Interviews

Margy is a secretarial assistant at Bowling Green State University. She lives in Tontogany, Ohio, a town of only 400 people. Her father was a veteran, and she has internalized that commitment to our country and flag.

On the moment she realized the importance of citizenship:

I never thought about it at all until I was called to be on jury duty and said, “I’m not going to do it.” My mom said I’d be an excellent juror, and it was my duty. And so I went.

What she thinks makes people a good citizen:

I think being a good citizen is respecting your government. It’s respecting your flag. I was taught that you respect the president, no matter who’s in office. It doesn’t matter whether he’s the person you voted for or not. Unfortunately, you don’t see that much today.

Her civic pet-peeve:

It really bothers me when I see people rioting, because I think that it makes the whole United States look bad. I don’t remember Republicans rioting like Democrats have been recently when Obama was elected president.

What civic respect looks like in action:

Respect is standing up when you say the Pledge of the Allegiance, at school and at ball games. You’re not only doing it for the country, you’re also doing it for the people who lost their lives to give us the freedom we have today. The flag is important for all of us, for where it’s been all over the world. We should have it outside our houses.

Her experience with people of the opposite political party is reassuring:

I think that people of the opposite political party are good citizens, and I think they’d say the same about me. Where I work is very liberal, so I try to keep my tone down. One professor told me, “Margy, you’re perfect, except that you’re a Republican.” I laughed, and said, “I could say the same about you being a Democrat.” I listen to Democrats, I understand them, and sometimes I agree with them.

What she thinks politicians need to do:

They all just need to sit down and talk. It’s not this party versus that party. We’re in this together. Politicians need to start (seeing) that. They need to be working together, for us.

She’s skeptical of students’ civic education:

They don’t even teach civics anymore. At all. What a shame. I think kids need to learn about voting. I think kids aren’t taught that enough. So, they’re just going to learn what their parents say.

Her perspective on immigration in the wake of 9/11:

I think that if immigrants obey the laws that we set out, they can be an American. It’s respecting the flag, and having honor. They should also have that love of country. I understand the fear of Middle Eastern immigrants since 9/11. I think we just need to look at people’s paper work more closely (before they come in). But once people are here, we shouldn’t send them home.

Read more

Danijela is the Women’s Volleyball Coach at Bowling Green State University. After immigrating here from Bosnia in 1995, she is about to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Witnessing the war in Yugoslavia has given her a strong perspective on America and our role as citizens.

On what she tries to teach her players about citizenship and leadership:

I want them to be themselves. I want them to understand that who they are – their uniqueness – is good. It makes the world better. We don’t want everyone to be the same; it’d be a boring world. During college, I think it’s important for them to have support (in becoming themselves).

I’ve also told them, most importantly, to stand up for justice. We’ve talked about how when they see injustice happen, they need to act, because if you don’t act, you approve (that injustice). That’s something I want them to get out of being my players. You don’t stay silent and watch history pass you. You need to be active. Last year, I encouraged them all to vote. I told them it doesn’t matter who they vote for; they need to vote. They need to participate in the process of democracy.

Her perspective on citizenship based on the war in Yugoslavia:

I think the duties of a citizen (come down to) defending democracy. I think I have a different perspective because I witnessed the war in Bosnia and Croatia, where hate divided the country. Bosnia was specific; it was the most multicultural of the countries in Yugoslavia. To see how manipulation, propaganda, and hate can ruin people’s lives (is horrible). And then to have a second chance and come here, where people don’t care who you are, at least from my perspective (with the caveat of the experience of African-Americans throughout history), and now see signs of what was happening in Yugoslavia, and knowing how dangerous it is, it’s very important we protect democracy.

Her diagnosis of how Americans fall short as citizens:

People take democracy for granted here. People here haven’t experienced war, or seen what I’ve seen.

Why free inquiry makes U.S. citizenship unique and special:

Even before the war, being in a citizen in Yugoslavia was completely different. You did what you’re supposed to do, what you were told to do. We had a good life. But it’s really different how people debate and think different ideas, different ideologies, and that’s okay here. We should debate, and have dialogue, and have different ideas here. And that’s celebrated. I think we have the best democracy (a country) could have. Studying for my citizenship test, I think it’s a very special thing, having the oldest Constitutional system in the world, and we should cherish it and try to make it better.

Her thoughts on the proposed border wall:

I have an issue that in the 21st century that there’s a policy based on building a wall. I see it as un-American. As an immigrant, it’s hard to see that.

The most important things Americans need to know about our history:

The first thing we all need to understand is that all men are created equal. I don’t know how much clearer that should be.

We all also need to know that this country was built by immigrants. Unless you’re a Native American, you’re from somewhere else, and that’s what makes this country special.

On the key to being an American:

I think being an American means embracing the uniqueness of everybody. If you don’t embrace that tapestry of this country, if you don’t embrace it and say this is who we are and this is what makes us great, I think it’s un-American, because we all came from somewhere else.

Read more

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

On why they aren’t great citizens:

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

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

James also thinks his cynicism holds him back:

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

On the source of his cynicism:

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

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

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

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

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

On their respective keys to good citizenship:

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

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

Their thoughts on citizenship and the political divide:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more

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

Jessica, Nanny

 

 

 

Read more

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.

Read more

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”

Read more

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

On why she’s a good citizen:

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

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

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

Read more

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

Read more

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.

Read more

Elizabeth works at a non-profit that helps refugees. I wanted to share a specific story she told that I found quite moving.

A Refugee’s Story:

One of my former colleagues was a Bhutanese/Nepali refugee, who was kept in jail and tortured for twenty years in a refugee camp. He didn’t have a nation. When he finally came here, he said the first morning he woke up in Buffalo, it was like he saw a new sun.

It took him seven years to earn his citizenship. He said, “Now, I have an identity.” He felt like America offered him dignity, humanity, and a place to call home.

Her Response:

His story made me value my own citizenship on a whole new level. I never considered not having a place to call home. I never thought about not having a country to call my own. In helping refugees, I watched a lot of citizenship ceremonies. Every time, it brought a tear to my eye.

On What Draws Refugees to America Generally:

Freedom for your children to have an education. Refugees want a better education and life for their children. Everyone here wants their children to go to school and do better than the generation before. That’s a pretty universal value, but definitely something refugees want when they come here.

 

Read more