National Trends

Concerns about the media:

When’s the last time you read a new media source? Or a source that doesn’t promote your world view? I ask because a theme I have heard in the last week or two is that it’s hard to trust the news these days, that people are turning it off. Jon, from South Bend, said, “I never know what to trust. The inaccuracies and political bias on both sides are absurd. I’m not smart enough to know what’s true or what’s not.” Rick said that he now turns off the news. This problem wasn’t unique to Indiana. Maxwell, a student at Bowling Green State, said that he feels like the media distorts our opinions of one another.

Staying informed:

Despite people’s concerns about the media, many interviewees, especially Matthew from University of Chicago, mention the importance of “being informed.” I agree them that knowing what’s happening in our communities and country is really important to being a good citizen. We can’t take political action if we don’t know what’s happening. Serving people is harder if we don’t the problems. It’s difficult to be respectful if we don’t know what’s happening in our neighborhood. Continue reading Staying Informed

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Last week, I wrote about stepping out of my educational bubble and how much it taught me. This week, I spent 4.5 days in Detroit and 2.5 days in Mishawaka, Indiana. During this time, I got a crash course in how both race and religion impact people as citizens.

During college, at home, and the news I often find that many people don’t recognize how much race and racism still affect so many Americans’ lives. Admittedly, as a white person, I will never fully understand. My time in Detroit, though, gave me needed insight into the personal ways racism still harms many African-Americans every day.

In my conversations with people from the coasts, I also frequently find they don’t quite understand the positive role that religion and the Church play in other’s lives. Admittedly, I don’t either. But in the last few days, I feel like I have come to see why religion matters so much to people

Structural Racism:

For those who don’t know, Detroit is 83% black. Due to white flight and the government policies that encouraged it, many of the Detroit’s black population has remained in the city, even while its economy struggled tremendously. Contrastingly, many white, affluent people in the area live in the suburbs and work downtown. They don’t pay the property taxes the city has desperately needed and don’t necessarily have an investment in Detroit’s schools or community well-being. As Detroit’s schools have struggled, the people who have been hurt are disproportionately black and disproportionately low-income. This sort of structural racism didn’t surprise me. I’ve seen it in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. It shows up in the civic learning gaps of students nationwide and the wealth gaps in cities such as Boston. It’s a civic problem, as well as a moral one, one that hurts democracy and makes equal engagement difficult.

Personal Racism:

But this recognition about structural problems often doesn’t create an emotional reaction for people. Statistics often don’t tell our stories or convince people to change. This week, I heard the more personal side of racism, one that as a white person who grew up in the suburbs, I heard very little about in my life.  One of my interviewees told me a story that brought tears to my eyes. He talked about when he was twelve and at a little league baseball game. Out of nowhere, a man in his mid-thirties – the parent of another play – screamed out from the crowd, “You little (n-word).” This man is now forty. Twenty-eight years later, he points to this moment as pivotal in his childhood and his ideas about America.

This story was just the beginning. Nicholas told me about how people used to cross the street when they saw him with dreadlocks, even though, he’s “the biggest nerd in the world.” Later that day, in an Uber, the driver, who was black, told me that recently, a rider referred to him as a “gorilla.” He said it took all of his self-control not to kick the man out of the car and curse him out.

The next day, Aisha told me about how growing up, neighbors would scribble racial epithets across her mailbox. Her parents put her in a different school district to avoid the people who did these sorts of things. And Adriel told me about when he realized that the three-fifths compromise existed, and how that undermined his feelings about our country. I spoke with eight black people in Detroit, and each had a story about racism hurting them.

Hearing these stories and learning about Detroit’s structural inequality in no way makes make me an expert. I have the luxury of not worrying about hearing these types of insults. I don’t have a childhood marred by the racist behavior of a grown man. But the last few days have underscored for me that when we talk about citizenship, when we talk about being a good community member, when we talk about respecting each other, we need to take race into account. We need to fight racism. Otherwise, the communities I’ve heard people describe and hope for can’t exist.

Religion and Community: 

Before this week, I knew even less about religion and the role it plays in our country than I did about racism’s impact on American life. In Mishawaka, I saw firsthand how much God shapes people’s lives. And, even more than that, I saw how important the community the church provides for people is.

I spent Sunday at Granger Community Church (GCC), a mega church in Granger, Indiana. When I drove in, I was stunned that the place was a church. It looked like a massive, modern school. At Granger, I sensed the same connection and community there that I often felt in my high school. When I walked in, people greeted me and my hosts, asking us how we were and how we were feeling. In the atrium, I saw a cafe and a bookstore, where people talked to each other and found texts that helped them think about their lives. I watched as people streamed into the auditorium to pray. Downstairs, there were classrooms, play areas, and praying spaces for children of all different ages.

Two hours later, after speaking with congregants about the role God plays in their life as citizens, I sat through a service. The topic was marriage. Certainly, there were aspects of the conversation that I disagreed with. When the Pastor said that having Christ at the center of marriage is key, I felt myself push back. But, at the same time, much of what he talked about resonated with me. He discussed the importance of good, healthy habits in relationships. Then, he used passages from the Bible to illustrate good and bad habits. He showed a video of a couple who used religion to heal their relationship after an affair. Just as countless articles have helped me in my relationships, countless bible verses had helped this couple and many others.

The Religious Divide: 

A conversation I had later that night confirmed the impact the Church has on people as citizens. One person I spoke with, an Evangelical Christian, talked about how God has shaped his idea of citizenship. He said, “Following what God has said naturally will make you a good citizen. The morals, ethics, and values that make a good citizen come from the Bible.”

We agreed on these ethics: hard work, honesty, love for others. When he later asked me my beliefs on God, I was frank with him. I told I him have struggled to find faith in my life. I explained, though, that I’ve turned to other sources, such as history and the classroom, to learn the lessons God taught him. He smiled and nodded, and then we talked about education reform.

The differences between me and this man were numerous. I’m an Agnostic from the East Coast who hasn’t attended a religious service in years. He was an Evangelical Christian from the Mid-West, whose goal is to raise children who love God. But we could still understand each other, understand we both wanted to be the best people we could be. I traveled America to learn about its people. For a lot of people, God, Christ, and their teachings have shaped their values and their communities. I wouldn’t be able to fully understand citizenship in America without talking to them.

Confronting Our Blind Spots: 

When I spent time at Findlay Community College, I realized why I need to leave my bubble more. In learning so much about race in Detroit and religion in Mishawaka, I recognized that I have blind spots. I would define blind spots as aspects of society I don’t understand as well as I should, often because of who I am, racially, educationally, and socioeconomically. Blind spots and bubbles are closely related. But I think blind spots, in some ways, are easier to fill. We can read about issues we don’t understand. We can reach out to people in our communities who may be different from us. For example, I could have learned about religion in college by talking to religious groups.

I do think, though, that part of being a good citizen is at least recognizing one’s blind spots. If we at least recognize what we don’t understand about others, we will be more likely to listen. Listening is something that many people I’ve spoken with have mentioned we all need to do better. As one person at GCC said to me, “We could be better Americans if we shut up, quit talking, and start listening. Western culture fosters that.  We (need to) stop debating for a minute, and listen to something on the other side, and see where they’re coming from. Then we can allow that to either bolster what we already believe or morph and change it for the better. Because we don’t have it all figured out.”

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A Quiz

A quick quiz: Can you name your U.S. Senators? And your U.S. house representative? What about your state senator? And your local school board chief and mayor? If that were a civics test, I’d fail. In fact, if I gave myself two chances to take the test, in both Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, I’d get 2/6 both times.

Knowing Our Representatives:

I highlight these questions and my failure to answer them to suggest a simple way we could all improve as political actors. We should all know who represents us. When I asked Maggie and Lisa, who both work in foreign policy, three things all Americans need to know about their country, they immediately mentioned that we needed to know all of our representatives. There’s a lot of ways we can achieve this goal. We could vote in every election, local, state, and federal. We could keep up to date on local news, not just national headlines. Or we could be active, and contact our representatives when we identify a problem.

Why our representatives matter:

But, as simple as it sounds, knowing who represents us – our values, our ideas, our wants, our needs – at every level, on as many issues as possible, is so crucial. For me, the issue I care most about is educational equity. If I wanted to act through our political system, I would need to know the Superintendent in Lower Merion or Philadelphia. I know neither. In other words, I talk a big game, but I don’t have the basic information I need to try to convince public servants to change their mind.

A lot of us are in this boat. I would bet most people reading this post would get a 66% or worse on the quiz I gave above; a Benson Strategy Group poll found that 77% of people don’t know their state senators. We can name the famous politicians, the people who anger and excite us. But much of our lives is decided by other public servants. Local representatives who have lived in their communities, ran with small budgets, and won on tight margins decide most policies and dictate community responses to problems.

If my first suggestion was to engage others directly in your community, my next is to know who you need to engage to create systematic change, big or small. If we don’t know who represents us, we can’t hold them accountable. We can’t influence the system. And we can’t speak in an informed way about our communities. Sometimes, the simplest civic tests are the most important ones.

Looking for your elected officials? Common Cause allows you to find every elected official who your community played a part in electing!


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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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If the word that people most associate with America so far is freedom, then the word they talk about most when discussing citizenship is respect. In our discussion, Idil said that ultimately, “Everything comes down to respect” in public life. Amber talked about the idea in a different way. She noted that it seems like it’s “trendy” today to be rude to others, and this trend is a problem. Finally, in Mercersburg, Darla said she was a good citizen because she “treats people with respect and dignity” regardless of their background.

Civic Life:

But just like freedom has operated on two levels in my conversations, respect has had several meanings, too. The first type of respect is a set of actions within the community. In this definition, People abide by the laws and don’t harm the community. They pay their taxes, don’t speed, and go to jury duty. These acts aren’t out of service for people like Tom from St. Paul and Tess from D.C. They perform them because they see it as a basic duty – as the “right thing” for our country and their communities. I think this mentality could be called “civic respect.”

Continue reading The Many Levels of Respect

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

Individual Freedom:

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

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Given that data suggests citizenship is in poor condition, I wanted to find some existing ideas on good citizenship. Below, I provide three different visions of what citizenship could and should be. None of these are meant to represent my ideas; I’ll publish those later. Instead, these examples outline some of the amazing efforts of others to encourage good citizenship.

Generation Citizen: Confidence + Habit = Participation

The front banner of Generation Citizen’s website makes its mission clear. It reads: “Generation Citizen believes all students have the right to civics education that prepares them to participate in our democracy.”  The organization, according to employee Sydney Menzin, seeks to “build a habit among citizens to be engaged.” The tool to realizing this idea?  An action civics curriculum, taught to 5th through 12th graders across the country.

Menzin says habit-forming is key because students need to be confident citizens. One story Menzin told me stood out. At first, students often say that there’s no way they can make a difference. They believe no one important will listen to them. But then volunteers, who are local college students, show videos of previous students’ experiences. These students talk about senators who wrote them back and projects that city governments implemented. After seeing the video, students begin to believe they can make a difference.

Continue reading Existing Ideas on Citizenship

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Before I left for my travels, I wanted to know the state of citizenship in our country. What are people saying? Does it seem like people are good citizens? Do they care if they are? Existing research suggests I might be in for a disappointing trip.

Civics Education Failing?

If tests are any indication, it seems like struggles with civic engagement begin at a young age in America. On the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 23% of 8th graders were considered proficient in Civics. The average student scored a startling twenty-six points below the proficient level. But students do not only lack knowledge. They also lack an appreciation for citizenship’s and citizens’ importance. For me, the most alarming finding from NAEP was that fewer than one-in-five students could “explain how citizen participation affects democracy.”

Democratic Decline

It’d be one thing if only our youngest citizens lacked knowledge and confidence. But I found that these problems continue and maybe even worsen as people age. Researchers Robert Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk recently showed that almost a third of American millennials do not believe that living in a democracy is “essential.” 24% even think democracies are bad or very bad. Sadly, people vote at rates that suggest they really do feel this way. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that the United States ranks 28th out of 35 OECD member countries in voter turnout and that only 64.1% of eligible Americans are registered to vote.

It didn’t surprise me, then, that a Google research team showed that almost 50% of Americans could be described as “Interested Bystanders.” We, as Americans, tend to be people who are “paying attention to issues around them, but actively not voicing their opinions or taking action on those issues.” People want to be involved, but they often don’t know how. Likewise, it seems like people prefer local civics – because they feel like they can make a difference – but still don’t vote in local elections.

My Take on Citizenship Today

American citizenship appears to be in a difficult place. People aren’t voting. They don’t trust the federal government. And maybe most importantly, they don’t feel like they matter.

But the point of this trip is to go beyond the data, beyond the common narrative. I want to know what people think when they talk to someone on the street about these issues, and I want to know if they do care, but just don’t know how to show that they care. Citizenship is more than a number, or casting a ballot. I think it is about stories and experiences. I know it’s about how people live their lives as Americans and members of their communities. Hopefully my project will offer more detail on whether citizenship really is so dire.

More Resources:

Want to learn more on the state of Civic Health? Visit these sites!

Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools

Pew Research Center

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