Upon his retirement, the distinguished U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall remarked, "I did what I could with what I had." Although a judge and not an activist, one could not ask more of anyone dedicated to defending religious liberty and democracy.
This month's Activist Profile is a case in point. Cartoonist Ben Brown came by the offices of the Institute for First Amendment Studies because he wanted to help "a good cause." Never before involved in any kind of activism, Brown put his artistic talent to work for Freedom Writer.
Many talents and skills are necessary in the fight to maintain freedom and democracy. If you are willing to donate some time to a local or national group, chances are you have a useful gift.
Volunteer activists need to know the group for which they would offer their services. Pro-choice and women's groups might have different needs than gay rights groups. Some organizations focus more on right wing political groups than on right wing religious groups.
Activist groups have different needs than groups that conduct research, publish, and provide information to the media. The Institute for First Amendment Studies, for instance, depends heavily on volunteer researchers in the field. These are people who attend Religious Right meetings, get themselves on mailing lists, or clip newspaper articles about local Religious Right activities.
Some nonprofit groups actively promote voter registration and turnout. These groups need volunteers to call potential voters. Phone volunteers may also take surveys, promote a group's mission, or conduct fundraising.
Freedom Writer looks for clearly written, well-researched articles, and we are always pleased to receive such articles. Some people are good at research, while others write well, a situation that sometimes leads to collaboration between researchers and writers.
A specialized form of writing is found on the letters to the editor pages of newspapers and magazines. Letters that are concise, factual, poignant, and even humorous, are more likely than others to get published. Placement in national magazines and newspapers, such as Time, or The New York Times, is more difficult than in smaller publications, but not impossible. A number of Freedom Writer subscribers have had letters published in both. And, of course, Freedom Writer publishes letters in every issue.
Poets often have much to offer in the way of defending and promoting First Amendment freedoms. Submissions for publication, and for public readings, are effective ways to communicate their message.
As more and more groups catch up with the computer revolution, volunteers can help with data entry, setting up home pages, or conducting research on the Internet. They can also help install programs, and assist with computer maintenance and computer-related problems as they arise.
Groups that produce newsletters, or that use signs in demonstrations, may appreciate the help of designers and artists. Artists and illustrators, such as Ben Brown, can also provide art, cartoons, and special illustrations for newsletters or flyers.
During the 1960s, music was central to protests against the war in Vietnam, and to support for the civil rights movement. "Protest music" is almost absent today, but musicians, songwriters, and singers could apply their talents in exposing the agenda of religious political extremists.
The same is true for dance, playwriting, producing, and acting. A "First Amendment Theater" could consist of young people writing and producing plays based upon U.S. Supreme Court cases involving First Amendment issues. These plays could be presented in public schools or in local community theaters. It may be possible to obtain funding for such a project from the National Endowment for the Arts or your local arts agency.
Anyone who has ever listened to talk radio has heard a few gifted people articulately expressing their views. These people are really noticed because many of the callers offer such weak presentations. If you know the issues, and like to speak about them, talk radio may be for you. If you're really prepared, you might consider offering yourself as a speaker to local civic clubs, churches, temples, or synagogues.
There are many good opportunities for volunteers. All you have to do is decide what you like to do and what you do well, then look around for a group that is doing work you consider meaningful. Do what you can with what you have!