Why is Nelson Mandela so Great?

Okay, I’ll be honest: when I heard that Nelson Mandela had passed away last week, two things initially came to mind: the America’s Next Top Model episode where the finalists visited his prison cell, and that one rugby movie with Morgan Freeman. I’m only human.

My thought process reaffirms that pop culture hasn’t acknowledged Mandela’s accomplishments much—yet everyone still knows his name. If you watch ANTM more than the news, here are a few noteworthy (and chronological) reasons* that explain why he became a figure for political and social justice:

  • During his activist years, he started the law firm Mandela & Tambo. The firm provided affordable legal services to unrepresented blacks in South Africa.
  • After organizing a national workers’ strike, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage.
  • While imprisoned, he earned a Bachelor of Law degree through the University of London.
  • He gained such notoriety as an anti-apartheid figure that multiple countries campaigned for his release.
  • After many failed negotiations, he finally left prison when Frederik Willem de Klerk was elected president of South Africa. (Even cooler is his forgiving attitude about the whole imprisonment thing.)
  • In 1991, he was elected president of the African National Congress (a formerly illegal political party that Mandela joined in 1943).

Nelson Mandela

  • In 1993, he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. de Klerk for their efforts to end apartheid.
  • After the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, he was elected president of South Africa and published his first book, Long Walk to Freedom (which he mostly wrote in prison.)
  • His support for South Africa’s national rugby team as a catalyst for racial reconciliation inspired the film Invictus.
  • After retiring from politics, he formed “The Elders,” a group of world leaders that works for political and charitable causes around the world.
  • He also founded three foundations: the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. Each promotes a different aspect of his work.

If you feel particularly inspired by this man’s work, consider donating to one of his organizations here. However, many would argue that Mandela’s real legacy lies in teaching us that ordinary people can become extraordinary by shamelessly acting on their beliefs. It’s a lesson we can all identify with—even if you don’t watch Top Model.

*You can find many of these facts in this Biography account of Mandela’s life.



Amanda Suazo, editor, joined BSB in 2010 as the writing guru for the organization’s website, official documents, and documentary before focusing a bit on philanthropy. Now a graduate of Gonzaga University, she is currently an MBA student and freelance writer. Between Zumba classes and downing espresso, you might catch her attempting to be a vegetarian. Find her on Twitter.

Reflections on the New Miss America

Full disclosure: I have never watched the full Miss America pageant. I actually didn’t even know it was still televised until this year. It’s been a few weeks now since Nina Davuluri made headlines as the first woman of Indian descent to be crowned Miss America. Honestly, I was a little torn between my urge to cheer her on as a fellow Asian-American and my urge to scoff at the existence of the pageant altogether.

Miss America has long been one of critics’ favorite examples of the ongoing objectification of women in American culture. I, myself, have never really thought of it as much more than a parade of bathing suits. Seriously, the only televised portion of the pageant that requires the women to speak lasts all of 6 minutes.

But winner Nina Davuluri has turned much of the discussion surrounding the pageant to a more positive note. Actually, not since Sandra Bullock as Miss Congeniality (in a thinly-veiled imitation, the Miss United States pageant) has a person helped the pageant world receive such good publicity. Almost everyone praised the Miss AmNina Davulurierica pageant for its pick of a winner that accurately represented this country’s diversity.

Something else that has been largely overshadowed by her descent is the fact that Nina Davuluri is also an aspiring medical school student. She also hopes to serve as a spokesperson for STEM education. As such, Nina Davuluri seemingly breaks the stereotype that Miss America is selected only on the basis of a pretty face and reminds the public that the Miss America pageant is technically a scholarship program, a fact also conveniently highlighted in Miss Congeniality (seriously, that movie was like a Miss America 101 course).

But since we can’t seem to have nice things, much of the reported controversy following Nina Davuluri’s win also came from the slew of racist comments about her descent. The racism that followed failed to show much beyond maybe the apparent need for more education in geography (c’mon guys, India and Iraq aren’t remotely the same place). Although the negative comments found its way to various corners of social media, the general response were words of encouragement and approval.

Personally, I’m starting to come around a little on Miss America. When I was living in Europe as a kid, my family was pretty consistently the only Asian one in the neighborhood. So when we first settled down in the States, I liked being able to see women who looked like me in movies and on TV. Watching Lucy Liu kick butt in Charlie’s Angels was actually pretty important to me and my feeling of belonging. In that sense, I think Nina Davuluri serves a similar purpose: she is someone who showcases the country’s cultural diversity, appropriately one of the issues she hopes to promote in the upcoming year. I, for one, look forward to Nina Davuluri’s reign as the new Miss America.


Serena Yin graduated with a degree in English from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. A New England native, she loves ballet, beaches, and hamburgers. When she’s not on the hunt for the nearest Starbucks, she’s working on realizing her lifelong dream of meeting J.K. Rowling.