How to Change the World, According to the Kids
helping children find their voices through writing letters for change
One of the ways I feel our culture doesn’t do right by kids is that they learn about problems in the world, but aren’t allowed agency to fix those problems. That sense of powerlessness and rolelessness breeds apathy and self-destruction and pretty much every other annoying teenage trait (except maybe the “I know,” stage).
Writing can be a way kids feel the power of their own voices. This happens through so many kinds of writing, especially when kids have good listeners to show their writing to. But I like to use writing to help kids directly speak up for the world they love and the future they deserve.
We do this by writing letters about things we’d like to see change in the world, and mailing them to people who we believe might be in a position to effect that change.
And kids have such a great vision for the world! This year my students wrote letters about many, many things, including:
electric cars and charging stations and non-car transportation, including horses
curbside composting in Minnesota
taking good care of small pets and abolishing puppy mills
stopping whale and dolphin-damaging Navy sonar tests in Puget Sound
having a better response to bullying at a former school
making girls pants in tall sizes — and with decent pockets
diversifying imaging at Joann’s Fabrics because boys and men craft and sew too
gender neutral bathrooms in British Columbia
inventing a machine that eats COVID the way an anteater sucks up ants
asking Coca-Cola to stop making plastic bottles that are one of the top sources for plastic in the ocean
asking sewage treatment plants to stop spewing dead-zone-creating nitrogen into Puget Sound
How to write a letter for change:
Brainstorm about things you’d like to see change in the world. What are some things that make you sad or angry? What do you care about? Do you have any good ideas for how something could be better? This project tends to be the most satisfying for kids who choose things that really matter to them, as opposed to cool ideas for new products. But whatever you want to write about is great — it’s your letter.
Pick a problem.
Think of someone who would be in a position to do something about that problem. They might be an elected official, customer service folks at a company, or your neighbors. When in doubt, write to the president.
Write a rough draft. In your letter, say what the problem is, who you are and why you care, and what you want them to do about it.
Revise your letter. Make sure it is clear, that you actually ask its recipient to do something, and that everything is spelled and punctuated correctly. And is legible.
Address your letter. If you can send a handwritten letter to a snail mail address, that’s the best. But sometimes you have to put it into a consumer response form, or have your parents post it on social media — do whatever you have to do.
Ripples and results:
When we look big problems in the face, I think it’s always important to do so with a sense of hope and community. I want kids to know that many, many people are working hard to care for the world, and that their letters are one drop of water on one side of a scale. We usually talk about how our elected officials tally feedback from their constituents. We talk about ripples and unforeseen effects.
One way my students’ letters have had an effect is in educating me and each other. After hearing their classmate’s letter about the garbage patch, my class started picking up every piece of plastic we see at the river. It’s just one spot on one river going into one ocean, but put the other way, no plastic was going to get into the garbage patch from our part of the river!
We also sometimes get responses. One student’s letter about homelessness in his community was put up on his city’s website. One student who wrote to a lab at MIT about fuel emissions got a whole package of MIT swag and a book about climate change. One student got a personal letter back from Governor Inslee. Another, after writing to the Seattle City Council about making a law about equal wages for men and women got back a multi-page letter explaining labor unions.
The ripples go inward as well, strengthening the children’s voices and their sense of power and connection in the world. And that’s a change I like to see in the world.