Please Be Seated

 

“...with liberty and justice for all please be seated.

If you ask my first-grader to recite the pledge of allegiance, there will be something in the middle about a republic for-wishes-she-stands, a series of syllables approximating the word ‘indivisible,’ and seating directions as a grand finale. It is the pledge, sort of, but we didn’t teach it to her. She learned it at school. 

She recites it, most mornings, in the company of about 250 students from about 25 countries. I marvel as I watch them, so typical in their fidgeting and the way they fumble over the words, so striking in their diversity. As we pledge allegiance together, I think about what it means to be a citizen of the U.S. There is the legal definition, of course, and not every child in the room would currently fall under this status. But when I consider, “How many children in this room will grow up to be citizens?” I’m not just thinking about legal status. The question is deeper. Will they grow up to be citizens, active members of the political community they share with their neighbors in their city, in their state and in their country? That is, will they embody the pledge they recite? 

Will they come to participate in the United States’ ever-evolving quest for ‘liberty and justice for all’?

And, do I? To be honest, it is a question that I do not often ask myself. My citizenship is usually buried far below my other priorities at home and work, surfacing three times a year--once for the primaries, once for the general election, and once on the frantic day in early April when I ask my husband, “Have you started the taxes yet?” When the topic of citizenship came up at the Community Institute for Education it was a bit unsettling. I knew that my voting-and-taxes paradigm was flawed, but it was hard to imagine doing much more. 

And so, when our facilitator asked us “What do citizens need in order to fulfill our responsibilities?” I put Time at the top of my list. The other participants added: Information. Clarity. Power. Authority. Creativity. A Diverse Community of Stakeholders. Professional guidance. Relationships. A Pen or a Keyboard. A Microphone. The Will to Act.

“And if a group of citizens had all these things,” she asked, “what would we do?” 

It was as if she had turned the process on its head. Instead of starting with ‘what will you do?’, she had asked ‘what do you need?’ And because we started by addressing what we needed, we could begin to imagine how we would act if we were equipped, if we could find the time, information, and other resources. 

What if? Animated by this question, our vision expanded.

One participant would explore early literacy advocacy in her community, and another would collaborate with administrators and community groups to find stable housing for vulnerable families. Others would address suspension alternatives, collaboration among schools, and equitable pay for adjunct professors. And I would reduce class sizes for a gymnasium of flag-pledging kids. 

These were issues we cared deeply about--we had the Will to act. Now, if we could just find the other things we needed, we might be able to put our citizenship into action—because we realized our citizenship was not  a collection of occasional acts like voting and doing taxes-it was a common calling we all shared.

 

Digging Deeper:

Take a moment to look at the list above: What citizens need in order to fulfill their responsibilities. Starting with “The Will to Act,” what do you deeply care about? Looking at the rest of the list, what are you lacking that would help you move forward on this issue? How could you pursue these things? Who could help? 

How does your citizenship affect your daily life? How does the way you engage with your citizenship impact your community?  

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