Voice of San Diego set out to determine the person who provoked the most important conversation this year.

We considered folks across arts, science, politics, education and more. We crowdsourced suggestions from our members to help inform our decision, but ultimately we made the call within the newsroom.

Key to understanding Voice of the Year is remembering the distinction is not necessarily an honor (recall our inaugural Voice of the Year was ex-Mayor Bob Filner). Nor did we set out to compile the biggest stories of the year. This list is about the people who made us face uncomfortable truths, who led our most significant policy debates and who forced us to grapple with ideas we might have ignored. Some of the people on this list were elected or hired to do this very thing — to represent people’s interests and to ensure their perspective was heard. Others got here by circumstance. But they all played a crucial role in guiding San Diego’s most prolific conversations this year.

With that in mind …

 Voice of the Year: The SeaWorld Agitators

It’s been the whale in the room all year long.

For the past year, San Diegans have grappled with a local institution they’d long celebrated for bringing tourists to town and rescuing injured animals from local beaches. That’s all changed. Now, residents must confront a powerful, uncomfortable question: Is SeaWorld worth the jobs it provides and the education it imparts if it comes at the expense of its captive killer whales?

That conversation eventually grew to encompass virtually every corner of civic life – how we entertain our kids, how we protect workers, how the city brings in money and what our obligation is to defend a bunch of marine creatures.

A few crucial players got us here:

• The filmmakers behind “Blackfish,” the explosive documentary that argues holding killer whales in captivity damages their health, poses threats to the humans they interact with and is ultimately immoral;

• The activists inspired by the film, who blanketed social media and picketed the park in person;

• Richard Bloom, the Santa Monica assemblyman who wrote a “Blackfish”-inspired bill that would have ended SeaWorld’s business model as we know it; and

• SeaWorld itself, which ignored “Blackfish” at first, then pivoted to aggressively defend itself from the film’s charges.

Bloom’s bill was eventually tabled, but SeaWorld still took some big hits.

SeaWorld in August admitted for the first time that “Blackfish” backlash was hitting its bottom line, and declared it would spend millions on larger orca habitats – a move that both doubles down on the use of orcas and bows to concerns about their well-being.

The company’s since announced its CEO will step aside and that it’ll lay off more than 300 workers.

It’s clear, though, that SeaWorld’s fiercest critics won’t be satisfied until it pulls the plug on orca performances and confinement altogether.

Whether they get their way or not, the concessions SeaWorld has already made, the hits its bottom line has shouldered and the debate that raged for the better part of the year makes the SeaWorld agitators 2014’s Voice of the Year.

— Lisa Halverstadt and Sara Libby

Check out who else made our Voice of the Year list below. Searching for someone we missed? Email Deputy Editor Catherine Green to make the case for who we missed. We’ll round up the most compelling cases for a follow-up post later in the week.

Nicole Tempel Assisi: The Voice for Charter Schools

It was never Nicole Tempel Assisi’s goal to pick a fight with San Diego Unified. But if the district wanted to tussle, Assisi wasn’t about to back down, either.

Ian Campbell: The Voice of Our Vulnerable Arts Scene

Though he’s no longer general and artistic director of the San Diego Opera, Ian Campbell was the face of the city’s traditional, yawning monoliths. It was his company, his time holding the reins, that prompted San Diego to take stock and decide what kind of city it wanted to be.

Jane Doe: A Voice for Victims

Jane Doe, as she was known in court papers, was the final victim of former SDPD officer Anthony Arevalos. The city grappled seriously with officer behavior and the treatment of sexual misconduct victims because of her voice.

Todd Gloria: The Voice for a Progressive San Diego

Councilman Todd Gloria’s to-do list not only set the political debate, it shaped what post-Filner discourse will look like in San Diego.

Lorena Gonzalez: The Voice of Workers and Women (and Working Women)

Perhaps no one in Sacramento made more waves in 2014 than Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who aggressively pushed bills aimed at boosting workers and women.

Ed Harris and Marco Gonzalez: The Voices of the Density Debate

The city’s promise of a new kind of development is about to be put to the test. As that plays out, its disagreements among the left – including ex-Councilman Ed Harris and environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez – that will be most interesting to watch.

The Murrieta Protesters: The Voice of Nativists

The protests and an influx of young people from Central America provoked a national conversation we needed to have – about immigration, sure, but also about our national identity as a refuge for the world’s oppressed.

Jerry Sanders: The Voice of Business

Regardless of what you think about the Chamber of Commerce’s accomplishments since Jerry Sanders took the reins, you can’t deny that he has given the business coalition he represents its loudest voice in perhaps a decade.

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