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.
WHAT'S A GRASSROOTS ORGANIZATION?
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.
EARTH 2000 IS BORN
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.
I WANT TO START A GRASSROOTS ORGANIZATION, TOO!
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:
Go on to Tetrazzini
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