My changemaker of the decade, by Amal Clooney, Solange Knowles, Caitlyn Jenner and more


Who had the biggest impact on the decade? Some of its top players nominate the person they most admire

Angela Merkel faces Donald Trump at last year’s G7 summit. Photograph: Getty Images

Tim Cook on Angela Merkel

‘Raised in an era of repression, stagnation and surveillance in East Germany, she has not wasted one breath of free air’

Tim Cook has been the CEO of Apple since 2011. Here, he nominates German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Tim Cook

These are challenging times, and naysayers may tell you to measure this decade by its darkest moments. Angela Merkel, with her quiet strength, dignity and abiding faith in the free world, shows us every day why we should choose optimism instead. Raised in an era of repression, stagnation and surveillance in East Germany, she has not wasted one breath of free air. She has spent her career in public life keeping alive the idea that we are bigger than our differences, that shared belief in powerful values can bind us closer than skin colour, or language, or national history.

She has been an unshakable cornerstone of the European project. She has been a visionary advocate for carrying forward the fundamental right to privacy into the digital age. She has been a steady economic hand during years of crisis and rising uncertainty. And she has shown steadfast commitment to the values of freedom, inclusivity and the rule of law amid Europe’s migration crisis. Through every twist and turn, through every seemingly intractable challenge, she has come out looking wiser, more prudent and more durable than those who have doubted her.

Not merely a trailblazer as Germany’s first female leader, she has become a great standard-bearer for what leadership ought to look like. In many instances, she could have made a much easier path for herself by banging on the podium and finding scapegoats, in trading long-term prosperity for short-term advantage. But she knows what lurks at the end of that road, and she has never been willing to take even a single step down it.

I was fortunate to meet her for the first time in 2015, and every time we’ve met since then she has been quick to flash that small, knowing smile, eyes crinkling with the conviction and confidence of a leader who has seen worse – and who knows, even when surrounded by doubters, that we are headed somewhere better. I admire her greatly, and I wish we had more like her.

Maria Ressa faces the media in Manila after an overnight arrest on a libel case. Photograph: Bullit Marquez/AP

Amal Clooney on Maria Ressa

‘She is a journalist who has chosen to risk her life to do her job and we are all better off as a result’

Amal Clooney

Amal Clooney is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers in London, specialising in international law and human rights. Here, she nominates journalist Maria Ressa, who in 2012 cofounded Rappler, one of the first multimedia news websites in the Philippines.

Maria Ressa is 5ft 2in, but she stands taller than most in her pursuit of the truth. Like any journalist in the Philippines, she has two choices: toe the government line and be safe; or risk her life to do her job. She has chosen the latter, and we are all better off as a result.

Maria is a Filipino-American woman who became CNN’s bureau chief in south-east Asia. Seven years ago, she teamed up with three female colleagues to set up the online news website Rappler. And very quickly it made waves.

Rappler is now one of the most influential sites in the Philippines, and, like any responsible journalist, Maria has been critical of the government’s record. Rappler has published reports on corruption by President Duterte’s administration, his weaponisation of social media to silence critics, and his support for death squads that have reportedly murdered more than 27,000 Filipinos in the name of a war on drugs. The authorities have responded with the full weight of the state. Duterte has vilified Maria’s reporting as “fake news”. He has helped amplify online attacks against her, and Rappler at one point had its operating licence revoked.

Duterte’s administration is now pursuing Maria through a series of prosecutions that seek to criminalise alleged sales of her company’s stocks to a foreign entity, and directly target her reporting with charges of criminal libel. She now faces a sentence of up to 63 years behind bars. According to Maria’s local lawyers, this is the first time in recent history that such laws have been used to target a journalist in one of Asia’s oldest democracies. But it is a sign of things to come.

This is why, Maria has told me, she has to defend herself against the charges. When I first met her, she was out on bail – as she is today – speaking at a conference in New York. When she asked me to act as her lawyer, I asked whether there was any judge in the Philippines who could be fair and independent enough to acquit her. She was not sure. I asked whether anyone other than Duterte would have the power to pardon her? They did not. Despite these odds, she went home. And I took the case. Because, as Maria explained, she is “holding up the ceiling” for anyone else who dares to speak.

Doing so is already dangerous. The UN has found that there has been a “deterioration of the human rights situation” under Duterte, including through the repeated targeting of journalists. The president has called journalists “spies” and warned that they are “not exempted from assassination”. If Maria, a US citizen, can now be locked up for doing her work, the message to other journalists and independent voices is clear: be quiet, or you’ll be next.

Maria’s struggle is one that defines our times. Data gathered in the last few years shows more journalists being imprisoned and killed than at any time since records began, threatening the very foundations of democracy and a free society. Authoritarian leaders have every advantage over those they try to intimidate, yet people like Maria are fighting back.

Maria is speaking truth to power. She is holding up the ceiling for others. If it comes crashing down, I will do all I can to get her out.

Vitalik Buterin: ‘He is at the forefront of a new wave of globalism.’ Photograph: Ethan Pines/The Forbes Collection/Contour RA

Micah White on Vitalik Buterin

‘People told me Occupy was a bad idea. Vitalik’s cryptocurrency will defy people in the same way’

Micah White

Micah White founded the economic protest movement Occupy Wall Street in 2011. He published The End Of Protest: A New Playbook For Revolution in 2016. Here, he nominates programmer Vitalik Buterin, who cofounded the cryptocurrency Ethereum.

In activism, it’s hard to break out of the consensus – to propose a new idea, and not let being shut down stop you. Vitalik Buterin has done just that. He’s only 25. He invented Ethereum when he was 19 and studying Bitcoin. He basically wanted to embed a computer inside money, via programs known as smart contracts. The idea was rejected by the Bitcoin community, but he pushed forward, and now Ethereum is one of the decade’s most promising technologies for social change.

Vitalik is interested in how technology can be used for good. The Bitcoin community couldn’t care less about that; they’re just trying to make money. When I met Vitalik, he asked, “Do you think we’re going to be able to tokenise natural resources?” What he meant was: can we take a natural resource and represent it as a cryptocurrency, so that the value of the coin increases if the resources are protected? This is a whole different direction for environmental activism.

Ethereum is a system of smart contracts that are completely binding – they are unchangeable and publicly verifiable. Key aspects of international agreements, such as the Paris agreement to combat climate change, could be more easily enforced if people could tell when promises had been broken. You’d be shifting power away from corruptible international organisations. In that sense, Vitalik is at the forefront of a new wave of globalism.

In the future we’ll see other activists creating new forms of money that embody their economic ideals. I dream of redistributive currencies that automatically share a portion of each transaction with everyone in the economy. A lot of the ideas that have been floating around the left, like the Robin Hood tax on financial transactions, are hard to implement in the real world but easy to implement with a cryptocurrency. Imagine the reaction when governments realise global social movements are using Ethereum in ways that we never predicted.

The most impactful changes come from the places that we least expect. When we came up with Occupy Wall Street, everyone told me it was a bad idea and they weren’t interested. I see a similar reaction with Ethereum: people can’t see its potential, and that is why it will defy them.

Marai Larasi: ‘She is there for people who have no one and nothing.’ Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Emma Watson on Marai Larasi

‘My abiding memory of the Globes? We picked tarot cards together and she wore the best shoes’

Emma Watson

Actor Emma Watson was appointed UN Women goodwill ambassador in 2014 and helped launch HeForShe, a UN campaign for the advancement of gender equality. Here, she nominates Marai Larasi MBE, who was until recently the executive director of black feminist organisation Imkaan and co-chair of the End Violence Against Women coalition. In 2018, she and Watson attended the Golden Globes together as part of the launch of Time’s Up.

Marai Larasi is mother to Ikamara and Jahred, but she is a mother to many. She is the person on the frontline of the issues I care about in the UK – from feminism to LGBTQI+ rights. Throughout this decade, Marai has supported and championed women who have survived unimaginable abuses. She is there for people who have no one and nothing, in their hardest moments.

Who knows what’s going to happen in the next decade? If the apocalypse comes, I’d ride into battle in her wake. This would definitely make her laugh because she is the least violent person I know, in word, gesture and thought, even though she speaks beautifully about rage. She is all sorts of beautiful contradictions.

She is contained, having carefully learned to wield her energy. She knows when to use it and when not to, and knows that “no” is a complete sentence. She is passionately vegan, in the funniest, least self-aggrandising or patronising way possible. She just cocks her head sideways at people as if to say, “What on earth are they doing, eating animals?” She’s a neat freak. Whatever Marie Kondo is on, Marai is on, too. Again, if the apocalypse comes, I’m hiding out in Marai’s room. She is heavy and light, old and young, an anvil that’s fluid.

My abiding memory of attending the Golden Globes with Marai? Two things. We picked tarot cards before we went, and she wore the best shoes I’ve ever seen. I bought her fluffy Birkenstocks as a thank you gift, which her children think are an abomination. I am told she wears them anyway.

I wish I could name the single most impactful thing she has done over the last decade, but I haven’t known her long enough, and she is notoriously modest, rarely speaking about all that she is juggling. Personally, though, it was probably something incredibly simple she said to me the first time we met. We were at Imkaan and she introduced herself as a black lesbian feminist. Why, I asked, did she feel the need to define herself this specifically? She answered and later sent me an Audre Lorde quote explaining that it is our differences that make us more powerful, not weaker. Knowing our experiences are different doesn’t fracture us; it makes us more intimate, stronger, more connected.

I find her presence in the world profoundly comforting. I’ve never met a woman I felt had more of the answers.

Yann LeCun: ‘Image recognition wouldn’t be possible without his work.’ Photograph: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg/via Getty Images

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger on Yann LeCun

‘If you see a self-driving car, or scan a cheque with your bank’s app – that’s all down to Yann’

Kevin Systrom

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger launched the photo-sharing app Instagram in 2010, before stepping down last year. Here, they nominate Yann LeCun, the chief AI scientist at Facebook.

Kevin Systrom When Mike and I left, we asked, “What’s had the most effect on Instagram over the years?” And we both agreed it was machine learning. Yann LeCun is one of the very few people to move it from being a buzzword to something that really mattered to companies and academics alike. Machine learning revolutionised Instagram, from suggesting friends to follow, to watching out for objectionable content.

Image recognition wouldn’t be possible without Yann’s work. It has transformed all sorts of industries. Being able to look at satellite data and understand global warming, or content on Instagram that needs to be followed up by law enforcement – the things that keep people safe or transform the world in a meaningful way wouldn’t be possible without him.

Mike Krieger

Mike Krieger Yann has been in the field of AI and machine learning since the late 80s, but it’s only in the last 10 years that the rest of the industry has caught up; his impact is now everywhere. If you’re on the street and you see a self-driving car, or you’re on Instagram and you feel safe because something has been removed, or if you do something as trivial as scanning a cheque using your bank’s app, that’s all down to Yann.

The whole area of how AI can keep us safe online will continue to be important as the amount of content posted on all of these networks grows. In the next 10 years, Yann will be able to take machine learning from something that was typically done on very large computers to something that runs on people’s phones. It can help you take better photos because it knows what’s in the image; it can help you solve all kinds of problems.


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