Great Citizenship

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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Jin is a senior at Harvard College, where he studies Molecular and Cellular Biology. Jin is an undocumented immigrant; his parents came here on a visa and over-stayed it. Our conversation covered how he has navigated being undocumented, the problems with the immigration debate, and how Harvard can better prepare its students as citizens. You can find more of Jin’s thoughts herehere and here.

Citizenship isn’t about papers. It’s about practices:

For a lot of people, citizenship is about papers. It’sa bout being a native-born U.S. citizen. For me, it’s not that. A lot of politicians say it’s not just about the papers that define citizenship. The question for me is, “Are you a part of the political union?”

I would say I am, because of the things I do. To me, you have to do things that demonstrate you’re a member of the country. I’ve done a bunch of things that show I want to do my part. One of the things I did until this year was direct a naturalization program that helped low-income people in Boston. It was called “Chinatown Citizenship.” People come to Harvard’s campus on Saturday’s and Sunday’s. We tutored them on how to pass the test. It’s practical, but we also engage with them on a more personal level. We want to understand the problems they face beyond the test.

The problems with the debate about immigration:

In the national conversation around immigration, we talk about it as a national security issue. Perfect example: “Secure the border.” Because we talk about immigration as a physical issue, it becomes associated with the Southern border. That’s why in people’s psyche they associate immigration with the people who came from Mexico and Latin America.

The immigration rights movement has also focused on a large, but limited part, of the demographic of immigrants. The media has not expanded the idea of the undocumented immigrant. People are seeing Mexican and Latin American immigrants over-and-over again.

People need to understand the truth. They need exposure to undocumented immigrants of all backgrounds.

The hardest parts of being undocumented:

It’s always hard because I can’t vote. I can’t participate in the political process. I can’t run for elected office. So, in some ways, the way I engage in civic life is my way of dealing with the fact that I don’t have political representation.

But there are more subtle ways it’s hard, too. I consider myself an American and a citizen. But if I went to some random place in the country, the idea that many people wouldn’t consider me to be a part of America, that they would be (questioning) whether I really belong here will always be something I have to dance around.

Why “illegal” doesn’t work to describe immigrants:

The first thing I’d say to people is let’s step away from the galley. The big problem a lot of people have with undocumented immigrants is we broke the law. And I get that. I agree with the rule of law. What I’m talking about is substantive legality – is it just to reject people who want to come here and make their lives and the country’s better? I want to change the conversation from whether people follow the laws to whether we have the right laws.

It’s really complicated. There are people who try to follow the law, come here legally on a visa, and then stay because of hard circumstances such as getting scammed by someone who would say they could help. The system doesn’t allow people to do this easily. I’m Korean, I’m undocumented. Your teacher, your doctor might be undocumented. We aren’t the caricature of the undocumented Mexican man crossing on a truck. Those people obviously exist. But it’s not a single story.

An “illegal” is not a thing. The idea of an illegal immigrant doesn’t make sense. When I was first told I was undocumented, I was called illegal, so I had an emotional response. Now, I think, “You don’t understand what you’re saying when you say that!” It’s not even a legally correct term. How can a person be illegal? A lot of people followed the law, over-stayed their visa, and committed a civil offense. It’s more similar to a civil offense like jaywalking than it is to committing a crime.

How things would change for him if he could be a legal citizen:

Everything would change. I would be able to get healthcare. I would be able to drive a car, vote, serve on a jury. All of these formal duties I want to be doing.

But I don’t think that my feeling of belonging would change. I have embraced the American ideals. I grew up here. From a subjective sense, not a lot would change. But so many people’s lives would change for the better with a pathway to citizenship. People could enter the job market more easily. That American promise – about creating a better future by working hard – is going unfulfilled for 11.5 million people. We would be better off if people had a pathway, because we would be living up to American ideals. It was one of our founding ideals.

But that’s just one part of the story. Our parents matter, too. Because they don’t offer as much economic benefit, they don’t get included in these conversations.

Whether Harvard is helpful to undocumented students:

If you talk to undocumented Harvard students, you’ll get a variety answers. My parents make less than the federal poverty line. So getting here and having Harvard pay for me is life-changing. It’s hard for me to say bad things about an institution that has changed the course of my life in a concrete way.

The students and faculty at Harvard are more supportive on this issue than I ever expected. My friends, peers, and professors are really supportive of me and understand that this is something I can’t control.

From an institutional sense, there are things that can be improved. There used to be a central administrator (and I think they’re hiring one now) who helps with undocumented students. But that’s not enough. Some schools in California have entire offices for undocumented students. It’s a space for all undocumented students to come and ask questions. We now have 85 undocumented students, so Harvard should think about creating more concrete resources like that.

How Harvard can better fulfill its mission to educate “citizens and citizen-leaders”:

We need to educate the “citizens and citizen-leaders for society.” That means you have to learn some things about how society does and should work! Harvard has the Gen-Ed system to do that. But it doesn’t function that way. I think Columbia does this a lot better. They have something called a core. They read the Western Cannon. People will complain about the cannon being white. But we can talk about that! Because Harvard has an amorphous thing that you can take what you want in, you don’t have to think about citizenship and society.

To accomplish that, we should have a required course, like expository writing. If you want to be a citizen and citizen-leader, you should have to tackle questions about society and your role in it.

What it means to be an American:

Being an American is understanding that there’s a challenge in your community, and doing something about it. But in addition, a big thing is that in America the condition of your birth doesn’t determine the outcome of your life. This idea of self-determination, that you’re the one who determines your destiny. That’s unique to America!

People don’t get it. When my parents moved here, after the South Korean financial crisis, they immediately thought of America. Why? People come here to build better lives. If we are Americans, we need to understand that people come here to improve their lives. We need to create laws and institutions that people are able to do that. That gets back to immigration. Most people came here to build better lives for themselves.

Obviously, the law is above everything else. But there’s a fundamental promise of America, that your race and gender shouldn’t determine your future. Are we allowing everyone that’s here to realize their goal, the real American goal of improving your life based on hard work, drive, and commitment?


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Adriel works in marketing for MOGO, a bike sharing company in Detroit. He had some incredible thoughts on how Detroit can improve, how we are still looking to live up to the ideas laid out at our founding, and how we can stop treating our country like a zero sum game.

Why he’s a good citizen:

I think I’m a good citizen. For years, I’ve been active on a social activism level. But also, I’m a participant. I’m interested in local politics, but downtown has also been my playground since I was sixteen. I’m one of those people who wants to go to shows at the DIA, and wants to go local bars and support them. I want to do things in my city.

From a social justice standpoint, I’ve worked with organizations that have tried to better life in the city for people. I’ve worked with Allied Media Projects, which is about using media as a tool for social justice. I also work with Equality Michigan, which deals with LGBTQ rights and issues in the city and state.

But his neighbors are better citizens:

Are they as active as I am? Is that the barometer? No. But they’re good citizens in a whole different way. When my dog gets out of the yard, they call me. We all call each other, look out for each other and each other’s homes. We give each other a call, say hi to each other, and tell each other the neighborhood news. I actually think that maybe is more symbolic of being a good citizen than the stuff I do.

I really think being a good citizen is on the micro level. It doesn’t mean you need to volunteer for 100 hours. It means you have a rapport with the other citizens around you. In a macro sense, that shows you have a concern about bigger issues, such as safety and a general concern for your fellow human beings. If one of my neighbors says, “Hey, how’s it going? How are you?” when I’m going to the car, that isn’t just being a good neighbor, it shows a concern for me and other people. Those types of things are what makes a neighborhood, a “neighbor” “hood.” And cutting the grass and keeping your home matter, too. You’re contributing to the health of a neighborhood, the happiness of a place. They’re those types of things that don’t require a lot of resources or know how or energy. It’s a bunch of small stuff that builds up to a bigger picture. Continue reading “Stop acting like this is a zero sum game”

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Nicholas is a hot dog vendor in downtown Detroit. Having growing up in Detroit and spent time in other places, he has strong ideas about how the city can improve and how other people see him.

What Detroit’s citizens can do to improve the city:

I think that some people (are) complacent with the status quo of dirtiness and the lack of services. Citizens should do more clean up. Be cognizant of cleaning up your neighborhood. Everything starts at home and with yourself. If you want everyone else to do something nice, start it at home. Make sure your home and yard is clean. You start at your neighborhood, and it goes out. Everyone starts to catch that vibe of everything looking clean and nice. It puts a smile on people’s faces.

What Detroit’s citizens need from their leaders:

Politicians need to bring more real jobs into the city for Detroit citizens, not for people coming from outside the city. Their (the people from the suburbs’) tax dollars (via the city tax) are appreciated. But they’re not living here, so you miss out on the property tax. It doesn’t work out as well as it’s supposed to.  Continue reading When People Cross the Street

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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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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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Steve has served in the foreign service for over twenty years. Out of sheer luck, I approached him on the national mall. I thought our interview offered a needed perspective on how others see America, so I thought I’d share it. (Please note that the views expressed here are Steve’s as a private citizen and in no way represent the official views of the state department).

On why he’s a great citizen:

I am an exemplary citizen. I am a sworn defender of the Constitution of the United States. I’ve spent twenty years in the foreign service, and another twenty in the civil service. I have committed no crimes, I haven’t been arrested.

Why there’s a difference between being a good citizen and a good neighbor:

Political engagement and service are pretty key to citizenship. When you get to the definition of citizen, it means someone who lives in society and owes things to others. And in our society, our system of government is really important (so, therefore, engaging with it is key to citizenship). A good neighbor is someone who picks up the trash and doesn’t break the law. A good citizen is more than that; they do more than minimum, more than what is required of them. Continue reading A Shining Star

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I had an unbelievable chance to sit down with Michael, an active duty Army officer, and talk to him about what he thinks makes our democracy work. His answer? The citizens. This interview is a bit longer than most, but I think it’s worth the read. I know listening to Michael was probably the most enlightening thing I’ve done in a long time. (Please note that the views expressed here are Michael’s as a private citizen, and they in no way represent the views of the military.)

On what makes him a good citizen.

I’d like to think so. I try to stay engaged, try to understand our issues that our democracy is dealing with. I vote in every election that I can because that’s a gift we don’t appreciate. My work, as a military officer, shows a commitment to something bigger than putting food on the table. There’s a greater cause to it. It’s a show of a citizenship, as well a job.

On the civic values of the military:

The military is a tool for the country’s elected leadership to execute foreign policy that maintains our security and serves the national interest. We are a tool to serve the American people. That’s why we have elections. A key part of that is the military is not partisan. The military can’t be seen as the wing for a particular agenda. It’s a non-partisan agency that serves the will of the people.

Why citizenship isn’t a checklist:

My friends, more than not, are good citizens. I grew up with the military, but it’s just one way to show good citizenry and serve. We sometimes get cast as the most noble, but there are people every day who are helping. Look at Texas – people have gone to help Hurricane Harvey with no one making them do so.

I think that goes to what our idea of citizenship is. I don’t think there’s a checklist that we check things off of. It’s everything that comes up in day-to-day life. What we’re really talking about is what advances our values here and across the world. I think that the perception that Americans are a bunch of terrible citizens is incorrect.

On his keys to citizenship, but why they don’t tell the whole story:

Service. Political Engagement. I wouldn’t limit it to those things, though. I think service and political engagement can be a luxury. If you have the time and income to read the newspaper every day, it’s a lot easier to be engaged. For people who don’t have the time because they are working three jobs, does that make them bad citizens? No, not at all. It doesn’t mean they don’t care for the people in their lives or don’t know or care about democratic values. It just means they have things that are more pressing like paying their mortgage and feeding their kids.

But in the ideal, understanding what our shared values are – that we’re a country where people have a vibrant say in how the country is run and where people have the freedom to speak, write, assemble without government. You don’t have to be involved in politics to further those things. Engagement is whatever you can give or understand in your own life.

His keys to democratic values, and why values matter as much as laws:

The biggest thing is that the government is accountable to the citizenry. We take it for granted in the U.S. that our leaders are accountable to us, not us accountable to them. There are places where people have never been exposed to that idea.

The idea that the government can’t restrict basic freedoms; that they’re inherent. The idea that anyone could say something critical about the government. When I hear people criticize their elected officials, I’m weirdly happy because they’re exercising a right that’s in our Constitution. It’s been our culture that the right to criticize elected officials has to be protected above all things. If a government official can throw someone in jail for saying something about that official, that’s worse than any criticism, no matter how ill-informed or nasty it would be.

From my experience in Afghanistan, democratic values aren’t just created. You don’t write a constitution and automatically have democracy. Look at Egypt during the Arab Spring. They overthrew a dictator and implemented a democracy. It lasted two years because the person who was elected wanted to rip up the constitution. Before legal democracy is implemented, people have to understand and want democracy. I mean, look at us, it’s taken 200 years, and we’re still scuffling through stuff. And I think you look at our political system today, and we see that norms matter a lot. What we, as citizens, deem is acceptable and unacceptable from our elected officials is as important as any law.

Why someone’s political party doesn’t matter for their quality of citizenship:

Oh, yes. I have many members of my family who voted differently than I did. A frustration that I have is that political choice has shot up the list of things that define a person. If you voted for X, it must mean you are all these terrible things. But I’d say on average, it’s very different from that. Most people don’t think of their vote that crucially. Everyone views things differently; I probably voted for my candidate for very different reasons than many of the other people who voted for that person. Challenging someone’s citizenship because of how they voted is shortsighted and ignores everything else that person does.

The three things we all need to know to be the best citizens possible:

We need to do a better job of telling the story of our founding. It was a very nuanced and complex process. You realize when you dig into it that the Founding Fathers didn’t agree about a lot. There was significant ideological differences among these men. Through shear compromise, we have a document and a country. Some of the arguments in the 1780’s are the same we’re having today. We can’t label these documents or men in a monolithic way.

We need to understand the good, the bad, the ugly of our country. Sometimes we just lean on love of country, which I’m all for with young kids, but as they get older, we need to talk about the darker aspects of our history. We need to talk to about our struggles to live up to the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. But we also can’t forget to love our country still; all countries have these struggles. It’s like religion. You can make it better by knowing the criticisms. You’re a better citizen if you know all of it because you know that democracy requires all of us to work for it. It’s not just given to us.

We also need a basic knowledge of Constitution and laws. We assume we know it, but I think a lot of us don’t. If somebody who wants to be an American from another country has to know this stuff, so should you. It shows investment. Everyone knowing these things would enhance common knowledge and values, and it would make us connect more easily with immigrants.

Why ideas make us Americans:

We’re a country of ideas first. Everyone, with the exception of the Native Americans, came here from somewhere else. America is not about ethnicity, or tribe, or clan. Plenty of countries have democracy now, but we were founded on freedom from a monarch, and we have to remember that.

We are weirdly independent people, with a healthy rebellious spirit toward government and authority. It leads to innovation and creativity. Americans don’t wait for people to tell them what to do. If people are in need, they’re just going to go help them. They’re gonna create businesses.

On how we can all be better Americans:

Have people in our social lives who disagree with us and come at life from a different perspective. A lot of people have talked about bubbles, and I think it’s true. It’s in liberal cities and rural towns. If you make friends with different people, you’ll have a much more open view of who people are. If you’re surrounding yourself with people who have all the same beliefs as you, then of course you’ll think that’s how everyone is. It increases the notion that people different than you are the “other.” But if they’re your friends, they’re no longer the other.

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Troy is a journalist who lives in D.C. and New York. His compassion for others was incredible and humbling. I thought everyone would benefit from reading about it.

On why he’s a good citizen:

I think I’m a good citizen. I actually help others, and I do my part to make this world a better place. For example, I was just with a client who’s elderly, and I help her manage her life. I help her stay on track. She’s a recent widow, and her husband used to do a lot of the organizational things. Now, I’m in that place, helping her out.

His thoughts on the importance of support:

Support is the key to being a good citizen. Everyone, at some point in time, needs a helping hand, and if we can do something to help somebody along the way, then we should (without expecting anything in return).

What he thinks all Americans need to know about:

We need to know about climate change. It makes a drastic difference; even things that have happened this past week (in the case of American Harvey).

Homelessness is also a huge problem. The rate is incredibly high right now. And some people are a few paychecks away from being homeless as well.

We also all need to know that there are good people in this world. There is a lot of stuff on social media that isn’t good that makes it seem otherwise.

On what makes us Americans:

Living the dream. Being responsible. And taking care of others who are in need. That should be the base for being an American.

How we can all be better Americans:

Help someone along the way. Whether it’s a homeless person, a coworker, a friend, do something different or try something new, to help others.


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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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