It’s Time to Plant Hope: 10 Inspiring Quotes on Leadership for Social Justice from Dr. Wangari Maathai

The power of one- one person can make a difference. One person can lead social change. Dr. Wangari Maathai’s leadership legacy demonstrates the power of one woman’s unwavering commitment to advance social change. The late Dr. Maathai was a global leader who organized the Green Belt Movement with the hopes of reforesting her home country, Kenya. She sought to restore the beauty of nature and uplift the close knit community which served as cherished childhood memories. She began by organizing everyday women (mothers, daughters, grandmothers) to take action by planting one tree at a time and subsequently led to over 20 million trees planted.

What initially started as a plan to plant more trees soon became a movement focused on planting hope in the hearts and minds of people around the globe. Dr. Maathai fueled this broad-based grassroots movement by planting seeds of hope for a brighter future and empowering everyday people to discover the leader within.

On Social Justice

1. Planting trees is Planting hope.

2. Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven't done a thing. You are just talking.

3. We owe it to ourselves and to the next generation to conserve the environment so that we can bequeath our children a sustainable world that benefits all.

4. We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk.

Leaders are indebted to future generations not yet born. Each day, leaders have the challenge of preparing the way for the future. How will your action or inaction impact the next generation? Your choice does not simply impact you personally but sets into motion a ripple effect that influences the lives of many. This is due to the interconnectedness of the human experience. Dr. Maathai chose to take action by educating people about the importance of building a sustainable world and continuing to weave the social fabric of the global village. With the founding of the Green Belt movement, she ignited the hope needed to bring forth lasting social change.    

On Strategic Problem Solving

5. For me, one of the major reasons to move beyond just the planting of trees was that I have tendency to look at the causes of a problem. We often preoccupy ourselves with the symptoms, whereas if we went to the root cause of the problems, we would be able to overcome the problems once and for all.

Social justice issues are multifaceted in nature. Take deforestation for example. Is it simply about trees, air quality, wildlife preservation, climate change, food insecurity or one’s quality of life? All of these issues are key considerations. However, Dr. Maathai recognized that deforestation was a symptom of a larger social challenge. The challenge was multifaceted in nature including a myriad of social issues like the need for community mobilization, civic engagement, democratic processes, and women’s empowerment. These issues also inspired Dr. Maathai to cultivate leadership skills in the domain of the political sphere. She was elected to Kenya’s Parliament and later was appointed to the role of Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife.    

 On Servant Leadership

6. What my experiences have taught me is that service to others has its own special rewards.

The foundation of servant leadership is one’s commitment to serve others and promote the betterment of society. A servant leader seeks to inspire others to serve and lead. Dr. Maathai inspired community members to lead change in the arena of environmental justice. Once they began to plant trees, they developed a sense of collective efficacy and participatory leadership. The type of power needed to eradicate injustice on a broader scale.

 On Taking Action

7. If you understand and you are disturbed, then you are moved to action. That’s exactly what happened to me.

8. It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated so we must stand up for what we believe in.

Leaders seek opportunities to tap into their power and challenge others to do the same. Change requires action and action is an exercise of power. Power is often viewed as a one-dimensional, linear function: power over another. This definition is limited in nature since it assumes that power can only be used as a mechanism of control. Power can then be construed as oppressive in nature. Imagine if power was used as a tool for the promotion of collective engagement and participatory leadership. Power would then be characterized as the creative, energy force which can foster meaningful change.

Dr. Maathai cultivated power by planting seeds in the lives of others. She planted seeds of empowerment which moved everyday people from silent observers to full participants on the full court of justice. The people soon became social change agents who shaped their destiny and changed the course of the future.

 On Promoting the Common Good

9. When you have a vision, when you know that what you are doing is good for the people, then you cannot be stopped.

Leaders have modeled the way for future generations to achieve a vision of justice and freedom for all. We can learn from Dr. Maathai’s example how to take a stand in the face of injustice and chart a new course for the future. Her leadership demonstrates how to be courageous despite the obstacles set before us. The work of the Green Belt Movement reminds us that we must lead social change since we are indebted to future generations to leave the world a better place than how we found it.

 On Stewardship

10. Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder.

A leader is a planter—a planter of ideas, seeds of change, and a vision for justice. Dr. Maathai recognized this process begins with planting people. This is an organic process, which yields a great harvest over time. It starts from the ground up as a seed is planted until it takes root. The seed represents resistance against marginalization and oppression in order to further the cause of social justice. The seed also signifies a partnership between lawyers and community stakeholders. Together, they are able to build a shared vision of a just society and engage in community-building. As the seed begins to germinate, community members start to view themselves as leaders with the capacity to address their own challenges and realize their power to resist oppression.  This is an ongoing process of collective engagement, perseverance, teamwork, and diligence. The ultimate result is creating social change which equates to reaping a harvest of justice, fairness, and equity.

Growing Justice is the materialization of planting people. Collectively, community members across the world are applying these principles to promote justice and the common good. This process of social change can be envisioned through the continual growth of the Banyan tree.  The Banyan tree as a metaphor illuminates the image of the partnership between lawyers and community partners working together in solidarity to eradicate marginalization. Unique to this tree is its ability to grow upwards since new roots are formed from the branches.  Each community member represents a branch as their leadership voice begins to emerge. These branches grow upward together and are intertwined as they exercise their united power and utilize their voices to advocate for social change. Collectively, the stakeholders are able to build a shared vision of community-building and establish the key steps for making this vision a reality. The branches are connecting, growing together and supporting one another.  They in turn create new roots that establish a firm foundation for the tree and extend to new growth. The process of social change, like the growth of the Banyan tree, symbolizes power and unity.

Dr. Maathai’s ability to plant people is evidenced by her leadership legacy. The Green Belt Movement is still in operation and proactively advancing social change. Each day, the Green Belt movement is growing justice by building “a values-driven society of people who consciously work for continued improvement of their livelihoods and a greener, cleaner world.

This year, as we celebrate the 14th anniversary of Dr. Maathai’s receipt of the 2004 Nobel Prize, we are each challenged to plant hope. This is a call to leadership. We can plant hope by:

  • Developing a vision for the future

  • Engaging in strategic problem solving

  • Serving in the global community

  • Moving from Inaction to Action

  • Promoting the Common Good

  • Being a Wise Steward

How will you plant hope today?