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How to use 'people power' in grass-roots America

How can more Americans get into the vigorous countercurrent that is moving against the let-government-or-someone-else-to-it tendency in the United States? Individuals, neighborhoods, and communities are taking new responsibility for meeting needs, solving problems, making improvements where they are. New resources are becoming available to them.

This may be no news to readers of this newspaper, which has documented the decentralized self-self effort in articles and series -- and which continuingly seeks to serve its participants with features on the necessary facts and skills. But we now have another occasion for reminding people of their potentialities for enhacing their lives and communities through wise decisions as individual consumers and informed activity as members of groups.

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Don't be put off by a mouthful like National Consumer Education Week. This week has been proclaimed as such by the President. It's intent is simply to draw attention to the need for helping school students and adults to learn more about how to use the marketplace intelligently and how to seek redress if taken advantage of.

Those who are not within reach of one of the workshops or meetings can receive information by writing to Consumer Information Catalog, Pueblo, Colo. 81009. Also on hand is Consumer Resource Handbook, obtained by writing Handbook , Dept. 635-H, at the same address.

For those who want to go beyond the consumer role and start constructive community activities, there is a hefty volume called "People Power," available free at Consumer Information Center, Dept. 682-H, again at the Pueblo address. This book has also been sent to public libraries around the country since its publication in the summer. It is subtitled "What Communities Are Doing to Counter Inflation" and has received some criticism on such grounds as that national, not community, solutions are required to fight inflation. But the projects described -- in the categories of food, housing, energy, and health -- are not simply fighting inflation, and they are intended to offer local not national solutions.

Some of these grass-roots projects may be recognized by readers of the Monitor. The book places them in the context of a wide array of information, including facts on where to obtain the kind of federal and other resources intended to help projects get launched but not to underwrite them indefinitely.

From the book and form background discussion on it, there emerge some clues as to what can make projects succeed or fail. One group, for example, seemed off to a good start with a plan for helping people install insulation at low cost. Then it dwindled. The analysis was that it should have diversified, perhaps to provide home repairs as well as insulation. Food cooperatives can fade when their members fail to realize that the system will not work unless they give sufficient volunteer work at the store to offset the costs they are trying to save. In hingsight, leaders of a project for bringing solar energy to small farms realized that delay was caused by participants' lack of knowledge of the necessary technology as well as farmer skepticism. Later they had insufficient staff to handle requests for information as some success was achieved.

And "People Power" is primarily a record of projects that have succeeded -- through commitment, hard work, organization, media support, gaining community approval before plunging ahead. A farmers' market in New York expanded from one location in 1976 to eight in 1979. A gardening group spurred a prison garden in Vermont that has come to yield $15,000 worth of fresh produce a year. A Detroit group provides home repairs for the elderly -- using the skills of the elderly -- and has risen from an average of 105 jobs a month in 1975 to 600 last year. A Portland, Ore., power company last year helped 4,000 homes take energy-saving steps such as insulation with no cost to homeowners unless they sell their homes -- at which time they pay the cost without interest. A Louisville company facilitated vanpooling for its employees; one pool saved 5,600 gallons of gasoline last year, with a total gasoline cost of $996 where the individual passengers would have spent $5.549 in their own cars.

It may seem like here a little, there a little. But it does add up. Our hope and trust is that the more people see what can be done the more they will do what they can.

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