Compassionate rebels aim to spark a revolution one story at a time

Burt Berlowe has spent the last four decades sharing the stories of everyday heroes, people he calls compassionate rebels. He is an award winning journalist and author, and the mind behind, a site dedicated to ordinary people changing the world. ivoh recently interviewed Berlowe via phone and email to learn more about his small but wide-reaching operation.

Shortly after 9/11, Berlowe was working as a freelance writer and burgeoning peace activist with a desire to combine his two passions. He crossed paths with peace educator Rebecca Janke, who had a traveling peace and justice bookstore. During one of Janke’s events, Berlowe, who often volunteered to sell books with her, learned they shared a mutual desire to pen a collection of stories about peace and justice advocates.

Burt Berlowe
Burt Berlowe

Berlowe and Janke set out to speak with people in their local community in Minnesota. “We began by interviewing people we knew about and eventually found others who came to us in different ways, but didn’t have a proposed title for the anthology,” Berlowe said. “These were ordinary people who were angry at an injustice they had encountered, but rather reacting with violence or repressing their anger, they … … compassion to overcome adversity and moved outside of the status quo and their own comfort zone to create peaceful, positive and solutions to the problems they faced.”

The phrase “compassionate rebel” soon emerged. “We decided to have that be the theme of our book and found that every one of the 50 people we interviewed fit the description of a compassionate rebel and were part of a much larger movement for social change,” Berlowe said.

In 2002, Berlowe and Janke published “The Compassionate Rebel: Energized by Anger Motivated by Love,” a book made up of the stories they collected. The duo began marketing the book and conducting storytelling sessions across Minnesota. In 2011, after several years of workshops and conversations with educators, who were interested in employing the stories in their classrooms, Berlowe and Janke published their second book: “The Compassionate Rebel Revolution: Ordinary People Changing the World.”

The latest book, which has been called a “humanitarian masterpiece” by a reviewer, features a wide array of stories about people from numerous backgrounds, faiths, ages and identities. Compassion and courage thread throughout the entire collection.

Artist Jane Evershed, paints images of the world she seeks to change. Evershed with her painting of a mother who had just given birth to genetically deformed baby caused by depleted uranium in the 1991 Gulf War. She is standing across from a manufacturer of military weapons. Photo by Michael Bayly.

While “The Compassionate Rebel Revolution” garnered numerous book awards, positive reviews and extensive media coverage, Berlowe seems to be most excited about the potential to continue to inspire young people to become compassionate rebels. The “books include a separate chapter about emerging compassionate rebels,” Berlowe said. “By learning more about compassionate rebels, college students can find inspiration to guide them on their adult journeys, … to use their anger in a positive way by combining it with compassion to step outside of their comfort zone, to find peaceful, positive solutions to problems in their lives and in society, to take action on the causes they believe in, to be productive citizens … and, eventually, role models for the generations that will follow them.”

College student Emilie Brill-Duisberg leads a campaign to protect the earth amidst the rapid growth of her wild-west community. Brill-Duisberg (second from left) digs to save the Earth.
College student Emilie Brill-Duisberg (second from left) leads a campaign to protect the earth amidst the rapid growth of her wild-west community.

A few years ago, Berlowe and Janke conducted a retreat with faculty and students at Hamline University where they invited a few rebels to share their stories in person. They’ve continued to present at universities and high schools throughout the Twin Cities. Berlow finds that students are inspired by hearing the compassionate rebel stories and, in turn, they seek ways, big and small, to make a difference in their communities. Students at another local college even presented a play based on the stories.

More recently, Berlowe and Janke collaborated with Dr. Mike Klein, professor of justice and peace studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. After using “The Compassionate Rebel Revolution” as a resource in his conflict transformation class, Dr. Klein and the students wrote and published an educator’s guide: “Teaching the Compassionate Rebel Revolution.”

Moving forward, Berlowe and Janke hope to continue to expand the Compassionate Rebel network. A year ago, local filmmaker, Michael Sutz, videotaped five more interviews from the second book. The video below demonstrates the range of compassionate rebels Berlowe and Janke have interviewed.

Berlowe, who has a background in journalism, has “always been interested in reporting underreported stories about ordinary people, everyday heroes who are doing extraordinary things that make the world a better place to live.” Collecting compassionate rebel stories allowed him to combine his interests in writing and activism.

As a peace journalist, Berlowe is “concerned about a media and a culture that … focuses on violence, sensationalism and celebrity while overlooking or underreporting the stories of compassionate rebels — ordinary people who are positively changing the world everywhere every day …” Once he witnessed the impact of the compassionate rebel stories, they became his primary journalistic endeavor.

Berlowe and Janke aim to “carry these stories to the media and the public in hopes that they will become the predominant news of the day and will lead to a more peaceful and sustainable society.” When asked what makes a compassionate rebel, Berlowe said: “A compassionate rebel lives in all of us. It combines our ability to care about an issue or cause with our willingness to act in peaceful, positive ways to bring about the change we want to happen.”

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