Choosing a career of helping others

Chain yourself to a tree? Parade for social justice? Hold a candlelight vigil?

Build a lifetime career around social responsibility?

Those questions are prompted by an Oberlin College sophomore, who writes:

''After being exposed to information and people involved in alleviating social problems such as poverty, lack of voter registration among the poor, and the problem of racism that so often seems to be associated with these, I feel that I would like to work in these areas. . . . I hope that you may be able to suggest some organizations that work in directly addressing social problems.''

Good for you!

Certain fields - social work, civil rights and family law, youth organizations, prison work, health care - come to mind immediately as affording opportunities to help people bogged down in social problems. So do education (perhaps it was a teacher or professor who introduced the concept of social responsibility to you), journalism (by which many readers become informed of and respond to others' needs), and politics (through which government action can alleviate problems and provide emergency help).

Just as teachers can be catalysts for constructive change, so can librarians by their choices of books and periodicals - by what they feature in their displays to attract readers. Entertainers, television and film producers, authors and artists, all have prodded the social conscience toward eliminating racism, sexism, and stereotyping.

You may think that banking never deals directly with social problems. But I knew a bank president who used his position to initiate equal-employment opportunities in the banking industry of a large Midwestern city before there was any legal compulsion to do so. Through the bank's hiring practices, minority members and women got good jobs, and businesses in the community were able to see the practicality of availing themselves of a human resource they had previously ignored.

Some churches, in addition to helping the resident poor in their communities, have reached out to help migrant workers and refugees, or organized help in their behalf. You may find church affiliation a route for your own lifework.

At the community level, child-abuse prevention centers, wife-abuse prevention centers, shelters for runaway youths, youth recreation programs, rape crisis centers, suicide prevention centers, and groups working with the aged all need professionally prepared staff as well as volunteers. Then, too, the funding organizations (like United Way) that underwrite the costs of such community services need professionals. Your local newspaper (which constantly reports what such organizations are doing) and telephone directory (in which most of them are listed) are good sources for finding these channels.

At the national level, private charitable foundations and voluntary associations devote themselves to meeting world hunger, protecting the environment, helping homeless or needy children, and providing disaster relief. In your public library you can consult The Foundations Directory, compiled by the Foundations Center, New York, and Encyclopedia of Associations (Gale Research Company, Detroit) for the names and addresses of organizations working to solve the social problems you mentioned.

What qualifies you for a career in community or national organizations? In addition to your generous attitude and humane concern, you will need the same kind of organizational skill, ease in communication, and business acumen that would be needed for employment in any successful corporate enterprise.

Fund raising, budget preparation and oversight, personnel management, and the specialized social and behavioral studies or environmental knowledge required for specific organizations are needed for a career of very large service.

Fluency in Spanish would be helpful for a beginner, since in some cities many of your ''clients'' may be Spanish-speaking.

You are no doubt aware that the term ''do-gooder'' has some negative connotations. Social service may be viewed as a way to avoid the rigors and demands of more competitive careers. But more important, it suggests the imposition of a dependent relationship upon the person being helped.

If you pursue sociology, professional social work, family counseling, and related subjects in college, you will realize that the real ''pros'' in the field do all they can to help people help themselves and outgrow dependency on their benefactors. This is essential for restoration of human dignity to the poor, as well as for their continuing ability to improve their lot.

Programs that infuse aid from above are only transitional; the real goal is to encourage and nourish individual initiative and grass-roots problem solving.

Some people may need help in finding channels through which they can advance; others need to learn how best to support their efforts.

Individuals with the courage to give priority to solving social problems are needed at both ends of the spectrum. Make a good assessment of your own talents so that you can see where you will be most effective. Excel in your studies (diverse at the undergraduate level, specialized at the graduate level), and use your summers or internship semester to gain practical experience. All along, continue to develop those ''people skills'' - listening, communicating, cooperating, forgiving, loving - that are the foundation of social responsibility in whatever career you choose.

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