On Being A Citizen

Kindergarteners children with teacher

Anyone who has parented a toddler has learned the hard way that you can’t reason with a child of that age. So you devise strategies (some good, some not so much) to get the child to do what you want them to do with the least amount of yelling and screaming from both of you. These include 1) Offering limited, either/or choices: you can wear this dress or this one); 2) Bribery: if you take your bath, you can watch TV; 3) Frightening the child with dire consequences: you’ll get sick if you don’t wear your coat; 4) Comparing the child with someone who complies: your brother ate all his peas, why can’t you? and 5) when all else fails, you force the kid to do what you want and endure the screaming and crying, knowing that eventually the child will exhaust herself and fall asleep.

Sadly, this is how our government relates to us these days. [read more=”Click here to Read More” less=”Read Less”] Think about it. Politicians offer us limited either/or choices based on a mindset of scarcity: You can take lower wages or lose your job. They try to bribe us: If you allow Company A to build adjacent to City Park, we will give you new playground equipment. They try to scare us: If we don’t stop the flow of immigrants, our country will be overrun with rapists and murderers. They compare us unfavorably to others: Based on standardized test scores, our schools are worse than (insert city, state, or nation here). And then, when all else fails, whatever change that the powers-that-be want is forced upon us and while there is public outcry, eventually we become collectively exhausted and roll over and pass into an uneasy sleep knowing that things are not as they should be.

We then go about our lives with the niggling feeling that we’re missing something. We are haunted by the idea, even though we may be getting along okay personally, that there are so many things that need to be fixed. We shake our heads in dismay as we watch another story on public schools in financial, physical, or staffing crisis, hear about more budget cuts for our most vulnerable citizens and public education, and listen to our so-called leaders bicker endlessly and not accomplish anything of value. We are bombarded by news day and night from every electronic device—voices screaming at us that only they offer the truth. It’s so overwhelming that we work to shut everything out except the voices that make us feel comfortable with our own worldview. Sometimes we shut down entirely. We do what we can to cope with an ever-increasing negative view of the world and keep our lives bumping along day after day.

From the stress of trying to get along and feeling powerless, we get angry. We yell, “Why doesn’t somebody DO something?” “These people (insert any group or special interest here) need to be held accountable!” Social media explodes with these sentiments in response to every state, national, or world crisis or political scandal. And after anger, comes cynicism. According to the Pew Research Center, just 19% of us trust the federal government to do what is right always or most of the time. And, the report adds, over two-thirds of us believe that politicians are inherently less honest and more selfish than the rest of Americans.

The campaign and election of Donald Trump was designed by people who are experts on playing upon our anger and fears. They beat a drum of inequality, fear, and the myth of scarcity in order to turn us against one another.  And it’s working; polarizing propaganda is at an all time high, and the chasm between right and left is larger than it’s ever been. This chasm is dangerous: “Every colonial and autocratic regime rises to power by turning citizens against each other.” (Block, 2008)

But we have been complicit in our own fate. By railing against the government and demanding accountability without taking action, we have become toddlers, screaming for what we want, whimpering when we don’t get it, settling for what we can get, and pouting because it’s not what we really wanted. We have abdicated our responsibility for our fellow human beings, our community, our schools, our state, and our nation to a patriarchal government who swears they know what is best for us if we’d only just cooperate.

For too long you and I have been unengaged as citizens. If you’re like me, you’ve voted in most elections; perhaps you tweet and Facebook about things that bother you. But being a citizen is so much more than that. According to Peter Block, noted organizational guru, “a citizen is one who is willing to be accountable for and committed to the well-being of the whole.” Notice that nowhere in Block’s definition of being a citizen is complaining, labeling the opposition, or whining that we’re powerless. No, Block defines a citizen as one who is willing to be accountable for the state of affairs in which we find ourselves and committed to making it better.

What does it mean to be accountable? Researcher and author Brene Brown says, “To be accountable is to act as an owner and creator of what exists in the world, including the light and dark corners of my own existence.” That is a much different way of being than we are now.

We really are at a critical juncture in history. We must take a good look at ourselves and acknowledge our part in the political drama in which we find ourselves—“the light and dark corners” of our own existence. Once acknowledged, we then have a choice: to jump “all in” to rebuild our collective sense of community, focus on what unites us, and work together for positive change, or allow this toxic political environment to continue to poison us against one another. We must move away from retribution and win/lose scenarios, and stop thinking that some messiah is coming to make it all better. We have to stop buying into the narrative of fear and fault, and come together as citizens to create a community where we are all accountable for its success, a success that is defined by more than dollars and cents, shiny new buildings, and a rising stock market. We need to imagine and dream and create a vision of community at the local, state, and federal levels. We need to start with the questions: What brings us together? What can I do? What can we do together?

We are not toddlers at the mercy of some unjust parent. We are adults who have taken our collective eyes off the ball and let our democracy be chipped away year after year while we were busy dealing with our daily lives. We trusted in our elected officials and in the ideas that most politicians govern on our behalf and that things are bound to get better. But now we know these are spurious beliefs. And now that we know, we must don the mantle of citizenship and become a “creator and owner of what exists in the world.” We must take action to save public schools. We must take action so that Abraham Lincoln’s words do not become just a faded passage in some long-forgotten narrative: “that this government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Brown, Brene (2015). Rising Strong, Random House Publishing.
Block, Peter (2009). Community: The Structure of Belonging, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Pew Research Center (2015). 6 Key Takeaways About How Americans View Their Government. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/23/6-key-takeaways-about-how-americans-view-their-government/[/read]