What Defines a Good Citizen?

Defining citizenship is far more complicated than just a person who votes. Does a citizen contribute to their community? Do they know their country’s history? Are they knowledgeable about current events and politics? For one of my Citizen Education projects this year, I interviewed Senator Jeanne Shaheen on how she defines what being a good citizen means. Shaheen’s answer was a quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt on a citizen’s natural responsibilities in America. The quote can be found highlighted within this article. After speaking with Shaheen, I realized how many different ways people can define a citizen. There are a lot of elements that go into being a good citizen. In order to find a more definitive answer, I decided to take what I had learned from Shaheen, along with interviewing other sources in the community. I used the information I gathered to create an article covering the responsibilities of citizenship.

A good citizen can be interpreted differently. Some may feel that the role of a citizen is to maintain political beliefs, and contribute to their community and government by simply voting. While having political beliefs is definitely a responsibility, citizens should also put aside their political views and be able to collaborate with others who may view things differently. After interviewing a few people in the Oyster River community, I came to the conclusion that people typically list the following: a citizen should exercise their right to vote, contribute to their community, be knowledgeable about current events along with the history of America, abide by the laws, and pay taxes. I feel that these are accurate, but also seem like they can be expanded upon. 

When looking to define what constitutes a citizen, I turned to one of the most qualified people in New Hampshire for the answer. Jeanne Shaheen is a U.S. Senator who represents NH, and is also a Madbury resident. Her job is to take the voice of the people and share their concerns or feedback in Washington. In fact, her job is essential as she must represent the citizens from where she is coming from in order for the government to function at its best. 

One of the concepts of citizenship that Shaheen and I agreed upon is the importance of civic engagement in the community and how it can connect people through a common good. People’s strong political beliefs can prevent that. Especially during times like these, politics can work its way into our personal lives, and subconsciously control our actions and the way we view other people in the community. I think this is a problem, as a community functions off the relationships people make with each other, especially while working for the greater good. Shaheen recalled a time where she and other community members helped to build the Moharimet School playground for the youth of the district. “When my kids were at Moharimet, something that we did was put in the playground there. It was a huge community event. Parents helped, businesses contributed, we all went and spent a day [physically] putting in that playground,” explained Shaheen. 

Shaheen continued on to say, “Nobody asked if you were a Democrat or a Republican or what your political views were, because everyone was focused on this goal that was important to the community of getting this playground in so kids had some place that they could play.” To me, that face to face connection is essential to a functioning community. Without those connections, people make judgements based on others’ political beliefs which can harm communities and create prejudice where it shouldn’t be. 

Another example of how you can become civically engaged is to look for groups in your community to work and volunteer your time with. Amy Avery is the President of the Madbury Community Club. She helps to organize events in the Madbury area such as the Madbury Christmas party, where volunteers can donate toys and other things to those in need during the holidays. “We are always happy to see new people who want to join us,” said Avery. Although mostly a women’s club, the Madbury Community Club also plans events for everyone to participate in. 

The Madbury Community Club is scarce in numbers, and they are lucky if they get 10 people at their meetings. “Younger folks are working, and when they get home it can be difficult to run right out and go to a meeting. If people have young kids at home, they can’t go to a meeting at night,” said Avery. 

Although it’s understandable that people have their own lives and even committing to a monthly meeting can be a challenge, people do still have a responsibility to contribute to their community. This doesn’t always mean you have to go out to a meeting to volunteer. In the past, I have helped put together the Madbury calendar, and most of the work I do for that is at home. 

While contributing to your community, one thing I have definitely learned about civic engagement is how it comes with the responsibilities of being a citizen. Nowadays, I constantly hear how the community struggles to find people to volunteer their time to things like coaching youth sports. Sometimes people become so consumed with their personal lives that they forget what binds a community together is actually the people and how they interact with one another. People aren’t always making those face to face connections, and that can really affect a community.

“You can no more have freedom without striving and suffering for it than you can win success as a banker or a lawyer without labor and effort, without self-denial in youth and the display of a ready and alert intelligence in middle age. The people who say that they have no time to attend to politics are simply saying that they are unfit to live in a free community. Their place is under a despotism; or if they are content to do nothing but vote, you can take despotism tempered by an occasional plebiscite… ”

-Roosevelt, Theodore, “The Duties of American Citizenship,” New York: Buffalo, Jan. 26, 1883.

Although a minor, Jack McDonough (‘21) still finds ways to express his political and ethical views. McDonough is enthusiastic about his views, and often takes action whenever he can. McDonough expressed that he will sometimes write letters to senators or representatives about topics he is passionate about. “Civic engagement is when someone, or some entity, acts on their political views, whether that’s voting, protesting, letter-writing, making calls, or posting on social media about what you believe is best for your society or community,” said McDonough.

When it comes to volunteering, Tessa Lippmann (‘21) enjoys spending her time giving back to her community. Lippmann volunteered at the last presidential primary election, interned at Friends Forever where kids all over the world are brought to our community, and is also part of a youth group in Durham where she was planning to travel to Arizona to educate herself on the country’s current border situation.

One topic that Lippmann and I discussed is the influence American history has on our society and politics today. History often repeats itself, and it’s important to know what happened in the past in order to make better judgements about the future. Students at ORHS are required to take at least 3 credits of history/social studies courses to graduate, along with one semester of Citizen Education. While discussing the mandatory citizen education class, Lippmann said, “One of the most pressing things I have taken away so far from that class is the citizenship test. I technically passed it, but I was not as aware of some things that I probably should be because they are important parts of our history. [The test] pointed out that it probably isn’t evaluating us on what I think defines a citizen. There were a lot of historical and geographical questions. Like, who needs to know what the longest river in America is? Does that determine whether you are a good citizen?” At the beginning of Citizen Education students are required to take the current citizenship test relevant to their state. The test is not graded, but instead is meant to show you what our government believes is indicative of good citizenship. 

I think when educating a citizen, not all parts of history that are taught in high school are necessarily important. Due to what I have learned, I think it is most important to learn the ideals that are primal to each time period in U.S. history. I think it’s more important to understand what people were thinking rather than when and where. We live in a democracy directly influenced by what the people think, so I think it is most important to understand what the people are thinking. Citizens’ jobs are to know their opinion and bring that to their country. History can definitely have an influence on that, and I do believe people should know where our country came from in order to contribute. I don’t expect people to know every detail of American history, but if they are aware of the foundation America was built on, and how this country of second chances has moved throughout history, I believe they can do their job as a citizen better. 

Lippmann and I also discussed the extent to which good citizens should be familiar with American history. ORHS offers a wide variety of history courses that students can take. Over a year ago, Lippmann and I were both in American Studies, a class that focuses on pulling out the themes that history presents rather than just the facts themselves. Other history courses focus on the facts and dates. One thing I have noticed in school is how history courses tend to focus on the good parts that glorify American history. “I think it’s important that we have a basic understanding of our history, yet I think that we are kind of missing out on the more negative aspects of [American history]. We don’t really go that much into slavery for a long time besides just mentioning it. We don’t really go into what we were doing to the individuals who were enslaved. I think that it is important to understand that to get to where we are today we have made horrible, horrible mistakes,” said Lippmann.

While most adults exercise their rights as a citizen by voting, those under the age of 18 can’t. Sometimes contributing to your country has to go beyond the ballot box. As a student, my friends and I like to advocate for change by attending things like walkouts, strikes, and protests. This way, we can contribute to our government by showing our concern since we can’t actually vote. These mediums are a great way for young people to express their opinions while being surrounded by those with similar viewpoints. Another way students get involved is through social media. A lot of people share and post either facts, stories, or just plain information that they find relevant or interesting. Students at ORHS use social media platforms to express their political beliefs as well, via sharing a politician’s message, a current problem in the world, or even just supporting a candidate. “As a minor, you can still volunteer for political campaigns or protest for what you think is right. Like that school strike we did [in 2018], we were mostly minors but we still all expressed our opinions on gun violence,” said McDonough. 

Some may argue that in-school walkouts or strikes aren’t the best way to protest because it disrupts the learning environment. McDonough stresses the importance of in-school walkouts, saying, “I think the point of the walkout is to disrupt learning. The walkout says, ‘we care enough about this problem that we won’t learn.’ Take Greta Thunberg for example, she hasn’t been in school for the past 88 weeks because she cares so much about the environment she will put her entire life on hold.”

While walkouts can be an effective way for students to rally together for change, there is a much more accessible way to protest in a matter of minutes. Politics have definitely moved into social media, as it is a quick way to share your opinion to a large number of people. I see political posts on apps like Instagram every day. People display their opinions by reposting someone else’s opinion, sharing facts, showing their own political or ethical viewpoints, and fundraisers that help to unify people over social media for a cause. While social media is a great place to share facts and viewpoints, McDonough stresses that you can’t always trust the things you see on Instagram or Facebook. “I think social media is a good medium for sharing viewpoints and opinions, and having a good, respectful yet spirited debate. Often though, it is used as a platform to present opinions as fact. It often becomes an arena where people post fake news, then others dispute the validity, then it gains popularity because social media craves drama. The problem of fake news makes it a worse platform for opinions, but ultimately it’s a good place for one’s viewpoints, not their ‘facts’.”

After talking with individuals in our community, I was able to come up with a definition relevant to myself and the rest of the sources in this article. In closing, this is what I believe defines a good citizen:

A good citizen is someone who utilizes the rights their government gives them in order to fulfill the purpose of the government in the first place. A citizen is someone who, to their best extent, votes in both big and small elections, attends meetings on both big and small issues, and who can educate themselves on whatever they may need to know in order to contribute best. A citizen is someone who is not afraid to make mistakes or stand up against what they know is wrong. A citizen is someone who can recognize the importance of community, and can put the objective of working for the greater good over their own viewpoints or political agenda.