Marta’s longtime friend and fellow activist, KK Ottesen, recently released a stunning photobook, “Activist: Portraits of Courage” which profiles forty changemakers from Billie Jean King to Bernie Sanders and Angela Davis to Edward Snowden. Read on to learn more about KK, her driving motivations, and what we can all learn from about activism.
As a longtime friend since high school where the Quaker philosophy of global citizenship drove the community culture of Sidwell Friends which we both attended, I have always seen the through lines in your interest and passion for doing good. What other experiences have inspired you to be who you are?
In addition to the Quaker influence, I think that a couple of experiences living abroad when I was growing up – first in the Cook Islands and then in India – had a major impact on my outlook and trajectory. Living in environments very different than those I was used to, gave me an invaluable perspective on the world and my place in it. They fostered a real sense of interconnectedness and shared humanity that guide my work.
You recently came out with a book that focuses on what unites us through profiles of activists across the generations. In this time of division and polarity, what gives you hope that healing is possible?
That very question was the driving force behind the book. It’s a lot harder to vilify people we understand and can empathize with. And so I worked to share the stories of individuals from very different backgrounds and moments (some of whom we’ll disagree with) because I think that helps foster the respect and empathy necessary for healthy dialogue. And reception to the book so far has given me great hope that this healing is possible.
For example, a woman who came to one of my book talks just reached out to tell me that she went home after the talk, sat down, and before reading the profiles of her own activist heroes, challenged herself to read the interviews of every one of the activists with whom she did NOT agree. I think that’s fantastic! And she came away with a very different idea not necessarily of what they stand for, but of who they are. That sort of open-minded, open-hearted response inspires me.
Of the subjects that you interviewed and photographed, are there one or two that you could share a bit more about? Perhaps a personal anecdote from your encounter that adds more color to their narrative.
Terribly hard question – there are so many. But let me tell you one unexpected one. One of my favorite stories from the book is that of anti-war activist, Bonnie Raines. Not only was her action with a small group daring (breaking into the FBI to steal all files to prove that the FBI was spying on American citizens – anti-war activists, Black Panthers), but, because they never told anyone and were never caught, no one even knew their story until it slipped out inadvertently 40 years later. That makes me wonder how many other courageous actions and stories are out there that we’ll never even know about.
I had the opportunity to meet John Lewis last year and it was incredibly powerful. As a subject in your book, and given how intimate the experience of interviewing him must have been, how do you think he has stayed the course and kept up the fight?
I asked him how he keeps up the fight after so many years and struggles. He said that he just continues to “pick ‘em up and put ‘em down” every day because there is so much work to do, and we never know how much time we have and he’d seen so many of his fellow civil rights workers taken before their time. Of course, this is especially meaningful today, as he faces his struggle with cancer.
You have been an active journalist for many years. Can you point our readers to some of your favorite pieces?
Every single person I’ve met has wisdom to share with the world and it’s such a privilege through my work to have the opportunity to get a glimpse into the minds and lives of so many people in order to share their stories. Some favorites include on one hand, meeting icons like Jane Goodall or Harry Belafonte, whose lives have spanned seismic changes and whose work has helped propel those changes, and on the other, traveling to the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation in South Dakota to meet with young indigenous rights activist Jasilyn Charger or taking in batting practice with young baseball phenome Juan Soto.
You describe your interest in the individual’s decision to take action. Did you have a tipping point earlier in your life that spurred you to action?
Since I can remember, I have always had a strong belief in the necessity of understanding where other people are coming from – and the responsibility to stand up when we think something is wrong. I think my earliest local activist hero was DC’s Mitch Schneider.
There are many paths to activism, as you eloquently describe in interviews. What is the message that you hope to bestow on younger individuals who don’t yet know their superpower?
I think the most important message is, as you say, that there is no one way to make change. Each of us brings specific background knowledge and innate talents. And while we can and should always keep learning and growing, there is no prerequisite to action. Action is a decision. So, focus on something you care about, get creative, and just take a first step. If something doesn’t go right, fix it, and try again. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Speaking of superpowers….I think of you as a superhero and I would love to know what you consider your superpower.
Ha! Rose-colored glasses. I think my greatest strengths are my empathy and curiosity.
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