The Play

A few weeks ago, I had the fortune of seeing Hamilton on Broadway. Much has been written about the show’s brilliance – the music, the story, the visuals. All of these things are true. As a former history major, though, I found the historical aspect of it most interesting.

The play begins in 1776 as America begins its revolution against the British. From there, it tackles the questions of who had a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and who exactly “We, the People” was (along with questions about the structure of the federal government). It also looks at Hamilton’s own personal history. He rises as an immigrant “from the bottom.” He becomes Washington’s right hand man. He writes the Federalist Papers and becomes Secretary of the Treasury. And he has a fall from grace as he becomes embroiled in an extramarital affair and his ideas about the federal government become unpopular.

History during My Travels

This close examination of Hamilton and early America made think of something I heard often on my trip: that people, schools, and our country broadly need to reckon with the “good, the bad, and the ugly” of American history. I was honestly surprised to hear people say this. I assumed that most people – especially of an older generation – would want us to emphasize what makes America the “greatest country on earth.” And there was some of that: people mentioned the unique nature of the Constitution, the American melting pot (our ability to integrate immigrants; of course, the melting pot can also have a negative connotation for forced assimilation), and America’s leadership in the world (particularly during World War II).

But many people of all ages and backgrounds said that as important as these accomplishments are, the negative parts of our history are equally important. To understand modern America, and the work that remains to be done, we need to understand slavery and Jim Crow. To truly come to grips with our past, we can’t stop at slavery as our only sin. There’s the fact that we massacred hundred of thousands of indigenous people (and the ones who survived we forced onto limited lands). There’s also our long history of anti-immigrant sentiment that people felt we often didn’t discuss (because we like to think of ourselves as a melting pot of sorts).

The Brilliance of Hamilton

The challenge of looking at history can be that it’s really easy to just tell the good, or really easy to let all of the significant bad delegitimize any of the important good. But what I loved about Hamilton is that it didn’t fall into either of these traps.

Throughout the play, there were several references to the exclusive nature of “we, the people” at our founding. It talked about slavery and its betrayal of the founding American ideals. But it also highlighted – through the role of King George III – that America’s founding ideals did have some significance. It was the first time that an idea of “citizen” became relevant in the world. Before then, all people were subjects to monarchs. At the same time, the play highlighted the anti-immigrant sentiment and class resentment that made Hamilton’s success frustrating for the other founders. America and the men and women who created it weren’t monolithic. Some were good, some were bad. Most were products of their age.

And that’s the aspect of the play that excited me most. It looked at Hamilton as a whole, rounded character. The show treats him as overly ambitious and philandering. It also captures his brilliance and commitment to ideals. He believed an elite-driven democracy, like most people did during that time. But he also believe that government had a duty to all of its people. Hamilton, like all of our founders, wasn’t a perfect hero. He had some good, some bad, and some ugly parts of him, just like America then and now.

As people think about how the past influences the present, it’s worth thinking about the parts of American history we respect most and criticize most. Most people will have different answers. But this framework of “good, bad, and ugly” can be a productive one in conversations that are often uncomfortable.

P.S. For what it’s worth, here’s a “good, bad, ugly” for me of American history:

  1. The good: The defeat of Nazi’s and the Soviet Union (tyrannical countries that killed millions of their own citizens)
  2. The bad: Our treatment of other country’s sovereignties (Vietnam, South Korea, many Latin American countries during the Cold War)
  3. The ugly: Slavery, not just for the obvious moral reasons, but because America continued to practice (and even grow) the use of slaves long after many countries barred the practice (in other words, it’s not just that America was a “product of its time”; it went above and beyond in an already horrible, inhumane practice)
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Rain upon arrival:

As I entered Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota on my first day there, rain began to fall. It was slow rain, just enough to cover the windshield and make me turn on the windshield wipers, but not enough to stop me from seeing that I was entering a place completely different from anywhere I’d been. I saw the Rosebud Casino and the homes scattered around me, some cows in the distance and people walking along the highway. I knew immediately that these days would be informative. At the time, however, I didn’t know my time there would be a fundamental challenge to the very trip I’m undertaking.

Historical ignorance:

Growing up, I received the same education on indigenous people’s that I think many students do today. I heard about the way the Spanish massacred the first Americans; I read about the Trail of Tears; and then I learned nothing else. The Lakota, the Navajo, the Winnebago all faded into the backdrop of American history.

An education in Rosebud:

As a result, when I arrived in Rosebud, I didn’t know about the removal of indigenous children from their homes. I had heard of the Doctrine of Discovery, but didn’t know it was still relevant today. While studying history in college, I came to peace with much of America’s bloody history. I always thought that despite its flaws and failures, of which there are many, America has consistently come closer to living up to the world’s greatest ideals: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But that thinking rests on the idea that we’ve made progress, that we’ve become more inclusive.

It became clear this week, that when it comes to tribes such as the Lakota, we have absolutely failed. Our government took children from homes based on the idea that they need to be “civilized.” In 2017, people use a modified n-word to describe students from the Lakota community. When it comes to indigenous people, the idea of being an American still depends on defining “America” in opposition to “indigenous,” rather than in a way that’s inclusive of those people.

Whether people would like to admit it or not, indigenous people have contributed in a fundamental way to the American founding. As Dwayne showed me, our Constitution was inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy. Indigenous people created many of the crops that are crucial to American agriculture today. And indigenous people discovered the medical use for quinine.

But it’s not just their contributions to American life I was ignorant of. I also knew nothing about indigenous culture. Marianne explained that indigenous people valued and still value spirituality and family above all else. In that way, indigenous society was and is no different than Christian or Jewish America.

We are failing:

Despite all of these truths, I think people today sometimes have a historical stereotype of indigenous Americans that people held during the founding of the United States: they were savages, people unable to contribute or live peacefully. Although I think I didn’t hold this stereotype, I still didn’t reject it or disagree when people expressed it. Now, having spent time at Rosebud, I see just how wrong it is.

My time challenged me to think about what and who an American is. One student said to me that being an American is about “boundaries…between the reservation” and the rest of the country. If we continue to exclude and judge people who were so fundamentally important to all things good about our country, especially after massacring them and taking their land over several centuries, what does that say about us? About who we are? I don’t know.

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Until last week, I had never traveled anywhere in the Midwest other than Chicago. I was totally naive about the places, cultures, and people in the region. Fortunately, in my time in Waukesha, WI, Dubuque, Iowa, and Sioux City, Iowa, I had a chance to learn about what unites, and divides, people in the heart of our country.

The Flag in Waukesha:

When I arrived in Waukesha, President Trump had just said that players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired. While there, I made sure to ask people about their thoughts. Laura, a military veteran, told me that she fought for people to do “dumb things like that.”

Meanwhile, Terri, a self-described Christian woman, rejected the practice. However, her thinking intrigued me. Her rationale? “Use love to bring people to your side, not criticism.”

And finally, an artist I spoke with, who voted for Bernie Sanders, didn’t like that Kaepernick kneeled during the anthem. He did, however, support athletes’ right to protest. He said that he would love to see players kneel before  the anthem, then stand up during it, as a protest of what’s wrong but also as a signal that they believe things can be better.

There’s been many words written about the protests and Trump’s statement about them. But what I found interesting in all of these interviews, from three people with very different life backgrounds, was that they all appealed to two ideas in our conversations. First, they talked about respect, both for the flag, and for someone’s right to kneel (and in their minds, disrespect that flag). Second, they were the first group I spoke with that consistently mentioned patriotism. In fact, the thing that has most surprised me so far is how few people think we need to “love” our country. In Waukesha, however, love and respect go hand-in-hand.

America in a city:

Although I’ve found that stereotypes people have about other regions in the country are wrong, one that isn’t wrong is that driving through Iowa is phenomenally boring. It’s flat, and there are almost no cars anywhere. My first stop after Wisconsin was Dubuque, a town on the Mississippi river.

Dubuque was unlike any place I’ve ever been. A city of roughly 58,000 people, there was more variety of people and culture than I anticipated. As a former factory town, it still has a blue-collar aesthetic and vibe. But with a large affluent, suburban population, there were also places that reminded me of Bryn Mawr; yoga studios, custom cupcake shops, and several nice coffee shops lined the main street. And in recent years, there has been a large influx of African-Americans from Chicago, and so the city’s cultural events and social hangouts are increasingly diverse, too. It was as if three core aspects of American life had been squeezed into 30 square miles.

Most of my conversations in Dubuque were fantastic. From Taj, a Sudanese refugee, who talked about the importance of community, to Brisa, a Trump voter, who said jobs are key to civic life, and Maddie, a non-voter who thought we need to be more humble as citizens, I learned about the complex intermingling between economics, the community, and the individual. As much as try to divorce these things, we can’t. Brisa is right that people’s opportunities, and their freedom to pursue them, are crucial for citizens and for the community’s well-being. Likewise, we can’t underestimate how important our individual attitude towards others is.

My Worst Experience Yet:

However, I also had my worst experience to date in Dubuque. During one interview, I heard the first rhetoric that I would say is actively harmful to civic community. The person told me that the one thing that all American high school students needed to know was that the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers had sought to undermine the country from within. He also said that the anti-fascist groups they funded were, and the groups that their relatives fund are, the real threats to American freedom.

These words alarmed me on two levels. First, it was trademark anti-Semitism. Fear of powerful, wealthy Jews is as old as time. It saddens me that it’s still rampant. Second, the idea that we should teach in schools that there is a group of people, whose only tie to one another is a religion, or a race, that actively wants to ruin our country means that we are saying some groups don’t belong. Given that many people I’ve spoken with describe America as a melting pot, we need to actively reject this type of thinking.

The Representative Midwest City:

As much as Dubuque taught me, Sioux City reflected the image I had in my mind of the Midwest. I also think it’s the consummate story of a place where opportunity is lacking, and people are desperate. A couple I spoke with both said that the “lack of opportunity” for young professionals is draining the city. And the husband said he voted for Trump because he thought America needed to return to its industrial roots.

As I drove around the area, what he said made sense to me. There were abandoned factories and few office buildings. The downtown was small. The people seemed sad, something the other two people I spoke with in Sioux City mentioned. The unifying forces in Sioux City – factories such as Gateway’s – had left. The place was still trying to figure out a way forward.

Unity and Division:

More than any segment to date, my time in the Midwest reminded me that for all we share, there are substantive. One man told me he sees Black Lives Matter as the equivalent of the KKK.  Regardless of how one feels about BLM, the idea that white people are inferior to black people is not core to their mission (the way the reverse is central to the KKK’s work). But it says something that people now believe this to be the case. Another person told me he doesn’t see a future for people in his area. And as I walked around, I saw the way that community’s were faltering without jobs and hope.

And yet, most of my interviews reminded me that there is a way forward together. One might disagree with Brisa that Trump will create jobs. But I think it’d be hard to disagree with her sentiment that people deserve better chances and that we have to help. And Linda, a Clinton supporter, talked about the importance of knowing the First Amendment. Given the way we all scream about the other side’s abuse of free speech, I can’t help but agree with her that we might all need a refresher on speech, how it works, and why it’s important.

The challenge about division is that it’s easy to replicate, easy to be angry at those who are different or have had better lucky. But that’s exactly why need to be thinking about the things we do and can share.

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My Skewed Education:

Having grown up the son of two teachers, education was always a topic of conversation at my dinner table. From what teachers could do better, to what I wanted to learn, I always talked to my parents about school. I’d always known that my experience was abnormal, both because of my parents’ jobs and where they had them: a secular private school. As I moved through high school at my parents’ school, the conversations I had with my peers turned towards college. Most of the colleges people mentioned were “elite” schools: University of Virginia, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, and so on. As a high school student, this conversation seemed like the norm to me, like the one everyone, everywhere had.

Leaving My Educational Bubble:

Until last Thursday, I had never stepped foot on a community college campus. While in Bowling Green, though, I was lucky enough to go to Owens Community College in Findlay, Ohio. I watched and listened as students scribbled notes, talked to advisors, and caught up with friends. But there was a difference in what students had to do to be able to go to school. Students such as Tosh worked full-time jobs and commuted to school. They needed to juggle two types of learning, two types of effort, in order to get to where they wanted to go. Continue reading Leaving the Bubble

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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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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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A Lack of Stories:

As I walked to the train tracks after my first interviews in Philadelphia, I thought long-and-hard about what I learned. For all of the talks about polarization and political decay, people were relatively optimistic about themselves, others, and our country. Most people mentioned caring about their community. But there was one question that the first eleven people all felt uncomfortable or unsure answering. Very few people could confidently tell me a story in which someone exemplified good citizenship.

Alarmed, I thought about why this was. Did people just not think about it? Or, maybe, we don’t celebrate great citizens enough? Or was it something else entirely? Continue reading Start Small, Engage Others

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Of the eleven people I spoke to in Philadelphia, eight of them mentioned freedom as key to being an American. Although I’ve only covered one city so far, freedom was so important to people I felt I needed to write about it. Jordan, a nineteen-year-old, twice mentioned the freedom to pursue what you want as the foundational aspect of being a good American. Meanwhile, Jenna talked about belief in free democracy as a foundation for citizenship. Trump supporters, third-party voters, and Clinton fans all agreed: freedom is essential to America and Americans.

Individual Freedom:

But people used the idea of freedom in two distinct ways. The first is what I would describe as the ability to pursue one’s dreams. Jordan said being an American means “taking advantage of whatever this country has to offer you.” He saw himself and his friend as an American because they traveled across the country for college and used financial aid to get the best education possible. Meng Ting likewise said that Americans can be “whatever they want to be” and do “whatever it is that helps themselves and help others.” Continue reading Freedom, Individual and Collective

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This post is my last one before I jump into the normal content of the blog: interviews with people. But before I begin posting those, I want to be honest about my own thoughts. Having read on the state of citizenship and learned about many organizations’ amazing work, I feel like I’m ready to write about what I think the keys to being a good citizen are.

A Class Discussion:

First, though, I want to share an anecdote that might explain why I feel so strongly about this subject. In a class I took in college, there was a reading on jury discrimination in post-Civil War Virginia. Many black men did not have the chance to serve on a jury because prosecutors feared that black jury members might make it harder to convict former slaves of accused crimes. As a result, many black defendants lacked the basic right of a jury of their peers, and many black men didn’t have the right to serve on juries. A federal judge took action and jailed several Virginian judges for violating the Constitution.

As my class debated whether the federal judge made the right choice, I realized how important it was for all of us to have conversations like that one. I learned how crucial our government system was, and how little I understood about it. More importantly, I recognized that being a citizen – listening to the potential crimes of my peers, voting for elected officials, being equal before the law – was not an opportunity many people have had. Being a citizen, then, was something to cherish. (For more on this story, see David Moss, Democracy: A Case Study).

The Five Keys:

This story and the discussion that day hint at many of the traits that I think are important to being a good citizen. At this moment, I think that the five keys to being a good citizen are:

  • Informed advocacy. Advocacy without knowing about an issue is often not effective and can often be counterproductive. Knowing the topic is important, and so is knowing the candidates in an election.
  • A willingness to listen. During class that day, people’s answers were quite varied. In fact, some of them made me uncomfortable. But in that class we had to listen, and then wait our turn to reply. This approach to public conversation would benefit us all.
  • Compassion. We need to care about the well-being of our country and each other for all of us to thrive.
  • Generation Citizen’s idea that we have to have confidence in our actions really resonated with me. It’s hard to remain engaged, and encourage others to engage, if we don’t believe in our value as citizens.
  • A belief in the process. I think at the end of the day, people have to believe in democracy, its potential, and its workings for it to work.

Maybe the people I will talk to will talk about these same traits and actions. In some ways, though, I hope they don’t. I hope they challenge me to imagine citizenship as something different and show me that someone, anyone can be a good citizen in a variety of ways.

If you are interested in reading more of my thoughts on being a good citizen, you can find them here. Have thoughts on the keys to being a good citizen? Send them to me at [email protected]

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