When he was 12 years old, Paul Rogat Loeb remembers debating about Vietnam at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School in Los Angeles. His argument went something like this: "If we don't stop them today, they'll be on the beaches of California tomorrow."
As passionately as he argued that day, he came, later, to strongly oppose the war. That debate began a life of activism that has spawned books and speaking on the lecture circuit.
Loeb, who will appear in Buffalo Thursday and Friday, said his message is aimed at two groups.
"It's for people who feel demoralized by the political climate, by the sense that things are rolling backward," he said, in a phone interview from his home in Seattle. "And that can mean someone who's been working for 30 years or a student who got involved last year by knocking on doors.
"The second group, probably the larger group, wonder if actions matter. They are kind of assimilating the story put forth by the culture not to even bother."
Loeb's latest book, "The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear" (Basic Books, 2004) has been named the No. 3 political book of last fall by the History Channel and the American Book Association.
In it, Loeb has pulled together essays of powerful voices including Nelson Mandala, Desmond Tutu, Henri Nouwen, Howard Zinn, Vaclav Havel, Jonathon Kozol, Mary Catherine Bateson. His intention, Loeb said, was to remind others that they are part of "a community of like-minded souls stretching across the globe and extending backward and forward in time."
"These are the people who kept me going," said Loeb, who is 52.
Just as his previous book "Soul of a Citizen" did, this book is used as a discussion starter on college campuses, he said.
His primary intent, Loeb said, is to encourage action to change systems and policies, adding that "no person, no movement, no organized group can know when it will effect change."
"I think I say this without being Pollyanish," Loeb said. "I don't say that I know that things are going to turn out wonderfully. If I'm going to be honest, I've never been more scared than with the current administration. I look there and think that things may not turn out so well. The only thing we do know is that how things turn out is contingent on what we do and what everybody else does.
"It's not to say that we can all be a Nelson Mandela, few are, but if a lot of people do small things to address global issues by working together consciously, that's how change occurs."
As an example, Loeb cites Rosa Parks, who is typically portrayed as having stepped on a bus one day and changed the course of the civil rights movement.
What Loeb points out is that Parks' action didn't spring from that isolated moment, but grew out of her 12-year involvement with the NAACP, which her husband, Raymond, encouraged her to join.
"I don't know who got Raymond involved, some anonymous person," Loeb said. "But then, a dozen years later something happened that was of global importance.
"It was as humble a start as that. We've only seen her on the grand historical stage, but before that she did very ordinary things. She worked with others, trying to act and to create change. That might inspire us to think that we could go to a meeting, we could try to figure out how to make something happen."
It was only while he was writing his most recent book, Loeb said, that he came to realize that while typically activism groups have an immediate goal, whether it's working in a political campaign, stopping a war, saving a community center.
"But I came to realize that the work also broadens the stream of those involved, so that even if you lose the first goal, you can build a base that could pay off in the future."
Most often, Loeb said, he believes that people don't act because they feel powerless.
"Why should you break your heart by paying attention to what goes on?" he said. "So they shut down and stop paying attention. That's along with this sense of isolation, the internet aside, that leaves them feeling they don't know where to begin. But, in most cities, Buffalo included, there are lots of groups doing good work and with a little energy, it's not hard to find out where they are.
"We need ordinary citizens to exercise courage in talking about what needs to be changed and not being intimidated. Being a patriot is asking the hardest questions in the hardest possible times."
Paul Rogat Loeb's appearances, all free:
"The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Hope in a Time of Fear," 7:30 p.m. Thursday, the Social Room of Daemen College, 4380 Main Street, Amherst.
"Teaching for Engagement," a workshop for educators, but open to the public, 9:30 a.m. Friday, Heritage Room of Clet Hall at Niagara University, Lewiston.
"Teaching For Involvement," a workshop for educators, but open to the public, 2 p.m. Friday, Old Main, Room 203, Canisius College.