How to be an active citizen

active citizen

Citizenship has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been worrying about Harley’s South African citizenship, her American citizenship, wondering about emigrating despite Trump becoming president, and a whole host of other things. On the one hand, I’ve thought of citizenship as a privilege – I’m privileged to have an American passport that allows me to travel easily, something I notice more with a South African husband. However, with today being inauguration day, I want to talk a little bit about citizenship as a responsibility, and how each of us can be an active citizen.

Whenever election day rolls around, either here in South Africa or in the States, I make a pretty big deal of it. I make sure Dean votes (not that he needs me to do so, but still), and I’m sure to vote as well. Voting is important. It’s the most obvious statement of your opinion in the democratic system, and it’s vital to a state being legitimate and focused on the needs of the people. I actually really like countries that make voting easy for citizens, whether with a public holiday or plenty of advanced voting, along with some sort of mandatory voting system. If you are a citizen, you should be required to take part in the governance of your country. But there is so much more that goes into being an active citizen.

I used to joke on election day here in South Africa that together, Dean and I were a wonderful citizen. You see, I’m not allowed to vote here, but Dean is. So he would stand in the queue and cast his vote. Then, we’d amble over to the South African National Blood Service tent that was usually set up near our polling place, and I would donate blood. No, I wasn’t doing activism in the community, I wasn’t helping to get out the vote, but at least I felt like I was contributing something to society in a country that didn’t really want my input. I think it’s important that citizens of countries work towards making their communities better, but how you go about that can vary widely. So here are some ideas if you’re wondering if you can really change anything on a day many feel powerless or frustrated.

  • Donate. Yes, if you have money, you can donate money to causes that you believe in. But if you aren’t that flush, there are other ways to donate. Donate your time by volunteering for an organization that needs your help – work at a soup kitchen or food bank, help out at your local party office, run a fund raiser for an NGO that needs support. If you are an artist, you could even consider donating a performance or live stream to a civil society group of your choosing – play music on Facebook Live and ask your friends for donations that you can send to groups that are dedicated to civil liberties, human rights or even local charities. Make a pot of food and serve it to local homeless people.
  • Get informed. One of the biggest issues aside from apathy is ignorance. Some people don’t care, but many don’t even know what’s going on. Pay attention to what’s happening at a national level, but also learn about what’s happening on a local level. You probably have local government officers who are meant to be improving the roads you drive on every day, your local school, your day to day life. While overarching national policies are certainly important, you’ll probably feel the impact of local government even more. Find out what’s going on.
  • Get involved. Not happy with plans to change education policies? Upset about women’s rights in your area? Find a local organization and join it, work with them, become a part of the solution. I know we are all busy with jobs, with life, but even if you just join your community groups and try to work towards figuring out solutions that will work for people, you are making a positive difference. Change is hard, but not as hard as we often think.

I want to be a more active citizen. Once we move, I definitely want to try to do all three of those ideas. I want Harley to grow up seeing her parents as not only living their own lives, but also helping others, helping the community. I want her to understand that if a cause matters to you, you can be a part of seeing it become a reality. How do you engage with your community? Do you think you’re an active citizen, or do you feel marginalized and excluded?

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