It started with a few bake sales and a toy drive. Then it moved into fruit sales to buy books, jump-a-thons for the Heart Fund, glow stick sales to help the homeless, and various drives to help “the needy” . . . And more bake sales. But if I eat another rainbow-sprinkled, cream-cheese-frosted cupcake that raises money without raising consciousness, it’s Overeaters Anonymous for me.
Our K-5 school in Tenafly, N.J., a predominantly white, well-off community with a large Asian-American population, has proudly blossomed into a beehive of activity. I’ve been proud to see a culture of volunteerism and concern for others take root in our school. But over the years, some of the teachers and parents felt that while our children were helping others, they only superficially understood where the money we raised was going and where the problems we addressed were coming from. In most cases we were putting Band-Aids on gaping wounds. Some concerned staff and parents felt a different approach was needed, one that engaged the children at a deeper level.
Yes, it’s important to help feed the hungry, but why are so many people hungry in a world that has the resources to feed us all? Why are there so many homeless? Why is the environment in constant need of rescuing? We began to wonder how we could promote informed activism among our students.
We started the process by forming a research committee. Our initial discussions included the principal (whose support and participation were key sources of legitimacy and encouragement), teachers from each of the levels in our school, and a few concerned parents. We began exploring various aspects of volunteerism, spanning the globe to find the perfect project for our school.
In the beginning, we were trying to find a project that would fit the whole school, something that would involve every grade and cover a whole year-or at least a concentrated week plopped somewhere in the school calendar. It wasn’t easy. Many committee members had pet projects, and some primary teachers were understandably concerned about the developmental appropriateness of some of the activities. For example, we considered a landmine removal effort that some middle-school students had been supporting, but we felt daunted by the implications of introducing it to very young children as part of a schoolwide project.
We attended a meeting of Youth in Philanthropy (YIP), a group of business and civic leaders who support philanthropic endeavors in schools around the country. While they were very helpful and encouraged children to be active participants, their help tended to be mainly raising money for charitable organizations. We wanted another model for our group.
At the suggestion of the principal, William Greene, we decided to form an afternoon club. I would be an advisor to the club along with Greene; another teacher, Stacey Bailey; and a parent. It seemed less ambitious but more feasible than a whole school project. It did not immediately involve all grades and age levels, and participation would be voluntary and outside the regular curriculum.
There were already many after-school clubs, but we hoped this one would be different. It would be about putting beliefs into action. The advisors defined our goals as follows:To take an active role in helping othersTo inform ourselves and others about the problems we tackleTo find ways to support systemic changes where they’re needed.
We decided to meet once a week, and to invite third, fourth, and fifth graders to join. Perhaps we would expand to other grades in the future. We planned an assembly to introduce the concept to the whole school and recruit members. (In this regard, having the principal as member of the club, or at least in your camp, is obviously very helpful.)
At the assembly Bailey introduced the idea of philanthropy. “Some people think philanthropy is just about foundations giving away lots of money,” she said, “but that’s only one part of the picture. Philanthropy is really about people giving their time, care, and help to causes they care about.” I spoke about the goals of the club, and the principal outlined the club’s logistics.
The First Year
At our first meeting, 20 children showed up. We introduced each other and then outlined the philosophy and informal structure of the club. The members chose a secretary (the first volunteer with decent handwriting) and a treasurer to work with one of the teachers. We agreed to rotate responsibility for the all-important snack, and to limit meetings to an hour.
The first assignment was for club members to consider possibilities for action. The adults made a chart of suggested activities that we thought might be appropriate for the club. They were based on our research from the previous year and included collecting for a local food shelter, the landmine removal campaign (a little more appropriate for this age range), assisting the Make-A-Wish Foundation, or working with a local children’s hospital treating leukemia.
Over the next several meetings we debated and researched possible pro-jects. One child wanted us to be an environmental club, cleaning up beaches along the Hudson River. Some were interested in the landmine removal campaign, so we invited the Global Care Unlimited, Inc., a club from our middle school, to present. Eventually we voted to work on the problem of hunger, an issue with local, national, and international dimensions.
We asked club members to think about a name and perhaps a catchy acronym. We became World Improve-ment with Tenafly Students (WITS). Our symbol was a big, blue beautiful planet topped by our name. We all chipped in to have T-shirts made.
The adults also gave some thought to figuring out what levels of democracy and leadership young children are capable of, and how adults can foster these skills while balancing our role as facilitators. We began the decision-making process with voting, but if a member voted in the minority, we continued the conversation until he or she felt more comfortable, a form of consensus. The adult advisors had some control over this, and sometimes we tried too quickly to influence decisions, as consensus can be very tedious and time-consuming. The kids, too, could get very antsy and too often the adults became “talking heads.” We sincerely wanted club members to make collective decisions, but not be overwhelmed by debate. It was a walk on a tightrope wire.
Since the club members wanted to work on hunger issues, a parent suggested working with the Community Food Bank of Englewood, a local organization responsible for distributing groceries to area residents. The food bank was in trouble; much volunteer energy and money had been siphoned away in the aftermath of 9/11. With the help of people at the food bank, we planned our first action: collecting food for the center’s clientele.
The logistics were formidable: We had to copy flyers, contact the supermarket, inform the school, get permission from parents, and recruit groups of students and parents to staff the stations at the supermarket.
One Saturday morning, we were ready to go. We went to a local supermarket and stood outside the door soliciting food donations from the customers. We used a flyer that the food bank had used in similar actions and added our logo .
We talked about how to approach shoppers when they arrived and how to be polite and courteous. Although totally inexperienced, the kids caught on quickly and soon became effective canvassers.
The kids stopped the shoppers in their tracks and were hard to resist. We collected a ton of groceries. Parent volunteers shuttled the donations to the food bank, and we thanked the supermarket manager for his cooperation. The kids went home feeling very upbeat. One child said she felt “energized and was truly taking an active part in helping people.” Others echoed those sentiments.
Getting Beyond the Bake Sale
Now that the children had a positive experience under their belts, we advisors wanted to help our students gain more understanding about the root causes of hunger. We decided to break into three committees: action, research, and legislative. The action committee continued to coordinate the supermarket events and to develop other possible actions to raise money and awareness of hunger. The research/educational committee looked into the matter of why hunger existed and what else we might do about it. The legislative committee set out to research what relevant laws existed and what bills were being considered that might effect change. While there was an adult advisor for each committee, we tried to put the initiative in the children’s hands. We hoped the committees would begin to move us beyond helping individual groups of people toward deeper questions about the sources of hunger.
The research committee used the Internet to explore the causes of hunger. We found Oxfam America and World Hunger Year (WHY) to be most helpful. Using information from those sites, we discussed the causes of hunger at subsequent meetings. The kids were shocked and concerned that so much hunger could exist in the world, especially in the United States. It was also helpful for the kids to see real profiles of the people who need assistance; their stories helped the children avoid the tendency to blame the victims for situations beyond their control. Our discussions centered on economic inequality but covered topics such as the high price of housing, low pay, and discrimination, as well as catastrophic illness and natural calamity. One child wanted to know why rents are so high. “Why can’t they just let people stay in places they can pay for?” she asked. For many children in this relatively privileged community, this was new territory, and we didn’t have easy answers to offer. Our discussions of what to do prompted the action committee to brainstorm ways we could inform others of the problem.
Finally we decided that a whole school assembly would be a good way to inform and educate. After brainstorming possibilities, the club members decided to host a quiz show during the assembly where two teams would compete to answer questions on hunger in a multiple-choice format.
Two student MCs coordinated the fun. We adapted and simplified “The Hunger Quiz” from World Hunger Year to accommodate all the age ranges. And each answer was followed with some explanation so that club members could share the information they’d found. For example:
Question: True or False: People are hungry because there is not enough food for everybody on our planet.
Answer: False. “The planet can produce enough to feed every woman, man and child on earth. Some countries eat way more than their fair share of food. Others are hungry because they’re not given the chance to get a decent education and they stay in poverty,” according to Oxfam America.
Question: True or False: Hunger is not a problem in a powerful, wealthy country such as the United States.
Answer: False. “One out of every eight children under the age of 12 in the U.S. goes to bed hungry every night,” reports World Hunger Year.
Eventually the advisors decided to hold two assemblies, one more geared for the earlier grades. After a number of rehearsals during club time, the assemblies went over very well. We awarded prizes and sent flyers home with students announcing our next supermarket action. Many students expressed concern about hunger and wanted to help. Some showed up at the supermarket with their parents in tow.
After our last Saturday supermarket collection of the year, we held a year-end party to celebrate our successes. We had built an active, viable club, and raised money, food, and awareness of hunger issues in our school community. It was a modest but promising beginning. We encouraged our third and fourth graders to carry on the tradition next year and said a fond farewell to our fifth graders.
The Hunger Banquet
As the club entered its second year, we continued to refine our work at the supermarkets and planned a Hunger Banquet, which was based on an idea from Oxfam America.
The idea is that children pay ($5.00 in our case) to attend an “ice cream banquet” where some attendees, drawn by lottery at the door, are served select portions of ice cream. The “winners” (a very small number) get to make their own sundaes, piled high with whipped cream and all the fixings. They sit at a nicely decorated table. The second group (slightly larger) gets an ice cream sandwich and sits at undecorated cafeteria tables. The third group (much larger) receives a small piece of candy and sits on the gym floor. During the event, students perform skits and the MCs explain to the audience how the distribution of food in the world is reflected in the distribution of ice cream at the banquet. The experience is designed to mimic the inequities and politics behind the problem of hunger. At the suggestion of the research committee, we planned to donate the money we raised to Heifer International, an organization that buys farm animals and gives them to villages. (See “Resources on Hunger and Kids’ Activism,” next page.)
Each of the committees spent weeks preparing for the banquet. The research committee studied the issue of hunger and found information that explained Heifer International for the skits. The entire club spent time casting the skits and rehearsing them. At times, we stayed beyond the allotted club time and ordered pizza for the late rehearsals.
Most of the skits were about the villages that would receive the animals and how their lives would improve. Some had a bit of humor, others a touch of sadness. The MC borrowed freely from an Oxfam script and our research from last year, and reminded the audience of the inequities in the world’s production and distribution of food:
“You may think hunger is about too many people and too little food,” he said, “Not true. Our rich and bountiful planet produces enough to feed every woman, man, and child on earth. It’s about power. The roots of hunger lie in inequalities in access to education and resources. The results are illiteracy, poverty, war, and the inability of families to grow or buy food.”
Despite some fits and starts, the banquet event went over fabulously. “I felt sad that we were watching them eat so much and we only got one thing,” one participant said. “The rich people are like the all-you-can-eat buffet people. The poor are like the ones who don’t get anything,” replied another child. We then voted to take it to another school in the district. The second time it was even smoother than the first.
The Legislative Committee also fared better in our second year. Using the website www.Congress.org, we found out how Congress passes bills. We also found bills related to our cause of alleviating hunger and focused on supporting a few. For example, Senate Bill 85 allowed for charitable deductions for contributions to food banks. Perhaps more significant for the deeper connections we were trying to make was Senate Bill 20, which promised to increase the federal minimum wage.
Adding a legislative focus to our community and school activism was a little tricky. On the one hand, I wanted to focus attention on institutions of power and on “legitimate” avenues of change. On the other hand, many of the complexities and contradictions of our political system are somewhat beyond the reach of young children, and all the advisors wanted to avoid promoting cynicism. We stressed to the club members the importance of citizen awareness and public pressure in holding our political leaders accountable. The children wrote to the senators who sponsored the bills. They described our club, noted their ages, and asked clearly for support for specific legislation. We used two books for suggestions on form, The Kids’ Guide to Social Action and For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action. (See Resources, this page.) At the Hunger Banquet, our members handed out flyers to all of the children and asked them to share them with their families. On one side of the flyer were reasons for the hunger in the world and on the other side was information about the bills we urged them to support.
We ended the second year by staffing tables at a town marathon race and an all-school picnic. We raised additional funds, and with some money that had been donated anonymously our first year, sent a check for $2,500 to Heifer International.
By the end of our club’s second year, we felt we had accomplished much. We had moved from charity to education to action, and we had made some connections between local problems and larger causes.
The advisors also identified areas that required more work. We needed more parental involvement and more time for the advisors and parents to meet. Next year we plan to schedule meeting days reserved exclusively for the advisors to discuss club matters.
As a teacher in an upper- and middle-class district, I want to do more to help my students understand that while they may be relatively protected from poverty and hunger, many others don’t have a “safety net.” I also need to find ways to help my students understand that helping others is not just an act of personal generosity but also a matter of long-term self-interest and social preservation. More discussions and debates lie ahead.
But we have a good foundation to build on. The kids are making connections between understanding social problems and acting on them. They are developing a sense of themselves as budding activists capable of making a difference. “I didn’t think I could go up to people at a supermarket and ask for food,” said one member. “It was awesome being up on stage and letting everyone know about hunger,” said another.
So, even if I find myself confronting another charity cupcake, I know that at least some of my students are already a few steps beyond the bake sale.
Resources on Hunger and Kids’ Activism
For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action, by Katherine and Randy Boemer (Heinemann, 2001). This book supports students’ writing for public purposes and their personal writing on important social issues.
The Kid’s Guide to Social Action: How to Solve the Social Problems You Choose-And Turn Creative Thinking into Positive Action, by Barbara Lewis, Pamela Espeland, and Caryn Pernu (Free Spirit Publishing, 1998). This superb resource includes everything necessary to guide kids to action, including how to write letters to editors, make speeches for television and radio, create petitions, and more.