John_Oliver“That dress is worth four dollars and ninety five cents. Think about that. That means you could take a five dollar bill, scotch tape it over your genitals, and you’d be wearing a more expensive piece of clothing.”

The audience bursts into laughter. However, while John Oliver is all about getting laughs on his show “Last Week Tonight,” when it comes to blending the comedian and the activist, he’s not joking around.

The above quote is from a segment on sweatshops in the clothing industry, particularly modern, cheaper retailers.

“It seems sweatshops aren’t one of those 90s problems we got rid of like Donnie Wahlberg,” Oliver said. “They’re more like one of those 90s problems we’re still dealing with, like Mark Wahlberg.”

Oliver’s use of his comedic platform as a springboard for his activism makes sense. Prior to his television show’s launch, Oliver was known for his role as a correspondent on “Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show,” and famously filled in for the beloved host in June of 2013, while Stewart was overseas filming his directorial debut.

The difference between Stewart and Oliver’s areas of focus is subtle but significant. Stewart focuses on news and current events, approaching them with a fresh spin, an important trait in a daily program. Oliver, on the other hand, focuses on issues. From food waste, which Oliver compares to Rascall Flatts in that “it can fill a surprising number of stadiums even though many people consider it complete garbage,” to tobacco giant Phillip Morris International threatening to sue Togo, a country with a GDP of just 4.3 billion dollars (“when your GDP is only a couple of billion more than the box office of Avatar, a protracted legal case is not really what you need.”) Oliver takes on major topics not just for laughs, but for information.

What is also unique about Oliver is how he encourages his audience to get involved. In his segment on the tobacco industry, for instance, Oliver christened “Jeff the diseased lung in a cowboy hat” as the new face of Marlboro. Oliver spread t-shirts of the diseased lung in Togo and billboards in Uruguay. Oliver also encouraged his audience to support the new icon, which mocked the tobacco industry’s marketing tactics, particularly in the developing world. It is through this type of culture jamming that Oliver achieves the power of comedy as a medium that influences social change.

Ultimately, “Last Week Tonight” could have been another late night television show, perhaps made a bit edgier due to its placement on HBO. But due to John Oliver’s social activism and experience gained while working with the great Jon Stewart, the show has become an informative springboard for activism, something with great impact on both its audience and the world at large.

Andrew Michaels

Sources: Last Week Tonight: Fashion, Last Week Tonight: Food Waste, Last Week Tonight: Tobacco, Splitsider
Photo: HBO – Last Week Tonight

Contacting representatives in Congress is one of the most important things a citizen can do to be heard. Some people assume that representatives do not pay much attention to the opinions of their constituents, but this belief is wrong. Because representatives are elected to reflect the district’s or state’s opinions, they are attentive to constituent voices when contacted. Reaching out is key and lets representatives know what their constituents think about certain issues.

Without constituent initiative, opinions can go unheard. Thankfully, contacting representatives has never been easier, both by email or by writing a letter. Here is how:


The easiest way to contact representatives is through email. Finding the correct email address is the hardest part of this process.

First, search for your representatives’ names. Visit the following website to search for a representative in the U.S. House of Representatives by zip code:

To find a representative by his or her name, or to search by state, visit this website:

Conduct the same search for your representatives in the U.S. Senate by visiting the following website:

Upon finding the names of the representatives, visit their individual websites. Once there, find the “Contact” section of the website, where there is usually an automated email option. This is the official way to contact your representatives as this ensures the email is sent to the correct alias.

Another great, efficient way to write to Congress is through The Borgen Project website. In the “Act Now” portion of the website, click on the “Email Congress” link. After choosing the issue to be supported, enter all the necessary information to find your representatives in Congress. Once the representatives are located and selected, the representative(s) will receive an email with the simple click of a button!

Writing a Letter

Using the representatives’ websites, locate the postal addresses listed for their offices under the “Contact” section of each individual website. Many representatives have an office located in their district along with an office in Washington D.C. Both offices are receptive to constituent letters.

– Erik Nelson

Sources:, United States House of Representatives, United States Senate, The Borgen Project
Photo: Impowerable

In our constantly changing world, we are seeing more and more everyday people taking a stance against poverty and becoming human rights activists. These individuals have demonstrated that with the right qualities and the commitment to bringing about change, anyone can make a difference.

Be a dreamer.

When Kakenya Ntaiya, founder of the Kakenya Center for Excellence in Kenya, was growing up she dreamed of being a teacher. However, the social and cultural norms of the Maasai population in Kenya expected young girls like Ntaiya to be married at a young age and learn skills to be a wife, not to go to school.

In a Massai right of passage, young girls suffer genital mutilation and are usually married not long after this ceremony. Ntaiya made a deal with her father that would allow her to finish high school after the ceremony, and she ultimately received a college scholarship in the United States and earned a doctorate in education.

Ntaiya made her childhood dream a reality when she opened the Kakenya Center for Excellence in 2009, the first primary school in her village. Since then, she has helped over 150 girls receive a proper education without having to endure what she did.

Persevere against all odds.

In light of Nelson Mandela’s death in December 2013, we are reminded of the legacy he left behind to inspire future human rights activists and leaders. Mandela spent over 25 years in prison after being convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government because of his anti-apartheid efforts. During his time in prison, Mandela was unable to attend the funerals of his mother and his eldest son.

While in prison, Mandela secretly began negotiations with the current apartheid state, specifically with South African President F.W. de Klerk. Mandela was released in 1990 and worked even harder to change conditions in South Africa. In 1994, Mandela became the nation’s first black president.

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote, “It would be very hard, if not impossible for one man alone to resist. But the authorities’ greatest mistake was to keep us together, for together our determination was reinforced.” Despite all he had gone through, Mandela never gave up on his beliefs and the perseverance that he shared with all anti-apartheid activists.

When tragedy strikes, come back strong.

After being shot in the head by the Taliban in October 2012, then-15 year old Malala Yousafzai not only recovered, but became more committed to fighting for the right of education for young girls. Yousafzai was targeted because of her strong voice, but the injury she suffered was extremely serious and required a risky surgery. After a medically induced coma and a stay in intensive care, she made an incredible recovery.

Nine months after being shot, she spoke at the United Nations headquarters in New York. The day also marked her 16th birthday. In her speech she said, “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”

Since then, Yousafzai has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Price and has been more determined than ever. In response to a question about what the Taliban members who shot her thought they achieved, she said, “I think they may be regretting that they shot Malala. Now she is heard in every corner of the world.”

– Julie Guacci

Sources: CNN, BBC News, The Wall Street Journal
Photo: Amandine Van Ray

“They thought that the bullet would silence us. But they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices…Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen, can change the world. Education is the only solution.” These were the words spoken by Malala Yousafzai in her address to the UN Youth Assembly on July 12th, falling on her 16th birthday. In October, a Taliban gunman boarded Malala’s school bus in Pakistan’s northwestern Swat Valley and shot her in the head. The Taliban decided death was to be her consequence for campaigning on behalf of girls’ education. She survived, however, and in doing so has brought the issue of women’s education to the attention of the world.

After the shooting, Malala was flown from Pakistan to the U.K. for treatment and recovery, and now resides in Birmingham, England. Her appearance at the UN headquarters was her first public speech since October’s incident. She told the UN that the Taliban’s attack did not change her aims or stop her ambitions as they hoped, but has rather made her more determined. Malala called on politicians to take urgent action to ensure every child has the right to an education. “I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists,” said Malala.

Aid agencies agree that girls’ access to education in Pakistan is a real concern. The country ranks among the lowest in terms of girls’ enrollment, government spending, and literacy. Malala explained she was fighting for the rights of women because “they are the ones who suffer the most”. Unesco and Save the Children released a report which found that 95% of the 28.5 million children who are not receiving a primary school education live in low and lower-middle income countries: 44% in sub-Saharan Africa, 19% in south and west Asia and 14% in the Arab states. Girls make up 55% of these children without education and are often the victims of rape and other sexual violence that comes with armed conflict.

Adnan Rasheed, a senior Pakistani Taliban leader, recently sent a letter to Malala in which he does not apologize, but says he wished the attack “had never happened”. Rasheed further suggests that all that the Taliban opposes is western education. Despite this claim, there are currently 1,000 closed schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan due to arson attacks and threats. The Taliban have long argued that only schools used as army bases are attacked, however schools have been shut down hundreds of miles from any Pakistani army presence.

According to Gordon Brown, a United Nations Special Envoy on Global Education, in just the last few weeks alone 14 young women were killed when the bus carrying them from college was firebombed, a school principal was shot dead and his colleagues maimed in broad daylight at a prize giving ceremony held in the playground of an all-girls school in Karachi, and a teacher was gunned down in front of her son while driving to teach at an all-female college.

Illiteracy, particularly among girls, will hold back Pakistan’s development efforts if current education trends continue. It is also known that young people denied an education fall prey to extremist propaganda. Following the attack, Malala set up the ‘Malala Fund’, and presented a petition which included more than three million signatures to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, demanding education for all. The Malala Fund launches in the fall of 2013, and will focus on helping girls go to school and raise their voices for the right to education. Donations to the Malala Fund can be made at

Malala has shown millions of young girls that it is possible to stand up to the Taliban. Young people are insisting that education is a universal right. Malala has sparked a revolution and a modern civil rights struggle is now underway.

– Ali Warlich
Sources: BBC, CNN, The Malala Fund, BBC