January 25th | Posted In Citizenship

The Five Day Citizen

By admin


I love jury duty. I love the cross-section of Philadelphians in that big holding pen at 1301 Filbert.  I love the genuine enthusiasm with which the judges welcome you to your civic duty.  And I even love that circa 1992 video that walks you through the questionnaire you finished answering twenty minutes ago.

Of course, when my turn came back around recently, I was pulling to be sent home. As much as I appreciate jury duty in theory, the practice is a beast.  You’re herded like cattle into a courtroom, eyeballed like a piece of civic meat by council, and left to age for hours like a cut of marbled beef, unsure of what outcome ultimately awaits you (A two week trial?  A quick dismissal?  A classy steakhouse’s plate?).

It’s disheartening, and the hypochondriac in me is convinced that the prolonged sedentariness is a public health issue (can we take a lap?). From the conversations I overheard while waiting to learn my fate, I realized we shared a cognitive dissonance between recognizing an essential piece of our democracy and wanting to avoid the inconvenience of a trial.  For me, part of the appeal is that jury duty doesn’t let me off as easy as voting – it demands more effort.

That morning, the judge explained that we have four basic obligations as citizens of this country.  In terms of effort, she put jury duty at number three—less than military service and paying taxes, more than those 30 seconds spent voting.  It was her way of saying, “We know you feel a little put out today, but it’s a relatively small price to pay.”  It’s a good rhetorical strategy when you’re five foot nothing, wearing a robe, and staring down a room full of varying degrees of cranky.

And she’s not wrong; it is a small price.  Let’s do the math: Barring a draft anytime soon, that’s one painful day per year forking over taxes, two days standing on line at your polling place (since you vote in both primaries and general elections), and one or two days for jury duty.  Just five days – that’s it – and, in exchange, you get Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.   It’s. A.  Steal.  It’s almost too good to be true, right?

It is too good to be true.  We need to do more.

Those five days of service are all we tend to talk about when it comes to civic responsibility.  Some brave men and women live civic responsibility by serving in the military, and they cannot be lauded enough for the service and sacrifices they make.  But the rest of us can still achieve a modicum of civic responsibility without going to the lengths made by America’s finest.  Giving up just five days (and, really, just parts of those five days) doesn’t do America justice.  We need to start naming, discussing, and promoting what it looks like looks like to earn those rights through good citizenship the other 360 days of the year.

First, the good news: Philly is way ahead of the curve when it comes to responsible citizenship.  Southeastern Pennsylvania is the birthplace of the B Corporation, and the home to over 15,000 nonprofits employing over 242,000 people at last count. Organizations like Philly CORE, Philadelphia2035, and the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia are gathering other organizations and individuals to create shared agendas around key issues. There’s a sense,especially among young Philadelphians, that volunteering, philanthropy, and civic participation isn’t just the “nice thing to do” anymore, but the “necessary thing to do”.

This year, let’s try voting.

Now, the bad news: Despite all this energy around volunteerism in Philly, only 11.4% of registered voters turned out last November.  While it’s hard to say how many of those were the 18-35 bracket, computer models put the number was somewhere between ‘zero’ and ‘not enough’. The perennial response to this anemic turnout has been to ramp up the same old Get Out The Vote tactics.  This is immensely important work, but it’s still too focused on that Five-Day citizen model. It’s a fad crash diet response when we need a slow food movement.  We need farm-to-table, made-from-scratch Get Out the Vote.  Get Out the Approachable Information and Unintimidating Resources. Get Out the Ongoing Civic Dialogue. Get Out the 365 Day Citizen.

Three of the biggest arguments I hear against civic engagement are lack of time, lack of access to an often esoteric system, and an aversion to dipping one’s toe in the toxic political quagmire.  If I had to guess I would say that’s been a big driver for the other types of social innovation that’s sprung up in the region–a road around the quagmire.  With the right tools and resources you can chip away at the first two barriers, and when you start to bring those down, you may find allies and idealists in City Hall who are just as interested in scrubbing that quagmire clean.  You’ll meet a neighbor, think of a problem in a new light, and come up with solutions no one had previously thought about.  You budding politician you.

Year of the 365 Day Citizen

If you hadn’t guessed already, Young Involved Philadelphia is going to talk your ear off about this citizenship thing in 2014.  All day, every day. One of our priorities is to start cooking on that slow-foods, 365 civic engagement piece through our new Advocacy Committee.  We look forward to working with the organizations, officials, and individuals already heavily invested in this important work to raise awareness about the political dialogue before you get in the voting booth.  That means providing unintimidating tools and resources, and hosting events regarding public policy, ballot issues, candidates, and civic opportunities. And in case I left you wondering, yes, we will definitely Get Out the Vote.

We’re also dedicated to providing over 100 young people with the skills they need to be better board members at those 15,000 nonprofits I mentioned through the YIP Board Prep program. That’s to say nothing of the hundreds of volunteers we hope to connect to young friends groups and volunteer positions across the city.  YIP will also strive to champion the young leaders in our city who are modeling good citizenship in a multitude of ways.

But volunteerism and civic engagement aren’t the only tenets of good citizenship. Help us kick off the year of the 365 Citizen: what makes a good citizen every day of the year?

Tell us in the comments below, or tweet your ideas @yiphilly using the hashtag #CitizenPHL.

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