“Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted. All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions…. All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.”
I’ve been mulling over these words since I heard them last week in President Obama’s farewell address. My undergraduate degree is in social studies education and I am used to teaching about the privilege of citizenship but I don’t know if I’ve really stopped to consider what the responsibility of citizenship looks like. Tomorrow we inaugurate a new president and I won’t deny that I feel some fear about who is stepping into the office. However, I also know that my fear will do nothing to protect the democracy that I value, so I’m asking myself what my role is in accepting the responsibility of citizenship.
The US Citizens and Immigration Services website clearly lays out the rights and responsibilities for new citizens, but what does it look like in my life? The following are the ways that, so far, I’m attempting to carry out my duties.
Responsibilities of Citizenship
- Be well informed Finding information is not a challenge in today’s world, but sifting through the mountains of it (both true and untrue) can be overwhelming. I don’t have a magic bullet for this one but I do think it involves some hard work. For me, it means adding a new podcast that delves into politics or legislation, following reputable sources like NY Times and NPR on social media channels, and most importantly, digging deeper when I don’t understand an issue and not relying on ‘click-bait’ headlines to be my decision-informing news source. More often than not, it’s more complicated than it appears and a big part of my responsibility is to be thoughtful and educated about what is happening.
- Pay attention More than just being informed about the things I think are important or that I personally am affected by, I also need to pay attention to what is happening. Would I rather watch some cute puppy videos than peruse the headlines? Probably, but it’s my responsibility to pay attention, to know what is happening and not get distracted by tweets or sideshows.
- Speak up I know I’ve taken this responsibility of citizenship for granted for a long time. It’s easy to sit back and think my voice doesn’t matter, but if we all continue to ascribe to that belief, we’ll keep moving down the path of least resistance. I just called my senators today. Was it scary? Yes. Did I fumble around a bit? Yup, but I made my voice heard and I know I’m going to have to keep doing it in the days ahead. My own fear is completely unfounded because my elected officials work for me. So the local offices for my representatives and senators are going in my phone and my responsibility as a citizen can be taken care of while I wait in the pick-up line!
- Be kind I know it can feel really good to rant on the internet where everyone is 500% braver than in real life, but I get very tired watching so much effort go into that outlet when I’m not sure it’s helping. Screaming at each other on Facebook doesn’t seem to be changing any minds, so I’m hoping to funnel my knee-jerk reaction to respond towards making another call to my elected officials or supporting an organization that helps a cause close to my heart. When I do end up talking with people who don’t agree with me, I’m going to remind myself of their humanity, which is equal to my humanity, and work to empathize with the feelings that have led them to their opinion.
- Be Brave All of this work is going to require a bravery we’ve had the privilege of ignoring for a while, and I need to be ready to be uncomfortable sometimes. Whether that means making more phone calls or standing up for someone in a powerless position, I can expect that the responsibility of citizenship is going to be messy and awkward because it requires me to step outside myself and be in a larger community of citizens. I can’t run from that just because it would be easier to be quiet, so I’m going to be brave.
- Don’t Give Up Your Voice Here’s the thing about citizenship: you only become powerless if you give up your responsibility. The minute we say we’re victims or that we can’t make a difference is the moment we lose the very essence of our rights. Many leaders have reminded us in the last few weeks that this idea of democratic government is still new, a new way of allowing people to govern themselves, and as soon as we begin to question our ability to do so then we have lost our way. Show your kids and students and friends and neighbors what it looks like to gracefully bear the burden of responsibility even when we’re discouraged or frightened. That is what will allow this radical experiment called democracy to continue.
Resources to help
*Always try the local office first. Those staffers are most interested in local constituent concerns and often it’s easier to reach someone in person. I thought this twitter conversation was so helpful in understanding how staffers handle feedback.
Contact your Senators
Contact your Representatives
I’d love to hear from you about what you’re doing to stay informed and using your voice? What other resources can I add to my list to make sure I’m paying attention? What does the responsibility of citizenship look like for you?