With the National Conference on Citizenship being held at A.S.U. this week, it seems a good time to write about the future of citizenship, something I explore each semester in "NLM 160: Voluntary Action and Community Leadership," an introductory nonprofit class I'm teaching for the second year at Arizona State University.
My class is mostly full of 18 and 19 year olds, with a smattering of older students. When I was asked to teach this course, I was charged with the hope-filled task of exciting my students to the power of volunteerism to change the world, so much so that they want to remain volunteers for the rest of their lives.
Although power of participation in the political realm is not the only volunteerism we will study this semester, the first thing we read in this class is Russell Dalton's "The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation is Reshaping American Politics."
In other words, they're reading about themselves.
Before I share more of what Dalton has to say about this generation of citizens, I want to describe my class. To start with, it's large. This semester I have about 60. One semester, I had maybe 75 students.
It's very enlightening to have a large class. Even though, looking around the room, checking their dress, their backpacks, their cell phones and laptops and mp3 players, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that these kids are all cut from one mold, one of the first things we discover in this class is just how different we all are. Learning about our differences, yet seeing ourselves as a community, is the very stuff of democracy.
One of the semester's first exercises asks the students to circle each demographic they fall into on a chart containing an assortment of categories touching race, gender, ethnicity, religion, athletic ability, attractiveness, weight, sexual identity, disability and more. I use a slightly edited chart borrowed from Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell and Pat Griffin's text, "Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice." As I called each of the 30 or so categories, students who are willing to self-identify are invited to rise. The complexity of our class make-up became clear.
The exercise always pushes the envelope. While a few students will decide not to acknowledge one or more of their demographic identities, most do. We discuss the ways each of these demographic categories creates opportunities and privileges, and the ways in which each category might create obstacles. For example, being Latino creates rich cultural opportunities, but some of my Latino students say they find it intimidating to live in Arizona after the passage of SB 1070.
The exercise gives us a chance to talk about identities we can't hide. We can hide our sexual identity, but we cannot hide the color of our skin. We can hide our ethnic background, but we cannot hide our gender.
The exercise also gives us an opportunity to explore the concept of labels. The demographics chart asks students to identify themselves as Black, White, Native American, Hispanic, etc. I always ask these students, after they're standing up, whether they are comfortable with the labels on this chart. Labels are a touchy subject, and racial labels have changed many times in my own lifetime. When I was small, "Negro" was still a politically correct term. I believe "African American" is still currently politically correct, but sometimes my students say that they don't relate to the "African" part. They feel American. Pure and simple. It's my understanding that "Native American" is still politically correct, but some of my students in Arizona prefer to refer to themselves as "Indians."
At some point along the line, I changed "Hispanic" to "Latino" on the chart because so many of my students with Spanish-speaking origins rejected the term "Hispanic." Often, the Latino students want to be recognized for their family's country of origin, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, Argentina. Cultural pride is alive and well. This year, one of my students said he did not prefer the term "Latino," and wanted to be called "Hispanic." Labels are very personal. We prefer to select our own.
Oh, and of course, after hearing this discussion, my "White" students want to point out that their skin isn't white. And that the term "Caucasian" doesn't really apply either.
"The Caucasus are somewhere near Russia, right? My family is from Italy."
I have discovered that many students are remarkably brave. One semester, a woman stood to the term, "gender queer." While my students expect me to know everything, I had to screw up my own courage to admit I did not know the term's meaning, and to ask this woman to define the term for us.
Similarly, a small handful of students will stand up to the term, "overweight." The first thing I notice is that this makes the rest of us uncomfortable. It feels like some sort of public humiliation, because being overweight is considered a character flaw in our country. But students have been given express permission not to stand unless they wish to. And, some students who clearly are overweight do not stand up. The students who stand want to stand. They do not want to be invisible just because of some media image of acceptability. Over the semesters, some students have commented that they have shaken off the norm, have come to love and accept themselves. These words are refreshing, and free the rest of us from our embarrassment. Later, it will turn out that the ability to speak them aloud is also freeing for the student who does.
This year I have a deaf student who does not stand up when I call the category, "disabled." He sits in the front row where he can see two signers, looking at me intently, maybe challenging me? Had he kept his head down, his gaze averted, I would have known that he did not want to talk about this. But his bold stare told me otherwise. I turned to him and ask him, "You look like you want to comment. You've chosen not to stand. I'm interested in whether you'd like to talk about your choice." Through his interpreters, he eloquently explained that he does not see himself as disabled. He does not let his condition get in the way of his achievement - ever. He is as inspiring as E.T. jumping through the moon, or Lance Armstrong taking an impossible hill.
This year, I am surprised by a young woman who stands up for "Other" and says she is an orphan without a family. She has been in and out of foster homes. There is one foster family with whom she still spends holidays, but they don't feel exactly like parents. She tells about her determination to get an education and to help others whose stories are similar to her own. The class is very hushed for this story. Most of us cannot imagine a world without some sort of family, at least one caring parent.
One of the ways I make a conversation about diversity safe is by speaking out loud what other people only think - speaking in normal tones and with obvious curiosity. As the instructor, my speaking makes it acceptable for others to talk about issues that our society generally considers taboo. I learned this skill not in diversity class, but while raising my daughters. I forced myself to discuss sexuality in the same tone of voice I discussed weekend activities, food preparation, art projects. This made sexuality a safe and "normal" topic of conversation. My goal: later, when my daughters needed to discuss sexuality, I hoped it would be easier for them to raise the subject. Today I have a similar goal in mind: to make it easier for my students to dialogue about differences respectfully. To realize they should not make assumptions. To be brave enough to ask the questions that are on their minds.
As the stories of identity flow, the bravery is contagious and more are told. They are fascinating. We start to run out of time, and I tell them we need to wrap up. Several students say, "You forgot to call out the religions." I do it in a rush. Several stand when I say "Other." I ask, "What is your religion?" A couple of them say atheist or agnostic or secular.
Three say they are Catholic. I say, "I wish we had time to discuss why you did not see yourselves as Christian. I'm Jewish," I tell them, "and you all look alike to me." They laugh.
After class, I take attendance by asking students to put their names on a piece of paper, and also to write down the most important thing that they heard this day.
Later, at home, I read their attendance slips. One student says, I learned from the overweight student that it's ok to like myself the way I am." Several students say they are amazed by the determination and attitude of the deaf student. A couple comment on the incredible strength and drive of the woman who is also an orphan. Many say they really enjoyed hearing all the stories. They report respect and new understandings.
An overweight student writes, "Thank you for making it safe to talk about my weight. I've never done that before."
My gender queer student says it was good to be asked about herself. These girls make me cry. They all - all these students - make me proud to teach them.
Now we have a good idea of all the ways we are different from each other. In the reading, we now explore, through data sets analyzed by Dalton, how despite our differences, they share similarities with their generation that distinguish them from their parents and grandparents before them. They are learning that their generation is not less engaged than their parents' generation. Rather, their generation is differently engaged. Sometimes, when we talk about this, I fantasize about playing Chicago's Teach Your Children Well.
According to Dalton, the younger generation practices what he calls "civic engagement," or a more personal, hands-on, less political approach to activism. They volunteer in their own communities, they help neighbors, they join social networks. They feel these activities have a far greater impact than voting. They believe this is the better way to make a difference, while communicating with distant officials feels rather, well, distant. They don't really believe older people will hear or understand them anyway.
Their parents' and grandparents' generations, by contrast, are more "duty" oriented. They vote. They support candidates. They call their elected officials when they don't like policy. Stuff like that.
On another day early in the semester I put up big sheets of poster paper, each marked with a different activity that might be associated with good citizenship in the United States. Activities like,
Regularly Vote In Elections,
Accept Jury Duty Willingly,
Always buy American,
Never Break the Law,
Report a Crime if I See One,
Plan To or Do Serve in the Military,
Buy Green Products Whenever Possible,
Help Other Americans Less Well Off than I Am
Work on Political Campaigns
Take Active Leadership Roles
Form Your Own Political Opinions
Never Evade Taxes
Keep a Watch On Government
Help Those Worse Off Around the World
Join Community Groups
I ask them to walk from poster to poster, putting a colored dot on only those posters that they feel strongly about, that speak strongly to the way they live their lives. I tell them we are doing living research, and to group their own dots with other dots of the same color, so that we will easily be able to see our results.
When we finish, we are surprised to find that, in fact, very few of my students feel strongly about voting. Few of my students feel compelled to report a broken law, or to obey the law themselves a hundred percent of the time. Almost all believe in helping others less fortunate, whether overseas or at home. A majority of them already volunteer. Maybe a third try to Buy American.
I stop the conversation to get on my soapbox about the double-duty of buying American. It helps maintain jobs, and it also reduces our carbon output because overseas transportation is a high carbon activity.
This semester, only three of my 60 or so feel strongly enough about military service to dot it - similar to the results in prior semesters. This stops the class short. We talk about taking for granted that there will be an army to protect us. We wonder whether this class - as diverse as we now realize we are - is truly representative of today's young people. Someone asks whether there is a correlation between wanting an education, and avoiding the military. This is a great question, and I can't answer it. Several students have family members who are in the service, and they speak of supporting the soldiers, but not the military. The three students who do, have, or plan to serve in the military speak in defense of their choices, and the students ask them respectful questions.
My students are passionate about their views, but also intellectually captured by the explanations they give each other about their differences. High levels of dedication to volunteering, helping a neighbor, being active in clubs and groups, buying green products, forming their own political opinions bear out some of what Dalton is telling them in their readings. It proves to me that these students are far from disengaged, even if most of them don't vote regularly.
When the time comes to end the discussion, it is difficult to stop them. Later, in their attendance statements, they will let me know, even the ones too shy to speak out in class, that this exercise was an eye-opener.
"Those dots really laid it out. You can't fool yourself about what's happening in my generation after you see that."
Before they leave, I am upfront about my bias. Both brands of citizenship play important roles in a healthy Democracy. However, I would like to convince them that voting makes a bigger difference than they think it does. I hope - if there's one thing I can change about their view on political activism this semester - it will be to drive home the importance of exercising their vote as a powerful tool to give voice to their generation's deep concern for their fellow human beings.