November 2017

After eleven weeks on the road, 191 interviews, and twenty-five states, I returned home Tuesday evening. Opening the gate to my house, seeing my dog, and eating homemade food were much-needed. Peanut butter sandwiches and spending every night alone are not the most enjoyable combination!

Although I was exhausted by the end, this trip was eye-opening and inspiring. I met people of all walks of life, of all creeds, of all races and ethnicities, and of all political leanings. I saw the country, from the Great Lakes to the Rockies, from the heart of downtown Detroit to the back roads of Maurepas, Louisiana.

Our country faces many challenges ahead, but I am heartened to hear that most people are aware of them and want to face them. People know polarization is a problem. They know we’ve stopped listening. Most people I spoke with acknowledge that racism is a long and powerful truth in this country, a road block to much of our progress and something that we must address.

There were, of course, disagreements. Some want stronger borders while others welcome immigrants with open arms. Many Republicans feel that Democrats don’t respect President Trump the way a President should be respected. Many Democrats feel that started with the way Republicans talked about Barack Obama.

But ultimately, most people I talked with want to be good citizens, and believe that political party says nothing about citizenship.

I realize, though, that despite that we might say that, we don’t act on it. We don’t seek out difference and disagreement. We shout at each other and at our TV screens. We ignore news that upsets us and revel in headlines that affirm our opinions.

We can’t keep doing these things and except these problems to get better. If we want to genuinely be good citizens – not just say we are – we have to step outside of our comfort zones, read new newspapers and watch new TV channels. We need to get to know our neighbors, even if they look different from us, talk different from us, and believe different things than we do. We need to help the needy, regardless of whether we think it’s the government’s job to.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be publishing some interviews from the trip as well as some other thoughts. I’d love to hear any ideas people have about the things they’ve read here or elsewhere. For now, though, I’m going to enjoy being home!

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Melvin Priester Jr. is an attorney in Jackson, MS, and serves as a city council representative. Having gone to college in the Northeast, he felt he needed to move back to his hometown to help it. Our conversation covered the challenges facing Jackson and the ways all citizens can address issues nationwide.

What he’s done to contribute:

I have chosen to volunteer a lot of my time and energies to work in government as a city councilman. I spend a lot of time trying to build community. I had a choice to live anywhere in the world, but I chose to live in Mississippi. If we want to strengthen the country, not every liberal person can run to the coasts. I’ve scarficied and worked to make the community better. It’s the small ways that add up.

On living in a “blue dot”:

Jackson always been a little blue dot. It’s really rewarding. It’s harder than being somewhere like San Francisco or New York because people don’t share your same views. But it’s really rewarding when you find people who are fighting the good fight. It’s also really fulfilling because I can see change happening. Things that got done in California or New York are only beginning to happen here. But you’re beginning to see positive change. That’s what is so frightening to me about the current president. I feel like he’s pushing this current divisiveness that we were getting passed in America.

Gender and race in Jackson:

Jackson is 80% African-American in a state that is only 30% African-American. While race is important in the relationship with the state governments, the real issues are classicism, religion, and sexism. We’re so focused on racism and religion, but we just miss the sexism. There’s still a lot of hesitance to having women in charge in professional and political circles. There’s a real shortage of women in positions of power in Mississippi, and that leads us to not advance. That leads us to the assumption that women will take the back seat. It accelerates our brain drain. Places thrive when women thrive, and I don’t think women have been given the full opportunity to succeed here.

He knows some great citizens:

My mother and wife are exemplary citizens. They vote in every election. They help their neighborhood and communities.

The folks that I really think are exemplary citizens are people like Ms. Francis Morris and Dr. Drake, who run neighborhood organizations. They make sure before any one even builds a dog house that it’s good for the whole community. Robert Putnam talks about how these institutions that bring us together are fading away. The people I point to who are really great citizens build neighborhood organizations and block clubs that create block-by-block cohesiveness.

Take Porter Ross. He runs a neighborhood organization in Berwood. It’s not a rich neighborhood. Every month, I as a city councilman and other city leaders are there every month at the Azalea Lane Berwood meeting. Because Mr. Ross makes sure people are there! These people are the ideal citizens, and they’re a throwback.

His thoughts on political division:

The way you phrase the question can create opposite answers, so I don’t trust polling. But I do think that there are more and more people who would say that people of the opposite political party are bad citizens.

There are policies that can make someone a bad citizen. Any policy that tries to prevent someone else other than yourself from fully participating in the democratic process. Things that hurt people’s ability to vote. Things that limit a women’s access to birth control is not good citizenship because it limits her autonomy.

What it means to be an American:

Being an American means sharing certain beliefs, such as a belief in the rights enshrined in the Constitution. There’s not one American mindset. But I do think Americans – even at their worst – have a very optimistic world view. I believe that being an American means you believe in freedom or liberty, even if you disagree with other people’s use of them. There’s a certain pride we have. And rightfully so. No matter what our problems are, I would not want to be a citizen of any other country. I’m proud of and love America, and I think most people feel that way, even when they’re protesting.

His advice to young people who want to get involved:

Vote! Always vote. Even if it’s for the dog catch or the country prosecutor! Never miss an election. The next state and national leader gets their start in those elections.

Get involved in local politics. Get involved in a campaign. Go to city meetings. I think on a local level, you see a lot more positive outcomes and hopefulness.

Be a member of something. Whether it’s the NAACP, ACLU, or a neighborhood association, be involved.

Get off the internet. Stop using Reddit. Delete Facebook. The world gets a lot better when you pull yourself off the internet.

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Holly Smith lives in Jackson, Mississippi, and works for an accounting firm that helps cities manage their finances after disasters. Having traveled all over the country, and having spent her life as a Democrat in a “sea of red,” she believes talking to each other and respect for women are the keys to fixing many of society’s problems.

How she engages as a citizen:

I’m engaged with civics organizations. I have an interest in current events. I try to stay updated on the issues that are affecting our country (so that I sound funny at cocktail parties!). As a government consultant, I need to know. It’s really important to be well-informed. As a millennial, we know that there’s a lot of fake news. We were brought up to be in the know.

What makes living in Jackson interesting:

Jackson is an interesting place. It’s a small blue dot in a sea of red. Engagement, civic engagement, politics are all centered around the church. By definition of the fact that Mississippi is in the Bible Belt, people go to church to get the politics. It’s a lot easier to engage; people can call my husband (a city council representative) and reach him. Because people can access their officials, they’re very engaged.

How we need to be thinking about people across the aisle:

I think, in general, most people are good humans. Whether blue or red, Dem or Republican, people are good. Different cultures and ways of thinking require us to meet people where they are. Most people on both sides of the aisle can’t grasp that or accept that. My mother is a Republican. She’s born in Mississippi and is a church-born Christian. So I know what she’s coming from, who she’s talking to. Just being able to recognize that is important.

How we can achieve that understanding:

Just talking. A lot of people are scared to talk. The thing right now is, “I’m not into politics.” If you voted, if you have an opinion on any subject that depends on voting, you are political. I believe we should have mandatory voting. We should get out of our comfort zone. Go talk to someone who doesn’t look like you or talk like you. And get involved in local politics. All politics are local.

Her thoughts on gender and society:

If women ruled the world, a lot of the problems would be solved. With the national conversation shifting to women and this role they have always been expected to play, the conversation is changing. I talked to someone else earlier today and said, you can’t be what you can’t see. Until we see more women in the elected ranks and important roles, we won’t see change. We are conditioned to see deputy roles as the roles for us (as women). Sexism in the South is a product of religion. It’s truly still taught every Sunday that women serve their husbands. Women can’t be preachers or leaders. There are churches where women can’t speak, let alone lead.

I’m also a true believer that the oppressed cannot bring themselves out of their situation; the oppressor must. Women can’t change their situations themselves. At some point, people will get tone-deaf to women being in the streets. Men need to say this is an issue and we need to fix it. Men need to recognize women as valuable members of society and as having expertise they might not. Everyone has different expertise to bring to the table. It’s beneficial to have a seat for everyone at the table.

The biggest problem facing the United States:

Since the financial crisis, the biggest problem is financial inequality. More so than sexism, racism, any of the isms, socioeconomic class determines your role in society. It’s very hard to pull people out of poverty, keep them out of poverty, and ensure their descendants are pulled out of poverty.

A disaster to someone at a poverty level is one of the worst things that could ever happen to a person. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, and a disaster obliterates your house, you’re screwed. You have to depend on the Federal Government, and as we know, the Federal Government, especially in its current leadership, isn’t very good with helping the most vulnerable in our society. It’s a capitalist society. It’s not quasi-like the Nordic countries. It’s this bootstrap mentality that has definitely been unfortunate for a lot of people.

What it means to be an American:

To some extent, it does mean you are free. It means you are free to live your life how you see fit. The fact that we’re still fighting over abortion and LGBTQ rights means we don’t have it all figured out, though.

I feel like I am in control of my destiny, but I know that’s a privileged statement as a white woman. We have a lot of opportunities people in other countries don’t have.

How we can all improve our country:

Vote. That’s what we could do. The voting record in this country is abysmal, and it’s why I think the person who is in power is in power.

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Colonel Michael Demirjian is originally from San Diego, California and has served in the United States Army since 1989. Our conversation covered mandatory service, 9/11, and how everyone can improve as citizens. This interview is the last I’ll post from my time at Fort Rucker.

How he contributes as a citizen:

I believe I am a good citizen. The reason being, looking at the definition, I was born here, I follow the laws. Is there more I could do? Absolutely. There’s always more that you can do. My contribution to our citizenry is my service in the military. I am a firm believer that everyone should do something to give back to this country. From the non-political standpoint, giving back is important.

His upbringing made him the citizen he is:

The military didn’t teach me about being a good citizen. My upbringing did. Born and raised Roman Catholic, a lot of my morals and values came from that upbringing. Whether or not I believe in the doctrine now doesn’t matter. The religion helped shape my views along the way. Growing up in the church I gave back to the community; I helped others. I grew up in a fairly conservative middle class area, and it wasn’t perfect, but people paid their taxes and obeyed the laws.

Small things matter for good citizenship:

The last place I lived that wasn’t predominantly military was a series of town-houses. There was a perception that one of the people was subletting their house. Is that person a good citizen? No, I don’t think so. They’re not following the expectations of that community.

How he thinks most people could improve as citizens:

I don’t have facts or figures to back this up. A lot of my ideas are based on perception. I think people could understand the need to give back to the country more. I also think everyone would do well to take an appetite suppressant on thinking the government owes them everything. A lot of people, I get the feeling, think that the government owes them a lot. The government wasn’t designed to give you things. Its job is to establish policies for the safe and efficient running of the country.  

He thinks everyone should serve in some capacity:

People can volunteer to give back to less fortunate people; they can serve in the military; they can serve in the government. Whether it’s Ameri-Corps or Peace Corps, these organizations do a tremendous further the values of our country. My hat is off to folks in the State Department. I had a chance to work with several from the State Department a few years ago, and those people do a tremendous amount to help America and promote our values.

I love General McCrystal’s idea of required service; it doesn’t matter how you serve. But you should feel that desire to give back to your country. Whether or not you like all the policies or procedures that go on, it doesn’t matter. It’s your country. There are more ways to give back than serving in the military. Be a teacher! I’m a huge, huge fan of that. It might actually help close some of the divide we see among people right now.

He was in the Pentagon on 9/11:

One of the neatest things I remember is that I was in the Pentagon on 9/11. As we were getting ready to leave for the day, all traffic had stopped coming into the Pentagon area. I lived in Springfield at the time, and I’m wondering: how am I going to get home? There was no mass transit. So I just started walking toward a place to get a cab.

I’m there in my uniform, with the guy who was the skipper of the U.S.S Cole when it was bombed. Some random person saw us and said, “Hey, where do you need to go?” Is that person a good citizen? Absolutely. Helping someone else out, not knowing a single thing about us, just knowing something happened, and helping us out.

How attitudes towards the military have changed:

I’ve seen a change since 1989 when I first joined. Since 2001, there’s a big, big difference. Now, immediately, when people find out I’m military, they say, “Thank you for your service.” I appreciate that, but maybe that person could serve? I don’t remember anyone ever saying that to me from 1989-2001. 

(There’s also an interesting disconnect). If you look at what our country did in World War II, and compare it to what we’re doing in wars now, it’s completely different. In World War II, it was a full nation effort. Everybody was doing stuff – factories, doctors. Now, we’ve been at war seventeen years, and I guarantee there are people who don’t know we still have forces in Bosnia.

What it means to be an American:

Being an American means you have the rights associated with the country, and you’re willing to defend those rights. It also means understanding not everything will be perfect, but we also have to know we have the best opportunities in the world. Finally, you can always make a difference.

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Matula Kiladi is a rapper based in El Paso, Texas. As a former felon, he says he’s been fortunate that he has had success with his music career because he’s not sure what he’d been doing otherwise. Our brief conversation covered his experience as a former felon, professionally and politically.

Why he’s a good citizen:

I believe I am a good citizen. I switched up from doing bad things to doing the right things.

How he feels about not voting:

To me right now, what I’ve seen as a convicted felon, what I saw last year in the election, it really didn’t bother me. I actually felt kind of proud I didn’t vote. The election felt false. It felt disrespectful. It was embarrassing.

I’ve seen a lot of presidents and elections. I’ve never seen this much drama.

How music has saved him:

Once you’re a felon, you’re marked as a bad person. No one is going to give you the opportunity to be better. I’m just blessed that I’ve always had music. I’m blessed I have a career from that. If I didn’t have that, I’d be applying to different jobs, and it’d be difficult to get one.

America’s biggest problem:

I think one of the biggest problem facing America right now is Donald Trump, because of the way he carries himself. He’s very disrespectful. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have experience (in government)? America will face a lot of lost trust in the future. With everything that’s going on, I’m pretty sure the world is wondering, “What’s happening in America?”

What he thinks American high school students should know:

It’s one of the best countries on earth. You’re blessed to be a part of it. You have the freedom to reach out and work hard for the things you want.

What people can to do to be better Americans:

Give people opportunities, especially convicted felons. People who have made mistakes – maybe they shouldn’t be (seen as) a felon the rest of their lives. People should be given  a chance, maybe a pardon of some kind.

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