Updated: Wednesday, February 7, 2018, 2:32 PM
When I turned 18, I registered to vote and according to my grandfather, that’s the day I became a politician. “If you can vote, you’re a politician,” he would say.
What my grandfather meant was that once registered to vote, one is forever connected to politics. I embraced that just like my grandfather did. From then on, even though we were simple farm people, I informed myself and shared responsibility for everything that happened, good or bad.
That was 1982, and as an incoming freshman at the University of Washington it wouldn’t take long for me to realize that being a voter/politician wasn’t enough, it would take something more.
At that time, the University of Washington – my university – was investing in the apartheid government of South Africa. They were supporting and profiting from a government that had one of the most pernicious policies my young mind could imagine. I was angry and disgusted, and yet, there was no call for a vote. Frustrated, I concluded I may not have been able to march on Johannesburg, but I sure as hell could march on my campus.
Wide-eyed and naive I pulled together a band of misfits, maybe 25 young people, and marched. It felt foreign. It felt powerful. It felt like progress. And at the end of the march, with little ceremony, I was promptly arrested.
The experience was both glorious and terrifying.
This would be my first time in jail—and hardly my last. When eventually released, pushing through a heavy set of doors, I felt momentarily invigorated. It was in that moment I morphed from being a voter/politician to being an activist.
In 2008, I was dropped alone on the edge of Antarctica, with the idea that a single human could trek solo 700 miles from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole, unassisted, unsupported, and unaided — and survive.
When my feet first hit the ice, the wind was blowing 80 miles per hour with temperatures of minus-60 degrees. Here, visibility is measured in feet. The surface of the continent isn’t smooth like an ice rink, but like a stormy sea frozen in time, endless frozen waves. As the plane left, only one thought went through my mind: “Oh, God, what have I done?”
It was thinking this as I started my march upward, pulling my sled with 275 pounds of food and fuel. I’d have to cover a distance of roughly 10 times the distance from Philadelphia to New York.
After 13 or 14 hours of marching the first day, I collapsed. Lying there, it felt a lot like being let out of jail after that first march; exhilarating and terrifying, and not feeling any closer to my goal.
At the University of Washington in 1982, after my arrest, I came to the conclusion that victory was about endurance, that activism was like ultra distance trekking, where one slowly wears down the goal into submission. The winner is the last one standing. We would need to march again and again.
At first, the University of Washington wouldn’t acknowledge us. So we kept marching. And we kept getting arrested.
In Antarctica, about 500 miles down, I finally reached the plateau. I had lost 50 pounds. I was sleeping three hours a day on hard ice, and it was 20 below zero in my tent. I was starting to physically come unscrewed. Everything about my body was coming undone and my mind worked slower and slower and slower. But, I knew the South Pole was getting closer, even though I could not see it. Cracks in the frozen impenetrable wall of what is trekking Antarctica were starting to form and in my mind’s eye I could see the Pole in the distance. I was wearing it down.
By the time the University of Washington started to reconsider its position on apartheid, I started seeing cracks in the system. And we kept marching.
When I pulled within three days of the Pole, it came into view. I had shed so much weight I could barely stand, but I could see it. I couldn’t think anymore, I didn’t even really know who I was, but I could see my goal.
We did our last march at the University of Washington just days before it finally divested from South Africa. I turned around, and there weren’t 25 people marching with me anymore. We were hundreds and hundreds of people. And our voices were loud and our actions were massive.
There was the moment when I was five paces away from the South Pole, hardly able to stand.
After 39 days, 7 hours, and 49 minutes of unassisted marching, I became the first person in history to accomplish the feat solo, and set a world speed record in the process.
In 2018, I will be marching again.
The policies and the rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration no longer represent the values that I hold true. The wealthy are favored at the expense of the vast majority of working and middle-class families. Too many are denied access to basic health care. Millions of people – mostly black and brown – are preyed upon by a system that favors profit-driven mass incarceration over rehabilitation.
And the future doesn’t look any brighter. There will be attacks on Dreamers and immigrants, cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and a dangerous ratcheting up of war-laden rhetoric.
I’m now a CEO with nearly 1,000 employees across the country. With each step building my business, I’ve stayed true to the same values that I marched for back at the University of Washington: We pay a fair wage, because I know you can’t survive on $7.25 an hour. I provided health care for my employees even before I could afford it for myself. And I always put people at the center of my business: my employees, my customers, my neighbors, and our communities.
But we’re not done yet. Like that first morning after spending a night in jail, or that first grueling day en route to the South Pole, we’ve got a long way to go. We’re not there yet, but we will erode the landscape until we reach our goal.
I have been a voter, a politician, an activist, an entrepreneur, a CEO, and an adventurer. Now, I am a member of the #RESISTANCE. I am #INDIVISIBLE. And I won’t stop marching.
Todd Carmichael is the cofounder and CEO of La Colombe Coffee Roasters. @toddcarmichael
Read full story: Why I am still marching | Todd Carmichael