands more every day, of course, even if you have never heard their names. You’ll know them by that slightly crazy gleam in their eyes. And then you will see that this world really does need more of these wonderful heretics.
Anita Roddick, an author and long-time activist, is co-founder of The Body Shop. More information:

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