Citizens Who 'Make Themselves Useful'

Active citizenship involves more than voting. Here, a few activist organizations are briefly profiled for students; questions and other suggested classroom activities follow.

To the Teacher:

The 19th century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville seems to have been the first to comment publicly on the American propensity to form associations and to act "on the notion that it is the duty as well as the interest of men to make themselves useful to their fellow creatures." Some have commented recently that this propensity is not as strong as it once was. But there is plenty of evidence that this lifeblood of American democracy continues to run strongly and that many Americans continue to regard themselves primarily as citizens, not consumers—though Wall Street and news reports might lead one to think differently.

While students are likely to read about and discuss in some detail the nature of democracy, they are less likely to study the role of citizen activism and organizations in a democracy. The student readings below include an introductory overview on this subject followed by concise descriptions of the work of some of the better-known American non-profits. Each reading concludes with discussion questions and suggestions for other classroom activities.


Student Reading 1:

Active Citizenship

Being an American citizen means having many rights and freedoms: the right to vote, the right to a fair and speedy trial if accused of a crime, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to assemble with others for meetings.

Such rights and freedoms are what we are likely to name first if asked about the benefits of citizenship. We are not likely think about duties and obligations. Unlike rights and freedoms, they do not appear in the Constitution. We citizens do not have to vote. We do not have to use our rights and freedoms to try to correct an injustice or campaign for a reform.

But since the very beginnings of the United States of America more than 200 years ago, active citizens have created, and continue to create, countless volunteer groups to do everything from preventing an old tree from being cut down by town workers or supporting a new sewer system to stopping a prisoner's execution; from promoting animal rights to abolishing slavery.

Many active citizens made American history by working to end injustice or to fill a public need. They launched movements:

  • to refuse "taxation without representation"
  • to abolish slavery
  • to legislate the 40-hour week and 8-hour day
  • to win the right to bargain collectively with employers
  • to gain for women the right to vote
  • to provide citizens with safer food
  • to win for African-Americans rights other Americans took for granted like the rights to vote and to eat at a diner

Many others work today on projects to make their communities, the nation, and the world a better place to live.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French historian and a very perceptive observer of the United States, visited this country in the early 1830s and in 1835 produced a book, Democracy in America. In it he commented upon various American characteristics, including this one:

"I must say that I have often seen Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare; and I have noticed a hundred instances in which they hardly ever failed to lend faithful support to one another. The free institutions which the inhabitants of the United States possess, and the political rights of which they make so much use, remind every citizen, and in a thousand ways, that he lives in society. They every instant impress upon his mind the notion that it is the duty as well as the interest of men to make themselves useful to their fellow creatures...
"Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches... [and to] found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association."

The following readings describe a few of the tens of thousands of non-profit groups formed by active citizens in the U.S. Most are defined by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as 501c3 tax-exempt organizations. Such organizations "may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities" and "may not participate at all in campaign activity for or against political candidates." Donations and grants from foundation, and sometimes earnings from publications, pay staff members and support organization activities.

The IRS says that these organizations, typically, work for such causes as "relief of the poor, the distressed, or underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science...elimination of prejudice and discrimination; defense of human and civil rights... "

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How do our "free institutions" and "political rights" "remind every citizen, and in a thousand ways, that he lives in society"?

3. What do you understand Tocqueville to mean by "society"? What are some of the ways that in your neighborhood or city active citizens remind everyone that they live in society?

4. Tocqueville writes "it is the duty as well as the interest of men to make themselves useful to their fellow creatures." Do you agree that it is "a duty"? Why or why not? Do you agree that it is an "interest"? If you agree, what examples can you offer to support your opinion? If you disagree, why?

5. Why do you suppose the IRS prohibits tax-exempt organizations from participating in political campaigns and attempting "to influence legislation"?

6. In news reports Americans are much more frequently referred to as consumers than as citizens. How would you define the difference between a consumer and a citizen? How would you yourself prefer to be defined? Consumer? Citizen? Something else? Why?

Student Reading 2:

Public Citizen

You get into a car and automatically strap on your safety belt. But you wouldn't have in 1965. That year Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed , a hard-hitting attack on the American automobile industry in general and General Motors in particular. Nader exposed the industry's resistance to installing safety features like seat belts and its production of cars with dangerous design features.

Automobile company executives were not happy with the book. General Motors tried, unsuccessfully, to smear Nader by hiring investigators to dig up dirt about him. He sued and forced GM to apologize publicly. An aroused Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Eventually General Motors had to pay Nader $284,000 to compensate him for their smear campaign. He used the money to expose other industrial safety hazards, such as unsanitary practices in beef and poultry slaughterhouses.

Nader became famous and used his fame and tireless energy to expose corporate and government abuses. In 1971 he founded Public Citizen, which this year celebrates its 35th anniversary as "a national nonprofit membership organization... Public Citizen has fought for corporate and government accountability in order to guarantee the individual's right to safe products, a healthy environment and workplace, fair trade, and clean and safe energy sources." The organization does not accept money from corporate sponsors or the government. Its funding comes from thousands of individual supporters and the sale of such publications as Worst Pills, Best Pills: A Consumer's Guide to Avoiding Drug-Induced Death or Illness.

According to Public Citizen, "an interdisciplinary team of organizers, researchers, lobbyists, lawyers, doctors and administrators does Public Citizen's work. It focuses on protecting consumers and making corporations and the government accountable to the public."

After Nader went on to other public service work and ran for president, Jean Claybrook became president of Public Citizen. Asked about the impact of its work on America over the past 35 years, she said:

"We've certainly saved millions of lives. We've prevented death and injury from medical malpractice, unsafe drugs, unsafe cars, dirty air or nuclear power... When government agencies won't listen to us, we sue them if we think they've made a decision that doesn't comport with the law... The life of the average citizen in America is substantially better because of our work, and most people don't know that we had anything to do with it. Many people are unaware, for example, that we got carcinogens out of food dyes—dyes that are eaten by almost every person in America. What most people [also] don't know is it took 20 years of fighting with the auto industry to get them to install [air bags]... and we were at the forefront of that battle." ( Public Citizen, special anniversary issue)

Public Citizen is active on many fronts. Recently it:

  • sued the U.S. Department of Labor to provide better job training to Spanish-speaking workers
  • mounted a campaign to pressure Congress to pass significant lobbying reforms to stop the influence-peddling scandals of recent years
  • pressured Congress to approve an immediate windfall profits tax on energy companies that would divert their record profits into investments for renewable energy, alternative fuels, mass transit, and energy efficiency programs.

To learn more about Public Citizen, go to its website, or contact the organization at 1600 20th Street, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20009; (202) 588-1000. Information is available from Public Citizen about internships and opportunities to take action on significant issues.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Of the issues Public Citizen addresses that are mentioned in the reading, which is the most important to you? Why?

3. Public Citizen focuses on such issues as safe products, clean energy, and lobbying reforms. What products are you aware of that raise safety concerns? How would you define "clean energy"? Given that definition, what would be one source of clean energy?

4. What is a lobbyist? Why do you suppose Public Citizen regards lobbying reform as necessary? Do you agree? Why or why not?

5. What is your view of a "windfall profits tax" on energy companies, which are making "record profits"?

Student Reading 3:

Consumers Union

You decide to buy a car—but which one? A Ford sedan? A Chevy pickup? A Toyota hybrid? There are hundreds of models and trimlines. Let's say you decide on a Ford Focus and go to a Ford dealer. You know the sticker price isn't necessarily the bottom-line price, and that you can bargain for a lower price. But what's the best way to do it? Talking to relatives and friends can be helpful. But it will probably be much more helpful to check out what Consumer Reports has to say.

This publication of Consumer's Union (CU) employs hundreds of people who are trained to study, test, rate, and provide an unbiased report on just about every consumer item you can think of—DVD players, electric grills, air cleaners, power blowers, peanut butter, flu medications, mosquito traps, paints, toothbrushes, and cars. CU publishes the results in its magazine and online. For a small charge it will also provide you with detailed information about the car you are thinking of buying, including how much the dealer paid for it and a game plan about how to bargain. It will give you similar advice about buying a used car.

CU calls itself "an expert, independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves. ... To maintain our independence and impartiality, CU accepts no outside advertising and has no agenda other than the interests of consumers. CU supports itself through the sale of our information on products and services, individual contributions, and a few noncommercial grants."

A group of professors, labor leaders, journalists, and engineers founded CU in 1936. With a tiny budget, it began its reports, focusing on inexpensive items like milk, breakfast cereals, soup, and stockings that it sent out to 4,000 subscribers. Gradually, it developed a reputation for fairness, thoroughness, and honesty with an increasing number of consumers.

As early as 1953 Consumer Reports was warning consumers about the dangers of smoking, providing information not available elsewhere about the tar and nicotine of cigarettes. The organization moved to its own testing laboratory in Mt. Vernon, New York and later to Yonkers, New York, where it established its National Testing and Research Center, the largest of its kind in the world. In 1953 it tested 50 cars. Fifty years later it was testing more than 200.

As an advocate over the years for consumers, the magazine has:

  • published a three-part series on water contamination in the U.S. and recommendations for cleanup through citizen action
  • warned Americans about the danger of radioactive fallout from above-ground nuclear tests the U.S. was conducting in Nevada
  • ran a special edition on Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a book about the danger of pesticides to birds and other creatures
  • developed its own health newsletter

CU buys all the products it uses as test samples. "We receive no special treatment. We accept no free samples. If a manufacturer sends us a free product, we return it. More than 100 testing experts work in seven major technical departments—appliances, auto test, baby & child, electronics, foods, health & family, and recreation & home improvement... In addition, we have more than 150 anonymous shoppers throughout the country."

CU regards safety as its priority. Its experts testify before state and federal legislative and regulatory bodies on such consumer issues as health care, food safety, and product safety.

Its research and testing led to the Flammable Fabrics Act, the Child Protection and Toy Safety Act, product recalls, and government standards and regulations. It recently published "The Consumer Reports Hurricane Recovery Guide," offering advice to Katrina victims about rebuilding, safety, and personal finance.

There are multiple career opportunities at CU as well as internships for undergraduate and graduate college students. To learn more, go to or contact Consumers Union, 101 Truman Avenue, Yonkers, NY 10703-1057; (914) 378-2000. CU also has offices in Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Austin, Texas.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why do you suppose that CU does not include any advertising in Consumer Reports?

3. Why do you suppose that it returns free products sent by a manufacturer?

4. Since CU buys all of the very many products its employees test, the organization must have substantial expenses for products and workers. What are the sources of its income?

5. If you were a legislator or a member of a governmental regulatory body, such as the Food and Drug Administration or the Department of Health, how seriously would you take the views of an official from Consumers Union? Why?

6. How are Consumers Union and Public Citizen similar? Different?

Student Reading 4:

The American Civil Liberties Union

The people of Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, were in an uproar in March 1977 when they learned that Fred Collin, leader of a Nazi group, had applied for a permit to march through their town. More than half of Skokie's 70,000 people were Jewish, including 7,000 Jews who had survived Hitler's extermination camps. Town officials, arguing the Nazi march would probably lead to violence, got a court injunction to stop it.

But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stepped in to support Collin and the Nazis in their appeal of this decision. Sol Goldstein, one of Skokie's Holocaust survivors, said, "The Nazis who come to march in Skokie are the same who butchered our people. If they ever take power, they mean to do the same things Hitler's Nazis did." Aryeh Neier, the Jewish executive director of the ACLU, most of whose relatives died in the Holocaust, said, "Keeping a few Nazis off the streets of Skokie will serve Jews poorly if it means the freedoms to speak and publish in the United States are weakened."

After a series of court battles, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that the Nazis had a constitutional right to march as well as to wear their uniforms and swastika armbands. Skokie officials issued a permit to Collin, who then announced that because the Nazi group had won, he was calling off the march. The ACLU legal support, which was crucial in the Nazi group's victory, angered many of the organization's members. They thought that not even First Amendment rights should protect people who supported Nazi policies, and 30,000 of them quit the organization.

The ACLU, however, stands with former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote: "The First Amendment protects free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate... Whenever government gains the power to decide who can speak and what they can say, the First Amendment rights of all of us are in danger of violation. But when all people are allowed to express their ideas, the principles of democracy and liberty are enhanced. This extends even to speech which is most hateful and offensive."

The ACLU was founded in 1920 as a non-profit, non-partisan organization. "We work daily," its website declares, "in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States. Our job is to conserve America's original civic values: the Constitution and the Bill of Rights."

Its first court victory, in 1925, was a partial one. On First Amendment grounds, the ACLU supported a New York man who distributed a pamphlet calling for the overthrow of the government. Though the Supreme Court ruled against him, it also ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment is incorporated in the First Amendment and applies to the states. This decision established that a state may not deprive any person of "life, liberty, or property without due process of law... "
The ACLU is constantly involved in such controversial issues. Currently the organization is suing the government to stop what it calls "a massive illegal and fundamentally un-American invasion of our privacy." With the cooperation of such corporations as AT&T and the approval of President Bush, the National Security Agency is collecting data on American telephone calls. President Bush says the purpose is to prevent terrorism. The ACLU views monitoring phone calls as a violation of the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, unless the president gets a court order. The ACLU supports HR 5371, a bill in the House of Representatives that would reinforce this requirement.

Other cases on which the ACLU has been active recently include proposed Constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage and desecration of the flag. The ACLU is neither for nor against gay marriage or flag-burning. But it is against anything it regards as a violation of civil liberties. Recently, it won a suit against the government that required the Bush administration to release thousands of pages of documents relating to the mistreatment and torture of U.S. prisoners.

The ACLU website provides links to its Action Network and Activist Toolkit, both of which encourage public support for its civil liberties efforts. The site includes profiles of high school activists. One is Rebecca Rojer, co-president of the ACLU New Jersey chapter at Columbia High School. She has organized events on marriage equality, in support for racial justice, and in opposition to the Patriot Act. A second, Cristhian Ponce Barranco, is a teen leader in the New York Civil Liberties Union Health Initiative, which promotes access to reproductive rights, healthcare, and family planning.

For information about the ACLU, write to 125 Broad Street, New York, NY 10004 or go to its website,

For Reading, Thinking and Discussion

Here are brief descriptions of three court cases in which the ACLU took part. In each case, determine which side you think the ACLU would have taken and on what constitutional grounds.

  • A California man was arrested on suspicion of swallowing drugs to avoid imprisonment. Against his will the police forcibly pumped his stomach and found the drugs. He was tried, convicted and imprisoned for drug possession. Was the ACLU position for or against the police?
  • A school district policy permitted students to vote at the beginning of each school year whether to have prayers before high school football games. Was the ACLU position for or against the school district?
  • A homeowner placed the following sign in a bedroom window: "Say No to War in the Gulf—Call Congress Now" and was required by a state ordinance barring such signs to remove it. Was the ACLU position for or against the homeowner?

After students have made their decisions have them choose partners for a pair-share dialogue. Allow a few minutes for each case—a minute for each student to state to his/her partner a view of the ACLU position and the reason for it based on the constitution, and another minute or so for discussion. Then invite whole class discussion.


Case 1, Rochin v. California (1952) resulted in a Supreme Court reversal of the conviction, as the ACLU argued, on the grounds that the Fourteenth Amendment had been violated.

Case 2, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000) resulted in a Supreme Court decision declaring that the school district was in violation of the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment, which was the ACLU position.

Case 3, Ladu v. Gilleo (1994) resulted in a Supreme Court decision to overturn the Missouri ordinance on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment, as the ACLU argued.

For Writing

Select one of the following cases. Express in a paragraph what you think the appropriate Supreme Court ruling, based on the constitution, should be. Then write a second paragraph on what you think the ACLU's position would have been and why.

1. West Virginia v. Barnette (1943). A state law compelled children who were members of the religious group Jehovah's Witnesses to salute the American flag, which was against their religious beliefs.

2. Chandler v. Miller (1997). A Georgia law required urine tests for candidates for public office.

Note: In Case 1, the Supreme Court ruled that the flag salute requirement was a violation of the First Amendment, as the ACLU argued. In Case 2, The Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it violated the privacy rights of individuals under the Fourth Amendment, as the ACLU argued.

Student Reading 5:

Children's Defense Fund

"We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to the big differences that we often cannot foresee." —Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman was born in South Carolina, went to Spelman College and Yale Law School, and then became the first black woman admitted to Mississippi's legal profession. Edelman was a civil rights activist in the 1960s, working on voting campaigns in Mississippi and was later counsel for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "poor people's campaign." She is best known today for her work as president of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), which she founded in 1973.
After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, CDF's main concern was the hurricane's impact on the poor, especially poor children. Many of them, CDF found, suffer from acute physical and mental health problems and from poor schooling. CDF prepared reports on the needs of Katrina children and sent delegations to the Gulf Coast to focus on them.

CDF states: "The mission of the Children's Defense Fund is to leave No Child Behind and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.CDF provides a strong, effective voice for all the children of America who cannot vote, lobby, or speak for themselves. We pay particular attention to the needs of poor and minority children and those with disabilities."

A private, nonprofit organization that never takes government money, CDF funding comes from individual donations and grants from foundations and corporations.

In its first decade, CDF researched critical child needs in all racial and income groups and documented the cost effectiveness of early-childhood programs. Since then it has been a leader in enacting such programs as the Children's Mental Health Program, the Fair Housing Act, the Act for Better Childcare, Vaccines for Children, and the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

CDF's No Child Left Behind program should not be confused with the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, which is primarily about standardized testing. CDF's vision of "no child left behind" includes universal pre-schooling; making sure every child and parent has health insurance; ending child hunger through expanding food programs and establishing a living wage for all workers; summer programs for every child; decent, affordable housing; and protection from neglect and abuse.

This program calls for a $75 billion expenditure of government funds. This money is available, CDF insists, but is now being spent on tax cuts for the wealthy and unnecessary wars. "Our nation does not have a money problem; it has a values and priorities problem," CDF maintains.

CDF works with other groups to counter the "cradle to prison pipeline leading to marginalized lives and premature deaths." It runs a host of educational programs, including training programs in community-building and summer "freedom schools" across the country.

"Since helping most children requires helping their families and improving communities where they live, children are our metaphor and wedge for transforming social change," said CDF.

CDF offers jobs, internships and opportunities for volunteers. Its headquarters are at 25 E Street, N.W., Washington DC 20001; 800-233-1200. Website:

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be

2. Consider Edelman's opening quotation. What examples can you think of from American history in which someone contributed to big differences through "small daily differences"? What examples from your own families or friends?

3. Define "values" and "priorities." Explain: "Our nation does not have a money problem; its has a values and priorities problem"?

4. What are CDF's values? Its priorities?

5. Define "metaphor," "wedge," "transforming social change." In what ways do you suppose CDF sees "children are our metaphor and wedge for transforming social change"?

6. Based on your observations of the lives of children in your community, what would you say are their greatest needs? Is CDF attempting to meet such needs? Why or why not?

Student Reading 6:

Young America's Foundation

University campus agitation against the Vietnam War, hippies and long hair, riots in Chicago during the Democratic Convention, civil rights sit-ins, marches, demonstrations. These are a few of the things the 1960s are known for and contributed to the formation of a student organization at Vanderbilt University. It brought together young men and women who wanted to discuss and provide a hearing for conservative ideas—as opposed to the "liberal" ones that prevailed on campus.

By the 1970s the Vanderbilt student organization had led to the formation of a national organization, Young America's Foundation (YAF). It brought conservative speakers to university campuses and launched a nationally syndicated radio program featuring California Governor Ronald Reagan. Reagan gained fame on the air with talks opposing "big government" and ideas on fighting crime and communism. By 1979 YAF was running its first annual National Conservative Student Conference for "an intensive week of informative seminars and training in student activism."

Since that time YAF has brought together "over 3600 of the most promising student leaders," many of them now in important positions in government, business, and journalism. They have heard talks by such well-known figures as Republican congressional leaders Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, and Tom DeLay, Attorney-General John Ashcroft, as well as William F. Buckley, founder of the conservative periodical, National Review , and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

In its mission statement, YAF declares its commitment "to ensuring that increasing numbers of young Americans understand and are inspired by the ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise and traditional values... We accomplish our mission by providing essential conferences, seminars, educational materials, internships and speakers to young people across the country."

YAF offers a number of different programs, mostly aimed at college leaders but including an annual conference for high school leaders. It has published "The Conservative Guide to Campus Activism," as one way to teach students "how to share conservative ideas and defend student rights"—for example, their right to meet with military recruiters on campus.

YAF says it has given "years of steadfast support for balance in education. While the Foundation is reaching more students than ever before, the nation's campuses continue to be staffed and controlled by leftist radicals who seek a monopoly on what is said and thought. As long as this trend continues, there will be need for the Foundation's programs for students who seek to gain a complete education."

YAF's Club 100 is a campus activist rewards program, offering opportunities to strategize with activists on other campuses via message boards. It provides points for activities leading to gifts of conservative videos and books by right-wing writers Ann Coulter and Peggy Noonan. Its greatest reward is for those with 100 points, who are invited to a spring gathering at its Club 100 Reagan Ranch Retreat. The ranch was for many years the home of Ronald and Nancy Reagan and was saved by YAF's purchase and maintenance of it.

YAF also runs a National Journalism Center that provides internships in training students in the skills of presswork as well as a Reagan Ranch Leadership Academy in Santa Barbara, California, "dedicated to developing leaders in the tradition of Ronald Reagan."

YAF is "a non-partisan, non-political, nonprofit." For more information about YAF, write Young America's Foundation, 110 Elden Street, Herndon, VA 20170 or go to the website,

For small-group discussion

"Conservative" or "right-wing" and "liberal" or "left-wing" are much-used labels in political discussions, sometimes to stamp, even if vaguely, a person's views, at times to denigrate. Words don't have meanings; people do. What meaning do students give these words? Ask students to suggest meanings, with examples. For example: a conservative is one who would probably support a bill to limit government spending. As this and other statements suggest, however, neither "conservatives" nor "liberals" necessarily agree among themselves about everything.

Divide the class into groups of four to six students to agree on several meanings, with examples, for "conservative" and "liberal." A reporter should record and report on them to the whole class for discussion and any needed clarification.

For further discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. YAF, a conservative organization, declares its support for "a strong national defense" and defends students' right to meet with military recruiters on campus. Some liberal groups might oppose YAF's stance on this. On what specific issues do you think YAF would disagree with liberal groups about "individual freedom," "a strong national defense" and "traditional values"?

3. YAF would probably consider the Children's Defense Fund a liberal group. Why? On what matters do you think the two groups would disagree? But "conservative" and "liberal" groups don't necessarily disagree about everything. On what might they agree?

4. Why is YAF concerned about "balance in education"? What meaning do you give to the term "leftist radicals"? What do you know about their efforts to "seek a monopoly on what is said and thought" on the nation's campuses? If you know little or nothing, how might you look into differing views on this issue?


Student Reading 7:

Oxfam America

"Boot the Bell" was the chant of high school and college demonstrators at the Irvine, California, headquarters of Taco Bell. They were supporting workers in Immokalee, Florida, who picked tomatoes used by the fast-food giant. Taco Bell officials said they had nothing to do with what tomato workers were paid.

But workers and their allies kept demonstrating and boycotting for four years. Struggling to overcome poor working conditions in the fields and below poverty-level wages, workers came together to form the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to fight for basic rights. Joining them was Oxfam America's Make Trade Fair campaign, which supplied financial and advisory support.

In 2005 Taco Bell surrendered, producing a one penny per pound of tomatoes increase, which nearly doubled workers' pay, and a promise of improved working conditions. Now CIW and Oxfam America are pressuring McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, and other fast-food industries to get their vegetable and fruit suppliers to provide their workers with a living wage and decent working conditions. (

This is only one of Oxfam's many campaigns. In the fishing community of LaFitte, Louisiana, Davida Finger, a state coordinator for Oxfam America, went house to house to learn what hurricanes Katrina and Rita had done to residents and their town. Gene Adam, a shrimp fisher, told Finger that he had salvaged his sunken boat, but that repairs would cost him $50,000. Down the road, a net maker, Carol Schieffler, told her he lost most of his business. From them and others Finger discovered that Louisiana's marshes are disappearing. "There's no place for the water to go but up," Adam said. Finger filled notebooks with information to help Oxfam America decide how to help. ( Oxfam Exchange, Spring 2006)

Oxfam America is part of Oxfam International, a worldwide confederation of 12 organizations, "working together with over 3,000 partners in 100 countries to find lasting solutions to poverty, suffering and injustice." Oxfam also responds to disasters like those caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the 2004 tsunami that devastated southeast Asia.

Shamali Kodikara lives in Matara, Sri Lanka, an island nation near India. Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans were killed by the tsunami. But Kodikara and her husband were among the lucky ones: They survived—even though their house did not. Kodikara, her husband, and neighbors worked with Oxfam International to build a new house. Oxfam saw the rebuilding process in Sri Lanka as "an opportunity for women to participate as equal contributors and to play a stronger role in their communities through a cash-for-work program that provided training, materials and wages... For Oxfam, equality means that we encourage women to join our cash-for-work projects and pay them wages equal to men." Kodikara said, "I am a free woman and have earned money for my family when we needed it. I am very proud of myself and everything I have done." ( Oxfam Exchange, Winter 2006)

Oxfam International seeks "to help people organize so that they may gain better access to the opportunities they need to improve their livelihoods and govern their own lives." It works "to raise awareness among the public of the real solutions to global poverty, to enable and motivate people to play an active part in the movement for change, and to foster a sense of global citizenship."

Oxfam America's "Change Initiative" invites college students who are entering their sophomore or junior year to apply for "intensive leadership training" on its social justice mission and work on campus for one or more years. It offers "opportunities to become better educated and join the fight against global poverty and injustice around the world." Oxfam America "assumes the cost of training, room and board, and travel."

For more information about working with Oxfam America, write to its main office, 26 West Street, Boston, MA 02111-1206 or log on to and

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How is Oxfam different from other organizations that provide humanitarian assistance after floods and earthquakes?

3. How does Oxfam's response to the workers' struggle with Taco Bell and to tsunami victims demonstrate this difference?

A conversation circle

This activity gives students an opportunity to engage in brief conversations with several different students.

Divide students into two groups of equal size. Ask the first half of students to form a circle and face outward. Then ask the other half of students to form an outer circle by pairing up with a partner from the inside circle. Pairs of students should be facing each other, standing about two feet apart.

Pose the following question to students and give each pair a few minutes to talk with each other: What do you think Oxfam means when it refers to "the real solutions to global poverty"?

When both students in the pairs have had a chance to speak, call time and invite general class discussion. Try to reach agreement on Oxfam's view of "real solutions" as demonstrated in the examples of its work given in the reading.

Next, ask the outside partners to move one, two, or three places to the right. This way each inside partner will have a new outside partner. Pose the following question: Do Oxfam's solutions make sense to you? Why or why not? Continue this procedure with one or two additional partners, then invite general class discussion.

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: