When Barbara Lewis was little, her passion was paper dolls, a barely three-dimensional world of elaborate make-believe. It never occurred to her that children had any power in a world beyond their own fantasies or their own houses.
And then Barbara Lewis grew up, became a teacher and met the kids at Jackson Elementary School.You may remember those kids: The ones who worried about a hazardous-waste site near their school, petitioned the owners to clean the site up, lobbied the Legislature to write two new laws, got the city to repair sidewalks, and organized a statewide tree-planting program.
Lewis, pulled along by her students' enthusiasm, taught them how to work through the system to get things done. In the process, she realized that there is very little that kids can't do, if they're just shown how.
Now Lewis has written "The Kid's Guide to Social Action," a how-to book about "getting involved, getting noticed and getting results."
Written for children "so even adults can understand it," says Lewis, the book is sort of a Farmer's Almanac of grass-roots politics, full of step-by-step instructions on lobbying, writing newsletters and raising money.
"The Kid's Guide to Social Action," published by Free Spirit Publishing in Minneapolis, will be in bookstores across the country starting this week. The forward is written by actor Ted Danson, who is also president of an environmental group called American Oceans Campaign.
Schools rarely teach children how to be effective citizens, says Lewis. Reading about the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of Independence teach an appreciation of citizenship, but that's not the same thing, she says.
"It's like giving a kid a drawing of bicycle parts to teach him about balance," says Lewis. "He won't really learn till he gets on his bike and falls off a few times."
Her Jackson students - whose school has the lowest per capita income in the Salt Lake City School District - have not only learned firsthand about being citizens, says Lewis, they've learned the real meaning behind that '90s buzzword, empowerment."As kids reach out in the community, the whole process internalizes," she says. Without having one class in self-esteem, the children learn what it's like to feel worthwhile. "The best way for a victim to stop being a victim," she adds, "is to step outside yourself and help someone else."
"The Kid's Guide to Social Action" shows students how to amend their state constitution, pass petitions, talk to reporters, write public service announcements, testify before legislatures and conduct surveys.
The book also highlights children around the country who, as Lewis says, have done "more than memorize what other people have done; they're creating their own history" - children who have saved historic buildings, brought food to the homeless, helped crime victims, started recycling centers and raised money to give their town a library.
Now that "The Kid's Guide to Social Action" is in print, Lewis has started work on a second book, "Kid Stories," with more profiles of children who have made a difference.
Children are the last major minority, says Lewis, who dedicates her book "To kids everywhere. May you be both seen and heard."
As for Lewis herself - the little girl who used to use her hefty imagination to write intricate diaries for her paper dolls - her sights are set farther from home now. "I hope this book changes the world," she says.
Proclamation for kids
WHEREAS, You are capable of thinking and solving real problems, you should not allow adults (or anyone else) to put you down. Don't pay attention to those who say you can't succeed if you're poor, uneducated or disabled, or because you're a minority, a girl or a child. Don't get trapped by those chilling excuses. WHEREAS, You can make a difference in the world, don't listen to those who insist it's too late to breathe fresh air, control neighborhood gangs, save the rain forests, save the whales, combat drug abuse and create world peace. It's only too late if you stop believing in the future.WHEREAS, You have the right to shape your future, don't wait for someone else to do it for you. Speak up. Speak out. Design a world you want to live in. Don't wait for luck to create it. Luck is just another word for work. The world needs to see your works and hear your voices.NOW THEREFORE, Be it resolved that the Decade of the Nineties shall be proclaimed as The Kid's Decade for Social Action for all kids who believe in themselves, each other and the future. Don't allow life to happen. Make it happen!
- From Barbara Lewis's "Proclamation for Kids"