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This week, Time Magazine came out with its annual Top 100 Most Influential People list, a veritable who’s who of Washington insiders, Wall Street insiders, tech giants, and celebrities. But what about the men and women who made a difference for regular Americans on the issues facing all of us?
There are many who were left out of Time’s collection. And that’s why we’re offering our own list of U.S. PIRG’s top five change makers. Over the past year, these men and women had a big impact on the issues that Americans care about, addressing the threats faced by everyday families. These change makers include mothers and voters, researchers and comedians, who didn’t make it onto Time’s list, but are shaping our country none the less. Take a look:
LeeAnne Walters - This past year, America learned about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where thousands of children and families were poisoned by contaminated water after the city switched its water source to the toxic Flint River. But not everyone heard about LeeAnne Walters, the stay-at-home mother of four, who brought national attention to the local health crisis and helped spark a movement for justice.
Starting in the summer of 2014, Walters and her children began experiencing dramatic health effects related to Flint’s contaminated water supply. Despite city assurances that local water was safe for drinking, Walters and her children suffered from hair loss, severe abdominal pains, rashes and more.
Walters began attending city council meetings to raise the issue for local leaders and when that wasn’t enough, she teamed up with others in her community to stage regular protests outside of Flint’s City Hall. Walters also began researching lead contamination, and pored over Flint water quality reports looking for evidence of wrongdoing which she later sent to the EPA.
Walters’ contact at the EPA put her in touch with Marc Edwards, an expert on lead contamination, who put together a team to conduct field tests in Flint and to seek data from the city and the state. When the results of Edwards’ investigations came back last September, the Flint water crisis was blown open, and national media attention forced a serious state and federal response.
Today, the Flint community continues to suffer from lingering effects of lead contamination, but they have Walters to thank for bringing federal attention to the issue and a national response. Her fight reminds us that one person can make a difference, and that no one should stand idly by in the face of injustice.
Drew Kodjak - When the International Council for Clean Transportation (ICCT) commissioned researchers at West Virginia University to test diesel car emissions in 2013, ICCT’s Executive Director Drew Kodjak expected to find that diesel cars sold in the U.S. emitted fewer pollutants than cars sold elsewhere because they had to meet tougher standards. Instead, Kodjak and his team of researchers unearthed widespread corporate fraud: Volkswagen was using software in its diesel cars to cheat federal emissions tests, selling vehicles that released smog-forming pollutants at up to 40 times the legal limit.
Kodjak’s work revealed that VW ripped off hundreds of thousands of consumers who thought they were buying clean vehicles. Since the scandal broke, many of those car buyers have taken a stand, demanding that VW pay for its wrongdoing. Thousands of car owners have written the company urging it to buy their car, and one couple drove their diesel VW cross-country to the company’s headquarters, bringing local, national, and international media attention to the issue.
Seven months after news of Volkswagen’s emission scandal broke, a federal court this week announced a 'framework' for a settlement in the cases related to VW's 567,000 fraudulently marketed, illegally polluting cars. This framework appears to include all of the elements that a deal should include, but the devil will be in the details. While we wait to see how the framework will be implemented, VW owners have Kodjak to thank for exposing VW’s fraud.
The American Voter - No one expected the 2016 election season to shape up the way it has. Whatever you think of the candidates, it’s clear that voters from across the political spectrum are fed up with our big money system and they’ve made money in politics a national issue in this campaign cycle. There’s been a sea change in American politics, and for that we should thank the American voter.
This April, we saw a demonstration of just how important money in politics is to everyday Americans when thousands came to Washington, D.C., for a mass mobilization in support of voting rights and fair elections. They came from Denver, Chicago, Miami, Boston, and across the country to take a stand for solutions that give everyone a fair voice in our elections.
It’s no secret why voters this election season are angry. This year’s presidential race will likely feature more super PAC money than any prior election, and mega-donors are funding an unprecedented amount of those contributions. Not since before Watergate have so few people and businesses provided so much early money in a campaign as they have in this year’s presidential election.
American voters want their voice back, and their work battling to get big money out of politics is the single most important contribution to election reform this year.
Steve Easterbrook - Give credit to the man who finds the common-sense solution that keeps a
struggling fast food giant afloat: listening to his customers.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans placed an order for meat raised without routine antibiotics, and McDonald’s new CEO Steve Easterbrook delivered. With a commitment to phase out the use of human antibiotics from its chicken supplies, Easterbrook hoisted McDonald’s into the ranks of companies leading to protect public health from the superbug crisis. He also tipped the scales for meat raised without antibiotics into the mass market. In short, Easterbrook recognized early a trend that’s now become a market fact: meat raised without routine antibiotics isn’t just good for public health, it’s good business. In the year since, we’ve seen multiple chicken producers and fast food companies alike join in the fight to save antibiotics.
This market shift must accelerate. The World Health Organization warns that without immediate action, we stand to lose our ability to fight infections, and enter into the “post-antibiotic era,” in which today’s life-saving medicines no longer work. The overuse of antibiotics on factory farms is one major contributor to the problem. Yet, it remains common practice for these meat producers to give their livestock and poultry daily doses of antibiotics – most often when those animals aren’t sick. This allows bacteria to become resistant; when these ‘superbugs’ travel off the farm and into communities, they can cause infections that are hard, if not impossible, to treat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23,000 Americans already die every year from such infections, and it’s only getting worse.
Consumers are largely concerned with this looming public health crisis; by listening to them, Easterbrook both made a major impact towards ending the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms and led others in the fast-food market to do the same. Now, we’re seeing the kind of progress we’ll need to prevent a post-antibiotic era, and we’re lovin’ it.
John Oliver - Now hosting his third season of Last Week Tonight, British comedian John Oliver has locked down his brand of angry funny. His take down of the credit reporting industry, his evisceration of predatory lending, and his tirades against money in politics are all raunchy, obscene, and hilarious. But most importantly, they’re honest.
John Oliver has a talent for getting to the heart of the unglamorous issues that many Americans face on a day-to-day basis. Some weeks he takes a deep dive on the impact that faulty credit reporting can have on our financial wellbeing. Other weeks he examines a political system that requires our lawmakers to spend more time dialing for dollars than connecting with their constituents. While Last Week Tonight is a comedy show, John Oliver’s comedy has done more to expose consumer issues faced by regular Americans than many news programs.
The challenges we face as a country can be daunting and they can be complex, but every day, more Americans are joining our call for Wall Street reform, fair elections, and a safe food system. John Oliver has highlighted these issues for millions of American viewers and his impact on the American political landscape cannot be underestimated.
Want to join us in making a difference on the issues that everyday Americans face? You can become a change-maker as well. Take a moment to check out our campaigns for solutions on money in politics, consumer rights, public health, and more at USPIRG.org. Thank you for making your voice heard in our fight for a stronger democracy.
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