The unsung heroes who really deserve new year's honours

Year-end, and it’s gong season again, another chance for the authorities to confer honours on the prominent, successful people in our society: sports stars and national treasures, cultural bards and civil servants and businesspeople.

But are these fair? What is an honours system for? Should it be for people who play games for a living? For people who were simply doing their job? Should it be for people whom life has already rewarded – with fame, wealth, status, fans, admiration?

Or should it be for unsung heroes whose celebration might encourage more of us to volunteer, give, sacrifice?

We asked our readers to nominate their unsung heroes for public recognition. Do add your own nominations in the comment thread.

Alison Inman

Nominated by Leah Jeffery

“Alison is the former president of the Chartered institute of Housing, and is a Women’s Aid supporter, tireless carer and champion of women’s rights – particularly the vulnerable.

“I would love to see her in a position to drive the discussion forward in the House of Lords. As the social housing crisis deepens, I think having a voice with real experience would also be beneficial in providing an honest perspective and genuine passion for change.”

Calvin Eaton

Nominated by Adam Smith

“Calvin started a non-profit called 540WMain [as in ‘540 West Main’] that is located in the Susan B Anthony neighbourhood of Rochester, NY, US. It is a neighbourhood that has a high poverty rate and has a lot of social challenges related to poverty.

“The mission is to enrich the historic district as well as connect greater Rochester to the neighbourhood by curating accessible event space and high impact/low cost single session courses based in the arts, wellness and antiracism.

“From his humble storefront, he is working to help improve the lives of everyone who lives in that neighbourhood and beyond. He doesn’t let the daunting challenges of poverty stop him. He just opened up his space and works every day to make a positive impact in people’s lives.”

Andrew Davis

Nominated by Juanita Bullough

”Since 1974, my friend Andrew Davis has been running the Wythenshawe Development Trust (now Wilmslow and District Recycling). He drives his van to collect donations of unwanted furniture and goods, which he passes on to the homeless and low-paid in north Manchester and Cheshire.

“He also has stalls at a local market where he offers household goods to the less fortunate, and holds a weekly drop-in session at his HQ in the old scout hut in Lacey Green, Wilmslow. He is helped by a team of volunteers, many of whom are unemployed and/or have mental or physical health issues, giving them a purpose and enabling them to go out and meet people.

“He relies solely on his supporters and odd grant aid and always helps others rather than himself. He deserves a medal – but if you asked him, what he really would prefer is a few thousand pounds to recondition the engine in his van. And by the way, he’s over 80.”

Sixto Rodriguez

Nominated by Mallory Bagwell

Sixto Diaz Rodriguez
Sixto Diaz Rodriguez. Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos/Antonio Olmos

“The musician Sixto Rodriguez (see the movie Searching for Sugarman), his destiny was out of sync with his fate. Fame and fortune have evaded him for most of his life. He probably won’t accept a knighthood, but for the Queen to receive a ‘Rodriguez’ award could be every bit as notable. The man has taken nothing yet given the world much.”

Anna Tembo

Nominated by Zoe Jones

“What makes Anna truly extraordinary is her role as the vice-secretary of Ongolwe Women’s Development Association. The organisation brings together over 90 women’s groups to share learning, empowering them to take control of their own development and to have a voice in their communities, meaning that Anna’s personal success is radiating out in ripples.

“As well as transforming her own family farm, volunteering in her community and supporting women’s groups across Ongolwe ward, she has started up her own shop, and is in the midst of creating a community Keyhole garden, with the help of her neighbours, for all to use.

“Her perseverance in the face of a changing climate is inspiring to us all, and yet volunteers like Anna go largely unrecognised. The hundreds of women that Anna supports gain not just farm skills so they can feed their families all year round, but are also encouraged to set up their own businesses. They gain in confidence and prosperity, participating in decision-making in the home and in their communities. She is a shining example of how development begins within, and how one woman can have an enormous positive impact on those around her, when she has the opportunity to thrive.

Andreas Bummel

Nominated by John Vlasto

“With very little budget, Andrew Bummel has been quietly advocating a world parliament [via the realistically achievable interim step of a United Nations parliamentary assembly] for over a decade. Despite the nationalist headwinds, he has won the support of the European, Pan-African and Latin American parliaments, and over 1,600 serving and former members of parliaments from all around the world, as well as numerous other notable figures (like the Dalai Lama).

“We, the people of the world, face a global environmental crisis, and [the Upside notwithstanding], we are not tackling it effectively. Our economy has globalised, our impact on the environment has globalised, but our politics remains stubbornly and even increasingly national. National sovereignty was a solution to 17th-century religious wars in Europe, it is not the solution to the 21st-century global environmental crisis. Global problems require global solutions. Solutions, to be effective, must be enforced. Enforcement, to be legitimate, must be with the consent of the people. We need more effective and accountable global governance. We need a world parliament.

“Andreas, in his quiet modest way, may be the person who saves the planet. He certainly deserves a knighthood for trying.”

Alice Webb

Nominated by Hilary Day

“After losing her job with a big local company through mental ill health, Alice decided to use her talents to set up a self-help, peer-supporting, creative charity offering free workshops for anyone in and around Cambridge dealing with mental health issues.

“The local services for mental health had all but collapsed due to lack of funding, and what there was required referrals from the local NHS services. Alice’s idea sidelined all that – self-referral was fine, no requirement to sign up for a course and complete it for the statistics, and workshops were free.
”Running on a shoestring for the past nine years, Alice has inspired people to support the charity to give their time and talents, and was offered a home for the workshops in the local Methodist Church. There is also an allotment for gardening and making up vegetable boxes for people in the area who don’t have gardens but who want to grow things. “Why is all this so special? Because it works. Alice was very clear from the start that the charity should be run by its members for its members. Everyone involved in the charity has to have direct experience of mental ill-health themselves, or through a family member or friend. Members can decide when to attend the workshops and how often to suit their current health condition.

“It works well – a friendly environment, a chance to chat and socialise, and a reason for leaving the four walls of the house on a regular basis with no demands made of you. The charity offers a chance to build inner strengths and self-confidence through being with other people who understand exactly what you are feeling because they have been there, or somewhere like it, themselves.
“Many times, Alice has wanted to stop her work due to her own health needs, but she’s continued and has the love and respect of many in our community. Her story and that of the charity she set up deserve to be told.”

John Pilger

Nominated by John Powell

“John Pilger has done a huge amount of work, often at risk to his life, to expose shonky and shoddy politics and politicians. Without his documentaries and newspaper columns we would be much less informed about corruption, including the support, by the CIA, of dictators on all continents.

“Pilger is a strong critic of American, Australian and British foreign policy, which he considers to be driven by an imperialist agenda. Pilger has also criticised his native country’s treatment of indigenous Australians. He first drew international attention for his reports on the Cambodian genocide.”

Max Roser

Nominated by arch-optimist David Alcock

Max Roser
Max Roser photographed at Oxford Martin School in Oxford, England. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

How about Max Roser and his team at Our World in Data, which exists to conduct research and disseminate data to make progress against the world’s largest problems?

And Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling-Rönnlund, Mikael Arevius and the rest of the team at Gapminder, who are carrying on the legacy of the late Hans Rosling by promoting a fact-based and overwhelmingly positive (they would say ‘possibilist’) world view [see also their 2018 book Factfulness].”

Bridget Nodes

Nominated by Lindsay Viljoen

“Bridget is a volunteer dog walker at the Dogs Trust Shoreham-by-Sea. She is there every off day (she works as a nurse) walking the difficult dogs that the other walkers can’t walk. This provides the staff with precious extra time to spend with the dogs who need more attention.”

Matty Healy

Nominated by Lisa Gobin

“Matty Healy, singer of The 1975, sings about what matters to the youth, and what should matter for everyone: climate change. His collaboration with Greta Thunberg, the single Love It If We Made It … the world would be a better place if his message got to more people. Keep up the good work, and thank you for reporting what most media don’t cover.”

Fadil Elamin

Nominated by Christine Ro

“Fadil Elamin is one of the few children’s dentists in Sudan. He’s working under very challenging circumstances, from political unrest to frequent power outages. So his and colleagues’ research, showing the effectiveness of a dental hack that doesn’t require electricity, is especially useful.”

Gina Miller

Nominated by Rhiannon Pugh

Gina Miller
Anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

“I would nominate Gina Miller for her brave attempt to uphold British democracy.”

Jess Philips

Nominated by Mike Moule

“I would nominate Jess Phillips for her courage, her honesty and her ability to maintain calm and dignity when all around her the world falls apart. She stands apart from many of our self-serving politicians and is a tribute to those who seek social and political change without reverting to slander.”

Martyn Goss

Nominated by Liz Vizard

Martyn Goss
Martyn Goss. Photograph: Facebook

“My nomination is for Martyn Goss, who has recently retired after nearly 30 years working as first social responsibility officer and later director of church and society for the Exeter diocese. Unfailingly committed to justice, peace and care for the environment, he has been and still is an inspiration to Exeter people, of all faiths and none, who care about these issues. He did win a Church Times green champion award in 2017, but if knighthoods were on offer to such as he, he would be a strong contender (though no way would he accept one!). A subscription to the Upside would be great though …

The Guardian Upside Legend Awards. Who would you nominate? Tell us.