How do you want to be a citizen?

“Each of us needs to stop being a passive observer of the suffering that we know is going on in the world and start identifying with the sufferers.” Grace Lee Boggs

Hands Up protest in Ferguson. Photo Credit: SBS News.

Life — whether it’s your job, your relationships, just getting a healthy meal in your body — can be pretty overwhelming. Add daily threats to your neighbors and our democracy? It’s hard to avoid a shutdown (or a meltdown).

We are being inundated with calls to action, books and articles we ‘must’ read, and peer pressure to show up at every political brunch or resistance training. I have read myriad articles that urge me to turn off the news to stay sane and engaged, while also encouraging me to stay plugged in so I stay motivated. How do I do this right?

Movements grow by leveraging ‘movement moments’, when tremendous numbers of people are motivated and actively seeking opportunities to participate in structured action. We are in such a moment now. This is a beautiful and messy time — organizations across the country are struggling to create infrastructure to absorb interest and strategically build a sustainable base of members. And hundreds of thousands of Americans are searching for ways to engage that feel connective, impactful, and meaningful.

Organizers have a critical role building such movement infrastructure, but you as an individual must decide how, why, and when you want to dive in. We are entering a new epoch of responsibility. As in a traffic jam, so too in a democracy: We are not just “in” a democracy; we are the democracy. Complacency is not an option.

In order to stay sane and stay connected, here are a couple of key questions for identifying how and when you want to show up.

What issues or political events make you particularly emotional? Focus on the issues that make you feel more alive. We will burnout if we try to take it all on. We will be much more effective and fulfilled if we focus on the issues that enrage, embolden, and excite us, and work with the communities we are directly connected with already. Take 10 minutes to list the issues you care most about, then focus in on one that particularly hooks you. Spend the next 10 minutes writing about why you care about that issue. What personal experiences and values draws you to it? The next step is to identify a few local and national organizations working on those issues, then commit to showing up to 2 meetings in the next month to explore how you might support those organizations achieve their goals. Once you find an organization whose vision and strategy sticks with you, try showing up regularly for 3 months. After those 3 months, you can reflect and assess whether you want to recommit or shift your attention moving forward.

What does ‘civic engagement’ mean to you? Some people think of voter registration, others think of saying a kind word on the metro, and still others imagine being actively and consistently involved in local political process. I take a wide definition: civic engagement involves active listening, empathy, and committed action on the issues that matter to me. So whatever your definition of civic engagement, commit to it. Carry your identity as a ‘citizen’ every day and strut it with pride.

Civic engagement means responsibility. In a functioning democracy, we each have a responsibility to be conscious and caring citizens that participate in our own governance to ensure it reflects our values and our vision. If we critique or resist the current system of governance, than we must be practicing the alternatives that will replace it at the same. And remember, we can still be patriotic in resistance. That patriotism is the fuel for building a more democratic, just, and equitable community for each of us to live in.

Who do you want to follow? When you think about the world you want to live in, what types of voices are newly elevated and heard? Who shares your vision of a better future? Who inspires you to take positive political action? When you consider the issues that you care about most, who are the people and communities bearing the cost of the status quo every day? What courses of action are they putting forward? Start following the people who you believe have the vision for an alternative future, not just those who rant about the problem. Rant bingeing feels good because it affirms our values and beliefs, but it’s a fleeting satisfaction. Moving through anger to hope and creative action is the hard, necessary, and deeply nourishing work that will grows us into stronger leaders and citizens. And finally, make sure you diversify your media diet so that it is 4 parts positive information and events for every 1 part negative (for more on the negativity bias, and how it reading negative news warps our perception of reality, read this article).

As movement builders create new systems for participatory democracy and re-invent citizenship based in our own communities, we must intrepidly practice this ourselves. A healthy movement ecosystem includes infrastructure to support the leadership of those most impacted by unjust policies and systems of power, while also remaining porous to newly politicized people seeking involvement.

At Blue Heart, we believe that this political moment calls for a new form of citizenship: one that centers radical empathy and bold generosity. Thus, we create spaces for people to learn from and with the grassroots organizations on the frontlines of social and environmental (in)justice across the U.S: food, gender, prison, climate, education, and beyond. We expose our members to the solutions being built from bottom up, and help them use their time and money to meaningfully support the work that inspires them most.

Find what you believe in, commit to showing up, and follow those who will ignite your imagination with what’s possible. Choosing hope and action is courageous. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun.

Thank you to Theo Gibbs, Valerie Terico, & Laura Kastner for your thoughtful and critical feedback!