The heroes who challenged, inspired, and motivated us in 2016

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It’s hard to look back at 2016 without thinking of all the heroes we lost. While their influence lives on, it’s important to tap new sources of strength and inspiration going into 2017. For many of us, that may be someone we’ve met, someone whose work we admire, or someone who challenged us to think about one small thing in a big new way. To keep our collective heads high as we head into a challenging new year, Fusion staffers share the writers, activists, and artists motivating them to push through.


Molly Osberg: Klaus Jacob, climate research scientist

My 2016 hero is Klaus Jacob, a climate research scientist at Columbia University and professional doomsayer who has spent most of his career trying to warn New Yorkers about the effects of climate change on their city. When Jacob’s own house flooded during Hurricane Sandy, he had predicted the exact level to which the water level would rise, and took a nap rather than worrying about the destruction of his home. In 2017 I aspire to a) know everything with a spooky degree of certainty and b) make peace with screaming noiselessly into the void.

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Tahirah Hairston: Ava Duvernay, film director

This year Duvernay not only released an amazing TV show, Queen Sugar, but she also released a documentary, 13th, that shed light on the injustices within the criminal justice system. She has also made sure she has put other women on screen and worked with them in ways that elevated both of their careers. I really want to make an effort to collaborate with other women of color and create great things with other women. My second option is Joanne the Scammer.


Ari Phillips: Karl Ove Knausgård, author

Reading Knausgaard’s autobiographical series My Struggle reminded me of the power of literature and transported me from a world of rapid-fire sensory overload to one that lingers on details, probes emotions, and somehow brings life back to life. I would like to get better at translating what’s in my head onto the written page, and, as always, to care less about what other people think.

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Katie McDonough: The parents fighting for clean water in Flint, Michigan

Corey Luster, Gina Luster, Melissa Mays, Desiree Duell, and every other parent in Flint fighting the system that poisoned their kids. These women made their movement about the people, the gross negligence, and the active malfeasance that poisoned their water supply, and sent a warning to the country about the austerity politics that eroded their local institutions. As Duell told me one day over coffee back in January: “The water was just a symptom of something bigger that has been happening for a long time.” In 2017, I want to emulate their resolve. We all should.


Tim Rogers: Mohamud Nageye, Somali refugee

I met Nageye in the Panamanian jungle last year. He was part of a group of six Somalis lost in Darién Gap, 8,000 miles from home. I reconnected with Mohamud this year after he made it to the U.S. and was locked up at an immigrant detention center in Florida. He has since been released on parole and is starting a new life in Texas, while he continues to fight for asylum. Mohamud has endured unspeakable torture, fear, loss, and loneliness over the years. But he never gave up on life. He crossed the world, overcoming incredible hardships and challenges in his effort to find a life of peace and freedom. Mohamud is a testament to the human spirit. I deeply admire his strength, humility, and endurance, as I do for all refugees and immigrants forced to flee their homes. America is a better place thanks to them.

Felix Salmon: Khizr Khan, Gold Star father

I think my 2016 hero would have to be Khizr Khan, an intensely private and grief-stricken man who believed so deeply in the foundational ideals of his adoptive country that he appeared in front of millions of Americans to give the most memorable speech of the entire 2016 election. I’ll be thinking of Mr. Khan a lot in 2017, as I try to remember to use Constitutional first principles as a way of grounding my thinking and placing the unprecedented in some kind of perspective. In a time when it’s all too easy to get caught up in the news cycle and in the dueling invective of Republican versus Democrat politics, Khan is an example to us all of how to see clearly.


Carla Javier: Ghazala Khan, Gold Star mother

In a moving op-ed for the Washington Post, Khan shared her pain, defended her religion, and called out Trump for his hurtful words. That took bravery, not because our President-elect loves to insult his critics, but because she is a Muslim woman of color living in 2016 America. We–as reporters and as human beings–should aspire to do the same when talking about and to the incoming administration and its racist, sexist, Islamophobic leader, infusing our words and actions with the power of personal stories and experiences to call out bullying and lies for what they are.


Collier Meyerson: Ieshia Evans, nurse and protester

In the days after Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a series of protests broke out in the city. During the unrest, an image of a young black woman being approached by police, a line of riot police in the background, began circulating online. She stood, alone, her gaze firmly ahead of her. She was taking a stand for what she believed in, unafraid and undeterred by what could happen to her. With the upcoming Trump administration, I hope that we all have have the fearlessness of that protester imprinted inside our minds.


Alexis Madrigal: Mierle Laderman Ukeles, artist

2016 was the year I learned about Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Ukeles is a New York artist who became obsessed with the Sanitation Department, which is the most important part of any city government. She shook hands with every single garbage person. And she wrote performances for “sanmen” and their machines. She was “an artist crazy about the public domain as our common home, wild about public systems, infrastructure and public workers,” as she put it.


Of course all these things happened before Trump. But what Ukeles had to say about the essentials of modern life remains relevant, even in this “moment,” our name for any number of myths. Because there is some shared communication on the internet, it can feel like a public space and what’s happening in it can feel like “the moment.” But this presentism gives us vertigo: Each hour and each tweet and each celebrity sighting at Trump Tower can blot out the millions of other stories simultaneously in motion, backwards and forwards in time. How can anyone make a proper critique if its basis—even the set of facts that occasioned it—has been forgotten in an instant? It’s like we’re living inside the memory hole, shards and pieces of what used to be structured into history floating around us like confetti.

That is to say, maybe the hero of 2016 is every other year that has come before it, and their contents. Stay anchored. Do the work.

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