Taking the law to the streets

Students in Washington, D.C., USA, learn basic legal concepts from the Street Law curriculum.

Students in Washington, D.C., USA, learn basic legal concepts from the Street Law curriculum.

By Divya Wodon and Naina Wodon, Interact Club of Washington International School, and Quentin Wodon, Rotary Club of Washington, Washington D.C., USA.

Why do you teach the children to jump up at our throat? This question was once asked by an unhappy South African high school principal to Ed O’Brien, a long-time member of the Rotary Club of Washington, D.C., USA, and founder of Street Law, a nonprofit that strives to teach individuals and communities, especially in underserved areas, about the law.

In forty years, Street Law has grown from a pilot program to a recognized institution active throughout the U.S. and 40 other countries. As the South Africa quote illustrates, the road has not always been easy, but it has been successful and rewarding.

O’Brien founded Street Law in 1972 when he was awarded a Robert F. Kennedy fellowship which helped him launch the organization. Together with other Georgetown University Law students, he developed an experimental curriculum to teach high school students in D.C. about the law. Having been a law student and a high school teacher, Ed knew young people needed to know about the law, but didn’t know as much as they should. The curriculum Ed and his friends developed was very practical, so it was called “Street Law.”

Over the years, materials were developed, including on crime prevention, conflict resolution, youth advocacy, and democracy. Today the program focuses on training others to become effective “Street Law” educators. The organization’s flagship textbook, Street Law: A Course in Practical Law, is in its eighth edition, and hundreds of “lessons” have been developed which can be used by teachers, principals, and school administrators, as well as lawyers, law students, and the legal community.

Street Law also works with NGOs to reach and educate underserved populations, such as pregnant and parenting teens, youth emerging from foster care, and those in the juvenile justice system. Law enforcement officers are also a key partner.

Ed retired as executive director of Street Law, Inc. in November 2008, but he still serves as honorary member of the board of directors and executive director emeritus. When asked a few months ago what the most rewarding part of his experience has been, he responded “the satisfaction that something that you have started was liked and used by people all over the world.” As Ed put it, “the law should belong to the people, not the lawyers.”

Read more accounts of exemplary Rotary members using their vocations for good in the book “Membership in Service Clubs: Rotary’s Experience,”published in April 2014 by Palgrave Macmillan. For more information on our research into Rotary activities and what makes clubs work, or for advice on how to conduct similar research in your district, contact us at wqtjj@yahoo.com.

3 thoughts on “Taking the law to the streets

  1. Pingback: Today’s Links | Rotary International District 3040

  2. Pingback: Taking the law to the streets | Warsaw Rotary , Club 3393, District 6540

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