8 Ways Our Country Changed For The Better In 2015

by Melanie Schmitz

A lot has happened in the past 12 months. Between the first few excited murmurings of the 2016 election roster to the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency potentially bookending the month of December, it sometimes feels like 2015 was the year of great change — not all of it good. Despite wave after wave of disheartening news however, there were at least a few ways our country changed for the better, perhaps giving us reason to hope for the best moving forward.

It can be difficult to look back over months of tragedy and find the bright spots. Certainly this year threw the majority of Americans for a loop, with almost as many mass shootings as there were days, exhausting allegations of police brutality, terror attacks, and global quandaries that left many scratching their heads. But for every heartbreaking Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Rexdale Henry story, there were equally healing accounts of heroism, promising climate accords, and progress on the LGBT front. For what it's worth, 2015 seems to have righted many of the wrongs it inflicted — and it may have already set an exciting pace for the coming year.

Here are just a few of the stories that kept the country moving in a positive direction over the past 12 months:

U.S. Women's Sports Finally Got The Attention They Deserved

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As Wall Street Journal columnist Joe Queenan pointed out in a retrospective on Thursday, "In 2015, the men got upstaged by the women." Never was that more true than in the world of American sports. In July, the U.S. Women's Soccer team took home the coveted FIFA World Cup, much to the delight of sports enthusiasts who barely even knew a thing about the game. That same month, the U.S. Women's Softball team won its second straight title and the eighth in World Cup history. At the same time, the country was slowly becoming fixated on the blistering winning streak of one Ronda Rousey, mixed martial arts champion and all-around badass.

For a country that still seems like it's having a hard time coming to terms with modern feminism, everyone's sudden obsession with women's sports is at least a promising sign of things to come.

Love Finally Won

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In a historic and moving decision of 5-4 on June 26, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry, thereby affirming their rights in the highest court of the land. After judgment was finally passed down, millions of people across the country joined up in celebration of the decision, trending the topic on social media under the hashtag #LoveWins.

"It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, presenting the Court's opinion. "Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. ... They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law [and] the Constitution grants them that right."

After so many years of discrimination and inequality, the country's LGBT community had finally passed a major milestone that would push the dialogue forward in the coming months. Here's hoping that trend continues in 2016.

We Started Taking The Idea Of An Ebola Vaccine Seriously


It may have taken a handful of American quarantine victims to force the United States to start paying attention to the Ebola crisis, but at least some good came of it. Following the devastation and ensuing media circus of 2014 West African outbreak, American pharmaceutical company Merck declared in July that it was on the verge of making a vaccine available to the public. A bevy of successful trial runs in Guinea later emboldened the company as well. Throughout it all, the company made clear that it wasn't looking to make money (unlike other unsavory characters ... ahem, Martin Shkreli), but was in it to lead the charge toward a healthier global outcome.

"Our motivation to pursue this opportunity was to address a public health need," said Vice President Mark Feinberg, in a statement. "We did not believe this was a commercial opportunity."

Call it wishful thinking, but perhaps Merck's progressive outlook will push us all to become a little more philanthropic in the coming days.

Climate Change Took A Front Seat

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Aside from momentous news early in December that nearly 200 countries had agreed to a landmark climate accord which aimed to significantly lower the world's carbon emissions, there was plenty to celebrate in terms of eco-updates and climate progress. A poll released by the National Surveys on Energy and the Environment in October showed that nearly 70 percent of Americans accepted the belief that global warming was real and that there was concrete evidence to support that claim — a significant shift from a 2014 Gallup poll which showed one in four Americans were "skeptical" of climate change.

At the same time, three Democratic presidential candidates battling it out in the run-up to next year's primary elections also made sure that the national conversation was focused on climate science as well, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders calling the issue a "major crisis."

Despite years of resistance, the country now seems to be coming to grips with the notion that environmentalism isn't just a passing fad, but a real threat that needs to be addressed. (At last.)

Our Relationship With Cuba Took A Promising Turn


After a decades-long economic embargo, the United States government finally decided in July to end its standoff with Cuba, re-opening the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. and firing up a new conversation meant to ease diplomatic tensions. Of course, the decision had its critics (GOP presidential candidate and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is himself Cuban, called the move "the most dangerous phase of the Obama presidency" in a statement to the press that same month). Overall however, most Americans seemed to agree.

"I reject this isolationism," said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, in a statement. "After 50 years of conflict, why not try a new approach?"

The only thing left to do as the year comes to a close it cross our fingers and hope that that same sort of diplomatic approach can be applied to the current Syrian refugee crisis. ... Alright, maybe cross your toes too, for good measure.

We Embraced The Black Lives Matter Movement

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Say what you will about the fierce backlash that followed the initial Black Lives Matter protests — if 2015 showed us anything at all, it's that our country is willing to fight the good fight alongside one another, even if we can't fully empathize with our neighbor's experience. From Baltimore to Ferguson, and all the way out to the West Coast, flurries of social justice activity peppered the headlines on a regular basis. While some complained that the movement was itself "racist" and "hateful" (thank you for that humor, Fox News), the majority of citizens seemed to latch on quickly and at least try to understand what it was all about.

"If I remain silent, I become an oppressor," said one demonstrator, protesting in the streets of Chicago just this week.

Forget commercialized Christmas spirit — that sort of sympathetic attitude is the sort of thing we need during the busy holiday season and beyond.

We Started Working For The Little Guy

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Forget smart-watches and crazy eyebrow shapes — this year's big trend was getting out and protesting for decent pay. And with 14 states promising to raise the minimum wage at the start of 2016, it seems that things are starting to look up for the majority of adults and teens whose futures depend on the ability to take home a livable paycheck without having to work three jobs to cover the rent (or, you know... student loans).

"People…have neighbors and families making very little money even though they're working very hard," policy analyst Yannet Lathrop told USA Today this week. "These workers have to depend on public assistance [to make ends meet]."

In 2016, expect that to change, depending on where you're situated. Hopefully, with continued public interest and impassioned protests, we'll see an even bigger shift forward by this time next year.

We Looked To The Stars Once More


2015 was the year of the space nerd. After a decade of stifled efforts and underfunded programs, a swell of exciting developments kept the country on its toes, seeking the next big discovery. Despite further retreat in Congress, budgetary woes couldn't stop the rest of the population from hungrily searching out whatever it could on the monumental New Horizons and Dawn missions, both of which turned out hugely important data and impressive new photos. For a country that had seemingly lost its zeal for space exploration in the years since the shuttle program ended, it was a huge shift.

Most remarkably, the American public was rewarded for its patience on July 14 when the relatively tiny New Horizons probe whizzed past Pluto on its way to the outer Kuiper Belt and returned the first ever close-up image of the dwarf planet.

"My prediction was that we would find something wonderful," said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, in a statement. Added Curt Niebur, New Horizons program scientist, "The science is amazing, but the team’s excitement reminds me of why we really do this."

Perhaps if the country keeps looking up in 2016, it will be rewarded with something even bigger.