As I’ve been developing the Citizen Who project, I’ve struck up a wide range of conversations about the content of citizenship. A couple of months ago, I spoke at a cabaret/salon in Seattle called “That Thing.” It’s held every month in the cramped back room of a divey Viking-themed restaurant (who knew?) called The Coppergate. Twenty people can squeeze in there, maybe 25. Anyone can have the mic for up to seven minutes. Up stepped a variety of singers, dancers, storytellers, poets, actors, and other performers.
And me. I was the designated civic nerd in this hip artistic evening. I used my time to explain the Commerce Clause of the Constitution and, more broadly, to decry the radical individualism undergirding the notion that one should not be “forced” into commerce by Obamacare. People loved it. During intermission a spirited discussion ensued.
At the next That Thing, I used my seven minutes to explain the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment. My starting point was the recent controversy over birthright citizenship. But I went beyond legal definitions to the more normative aspects of the issue: how does one have to behave in order to be thought of as a citizen?
On Friday, I took a similar set of questions to a very different setting: two combined AP Government classes at Garfield High School in Seattle’s Central District. My message to the students there was that every policy choice operates within a larger context of the values and attitudes of citizens–whether the policy is same-sex marriage or taxation of the rich or health care.
So I decided to enlarge the frame by asking a few simple questions:
• What’s a citizen?
• What’s an American?
• Who formed your norms?
• Do you have power? If so, what kind?
The students–a diverse group of 40 smart, engaged high school seniors–came up with some beautiful and powerful responses.
What’s a citizen? An active participant in community life. Someone born here. Someone legally connected to the nation. Those were the first three responses, and they invited further questions. Is it about mere birth? Should contribution count? Should contribution trump not being born here? What does a “legal connection to the nation” mean, and who, in the end, decides what is a legal connection?
We went on to talk about norms and the way that the law can say one thing while social norms say another. A contemporary instance is the question of same-sex marriage, which is on the ballot in Washington this fall. The legislature legalized it, the governor signed the bill, and opponents have since filed a referendum. Whatever happens as a matter of law this November, social attitudes are shifting, and in our discussion we considered how such change happens.
What forms civic norms? Parents and elders, region, peers, religion–these were some of their answers. But perhaps the most moving reflection came from an Asian-American student named Kevin who talked about how his grandmother had, all his life, held deep resentment toward blacks. He now saw her trying to pass on those attitudes to a younger relative. So he had determined to take that youngster under his wing and introduce him to friends of his from the black community. He understood why his grandmother felt as she did. During the riots of the late 1960s, her husband had been beaten and their restaurant destroyed by black rioters. But she just didn’t understand that things had changed.
This was a powerful instance not only of how norms can evolve within a single family but also of how everyday people hold great power. Kevin had the power to stop the transmission of an unhealthy attitude. His generation has the power to change norms about whether gays and lesbians can claim the full range of citizen identity. As I’ve written elsewhere, I think all civics should be turned explicitly into a curriculum of power: what it is, where it comes from, how it’s used.
The students intuited the kinds of power they have–and don’t have. On the cusp of graduation, they’re beginning to feel the power that comes with autonomy, but they also lamented how the pressure of applying to colleges had made them feel drained and powerless to change the terms of the Millennial generation’s life-status rat race.
This led us to a fruitful conversation of how people their age are in fact challenging the status quo in ways large and small. From the youth who sparked the Arab Spring or fueled the Occupy movement to the kids and their parents who have begun a campaign of deliberate resistance to standardized testing in schools, all around them are exemplars of young citizens sparking changes in mindset and in policy.
Our conversation closed with a reconsideration of what an American is. We are, I reminded them, inheritors. We each are asked to sustain something so easily taken for granted. That thing–a proposition of equality, a dream of opportunity–is not renewed automatically. It depends, as does a citizen salon like That Thing, on people showing up. These young people are ready. Whether they plan to be firefighters, engineers, politicians, musicians, research scientists–and all those futures were in the room–they know their role as citizens. They have ideas. They have something to say. And, as I continue my harvesting of story and self-story for Citizen Who, I’m so glad I heard them.
Eric Liu is a fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion and author of several books, including The Gardens of Democracy, Guiding Lights, and The Accidental Asian. He was a speechwriter and later deputy domestic policy advisor to President Bill Clinton. He founded and runs the Guiding Lights Weekend conference on creative citizenship.
*Photo courtesy of Mr. T in DC.