Why do you teach the children to jump up at our throat?

by Divya Wodon, Naina Wodon, and Quentin Wodon

“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, DC and the founder of Street Law, a nonprofit that strives to teach individuals and communities, especially in underserved area, about the law. In forty years, Street Law has grown from a pilot program to a recognized institution active throughout the US and in 40 other countries. As the South Africa quote illustrates, the road has not always been easy, but it has been successful and rewarding.

Street law

Ed 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 the District of Columbia about the law. Having been a law student and a high school teachers Ed knew that while young people needed to know about the law, they did not. Because the curriculum Ed and his friends developed was very practical curriculum, 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 today as honorary member of the board of directors and executive director emeritus. When asked what was most rewarding about his experience, he responded that it was “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.”

Note: This story is reproduced with minor changes from a book published by the authors entitled Membership in Service Clubs: Rotary’s Experience (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

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