Learning Adventures in Citizenship
Episode 7
Focus On Making A Difference
The Inside Story

Social Problems
In 1890, a Danish immigrant named Jacob Riis published a book called HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES. In words and pictures, Riis depicted the miseries of life for many poor, immigrant New Yorkers. A bestselling book, HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES shocked middle-class New Yorkers. It did what its title said -- it showed them how the other half of their city lived. Slowly, the book began to have an effect. It convinced many young people to devote their lives to make things better in society. Some worked directly in the immigrant ghettoes, opening settlement houses where poor immigrants could get an education and health care and enjoy recreational activities. Others worked to change the laws on housing and public health. In Riis's case, one person -- and one book -- made a difference.

Perhaps you'd like to make a difference too. In this activity, you will have the chance to investigate and expose a problem facing society. You will have the chance to do research on a social problem and then report about it, just as Riis did. You may have an impact too!

Research A Social Problem
Nobody needs to tell you that there are many problems facing our communities today: poverty, drug abuse, homelessness, hunger, violence. The list goes on and on. Begin by choosing one of these problems as a subject for investigation. Read the newspapers or news magazines. Watch the evening news on TV. This will give you some idea of the many problems facing American communities today. If you're still stuck for ideas, try visiting these Web sites:

Do Something
An organization whose goal is inspiring young people to work towards change in their communities.

Impact Online
A nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people get involved in their communities. Includes a free online service that matches volunteers with organizations.

There is a slogan used by many people who are active in social change: it is "Think Globally, Act Locally." It means that we should think about problems facing the world, while finding ways to solve those problems in our own communities. Poverty, homelessness, and hunger are very big issues. In fact, they are so big it feels impossible for one person or school class to make a difference. But one person can. There is a way to bring the problems down to size. Take hunger or homelessness. Are there people in your own community who don't have enough to eat or don't have a roof over their heads? Focusing on local problems can bring quicker results.

To learn about local problems, read your local newspaper or watch the local news. Try talking to people in your community who are working to solve local problems. Local churches, charities, and social organizations can offer suggestions on problems facing your community.

Investigate A Social Problem
To investigate the social problems facing New York in the late 19th century, Jacob Riis went out into the city's ghettoes. He wrote down what he saw and he took powerful photographs. Of course, Riis was a pioneer. Very few people had looked into the problem of poverty in New York's immigrant ghettoes before.

In your community's case, others have probably been there before. Try to read about the problem you want to investigate. Go to your local library and talk to the librarians. They can help you find articles and maybe even books on the subject. But just because something has been investigated before doesn't mean you shouldn't conduct an investigation of your own. After all, the problem still exists, and many people are not aware of it. Your job is to make them aware of it.

After you have read a little about the problem, it is time to go out into the community as well. If you are doing an investigation of homelessness, visit a homeless shelter. Keep a notebook and maybe take a tape recorder. Write down what you see and hear. Interview people -- both the people who are experiencing the problem and the people who are working to solve the problem. The latter includes church members and leaders, social workers, police, and people who work for social organizations like United Way. You might also want to take pictures of what you see. Photos are very powerful tools for making a point about something. (But be considerate: don't take a photo of someone without his or her permission.)

You may be going into areas that are not entirely safe. Never go alone; make sure you are always with a responsible adult who knows the area -- someone from a church, a social agency, or a charity organization, or your teacher. Tell another adult where you are going, when, and with whom.

Expose A Social Problem
Once you have done your research, it's time to write up what you learned. Begin by going through your notes and tapes. Write down the most important points you want to make. These should include these basic questions: How big is the problem? How many people are affected? What are the root causes of the problem? What is being done to solve the problem, both in the short and long term? What is not being done? What can the people reading your report do?

Now that you have decided on your main points, it's time to write and put together your report or exposé. Remember, you are presenting a case for change. You must provide evidence that the problem is real and important. There are basically three kinds of evidence you can use. The first are statistics. These are very useful to give an overall picture of the problem. No exposé can do without them.

Of course, statistics can be very dry if they are presented by themselves. This leads to the second kind of evidence: real-life stories. Sometimes the best way to expose a problem is to tell how it affects just one person or family. In general, people can emotionally connect with stories more than numbers. Third, there is nothing like a good photograph. For example, a picture of a homeless person living in a box can speak a thousand words.

Finally, a good exposé provides solutions. You might want to list what needs to be done about the problem at the end of your exposé. Don't forget to tell people how they can help -- by sending money, doing volunteer work, writing political officials, etc. Remember, many people think that these problems only happen to other people. So appeal to your readers' consciences. Remind them that drug abuse or homelessness can strike anyone's family. The expression "there but for the grace of God go I" is something we all need to remember.

Maybe just exposing a problem is not enough for you. Perhaps, you would like to do volunteer work. Most churches and social groups need and want volunteers.

Once you have finished your report, you might want to make copies and pass them around your class, school, or neighborhood.