How ordinary people can catalyze extraordinary change.

By Robyn Rime

History is full of great people who have invoked great change. But just as often, great change happens through ordinary people, untrained in activism, whose convictions compel them to act and whose circumstances provide them an unexpected platform.

Jim Obergefell is one such “ordinary” person, says Geneseo’s Chief Diversity Officer robbie routenberg ’05. Along with his partner of more than 20 years, John Arthur, Jim lived a quiet life, traveling and collecting art while holding a variety of corporate jobs. As Arthur was dying from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, the two got married in Maryland, where same-sex marriage was legal. Their home state of Ohio refused to recognize their union, and they filed suit against the state to demand recognition of their marriage on John’s impending death certificate. The landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges made it to the Supreme Court, where marriage equality became legal in all 50 states on June 26, 2015.

While Jim undoubtedly experienced gratitude and pride in his accomplishments, says routenberg, “there was also humility.” Jim has called himself “an accidental activist,” someone whose convictions eventually led to far-reaching change.

Another change-maker is Malala Yousafzai, whose activism was more intentional, says routenberg. Born in northwest Pakistan, Malala became an outspoken advocate for universally accessible education when the Taliban banned girls from attending school. In 2012, the 15-year-old — targeted for her activism — was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman on her way home from school.

Bolstered by the global attention her attack generated, she established the charity Malala Fund and testified before the United Nations, which routenberg believes became “a key moment that created an international stage for her.”

Writing about her story on, Malala acknowledges she faced a choice after the attack. “I could live a quiet life or I couldmake the most of this new life I had been given.” In recognition of her continued work, Malala received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, becoming the youngest-ever Nobel laureate.

Advocating for something, instead of against something, is an important distinction, says routenberg.

“When we are upset and harmed by things that are happening societally, institution-ally, structurally, interpersonally, a natural inclination is to be against something. It’s important, especially in moments of pain,to remember what you’re for. Using your energy to work within the systems that exist allows for sustainable change to happen.”

Both Jim and Malala chose to advocate for something, and in so doing, have catalyzed great change. Their stories can inspire others.

routenberg encourages, “Look within yourself and consider where you have the opportunity to influence the world in a positive way. It’s not necessary to have formal training or a global platform to make a change; small things can have a huge impact.”

Recommended reading:

These books, recommended by Geneseo’s Chief Diversity Officer robbie routenberg ’05, highlight the stories and activism of Jim Obergefell and Malala Yousafzai and offer inspiration in working toward sustainable change in any community.

The cover of Love Wins

“Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality” — by Jim Obergefell and Debbie Cenziper (William Morrow, 2017). The behind-the-scenes story of the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Book cover of "We Are Displaced"
“We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World”  — by Malala Yousafzai (Little, Brown, 2019).  This book explores Malala’s story since she was forced to leave Pakistan and those of nine other displaced young people from around the world.

Yousafzai_IAmMalala-optimized.jpg “I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban” — by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb (Little, Brown, 2013). Malala’s early years; her activism for female education; the assassination attempt and recovery; and her determination to fight for education.