Washington D.C.

Washington’s Stories:

In two hours, I’ll leave Washington, D.C., and leave for my next stop: Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. The last few days have been exciting, informative, and intimidating. I had twenty-two amazing interviews, and got practice with people not wanting to speak with me. An Army officer told me about the importance of democratic values and our belief. I spoke with two members of the U.S. State Department, too, about how others perceive us. I heard about the tensions that come with being a Muslim and being an American from Idil.

Just as interestingly, I spoke with many people who don’t live their life around governments. I talked with D.J., an immigrant who believes we can all work together to build one America, and with Amber, who thinks we need to stop thinking bad citizenship is fashionable. If nothing else, I feel more confident now that my work is worth doing. I am more confident now than five days ago that our citizens’ stories are worth telling.

Its Silences:

But the last few days weren’t only about people’s stories. I watched a video in the U.S. Capitol about how out of many people and beliefs, we are one (E Pluribus Unum). And I walked around the National Mall, looking at the statues and buildings that honor our founders and values. Yesterday, I also was able to attend the National Book Fair and think about the books that make us Americans. While there, I sat in on a panel about immigration literature and thought about the balance between assimilating and preserving one’s previous culture.

These moments when I wasn’t interviewing people provided me space to think about my work and our country. I think, more than anything, my time in Washington showed me that there are many ways to be an American. Likewise, there are a lot of types of good citizens. Now, my work is to figure out the exact ways we can be good citizens, and the key things all Americans share. I’m scared to leave a city I know for parts of the country I’ve never been to. But I know what I will find in new places is even more important than what I found in familiar ones.

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

On why he’s a great citizen:

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

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

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

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

On what makes him a good citizen.

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

On the civic values of the military:

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

Why citizenship isn’t a checklist:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why ideas make us Americans:

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

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

On how we can all be better Americans:

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

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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.


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

On why he’s a good citizen:

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

His thoughts on the importance of support:

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

What he thinks all Americans need to know about:

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

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

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

On what makes us Americans:

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

How we can all be better Americans:

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


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Idil is a 23-year old based in D.C. Originally from Turkey, she moved here for college. I was blown away by her passion and her love for America, and I wanted to share her interview.

On why she’s a good citizen:

I think I am a good citizen mostly because I’m a firm believer in public service, and I think that that’s something we have lost over time. I think we don’t have as much faith in government as we used to. I’m everything that the Tea Party hates. I’m a woman. I’m liberal. I’m a Muslim. I’m a feminist. I’m a lot of these things, and I’m an immigrant, and despite all that, I still believe in and fight for American values (by working on government issues). That’s what being a good citizen is all about.

Her keys to being a good citizen:

Political awareness. Belief in American values. Respect for others. Acceptance of others.

Her thoughts on why it’s challenging to be Muslim in America:

I went to a conservative college, and I remember people asking me when I was going to convert (to Christianity). It’s hard to understand why they couldn’t understand the differences between people. I think a lot of people don’t understand secularism. I think in the case of Muslims, 9/11 is responsible for that feeling.  When I say I’m not drinking for Ramadan, people don’t understand. At the same time, because I don’t wear a head scarf, a lot of people here tell me I’m not real Muslim. So it’s rejection on both sides.

Her take on polarization’s effect on citizenship:

It’s tough to say whether people of the opposite political leanings are good citizens. The political climate doesn’t really allow us to endorse the other side’s good side. Even if Kasich were president instead of Trump, we would still say he was so terrible even though Kasich is a pretty moderate Republican and a good guy. Liberals might even say I’m not a good citizen because I might not use the right recycling; others might say I’m not because I don’t renounce my citizenship to Turkey. On the other hand, in my opinion, there are also a lot of people in my generation, especially on the other side of the aisle, who think they’re good citizens but don’t actually do anything to live up to that.

On why freedom is so important to America:

I think freedom better describes what it means to be an American better than opportunity. Opportunity is concentrated. But everyone has freedom. I can quit my job today, and become a coffee barista. And it’s my business. I can also say whatever I want. I can sit in a public environment and talk to you like this. There are a lot of countries you can’t do that in. But freedom should never be used to harm anyone

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