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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Origins of Activism

One of our authors, Anne Witte Garland, has just finished the manuscript for a book entitled “Women Activists: Challenging the Abuse of Power”. In this volume are biographies of women who came out of their homes to become civic leaders taking on coal barons, nuclear power plants, auto companies and other weighty opponents. Returning from one of her trips interviewing these Americans, Garland told us she had never seen happier people. Notwithstanding all the controversy, pressure, ostracism and antagonisms, these women were living their sense of justice and taking charge.

What makes some people into active citizens taking on great odds and persisting? One cluster of reasons revolves around receiving what is due. The Vietnam veterans crusading on agent orange and other defoliants, which they claim have given them diseases years later, are determined to receive adequate compensation for their sickness and expenses. The retired workers from the LTV steel company who want to retain the full value of their pensions are demonstrating and lobbying their members of Congress.

Another source of motivation comes from victims or their relatives who organize to drive for change or reform so that others in the future are not harmed in a similar way. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was launched and enlarged by mothers of children killed by drunk driving. Stronger laws and sanctions have resulted.

Two women who had close calls driving their Audi 5000, which has a propensity to lurch forward suddenly, began a national association of Audi 5000 owners to pressure the Department of Transportation to order the recall of these cars for engineering correction. The Workplace Safety Institute was started two years ago by the brother of a construction worker who was fatally injured due to unsafe construction work practices.

A third origin for activism is the perceived peril to home and community from polluters. GASP was started in Pittsburgh over fifteen years ago to combat the serious defilers of the air. Mary Sinclair took on the builders of a nuclear power plant in Midland, Michiganand prevailed against staggering odds with the help of vast cost over-runs by the utility company. A returning mother to a town on Lake Superior noted the murky water where she once played as a child and prodded the later discovery of asbestos contamination.

A fourth reservoir for vigorous citizenship is the desire to be treated with dignity. From the struggle against slavery and for civil rights, from the push for women’s right to vote and fair labor standards, this impulse has been a major cause for mobilization.

Why don’t other citizens become active in the face of their complaints about situations gone wrong? Some want to, but do not know how. They need guidance and training. Others are so preoccupied with their own personal problems that they have no time nor tempera­ment to engage the outside world. Still others fear retaliation or retribution from the powers they challenge even if they are successful. Then there are those who go through life saying they do not try because it is no use — one cannot fight city hall. These people despair before they dare. Finally, some people have no idea of what civic duties are even in theory; it never occurs to them that they have another life to live apart from their own self-concerns, pains and pleasure.

For these disengaged persons, more contact with activists and their experiences can do wonders. Just joining an environmental neigh­borhood or civic betterment association can do wonders to open up the blessings of liberty as applied against injustice and inaction. Learning what others have achieved now and in our history is a good way to stimulate more of the same.

Were citizen training courses to develop in high schools, community and four year colleges, the younger generation could study how knowledge is linked to civic action and how such involvement can lead to greater personal as well as society’s happiness.