Growing up in Kentucky in the 1960s, George Clooney learned early on how vital it is to get immersed in political and social activism – and to stand firm in one's principles.
"I grew up in a generation where all the people that mattered to us were being murdered, from Martin Luther King to Bobby and Jack Kennedy to Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, and all these things that counted were going on, with women's rights, civil rights, the anti-Vietnam [war protests]," Clooney tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story, where he is named one of the magazine's People of the Year for his continuing charitable work.
With that foundation, the Oscar winner has long been one of Hollywood's most philanthropic and outspoken humanitarians, using his voice, wealth and powerful platform to do good — in public and behind the scenes.
"You had to be involved," Clooney recalls of his life growing up with parents Nick and Nina, pictured. "My mother and father were involved, and we were [taught] it is your civic duty... I remember my father saying, 'Don't come back and look me in the eye unless you stand up to [bullies and racists].' I'm glad to have been raised that way."
Now, "I'm in the same situation as most fathers of 3-year-olds: I don't want my children when they're 15 years old to turn around and say, "There was a time when they were putting kids in cages?... And what did you do about that?", he says. "And if the answer is 'nothing,' then I would be ashamed."
In 2020 alone Clooney, 59, and wife Amal have donated $500,000 to the Equal Justice Initiative in the wake of George Floyd's death, $1 million for COVID-19 responses in Italy, London and Los Angeles and significant aid to Lebanese charities after the deadly explosion in Beirut in August. Most days he and Amal, 42, an esteemed human rights attorney, work on the Clooney Foundation for Justice, which advocates accountability for human rights abuses around the world.
The Clooneys' activism and commitment to philanthropy and humanitarian causes is just one thing that connects the couple, who married in Italy in 2014.
"She succeeds in so many different ways and stands up for what she believes in," he says. "We didn't fall in love because of our work, but it ended up being something unusual we [share]... We are really lucky and we know it."
When their twins Alexander and Ella, now 3, grow up, he hopes they'll "pick the same kind of fights," he says. "I hope that will be my wife's and my legacy to our children. It just means standing up for things you believe in, standing up for equality. Who could be against equality?"
Clooney's passion for world issues has even played out on screen, like in 2005's Syriana, for which he won an Oscar and a Golden Globe. The film took a deep dive into the political world of the oil industry, with the actor portraying a CIA operative.
In 2008, Clooney visited a refugee camp in North Darfur, Sudan, as a U.N. messenger of peace. In the years since, the actor has spoken passionately about the refugee crisis and violence in the nation, saying in 2019, "You care not just because it is the right thing to do, which it is, but because at one point or another, it is something that we will be dealing with."
Clooney — here with President-Elect Joe Biden, then vice president, in 2009 — says he looks forward to "a return to civility" in 2021, and remains determined to do his part. "I feel like I've been given a bit of a break," he says, "so I should be spending my time trying to give others a break."
"I'm always optimistic about this country," he adds. "We fail a great deal, but I've been to so many countries that are really failed states, and they look to this country for leadership. We come up short a lot — race being our great original sin and clearly the one we've been the worst at — but we are in the constant process of trying to find a more perfect union ... You can't give up," he says. "I believe in the American spirit."
Watch the full episode ofPeople of the Year: George Clooney streaming now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device. And pick up PEOPLE's year-end double issue — featuring Clooney's fellow People of the Year Dr. Anthony Fauci, Regina King and Selena Gomez — on newsstands Friday.