I’ll admit, this post comes after a number of failures on my part. Working in the social services field means I’m often seeing the direct, day-to-day impact of policy changes, which can feel frustrating. I’ve gotten lost in my share of ugly internet debates. I’ve burnt out trying to address everything I care about at once. I’ve found myself feeling bitter and even despondent. I don’t think any of these reactions was “wrong,” but, none of them helped me to be a better citizen, nor did they make me feel any better. So, I went back to the drawing board. What does citizenship actually mean?
the fact or status of being a citizen of a particular place
the qualities that a person is expected to have as a responsible member of a community
This post is about the second definition. What kind of qualities make someone a responsible member of a community? I’ve spent a lot of time lately trying to figure out what it looks like to be a good citizen and how to have good citizenship in a way that was healthy, sustaining, and encouraging growth, while not shying away from taking responsibility for truths that need addressing. I came up with a combination of four areas of citizenship: ownership, goodwill, education, and action. Focusing on these four areas has helped me to be a happier and more effective citizen, so I wanted to share in case they were helpful to others as well.
Now, by ownership, I mean recognizing the ways in which we benefit (if indeed we do) from being a citizen of a particular governance or organization and then feeling a responsibility for our part in that governance or organization. Maybe we have the opportunity to attend a school. Maybe we can use emergency services. Maybe our area has public museums or parks. When we do benefit from our citizenship, perhaps this can bring about a sense of both gratitude and responsibility. I like to think that we as citizens of our nations and our communities can take a certain pride and ownership in helping maintain services that are for the benefit of all people. It also means realizing the impact that our decisions can have in the community as a whole and taking ownership of the results of our decisions.
By goodwill, I mean having a general attitude of cooperation and good intent towards others. This means humanizing individuals from all walks of life. I don’t take this to mean always being agreeable with everyone; in some circumstances, it may mean standing one’s ground or setting boundaries without resorting to disrespect or ridicule. I think that setting boundaries and standing our ground can sometimes be an act of kindness and compassion, if this is done with an attitude of goodwill. And personally, I think it is much easier to have goodwill towards others if we first practice self-love and self-acceptance. I find it is much more difficult to empathize from a place of hurt, shame, or fear.
By education, I mean immersing oneself in the diverse needs and challenges of the community. To me, this means not only consuming a variety of media sources with strong codes of ethics, but also making efforts to reach out to community members from all walks of life. This means going out of our comfort zone and questioning our preconceived notions. If this feels time-consuming, it doesn’t have to be. It can mean making small changes over time, such as as liking social media pages about various social or environmental interests or subscribing to brief email updates, and in turn sharing that information with others. To dig deeper, volunteering can be a great way to learn more about community needs, and can be fun at the same time! Which leads me to…
Action. I find it most helpful to focus on action-oriented solutions. While it’s great to have a general knowledge of community needs, I would recommend picking one or two causes to become actively involved in so you don’t burn out. This means finding effective ways of giving back to the community and also sharing those ways with others. I would also personally encourage statistically significant, data-driven ways of giving back. Look into annual reports and results of studies, if they are available. Action has an added benefit because I find that negative people tend to have a harder time arguing with concrete actions rather than words. Action can be anything from volunteer work to donations, to engaging in community events to, of course, giving feedback and voting on issues. And finally, action might sometimes mean accepting that the way in which we have previously engaged as citizens might be harmful, and making meaningful changes to better the way we interact with our communities.
Now, when I find myself in a political or social conundrum or a disagreement, I move down that list. Am I taking good ownership on the issue as a member of my community? Am I responding in a way that exhibits goodwill to others? Do I have enough education on the subject at hand, and if so, have I taken the time to help educate others? And finally, have I taken action towards effective change rather than just talking about the issue?
You may be wondering what any of this has to do with investments and why I’ve included it in the investment series. Well, as Dr. Martin Luther King once said,
“Whatever effects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
Never forget that when we invest in our community as a whole, we also invest in ourselves. To me, citizenship is a verb, not a noun. There are so many different ways of being engaged citizens of our communities. When we take the responsibility to learn more about our communities’ needs and act accordingly, we are able to pay forward the benefits that being members of that community has afforded us.
Do you like these tenants of ownership, goodwill, education and action? Is there something else related to good citizenship that I’ve overlooked? Or, is there a tactic you use in order to be a happier, more engaged citizen of your community?