Interviews

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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Chris owns Chopper’s Ol’ School BBQ, a restaurant in Daleville, Alabama (I can vouch that it has awesome food). An Army veteran who served in multiple conflicts, Chris believes that our country needs to re-engage with its history and its role in the world.

How he uses his business to help others:

My restaurant offers a Thanksgiving meal on Thanksgiving, and we don’t charge anyone for it. It used to be just for military families, as my wife and I did it when I was in the service. What we realized is that the whole community needed it. We opened it up to everyone. Just the outpouring of additional support from members of the community that can afford it is great. They donate money, time, and food. To help other people in this community have a good Thanksgiving meal is one of the things I look forward to every year. It’s about a three-day process to cook everything. They do get smoked Turkey and hams, but it’s still a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

He thinks people in Daleville are equally generous:

Whether people have the money or not, people are ready to reach out and help the next person. It’s not a wealthy town by any stretch. But on the whole, within this community, they may not donate money, but there are so many people who will come out and help you do a service project.

People’s feelings toward soldiers have changed over time:

The time I served was a very different time than when my dad served. When he served, there was one conflict, and that was Vietnam. It was a terrible time in American history in terms of how American citizens treated service members.

When I first deployed, though, people didn’t hesitate to send us anything we needed. Someone sent one of our soldiers a computer so he could keep in touch with his family. Sometimes people send small things like here’s a Christmas card. When you’re overseas, it’s small things like that type of gesture that matter because you are so far separated.

I think there’s one thing that the civilian sector sometimes forgets. When you’re home for Christmas, or New Years Eve, that’s great. But thousands of families are separated. Soldiers are in the Persian Gulf or in Iraq, and sometimes the community forgets that. I don’t want to say they turn a blind eye. But in some ways, they feel “that was a decision they made.” And they’re right, I chose to serve. But that doesn’t make it any easier on a child or a wife when the parent/partner isn’t home.

As long as this conflict has gone on, I think awareness has faded unfortunately. Support isn’t as prevalent. We have a new generation of service members who are doing the same thing I did and aren’t receiving the same support.

His thoughts on America’s role in the world:

America was built on taking care of the small guy. That’s one of the Marines’ big things. Do I think we should police the world? No. Should we police things that can do damage to our country and those we support? If we didn’t, nothing would be safe. You’d never know if riding on the train in the United States whether something would happen. People are wanting to create bombs everywhere.

Our politicians could use a lesson from military leaders:

I think that it gets lost that our politicians who are supposed to be there for us are not there for us. They’re there for them. I was brought up in the military where leaders’ needs go to the wayside when compared to subordinates’ needs. You’ll notice all the senior leaders eat last at a field camp. You always take care of your soldiers before you take care of yourself.

Our schools are failing to make good citizens:

One of the thing that kind of irks me is that if someone else from another country wants to be a citizen, they have to take a test. And I guarantee you most of America couldn’t pass that test. We have failed ourselves because we don’t teach history and what it means to be a good person.

The part of American history we need to reckon with:

People need to be taught the Civil War the same way everywhere. Whether you’re in Texas or California, we need to have the same starting point. When people start talking about the Civil War, I ask one question to see whether they really know the history: What is the Mason-Dixon Line? Most people don’t know.

This week I was up in Tennessee on a veterans ride, and we visited the largest Confederate hospital. I found out they have two different tours. The regular one we did, and then another one that covers all the slave stuff. They talk about the Underground Railroad and what slaves did during these conflicts. That’s different from what I’ve seen, and no one got upset about it.

Slavery is a part of our history. I’m not proud of it, but it shouldn’t be buried. It needs to be presented. If we don’t, it’ll happen again.

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This week, I flew to Enterprise, Alabama in order to visit Fort Rucker. While there, I had a chance to speak with active duty soldiers, their family members, and veterans. Over the next few days, I will post an interview with one person from each group.

Ashley is a stay at-home mom living in Enterprise. Originally from Tampa, Florida, she has moved all over the country with her husband, who is a now a lawyer for the Army (after time as a soldier). Our conversation covered familial sacrifice and avoiding political discussion.

Being married to a solider has changed her views on citizenship:

My views have changed in the last eight years because of my husband. I would’ve said I was a good citizen before I married Nick, but now I feel like it’s to a whole new level because I have to make a lot more sacrifices for our country. Now, I do feel like I can say I am a proud American because of what I’ve sacrificed.

The biggest sacrifice is familial:

I grew up with my mom, dad, and four sisters. I never had any desire to leave my hometown. We did family barbecues all the time. There was no reason for me to look outside that area; it had everything I needed.

Then I met Nick. I gave up my family. I gave up knowing everybody. I graduated college, got married two days later, and never went back. When we got married, we left and went to Texas. Thanksgivings and Christmas were now by ourselves. I went from having a huge family that I was a part of to having my husband be my family.

Being a military spouse has shown me he truly is my family. We’ve had to make each other family, as opposed to my parents, grandparents, and siblings. We moved here last July, and Holly and Chris (my hosts and another military family) had us over because I couldn’t get home. People like them are our new family.

What most citizens can’t understand:

I think most people are good citizens. But they don’t get the sacrifice.

Nick was deployed for fifteen months. He left October of 2007 and came home January of 2009. He missed two Thanksgivings and two Christmases. My sister was sitting there complaining about everything on Christmas. And I was so irritated because she was given this gift to be surrounded by everyone she loves. I was thinking how other people would give anything to have their loved ones here.

Most people don’t have the ability to understand it. When I move to new places, I have to fill out emergency contact cards for my kids at school that have three people in the area who the school can contact, which is hard when you don’t know anyone.

I think most people still honor American values, honor the flag, honor what our country stands for. But they don’t understand the sacrifices people are actually making.

She doesn’t talk about politics with people:

People can be so close minded when they’re passionate about something. One of the reasons I really didn’t do very much in the election is that I have my opinion, but it’s like, I don’t need to show it. I’m an educated woman, someone doesn’t need to cram something down my throat trying to change my ideas.

I don’t discuss politics with my husband. I just don’t want to know anyone’s politics. I’d rather see everybody for who they are, not who they vote for.

Her problem with how we talk about politics:

What I feel like happens in our country, especially around election time, people don’t tell you the good candidates will do. They point our the other side’s flaws. I want to see a candidate for how they’ll better tomorrow, not all the things wrong with them.

She tries to shield her son from the bad parts of American politics:

I wanted to shelter Andrew (my son) from all the candidate-bashing. When the majority speaks, that’s who’s President. When he saw people burning things down after the election, I was upset. I want him to understand you can make a change by not doing that.

There are also things Trump has said and done that are just horrific. So, we’d say to Andrew, our son, it’s not okay that Trump does this. We’d ask, what’s a better way to get our point a cross?

What it means to be an American:

I think it means working together for the greater good. I don’t feel like that’s happening right now; there’s a lot of division. I’d like to think that our forefathers when they wrote the Constitution, and when Betsy Ross sewed the flag, wanted unity. I think they wanted us to recognize how far we’ve come and work together to keep that work going.

Anybody who is passionate about something and wants to make change for the better is an exemplary citizen.

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Jennifer Chavez is the Executive Assistant to the Head of School at the Manzano Day School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. An immigrant from the Philippines, she loves America and thinks opportunities are endless here. Our conversation covered gender, immigration, and America’s big problem.

Why she’s a good citizen:

I do believe I am a good citizen. I’m self-sufficient. I provide in the world. I don’t need a crutch to survive. I give to charities. I follow the rules and vote. I’m not a drain on society, which I think is a huge problem in America.

 

Her brother is an exemplary citizen:

I think my brother is an exemplary citizen. He came here from the Philippines and has served in multiple wars. He’s served through all kinds of different things. He’s disabled now, has strokes, but he still has full-time work and keeps his household. He’s proud, very proud to be an American. He’s not judgmental; he accepts differences.

Being a female citizen is quite different in the U.S. than the Philippines:

So much is different as a female in the Philippines. It’s really hard to be a female anywhere. But females are actually respected here (in the U.S.), for who we are and how we are. We’re asked opinions. We’re equal in that we’re not afraid of each other. I think a lot of men in other places are afraid of women. I have an education, I can get a job, go to the grocery store, vote. There, you can’t.

People often don’t realize she’s from the Philippines:

I’ve absolutely been confused as Mexican. I’m always asked, “What do you think as a Mexican?” I can be sarcastic about it. And that’s okay. People forget Americans all bleed the same even if they look different.

Someone told my husband, who’s darker than I am, “Trump was right about you Mexicans.”

Her thoughts on immigration:

It’s a tough question (about DACA recipients). But they’re here, and they’ve been here awhile. They deserve as much opportunity as the people who are born here. They’re taking opportunities Americans don’t want. They’re productive. It’s wrong that people want to take that way. They’re doing it!

They also shouldn’t take their parents away either. They’re improving themselves, their families, and society. There’s not a pediatric allergist here in New Mexico. So if an immigrant comes here who can do that, they’re saving lives.

We need a mindset shift:

We need to accept people for who they are and stop thinking we’re better than other people. We’re different, but we have the same common goal.

What she sees as America’s big problem:

I think we live in a sympathetic society, where we lack accountability. I think it’s very sad. It’s always someone else’s problem. People had a bad childhood, or a bad mom; people always have reasons why they aren’t productive And our society is so sympathetic, this is stroked. You can be this person who this happened to, and it’s okay, people will support you.

From a non-American point of view, as someone who came here from the Philippines, my mom came here to America to be all things she couldn’t be, to get all the things she wanted. She’s accountable for herself. No matter how tough it is, you have to become an adult, become productive.

I think that’s why a lot of people are coming to America. Americans aren’t using all this country has to offer, and we’re upset people are coming here taking it from us. But we aren’t using it.

Do and be all that you can be. My father and brother were in the service. I want them to be proud of all that I’ve done in this country. I want them not to feel like they came for nothing.

Her piece of advice to Americans:

Opportunities are endless. Open every single door. Figure it out. In America, you can do whatever you want.

What it means to be an American:

It’s such a privilege and an honor. I think the compassion people show when they come together is what I’m most proud of.

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Stan Hubbard is the Chairman and CEO of REELZ, a TV company based in Albuquerque, New Mexico that produced the Emmy award-winning show The Kennedys. A passionate conservative, he feels strongly that people on the coasts misjudge middle America and that all Americans should be able to pursue their own happiness.

American Politics:

The challenges facing American politics:

I think there are couple things that are (major) challenges to American politics. What Trump identified as the swamp  – there’s a monstrous bureaucracy that is looking out for its own interests. It sucks up a lot of resources: money, time, thought.

I think if someone else identified the swamp other than Trump, it’d be more universally accepted. If you look at city government, county government, state government, it’s a massive number. If you look at the percent of GDP that’s government spending, it keeps going up. The swamp is a drain, and it’s a life of its own.

It needs to be shut down. But elected officials are a part of it. Once you get elected, what’s your number one priority? To get reelected. There are exceptions to both sides of the aisle. But not many.

I’m in the media business. One of the challenges for this country is that national media is based on the eastern seaboard between Washington and New York. They act alike. They think alike. There’s a groupthink. A tremendous sort of fear of getting off the reservation. The groupthink isn’t healthy. Local TV and newspaper are a little different. People in New York have different priorities than people here in Albuquerque. The media think people disagree and get into stuff that they don’t.

How the government should spend its money:

I think the spending priorities should be what were the original priorities. It should be keeping the citizens safe. It should be creating infrastructure that allows people the flow of people and ideas. We should spend money on schools, but the running of them should be left to the states and communities.

We’ve added an awful lot to the responsibilities of the federal government. For every dollar the federal government takes from citizens, how much do you think it sucks off? The friction is unbelievable. There are a lot of retailers who won’t take American Express because of how much it charges. Think about how much New Mexico gives, just to get money back!

They put in this train that goes from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. If you drive, it takes an hour. If you take the train, it takes an hour and forty minutes, and then you have to take a shuttle to where you want to go! You wonder why the feds put in all this money, and then the state has to put it in. That money could’ve gone somewhere else.

The Kennedy’s:

On the ethics of producing TV focused on history:

The History Channel killed a show called The Kennedys because the Kennedy family didn’t want it to run. It was a fantastic show, with a great cast. Why did they kill it? I don’t know what it was. Our network, REELZ, picked it up.

I’ll give you a simple test (for how I measure historical TV). When we bought the Kennedy series, I made an offer subject to seeing all eight hours. I said my test would be simple:

If it’s an abomination of history, I don’t want it. If it’s Kennedy bashing, I don’t want it. If it’s bad TV, I don’t want it.

In general, when you talk to people about the miniseries, people take it seriously. George Kinnear, who played Jack Kennedy, said that then he put his cufflinks on, he felt the weight of history on his shoulders.

The Kennedy Family might be emblematic of America:

The show dealt with things that nobody argues in history. Whether it was the extramarital affairs, or Marilyn Monroe, or the drug use by Jack and Jackie, mixed in with that was the greatness of the family, the things they were able to get done despite themselves, the show captured that.

Maybe that’s the American story for all of us: we were able to achieve greatness despite ourselves.

Being an American:

He doesn’t see “middle America” as a place:

I think middle America is a mindset. It’s mainly in the middle of the country. But it can be in New York and California. There’s definitely an elitist view of middle America. I think there’s a sense from politicians that they have to look out for middle America because people can’t do it themselves.

The things he wants his children to know about this country:

I’d like them to understand the history and founding of this country and the Constitution. I’d like them to understand that the government gave us no rights. We gave it rights. Never forget that all rights are controlled by us, and the government only gets what we give them. And once you give the government something, it’s really hard to get it back.

I’d like them to understand the sacrifices people made before them. That could be the Founding Fathers, and the risks they took. That could be the soldiers and generals who gave their lives. The families who let the soldiers go to war. The sacrifices that immigrants and immigrant families made to come to this country. They did it because they either were facing immediate persecution or wanted a better future for their families. All of those sacrifices made this country what it is.

We should celebrate the pursuit of happiness:

Being an American means you are able to pursue happiness as you see fit, as long as you’re living within the laws, as long as you’re treating your neighborhood and communities fairly and respectfully. Other than that, it’s wide open.

Your pursuit of happiness is to get in a car and drive 8,000 miles. Someone else’s is to work a job that gets them home at 4:30 so that they can be with their family. Someone else’s is to make sacrifices to build a business, create jobs, and have vast wealth. Part of other people’s pursuit of happiness is to join the military and potentially make the ultimate sacrifice. Everyone has a different path. That’s how this country was founded. Everybody can do it their own way.

Since I was a young guy in business, I feel like we’ve seen a shift in the starting point. In the eighties, I was at a conference, and a guy from Europe told me that we’re lucky to be in America because you can do anything you want unless there’s a specific law inhibiting it. I asked how that was different from Europe. He said in Europe, you can only do something if there’s a law or rule allowing it. In the 30 years since that conversation, we’ve shifted way more toward the European model. You need permission to do anything in business now. It’s slowing our economy down. It’s held back a lot of entrepreneurs, especially small ones.

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Grange is a 28-year-old employee of Enterprise Rent-A-Car (and a kick boxing coach) living in Salt Lake City, Utah. Having grown up the son of an Army officer and as a devout Mormon, his perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the church and civic life were unique.

His good citizenship has limitations:

I have a pretty strong belief local elections are more important than national ones. But I’m a citizen of Colorado, not Utah, so I’m not as active as I could be. I often think I should move my citizenship to Utah so that I could be more involved in this community. On the other hand, my vote has more sway in Colorado, so I’ve left my vote there. It does impact my ability to be a good citizen, though.

His broad idea of citizenship:

Politics is a part of it. But citizenship is really about the impact you’re having on those around you.

How he thinks about political disagreement:

You can disagree with someone, but you can both be passionately helping the community.

I like to think about it this way. I feel passionately about helping the homeless population, so I put a little extra money into it every year. My family cares a lot about education, so they give a little extra to schools every year. Just because I want to support the homeless and they want to support education, just because we disagree with where we are putting our money, does that mean either of us has bad intentions? I don’t think so. We both want to help the community. We just have different ways of getting there.

How schools fail students:

A lot of time in schools we learn there are right answers and wrong answers. Students need to learn that people have different options, which is good so long as they’re thoughtful opinions.

What the Mormon church taught him:

The church attached a lot of importance to family and service. Growing up, I was a boy scout. At least one weekend a month I was volunteering. It instilled a sense of service, gave me good values. I’m still close with my family.

Why he left it:

For me, a big part of why I left related to wrestling with my sexuality. I’m gay, and there just weren’t a lot of options within the church. I explored the celibacy option. I told the church I wanted a family, but would go the celibacy route if I could work with the boy scouts or have a calling that worked with kids. I was told that because I had expressed feelings of attraction to men, I couldn’t do that. So for me, who grew up really valuing family because of the church, not being able to work with or have kids opened a lot of questions for me.

 He doesn’t think the church has an acceptance problem:

I do think the Mormon church is good right now about acceptance and embracing family members of the church. High members of the church are telling people not to shame kids and not to kick them out if they are gay. I don’t think that the church has a problem accepting. It just wasn’t the right fit for me.

His conflicted feelings about critiques of religion and religious people:

When I first left the church, I felt a lot of bitterness towards it. At first, it was easy to fall in with liberals who criticized the thing I was questioning. But it was hard. Most of my family is Mormon and LDS. I still think they’re great people, and I love them. Talking too negatively about the church bothers me because of that. While I agree with the critiques of the philosophy of Church, I had to draw a line when people began to say things like “all Mormons are crazy.”

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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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