“We’re either gonna live together or die together, but by God it’ll be together. There’s not much other choice.”
This sentence was said by Les Roll, of the Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development, during our AppFellows tour of Hazard, Kentucky. He was speaking about the decision of his community, Hazard, to come together to talk about tough issues. They addressed community development, such as what to do with their dying main street, as well as issues like persistent homelessness and the new highway. Everyone had different opinions about what the community needed, but they knew that at the end of the day, what they would become, they would become together.
This story got my attention because it’s the kind of work that I’ll be doing this year. Through the What’s Next, WV? initiative, the West Virginia Center for Civic Life (my host community) leads communities in conversation about what’s next for them. Often, these communities are post-coal or in other kinds of economic distress. They experience “brain drain” and an aging population. They also come together to plan how to become whatever they will become, together.
After talking to Les in Kentucky, a few days later we were in West Virginia talking to Betty Knighton, from the WV Center for Civic Life. She was talking about the “invisible roads” of civic infrastructure. If your town doesn’t have good civic infrastructure—a way to come together and discuss and evaluate ideas—what bearing does this have on your ability to be a good citizen?
That phrase struck me. I jotted a note in my journal:
How can you be a good citizen when you’re not a citizen?
Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “citizen.” In our work at the Center for Civic Life, we talk about community members, residents, and mostly—citizens. What does it mean to be a good neighbor and responsible citizen? We use “citizen” as a simpler way to say “person who is entitled to a say about what happens in a community.” It breaks up the repetition of using “community member” and “resident” over and over again, and it indicates someone who is involved by choice, not just happenstance.
But today, I can’t ignore the secondary nature of that word. The legal, political meaning of “citizen” problematizes our definition of communities. It brings with it the association of naturalization, immigration status, permanent residency, and a host of other complications. I find that in today’s political climate, and especially with so much rhetoric around citizenry, I have hesitations about using the word “citizen” in the work I do for the Center.
I may be especially sensitive to this word because of my background. My graduate research involved communities of undocumented residents, and I also have many friends who continue to reside in the United States through various gray areas of immigration law. I feel like when I say something like, “the citizens of Parkersburg came together to talk about injustice in their town,” I am leaving out a group of people. Or, if I would say that an issue “affects all citizens of Wheeling,” then I am saying that it does not affect people who are not citizens. Or, that if it does affect non-citizens, it doesn’t matter, because only citizens get a voice.
This is an issue I grappled with during orientation, and then in the first few weeks on the job. One of my first tasks was to write a blog post about a recent conversation that the What’s Next, Wood County? group had held on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The conversation touched on many sensitive topics, and several community members were not comfortable with me using their names in the post. I tried to use “community members” and “residents” whenever I could—but it was hard. The conversation took place in a community that straddles state lines—so descriptors such as “West Virginians” were unavailable to me, and I found “both West Virginians and Ohioans in the Mid-Ohio Valley” cumbersome. In addition, some of the speakers were identified as being from other countries, and I didn’t know whether they were citizens of the United States or not. Through some fancy footwork, I was able to avoid getting too uncomfortable by using “citizen,” except in one instance:
“I can tell you exactly how many confederate flags there are between Marietta and the mall in Vienna,” said one citizen.
This quote came from a prominent black woman in the area. However, she was not comfortable with this quote being attributed to her for local media to distribute. She did not wish for her occupation to be revealed, so I couldn’t identify her that way. I found myself suddenly unsure if I should call her “black” or “African-American”—and moreover, I felt that identifying her by her race alone would just reinforce the dividing lines that the conversation took place to blur. What I saw as my only option was the word I was trying so hard to avoid: “citizen.”
These are the issues that weigh on my mind as I go into my year here with the Center for Civic Life. How can we be a good citizens when we aren’t even citizens, how can we use more inclusive language, and -how can we do it in a way that brings us together for the long haul? For what we are to become, we will become together.