Letters for Change

Writing is at its essence communication. However, unlike much communication, writing can cross barriers of time and space and society. Most of us will never sit down for a chat with the president, but we can send him a letter, which will be read (at least by someone), and added to the tally of opinions, and if it escapes the recycling bin that letter might still be read in 100 years. This is powerful stuff. It can be a little heady, especially when people just realize it. I can express my opinions to people who can do something about them. I can make my voice heard.

I like to cultivate this in my students. They have beautiful, passionate opinions about the world, and learning that they can communicate them feels like a counterpoint to potential apathy. Weighing in with opinions is the essential act of democracy, after all. Speaking up is also a way to keep compassion from turning into cynicism.

I ask my students, “What would you like to see change in the world? What do you love? What makes you angry? What do you think could be done better?” We talk about what happens when you send a letter to government representatives and newspapers and companies. We talk about how opinions get tallied. We talk about various children’s letters that have had impacts, from the girl in British Columbia whose letter helped save some woods she loved, to the boy who was instrumental in the dolphin-safe tuna campaign. I tell them about how I wrote to the ice cream store when I was nine, asking them to install a water fountain (they put out a water jug), and how I wrote to Hanna Anderson telling them to show girls running and playing in their catalog instead of standing around being cute (they apologized profusely and changed their photos for a year or two).

Then I set the kids loose. I don’t push my ideas of what should change on them (I can write my own letters), though I sometimes help them focus on specifics. For instance, a number of children were interested in writing about protecting forests and animals this year, which is too general for anyone to do anything about, so I told them about a particular old growth timber sale that has been in the news lately. Our poor commissioner of public lands got his desk flooded. Children wrote about everything from ending war to changing Smarties candy to make it unsnortable.

When they know what they want to write about, I help them figure out who the letter should go to: the person who can make the changes they want to see made. A company? The governor? Their sister? If it is something we can all do, we send it to the newspaper. If we can’t figure it out, we usually just send it to the president.

We practice addressing envelopes neatly. Sometimes this is the first physical letter my students have ever sent. Then we put them in the mailbox and hope for a reply.

I have done this project for several years now, and every year I am struck by the deep compassion and passion these young people have for the world. Anyone who doubts that young people care about anything besides themselves should read these letters. Better yet, they should answer to the challenges set in them. Our world would be a better place.

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