There’s an image by street artist, Banksy that I saw for the first time this winter. It depicts a protester – baseball cap turned back on his head, cloth covering his nose and mouth, legs astride. 

His one hand is pointing forward to balance and aim the projectile he is getting ready to throw. Clasped in his other hand is something totally unexpected, a bouquet of flowers. I remember smiling to myself on seeing it embodies the way I think and work: hold true to your beliefs, stand up to authority (when required), resist what is wrong, and drive positive change in ways that are unexpected.

I became a campaigner without knowing or doing very much. It was 1986. I stood on the stage of my government-run white high school in Johannesburg, South Africa, to honor the Soweto student uprising. I read the outlawed English version of the anthem of the then-banned African National Congress (it is now a core part of the country’s national anthem) in solidarity with the black school students who had put their lives on the line to resist oppression and Apartheid education 10 years before. Though I was taken straight to the Principal’s office for a stern talking to; that didn't stop me. It was the first flower in my bouquet.

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During my undergraduate degree at Wits University in Johannesburg, I got involved with campus politics, learning more about campaigning for change and how to positively disrupt the status quo. In 1991, Nelson Mandela walked free from prison and by 1994 had been elected President of a new South Africa with a constitution and laws that ended Apartheid. Against all the odds, change happened.

 We are at a critical inflection point for the ocean and we need to activate around it

The lesson for me, and I think for all of us is to get to work and make a difference, because if South Africa could achieve a non-racial revolution that upended centuries of oppression, then achieving the impossible is possible. Madiba’s election is the turning point that has guided me ever since. Whenever anyone says that a vision is too big or task too challenging, I know that by working collaboratively, thinking strategically, resisting the pull of the mundane, and having a bit of fun, we can achieve the seemingly impossible.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Karen Sack

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Karen Sack

I have continued to campaign throughout my working life – all the while adding flowers to my bouquet – and have found myself compelled to focus on raising awareness about and driving action to secure the health and vitality of the planet’s ocean. 

It is the biggest biosphere on Earth, home to 80 per cent of all life, and source of every second breath we take. 

The ocean is also an integral climate system that has captured almost 90 per cent of all the heat we’ve generated through carbon emissions and more than a quarter of all the CO2 emitted since the industrial revolution. It provides jobs, livelihoods and sustenance, as well as inspiration and relaxation, to billions of people around the world.

Today, as with so many other issues, we are at a critical inflection point for the ocean and we need to activate around it – to galvanize a global movement to drive the ocean from crisis to stability and then to positive long term recovery. We need to unify, inspire, educate, and drive change at scale. 

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Ocean Unite is all about developing and delivering the messages and the messengers that reach into the core of peoples’ beliefs – that get them to act. Our work aims to help catalyse action on campaigns and work already underway to secure huge ocean conservation wins. These are aimed at ending illegal fishing, stopping overfishing, saving sharks, preventing plastic pollution, helping regenerate marine life and building resilience to change by creating a global network of marine reserves from the Antarctic to the Arctic and everywhere in between, covering at least 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030. There is a lot to do.

I stood on the stage of my government-run white high school in Johannesburg, South Africa, to honor the Soweto student uprising.

It may seem an odd journey from protesting Apartheid to defending the ocean, but it isn’t. At its core is the belief that we should never sacrifice long-term equity and fairness for short-term gain. In South Africa in the late 1980s, and until the moment Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, few believed ending Apartheid would ever happen. But it did. Writing now from Washington, D.C. just 9 days after Donald Trump was inaugurated President, that same sense of despondency is all around. So it's a perfect time to remember Madiba, to take a stand with that unexpected bouquet in hand and together defend freedom, embrace diversity, and drive positive change for people and the planet.

This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.

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