What does it mean to be a good citizen? In the Middle East, many ordinary people are risking their lives to demand governments which respond to citizens, care for citizens, are chosen by citizens. In Tunisia and Egypt, citizens will have the opportunity to choose new governments, a right they have not been able to exercise for decades. In Libya, protesting citizens are being mowed down by machine guns, as Muammar Gaddafi’s government keeps betting on violent repression to keep citizens out of power.
We face no such challenges in Illinois. We have just had a hotly contested election focused on critical issues. No shots were fired. Political campaign crowds were peaceful. The elections were free and fair.
So have we sufficiently exercised our responsibilities as citizens? Is voting the main task of good citizens in a democracy? I don’t think that is nearly enough. Being a good citizen is not mainly participating in elections every November. It means thinking about our neighbors every day. Let me give some examples.
Sidewalks bring up citizenship issues. Our city government cannot afford the machinery to plow our sidewalks after big snow storms. We don’t want our local taxes raised to buy sidewalk Bobcats. We must shovel the sidewalks ourselves, so that our fellow citizens can avoid walking in the streets. One of my neighbors went much further in the direction of good sidewalk citizenship. He paid to have the brick sidewalk in front of his house relaid. Instead of spending his money on home improvements that benefited only his family, he chose to benefit his historic neighborhood. That was heroic local citizenship.
Litter is a citizenship issue. Dropping your junk in public places shows disdain for fellow citizens. Picking up litter helps keep our neighborhoods clean and attractive. Speaking up when we see others littering is teaching good citizenship.
Recycling is a citizenship issue. Reducing the waste that must be buried, and allowing our resources to be reused benefits all of us. It takes extra time to separate our garbage, and that is exactly what good citizenship is – taking time and effort to do something good for our community.
I pick these mundane examples deliberately. Most of us are capable only of small deeds. We cannot leave our homes to volunteer in disaster zones, or make million-dollar contributions, or motivate crowds of people to take action. All we can do is to lead our lives in a way which contributes positively to the larger communities in which we live.
I like to plant trees. We know that planting trees is good for the earth: they convert carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into oxygen; they prevent erosion; they offer shade and beauty. My most recent tree is a stick about 2 feet high. Its contribution to our environment will be minuscule. But planting trees, cleaning up litter, helping a person in need, donating to charity are like voting. They are what one person can do and what we all should do to make our country work. Alone we feel powerless, but we are not alone. Our future does not depend on the very rich or the very famous. It depends on whether we value the small things we all can accomplish.
It matters how we approach our roles as citizens. If we all rush out and buy guns, scream at people whose ideas we disagree with, and promote hatred of others in our communities, we will live in a violent, dangerous, angry society. If we all shovel sidewalks and pick up litter and take other small but constructive steps to make our lives and our neighbors’ lives better, our society will be healthy, friendly and strong.
Citizen action represents faith in the future and the strength of numbers. Rather than despair about how little difference my one tree can make, I rejoice in the years of beauty it will provide long after I’m gone. One tree isn’t much, but the 50 trees I have planted in the last 25 years already create landscapes of shade and health. Add my trees to those planted by millions of others, and we can transform our environment, make our communities more livable, give our children a better earth.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 22, 2011