Your community needs you and needs your learning too

Helen Baker, a Shaker Heights, Ohio, mother of three, became concerned some years ago at a trammeling of children's rights in schools. Lugging home lawbooks, she became a self-taught advocate for the rights of the young.

Her expertise propelled her into the Cleveland Civil Liberties Union, first as a volunteer, now as a staff member. Eventually, at age 51, she entered law school, from which she recently graduated.

"I went to law school for the piece of paper," she says. "What I know about the law, I learned on my own with a little help from friends. I'm still learning that way."

If you have concerns about your community -- local, regional, or even the global community -- you undoubtedly find that constant learning is essential to accomplishing your goals.

The great 19th-century French sage de Tocqueville observed how the public business of America is conducted by a myriad of voluntary and community organizations. Americans have long been following their impulse to find out what's going on, spread the word, and act on it. In our own time, the work of Ralph Nader's "public-interest research groups" and other agencies exemplifies this tendency.

In fields ranging from the environment and ecology to women's issues and the rights of the handicapped, American citizens regularly join together to monitor their society and act on what they are learning. Getting involved in this kind of "action learning" is easier than the other kinds of do-it-yourself education covered in this series, because in virtually every field there are activist organizations that can supply you with materials.

Many communities have a "Yellow Pages" directory of such groups, available at the library, where you can find the ones that might be of interest.

If you prefer to start on your own, you can begin a file of newspaper clippings about issues or developments in your community that you'd like to do something about. TV is also a good source for such issues, with most major stations now broadcasting lively on-the-spot coverage of events in the community.

You may want to use your particular occupational expertise to help public-interest groups or causes. All kinds of professionals these days are opting to devote a small proportion of their time to "pro bono" work -- efforts on behalf of clients or organizations that need service but can't afford to pay.

Lawyers are the most visible in providing legal services to the poor or to nonprofit groups, but such donations of time and energy also occur among the socially conscious in many other professions: medicine, teaching, accounting, and in business. Professional writers, for example, have formed a group called Writers in the Public Interest, which has encouraged others in that professions to do such work.

American society is so large and complex, yet the concerns of localities so specific, that it really needs millions of citizens acting as eyes and ears. They can identify problems, collect relevant data, generate findings, and propose solutions that might otherwise never come about. The whole idea or our democratic "marketplace of ideas" depends on vigorous citizen action in constantly looking, learning, and sharing our perceptions so that together people can figure out what needs doing in society.

Often, personal experiences spur this kind of learning. Karen Branan of Minneapolis tells how she left her automobile idling while stepping out of her car one day to pick up her lunch from her front porch. Seconds later the car was gone.

Police found it several blocks away and reported that it had apparently jumped from "park" into "reverse," rolled backward, and smashed five cars along the way.

"Those five cars could have been five children," Karen Branan recalls thinking.

"At that point, I decided to do some serious digging." Her digging disclosed that other people around the country had suffered even more serious consequences from this defect in the same brand of automobile and that the the defect was widely known but unrectified. In a just-published magazine article she summarizes what she learned about the situation and makes a compelling case for a recall by the manufacturer.

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