Animal Writes
5 September 2001 Issue
Excerpts from Organization 101 

If you're like a lot of people, you'd like to contribute something positive to society. Perhaps you'd like to revive a neighborhood park, help homeless cats and dogs, or fight drug abuse in your community. And even though you know you should be more active in helping to solve these problems, you never get around to doing anything; it seems like too much work. But contrary to popular belief, making a difference in the world around you can be very easy if you do one simple thing: Start with small, realistic, tangible goals.

To begin: Tune into the television nightly news ("Entertainment Tonight" does not count) and watch the entire program from start to finish. Ask yourself: Which stories make me cry? Which stories make me angry? Which stories make me pay attention? Write your answers on a piece of paper and ask yourself the same questions when reading a newspaper or a newsmagazine like Newsweek or U.S. News & World Report. Be sure to take careful notes.

Do you see a pattern to your answers? For example, if the stories that caught your attention were all related to environmental issues, like an oil spill in the Atlantic Ocean and an ancient forest clear-cut in Washington state, then you have a pattern. On the other hand, if your answers are diverse -- a story about gunfire in Los Angeles and an article about federal welfare cuts -- then you need to narrow your focus. Choose the topic that meant the most to you and make that your project.

Once you've completed that step, ask yourself: What specific issue in this topic do I want to work on? For example, if your topic is gun control, perhaps your goal can be reducing the number of handguns brought into your city's schools. That's specific. But if your goal is to ban all guns in the United States, your scope is too broad. The more particular you can be about your goals, the better. Take your time and be thorough. Most important, be definitive.

Now that you've narrowed your focus to a specific goal, you're ready to be an activist. But before you take your demands to City Hall, you need to learn how most activists and organizations get the job done. Welcome to Activist University. Ninety-nine percent of all social change is achieved by an organized group of individuals working together toward a common goal. A small minority of these groups are large, national organizations boasting millions of members with big bank accounts. But most of the important work being done on behalf of "the cold, the tired, and the hungry" is handled by grassroots organizations and their volunteers. They make a big difference with their small, individual efforts to solve the bigger, pressing problems.

A grassroots organization, as the name suggests, is a group of dedicated individuals working to solve social ills by attacking them at their "roots." For example, grassroots animal advocates may physically capture stray cats and dogs for a spay/neuter program. Grassroots antipoverty activists may walk the streets late at night providing free counseling and food for the homeless. Unlike the paid staff members of national organizations, these activists volunteer their time; they are not paid for their services. In my opinion, these people fit the definition of a hero: people who donate their time and energy to make the world a better place to live.

There are thousands of grassroots organizations throughout the world, ranging from two individuals working as a team to fix up a neighborhood park to huge, regional organizations boasting a board of directors and hundreds of volunteers dedicated to feeding the city's homeless. But even with clear differences in numbers and size, all of these groups share a common bond: They all saw the need to solve a pressing problem.

My own grassroots organization was born the night before my twelfth birthday. The night before, at midnight, trying not to disturb my sleeping parents, I snuck down the stairs to eat the last chicken salad sandwich. While eating, I turned on the television. After passing through a few station test patterns and the Home Shopping Network, I landed at the beginning of a talk show, "The Morton Downey Jr. Show."

I, like most kids in America, was never allowed to watch television late at night. Being thus denied late-night television forced me to formulate my own theories about the racy shows airing at that hour. You can imagine my disappointment when all I found was a loud-mouthed cigarette-smoking host (standing in an equally scary audience) arguing with a British woman over something having to do with rabbits and a cure for cancer. Intrigued, I took a bite of my sandwich and tried to make sense out of what was going on.

The topic was animal rights and the woman's name was Ingrid Newkirk. She supported animal rights so much that she founded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- also known as PETA -- a national animal rights advocacy organization. I liked her immediately. The host and the majority of the audience, on the other hand, did not like her and showed it by screaming vulgar comments at her. Surprisingly, despite the continued barrage of immature and rude comments, she stayed calm and cool. I, on the other hand, was so upset over the infantile behavior of the host and audience that I declared, "I support animal rights!" -- and ate a piece of chicken that fell off my day-old sandwich. Obviously, I wasn't sure what animal rights meant.

I soon learned. Ingrid looked into the audience and said that when it comes to pain, a pig and a boy feel the same level of anguish. I thought about her comment, looked at the crumbs on the floor from my sandwich, envisioned a chicken being slaughtered for my meal ... and a few seconds later, vomited right into the downstairs toilet. My mind, body, and soul had decided that it was wrong to eat that chicken salad sandwich because an animal had been tortured and abused.

Growing up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, where vegetarianism is scarce (a local Amish diner called their one vegetarian dish "The New Age") and where slaughterhouses and factory farming are common, I never thought about exploring my dietary choices. It never occurred to me that my steak dinners, veal piccata, and chicken salad sandwiches had come from "farm" animals. I grew up eating meat; it was a staple in my diet. And I bet it never crossed my parents' minds to explain meat eating to me; it was just a part of life, like drinking water and breathing clean air. Yet I was constantly reminded by my father why eating meat was a luxury: When he was a child in South Korea, meat was expensive; he grew up "suffering" on a mostly vegetarian diet. We ate meat in part because of guilt.

After lifting my head out of the toilet, I knew it was my mission to help animals and their environment by stopping my own cruel and destructive ways of living. I decided to adopt a plant-based vegetarian diet. That night, I also decided to start a group, to call it Earth 2000, and to use it to tell other kids my age that animals are part of our community, and not a commodity to be exploited. The "2000" part of the name signified that I intended to save the planet by the end of the century. No problem, I thought to myself. After all, I had plenty of friends and a whopping $10 (which was a lot of money to an eleven-year-old in those days) to spend on this new project. Feeling better, I went up to my room and back to sleep.

The next day, I told all my friends not to give me gifts for my birthday. I didn't want a Swatch watch or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figure. Instead, I wanted them to join Earth 2000 as pioneer members. Many were enthusiastic about my plans and were ready to free animals from nearby factory farms, while some were joyous simply because they got to keep my birthday presents for themselves.

On that day, an organization consisting of a handful of neighborhood kids, who collectively had $23.57 to spend, started working to save the planet by the year 2000. Sure, we couldn't drive -- heck, we couldn't even cross the street -- but we had the three things every greeat activist group needs: dedication, enthusiasm, and tenacity. And on top of that, we were young and didn't have jobs, bills, or any of the other annoying things adults always fret about. On April 21, 1989, the Earth 2000 Crusades began.

These "crusades" accomplished a lot despite their modest beginnings. From waging controversial campaigns against a development corporation to launching award-winning antifur consumer boycott campaigns, the seed I planted in 1989 has grown into a large, impressive national movement. We have proved that young people have the tenacity, intelligence, and enthusiasm to make a real, lasting difference in the world. You'll learn more about specific campaigns later in the book.

Whoa ... slow down, Speed Racer! Before you jump right in and start a brand-new organization, consider exploring these easier alternatives:

* JOIN AN EXISTING ORGANIZATION. If you see a problem you want to solve, chances are others have seen it, too. Look around your community: Is there already a group working on your issue? If there is, join and offer your time and ideas. This way, you'll be able to devote more energy to the root cause of the problem and less to constructing a new organization. It is counterproductive to have two organizations working on the same problem. There is power in numbers.

*MAKE ALLIANCES WITH OTHER GROUPS. If there isn't a group working directly on your issue, consider joining an organization you think might be interested in broadening its mission. For example, if your goal is to provide meals for the homeless, you could join a local vegetarian society. You could convince them to start a program (which you enthusiastically volunteer to coordinate) to cook vegetarian meals for the less fortunate. Always be on the lookout for ways to contribute to and broaden the mission of other community organizations.

*INFILTRATE INACTIVE ORGANIZATIONS. I know. It sounds like a sneaky, evil way to abuse a nonprofit organization. But community groups often lose their freshness and spunk when they've been around for a few years. When an existing organization is spending its funds on new stationery instead of on their original mission, it is time to infiltrate them. In a way, you are doing them a favor.

[Editor's note: For a great list of existing animal oriented groups and their locations, see the following website: ]

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