Let’s face it: 2016 was a whirlwind of sobering events. From a shocking election outcome to the appalling social injustices in Aleppo and beyond, there’s been plenty of tragedy to bemoan, and plenty of sorrow to last a lifetime.
Through it all, however, I refuse to lose hope. Thanks to the painstaking work of inspiring cultural icons and community leaders around the globe, I believe positive change is not only coming; it’s inevitable.
These eight inspiring “AmBadAssadors” changed the world—despite the world. They remind us that, when the going gets rough and life hurtles lemons your way at top speed, the sweetest lemonade can still be made. Read on to be inspired by their badassery, and by the promise of a better 2017.
8 Inspiring “AmBadAssadors” Who Changed the World
1. Michelle Obama
When our fearless First Lady entered the White House, she told her staff, “Don’t just put me on a plane, send me someplace and have me smile. And despite consistent attacks on her appearance and race throughout her husband’s presidency, Michelle Obama found a way to leave behind a positive and everlasting legacy. Her “Let’s Move” program has been credited with improving school lunches and spurring the FDA’s overhaul of packaged foods labels.
Michelle Obama truly lives by her now-famous mantra: “When they go low, we go high.” It’s no wonder she’s enjoyed her status as one of the most popular First Ladies in American history, with an approval rating that’s never dipped below 60%.
2. Alan Alda
This beloved M*A*S*H legend and West Wing star also happens to be a long-time feminist who considers misogyny “a disease that needs to be cured.” He founded the Jenjo Foundation with his wife Arlene, in order to provide much-needed services and funds for at-risk women and youth. He also spent ten years working towards the Equal Rights Amendment, proudly and unapologetically declaring his pro-feminist stance in the face of widespread derision. As if that weren’t enough, he also hosted PBS’ Scientific American Frontiers in order to explain the workings of subconscious gender and racial biases.
The actor and activist turned 80 this year, and we wish him many more years of health and happiness.
3. Gong Ji-Young
Back in 2009, this Korean feminist author penned the controversial novel Dogani, which detailed the horrific and very real cases of sexual abuse at Gwangju Inhwa School (a school for hearing impaired students) in South Korea. The writer’s impassioned work had far-reaching effects that still affect South Korea today. After producers adapted Gong’s book into a major Korean film, massive public outcry forced the initially reluctant South Korean government to take action.
Multiple school officials faced prison time and fines, and the country’s parliament unanimously passed a bill to remove the statute of limitations on sex crimes against disabled women and children under 13. Gong, who initially faced criticism by prominent members of South Korea’s Grand National Party for her “political activities,” found vindication in the public’s support.
4. Rowan Blanchard
Keep your eyes on this 15-year-old Disney darling. In her young age, she’s already schooled plenty of folks on the realities of gender and racial justice. The actress uses her platform to educate the public, despite constant cyber-bullying on Instagram and Twitter. In interviews, she emphasizes the importance of understanding and tackling white privilege, even within the feminist world.
Blanchard’s self-awareness and intelligence is striking for her youth, and her words are already making an impact in Hollywood and beyond. Blanchard’s feminism truly includes women of all colors and backgrounds; I’m rooting for her in 2017.
5. Malala Yousafzai
No list of changemakers would be complete without Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani woman who almost paid the ultimate price to promote equal access to education. The feminist activist, who the world now knows simply as “Malala,” didn’t let a terrifying assassination attempt in 2012 prevent her from promoting equal rights for women in her country and beyond.
Malala’s work helped re-open a girls’ school in Pakistan, prompted a UN petition for equal access to education, and funded the rebuilding of 65 schools in Gaza. Her name is now synonymous with bravery, equality and social justice across the world.
6. J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling, the woman best known for creating the magical world of Harry Potter, owns another, lesser-known (but equally inspiring) tale: her own rags-to-riches story and relentless activism. After struggling through welfare and dealing with the loss of her mother, Rowling penned an internationally-adored series about a boy wizard, became a billionaire—and then promptly gave her billionaire status away with a $160 million donation to charity.
Rowling is also the President of Lumos, an organization that works to end the institutionalization of parentless children. “It is my dream,” she once said, “that, within my lifetime, the very concept of taking a child away from its family and locking it away will seem to belong to a cruel, fictional world.”
7. Muhammad Ali
The legendary boxer Muhammad Ali passed away earlier this year, but his fighting spirit—both on and off the boxing ring is still very much alive. The heavyweight champ loudly and unapologetically denounced the Vietnam War, even when faced with a ban from boxing and threatened with violence. “I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself,” he declared, “by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.”
The heavyweight champ paid a huge price for his political incorrectness. At the time of his stance, the War’s popularity stood at an all-time high. His outspokenness and unwavering support of social justice across the globe, however, encouraged others to stand up for their rights—and inspired a new generation of athlete activists.
8. John Legend
Award-winning crooner John Legend is an outspoken activist against institutionalized racism and police brutality. He’s called upon celebrities to use their unique and hyper-visible platforms to speak out against injustice, and produced television shows and documentaries that place people of color squarely at the center of their own narratives. In his latest music video for “Love Me Now,” Legend placed the spotlight on real-life couples who tackled extraordinary odds to find love. These couples included Syrian refugees Abdulrahman and Zeren, as well as Ryan Cunnington and Norman Casiano, who survived the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
Legend and his wife Chrissy Teigen welcomed their baby girl this year, and their bundle of joy only added more motivation and inspiration for Legend’s activism and charitable endeavors. When asked about the happy new addition to his family, Legend said in an interview with TIME, “You just want the world to be the best place for your kid to grow up in—safe and loving and a place where she can dream anything and be able to do it.”