September 2017

“I want American high school students to know America has been a long, bloody, difficult attempt to conform to the principles on which the country was founded. We have these notions of freedom, equality, the right to pursue happiness. But when we started out, there were a lot of holes; people could own people. We fought, and are still fighting, to live by those founding principles.”

Colin, Graduate Student, Bowling Green, Ohio

A Quiz

A quick quiz: Can you name your U.S. Senators? And your U.S. house representative? What about your state senator? And your local school board chief and mayor? If that were a civics test, I’d fail. In fact, if I gave myself two chances to take the test, in both Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, I’d get 2/6 both times.

Knowing Our Representatives:

I highlight these questions and my failure to answer them to suggest a simple way we could all improve as political actors. We should all know who represents us. When I asked Maggie and Lisa, who both work in foreign policy, three things all Americans need to know about their country, they immediately mentioned that we needed to know all of our representatives. There’s a lot of ways we can achieve this goal. We could vote in every election, local, state, and federal. We could keep up to date on local news, not just national headlines. Or we could be active, and contact our representatives when we identify a problem.

Why our representatives matter:

But, as simple as it sounds, knowing who represents us – our values, our ideas, our wants, our needs – at every level, on as many issues as possible, is so crucial. For me, the issue I care most about is educational equity. If I wanted to act through our political system, I would need to know the Superintendent in Lower Merion or Philadelphia. I know neither. In other words, I talk a big game, but I don’t have the basic information I need to try to convince public servants to change their mind.

A lot of us are in this boat. I would bet most people reading this post would get a 66% or worse on the quiz I gave above; a Benson Strategy Group poll found that 77% of people don’t know their state senators. We can name the famous politicians, the people who anger and excite us. But much of our lives is decided by other public servants. Local representatives who have lived in their communities, ran with small budgets, and won on tight margins decide most policies and dictate community responses to problems.

If my first suggestion was to engage others directly in your community, my next is to know who you need to engage to create systematic change, big or small. If we don’t know who represents us, we can’t hold them accountable. We can’t influence the system. And we can’t speak in an informed way about our communities. Sometimes, the simplest civic tests are the most important ones.

Looking for your elected officials? Common Cause allows you to find every elected official who your community played a part in electing!


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Kate and James are AmeriCorps volunteers working in Pittsburgh. They expressed cynicism about our country, where it is, and where it’s going. Their thoughtful critiques gave me a lot to think about.

On why they aren’t great citizens:

James: My definition of what a good citizen is constantly changing. I think that I’m a good enough citizen, but I have room to improve. I think being a citizen has certain responsibilities. Being educated on things we care about is one of those, and I’ve done a reasonable enough job educating myself on heath care, inequality, inequity, and education. That’s why I am a good enough citizen. I could improve by acting on that knowledge. I vote, I talk to my friends. But I don’t break out of my circle. I don’t talk to people who are different than I am or have different opinions than I do as much I think a really good citizen should.

Kate: I have a very simple definition. Are you a good person? Do you respect those around you, even if and when they disagree? And I also think (being a good citizens requires you) to educate yourself on issues so that when you have debates with people who disagree you can engage thoughtfully. I often am respectful, and I’m informed about a lot of topics. I also serve those most in need (through AmeriCorps). But, I’m also not a great citizen, either. I kind of want to run away from the problems our country is facing. I know a great citizen would look at all the problems we have and ask, “Okay, what can we do to be united? To make our country better? Part of me wants to runaway to Denmark, though, and just live in their socialist, collective society. But this year, by serving in AmeriCorps, I am getting better.

James also thinks his cynicism holds him back:

I am very cynical, about America and the American dream. I’m idealistic in some ways, because I do think there are good and important reasons for why we should do things like AmeriCorps, and the same with taking on debt for medical school. But I’m cynical about where we are today, and how we got here. Skepticism and questioning are a critical part of being a citizen, but I think I’m a bit too cynical.

On the source of his cynicism:

I look at Citizens United, and private donors funneling millions of dollars to bypass the individual limit of donations. The ability of PACs to do what and give to whom they want worries me. I look at the impact of lobbyists and their ability to do what they want. I then see the result, which is policies that the PACs and lobbyists want. It’s very demoralizing. Everyone’s vote counts, but some people’s vote counts more than others.

Kate hopes that they’ll be able to be better citizens as they get older:

I think we’re in a place of privilege as citizens, but it can be hard to do something with it now. I think we can use that to help transform the system once we become doctors, by helping improve how we educate doctors and how we are selecting them. In the future, we want to get into local politics, and try to help with issues such as health. We’re working to get there later so that we can help.

She also knows someone who is the exact type of citizen she wants to be:

A mentor of mine, Jess, who went to undergrad with me. When she was in college, she was sexually assaulted. She turned that pain and struggle into action. She’s working on the Hill in D.C. to try to end rape on campus. She’s working with college presidents and leaders from across the country to engage with this initiative and inform students about the different issues relating to sexual assault on college campuses. Jess is making real change. That to me is an amazing woman I want to be like, and an amazing citizen. She took a major, prevalent issue that is overshadowed by a lot of things, and she’s acting to help address it.

On their respective keys to good citizenship:

Kate: Every citizen should do a year of service. I think that would be very beneficial. We’ve only been in this AmeriCorps position only two weeks, and I feel like I’ve already grown a ton. I’ve seen a side of America I’ve never seen before. Having traveled the world and been sheltered in a bubble, I never realized the disparities that exist elsewhere also exist here. I overlooked that because it’s the United States. Most people would benefit from that exposure.

James: Humility. Being humble in knowing that you might not have all the answers and that other people might have some legitimacy to their viewpoints and life experiences. I think that sort of humility fosters a willingness to reach out and branch out. You can’t just have the information and act on it; you also need to be humble about where you get that information from. Everyone has to be able to say, “Maybe this source (whether a friend or media) doesn’t know everything, and I should talk to other people or read other things.”

Their thoughts on citizenship and the political divide:

Kate: I feel like I have to say yes, because my grandparents voted for the opposite candidate that I did. And I think they’re great citizens. When we talk about the main criteria, they’re respectful and well-informed, and they often can and do act on that. They just have a different perspective than I do. And even most people who voted differently than I did would probably say I’m a good citizen, mainly because of my commitment to service. But I still fear that they would judge my political leanings.

James: I think that people who vote differently than I do would say I’m a good citizen, too, because of my doing AmeriCorps and my commitment to becoming a physician. But they might think my views on health care aren’t those of a good citizen.

I admire people who voted differently than I did for their organization, their passion, their willingness to act on information. But where I start to question whether Trump voters are as good of citizens as they could be is when I think about their humility. I think there was a lack of willingness to question what their candidate said and where their and his information came from. I do think that, in general, Trump voters prioritized the experience of white, blue-collar man over everyone else’s, which, by definition, isn’t humble.

They both are skeptical about the values they see as fundamentally American:

Kate: I think the average American person is individualistic. You realize that when you live abroad. We’re more focused on ourselves and our families. We’re also very capitalistic and profit-driven.

James: There’s a really big focus on work as a focus of identity and personal worth. We don’t have many things to balance work culture. In the United States, the individualism – if you work hard as an individual, reap these benefits – makes us focus on our work. Your success is because of your genius and work ethic. Your failure is because of your moral shortcomings. I just think that that’s not sustainable or good.

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“We, as the voters and people, we need to get the politicians who are doing the wrong things (making back deals, taking money) out of office, and keep them out. We can’t keep voting for these senators over and over again and keep wondering why nothing is changing. We have to initiate change if we want change to happen.”

Jessica, Nanny




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I was lucky enough to sit down briefly with Dan Tobin, the Communications Director for the Red Cross of Western Pennsylvania. Our interview was different in nature than my others, but it ultimately came down to one theme: our need to serve and help each other. I hope it’ll inspire people to go out and serve, whether with the Red Cross or elsewhere.

On the impact of volunteers at the Red Cross:

We are about giving back to the communities. We’re a 90% volunteer organization. We have 40 employees, and 2,000 volunteers. We have forty volunteers (from Pittsburgh) in Houston right now.

One volunteer in particular exemplifies service and citizenship:

One of our employees in Houston, Sandy, is incredible. In May, we had a high rise fire in downtown Pittsburgh for three days. In July, we had a train derailment in Bedford country. She helped us there. And now, she’s running one of our shelters in Texas. It goes to show how dedicated people are.

Why service and charity are so important:

Service and charity are important regardless of whether you’re an American. You should want to give back to people in need. If something happened in your life, you’d want someone to be to help. So, we’re there for people when they need it.

On why service is a politically neutral act:

Disaster situations don’t discriminate on the basis of who you are, what you are, or what you have. There are no boundaries to who’s affected. Disaster hits, and we all need to help. One of the reasons we’re successful is we’re neutral. We don’t take (political) sides.

How we can all get involved:

You have to find what your passion is. Here, you can be a front line person, going to people’s houses in the middle of the night during a fire. You can run a shelter. You can be backstage. You can help with accounting. You can help me with communications; I have a team who does that. We have folks who help with our military programs (our service to the armed forces).

There’s something there (for everyone). The key is to find something in your community you can help with, and go for it.

Why right now (in the wake of Hurricane Harvey) shows Americans at their best:

I think when you regardless of how polarized people can be, when you at look like Hurricane Harvey, you see how we all come together. You see how we come together for the greater good to help people. My hope is that Americans can do that all the time.

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The Roads I Knew:

When I first started driving, I feared Route 30 and I-76 more than any other roads. Route 30 is called Lancaster Avenue in Southeastern Pennsylvania. To get to any doctor’s appointment or dinner place, I would have to weave through its infinite lights and avoid its impatient suburban drivers. I-76, on the other hand, connected my hometown to downtown Philadelphia. Forever busy, it never felt like much of a highway.

Growing up, these roads both symbolized my sheltered suburban life and the path to leave the bubble, if only briefly. On my journey from Mercersburg to Pittsburgh, I traveled Route 30 and I-76 again. The places and paths they took me to and on, though, were quite different.

Continue reading Same Roads, New Places

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Dolly is a retired waitress from Baltimore who currently lives in Pittsburgh. Although I normally don’t (and won’t) share my interviewees’ political leanings, I am doing so for two reasons in this case. First, Dolly was very open and enthusiastic about her candidate: Donald Trump. Second, I think much of what she says runs contrary to the image of Trump voters in left-leaning media. I hope you’ll enjoy reading the interview as much as I enjoyed doing it.

On why she’s a good citizen:

I support the Blue Line (her neighborhood). I support immigration and immigrants, so long as they follow the law. I am very patriotic, too; my son served in the military for nine years. My whole family has been in the military, and in general, I think the most important things are god, country, and family.

Her best moment of citizenship is right now:

I am putting together a music benefit right now for Hurricane Harvey. We have fourteen bands and PR people to get the news station. It’s going to be huge. We came up with this, just me and my two friends. Continue reading “We All Bleed Red”

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Darla is a life-time resident of Mercersburg, PA. As I was wandering around yesterday, I had a chance to speak with her about respect, generational differences, and why political judgement goes both ways.

On why she’s a good citizen:

I try to treat people with respect and dignity, regardless of who people are, where they’re from, their race, or how much money they have. We’re all here for the same thing, and I’m going to treat you the way that I want to be treated.

Why she feels like the biggest citizenship gap is across generations:

The older generation in Mercersburg are good citizens. But I think there’s a generational gap. The younger generation, though, seems more entitled. There’s a lot of focus on instant gratification. It’s really hard to see kids not working hard, not going to work when they’re supposed to. Maybe it’s social media. But they just don’t know how to go out and socialize with people, which really constricts them (as citizens). Continue reading A Generational and Political Divide?

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If the word that people most associate with America so far is freedom, then the word they talk about most when discussing citizenship is respect. In our discussion, Idil said that ultimately, “Everything comes down to respect” in public life. Amber talked about the idea in a different way. She noted that it seems like it’s “trendy” today to be rude to others, and this trend is a problem. Finally, in Mercersburg, Darla said she was a good citizen because she “treats people with respect and dignity” regardless of their background.

Civic Life:

But just like freedom has operated on two levels in my conversations, respect has had several meanings, too. The first type of respect is a set of actions within the community. In this definition, People abide by the laws and don’t harm the community. They pay their taxes, don’t speed, and go to jury duty. These acts aren’t out of service for people like Tom from St. Paul and Tess from D.C. They perform them because they see it as a basic duty – as the “right thing” for our country and their communities. I think this mentality could be called “civic respect.”

Continue reading The Many Levels of Respect

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Washington’s Stories:

In two hours, I’ll leave Washington, D.C., and leave for my next stop: Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. The last few days have been exciting, informative, and intimidating. I had twenty-two amazing interviews, and got practice with people not wanting to speak with me. An Army officer told me about the importance of democratic values and our belief. I spoke with two members of the U.S. State Department, too, about how others perceive us. I heard about the tensions that come with being a Muslim and being an American from Idil.

Just as interestingly, I spoke with many people who don’t live their life around governments. I talked with D.J., an immigrant who believes we can all work together to build one America, and with Amber, who thinks we need to stop thinking bad citizenship is fashionable. If nothing else, I feel more confident now that my work is worth doing. I am more confident now than five days ago that our citizens’ stories are worth telling.

Its Silences:

But the last few days weren’t only about people’s stories. I watched a video in the U.S. Capitol about how out of many people and beliefs, we are one (E Pluribus Unum). And I walked around the National Mall, looking at the statues and buildings that honor our founders and values. Yesterday, I also was able to attend the National Book Fair and think about the books that make us Americans. While there, I sat in on a panel about immigration literature and thought about the balance between assimilating and preserving one’s previous culture.

These moments when I wasn’t interviewing people provided me space to think about my work and our country. I think, more than anything, my time in Washington showed me that there are many ways to be an American. Likewise, there are a lot of types of good citizens. Now, my work is to figure out the exact ways we can be good citizens, and the key things all Americans share. I’m scared to leave a city I know for parts of the country I’ve never been to. But I know what I will find in new places is even more important than what I found in familiar ones.

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