George Ballis, on the right, with Cesar Chavez.
George Ballis is a change agent. And he’s implemented change in two entirely different ways.
An ex-Marine, Ballis had been standing up for social justice since he was a young photographer documenting the struggles and the dignity of migrant workers in the 1950s. He knew it wasn’t fair that giant agribusinesses were illegally appropriating federally irrigated lands meant for small farmers, so he founded National Land for the People (NLP) and led a 30-year battle for farmers’ rights. He brought his fight all the way to the Supreme Court, organizing pro bono lawyers to successfully use the Homestead Act of 1862 as grounds for guaranteeing farmers’ rights to their land.
The Homestead Act granted 160 acres of public land to anyone willing to cultivate it. But railroads, banks, and agribusiness giants like Southern Pacific Company, Standard Oil, and Tenneco were taking water for parcels far exceeding 160 acres, squeezing out small farmers. NLP legal victories allowed farmers to purchase desirable land and become economically independent, but eventually these legal successes were overturned by Congress.
Disappointed, Ballis realized that the deepest social change is founded on a change of consciousness—from an emphasis on individual greed to the awareness of inter-connection and the sacredness of all life. “We can’t do it alone,” says Ballis. “We must become vulnerable, open our hearts, and work together.”
To that end, Ballis and his wife, Maia, poured all their resources into developing Sun Mountain, a 40-acre land trust with an environmental and spiritual mission in Toll House, California. At Sun Mountain, visitors can learn about such things as organic, sustainable agriculture; alternative energy sources (they’ve built a 5,000-square-foot center fueled by passive solar energy); the building of inexpensive hay-bale houses. The Ballises even provide shamanic journeying and training in herbs and natural healing.
“What this place says to any middle-class American person is, ‘Get off your ass, buddy, take control of your life. Assume your own power, the responsibility, and the authority,’” says Ballis.
When asked to name a tool that could be useful to anyone working for the common good, Ballis answered, “A mirror. It will remind you that you are part of a lot of the society’s problems and that you have a lot of authority to change things.”
UPDATE: George Ballis died in 2010 after a lifetime of fighting for justice and for the right use of our land.
Age when commended: adult (20-64)
Year commended: 1986
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