A Conversation About What It Means To Be A Good Citizen

Jun 10, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week I traveled to Scranton, Pa., for our final Going There live event. Because it was our final event, we and our partners at member station WVIA wanted to go big. So we decided to talk about something that affects all of us. We wanted to ask what does it mean to be a good citizen? We gathered with five panelists and a capacity crowd at the University of Scranton to talk it over.

Eric Liu is the author of several best-selling books. The latest is "You're More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen's Guide To Making Change Happen." He's a former presidential speechwriter. Andrea Mulrine is with a local nonprofit Scranton Tomorrow. She's also a former chapter president of the League of Women Voters. Amilcar Arroyo is an immigrant from Peru and is involved in all kinds of community projects including a Spanish-language newspaper in nearby Hazleton, Pa. Political columnist Salena Zito also joined us. She spent the last few years traveling the United States by car, taking the pulse of the small cities and towns off the interstates.

And Linda Cliatt Wayman, an educator who successfully turned around a number of schools that are considered failing most recently in North Philadelphia. And I started by asking our panelists how they view the current state of our democracy. Eric Liu went first.

ERIC LIU: There's no question that the body politic is sick. It has been sick for a really long time. It would still be sick had the election gone the other way. This is not even about the 2016 election results, right? And I think the sickness that we're describing here - one of things to name is we are at the tail end of three or four decades of some of the most grinding, crunching, severe radical inequality that this country has seen in its history since just, you know - I mean, comparable to the eve of the Great Depression kind of concentration of wealth and voice and opportunity.

And people have been feeling that for decades, right? They feel it when jobs have left regions like this. They feel it when schools and cities are crumbling and things are - and the American dream is - seems very distant to a lot of young people. They feel it when venerable, old institutions like league women voters find it harder and harder to get younger people engaged. There's this sense that the bargain got broken. Right? And that is a very cross-partisan sense, I think, a cross ideological sense.

And I think one of the things that we are seeing right now across the left and the right is what I call a great push back. You have millions of everyday Americans who are tired of a system that has been rigged to reward the already privileged. And these were Trump voters, and they were Sanders voters and they were people who did not vote at all. Right? You have millions of them saying it is time to re-rig the game. And their focus is actually not just on national politics. Right?

I think their focus is very much at the end of the day about what's the health of Scranton? What's the health of the place where I live and how do we actually try to salvage some sense of if not greatness some sense of just this is a place I want to belong to and be part of? Right? And I think that is why even - and even though we are in this kind of place of sickness right now I am actually still optimistic.

MARTIN: You know, Andrea, a number of people want to ask how do you decide what to do with your time, especially, you know, because everybody's busy. And life is hard, you know? So how do you decide what to do? And how do you keep going when you feel discouraged as you inevitably must at some point?

ANDREA MULRINE: Well, I think that you find something that you're passionate about and, you know, I'm sure that I got involved like a lot of other people get involved through my son. So it was PTA. It was Boy Scouts. It was things like that. And then my passion - and if you would ever told me that I would know anything about government, I would have laughed at you if you'd told me this 30 years ago because I had no interest in being involved in government.

But when I'd lived in a city that was declared distressed, and I'm one of those people who yells at the television and I yell about the newspaper. So I'd be reading the newspaper or watching the local news and yelling at the TV and going how can they be doing that even - I know nothing, and even I know better than that. And that's how I started getting involved because I was passionate about it, and I said there has to be a difference. There has to be a change.

MARTIN: Linda, what about you? Can that attitude be taught?

LINDA CLIATT WAYMAN: Yes. And it can be taught through education and through examples of teaching children about history, about their history, teaching children about government and teaching children about why it is important to be responsible in this country. So the answer is, yes, it can.

MARTIN: And how do you teach? Because one of the reasons that we were glad you could come is that you have experience in working with schools that the kids are having a tough time. I mean - and I just don't - I mean, it's one thing when you work - let's just be honest - when you work with privileged kids, it's easier to say to them, listen, a lot has been given to you and you owe something back. But what about when you're working with kids for whom a lot has not been given to them? And I wonder how do you - what do you say?

CLIIATT-WAYMAN: Well, I tell them the truth about life. And what I usually tell them is you live here in this country, and this country owes you something. But you also owe it something, so therefore no matter what your situation is in life, and I tell them all the time, look, we've all been given a raw deal. And we - all of us had a lot of things happen to us, but it still does not mean that we don't be out there (unintelligible). And it still does not mean we cannot not go out and do something for our family, for ourselves and for our community.

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MARTIN: But I want to ask the rest of the panel are you opt - we'll use Eric's term net-optimistic or net-pessimistic. Salena, I'll start with you. Are you net-optimistic or net-pessimistic.

SALENA ZITO: Optimistic for sure.

MARTIN: Because?

ZITO: All the stories of people and all the people that I've met all across the country in all 49 states, you see that willingness for a connection. Yes, we're struggling. Yes, we're having a hard time, and there are - you know, there are some really bad hurting spots in this country and probably in every neighborhood.

But that willingness to come together and that spirit is never left. I see it everywhere I go. I am always, always charmed and always walk out of every town that I've been in and felt good about one person, one thing knowing that the hands of that town is going to be OK.

MARTIN: Amilcar, what about you?

AMILCAR ARROYO: I'm optimistic. I truly believe in democracy. I think we have to get that experience. We have to see the future with hope because United States it was a great country. It is a great country. It will be a great country because us, because we have to work together, not difference. When we put a couple of children with different colors, they don't see difference. But here in this audience, we see difference.

And that is what we have to learn. United States is a country of immigrants, and we have to accept that. People than they are now they're a second generation of immigrant. They don't respect the first generation of the new immigrant like me that I love United States, and I can keep my life - my family life for this country for this flag. That means - I didn't. I wasn't born here. I don't have the same feelings that you have for United States of America.

MARTIN: Give us an assignment. Give us an assignment. Who wants to start? Linda?

CLIIATT-WAYMAN: I once read in a textbook that we should all believe that we hold the office of citizen, and that we can't be voted out. We don't have a four-year term. We don't have a two-year term we're in office forever. And so because we're in office forever, we should always make time to talk to young people about their duties and their responsibility about being a citizen.

We must always use our influence and our power to make everyone understand that we have to make this country a better place for the next generation. So your homework assignment is always remember that you hold this office of citizen.

MARTIN: All right. That's Linda Cliatt Wayman. Thank you so much.

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MARTIN: That was Eric Liu, author and founder of the nonprofit Citizen University. We also heard from Linda Cliatt Wayman. She's the former principal of Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia. Andrea Mulrine is the past president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania. Amilcar Arroyo publishes the Spanish language newspaper El Mensajero in Hazleton, Pa., and political columnist Salena Zito. To hear the entire program, visit npr.org/goingthere.

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MARTIN: As we said, Scranton, Pa., was the last stop in this iteration of our Going There live event series. We've enjoyed bringing the studio to the streets, as we like to say, over the past three years. I want to take a moment to thank all of the member stations and program directors who invited us to come to their cities and have these important community conversations and also a very special shout-out to the production team that made it all happen. Portia Robertson Migas is the senior director of the series. Kenya Young and Carline Watson were the Going There executive producers.

Special thanks to Meg Goldthwaite and her marketing team, especially Mina Tavakoli, Isabel Lara and Hugo Rojo. Our producers were Janaya Williams, Kitty Eisele, Tony Bull (ph), Jennifer Larsen, Anna Astruzko (ph). And our social media producers were Tori Whitley and Oggy Ashandrey (ph). Bradley Evans served as our technical director and video producer. Our administrative assistant was Cecilia Risk (ph). There are a few who started with the project and aren't with NPR anymore, but still deserve a shout-out. Emma Carrasco, Alicia Montgomery, Freddie Boswell, Davar Ardalan, Lynette Clemetson, Alan Feldenkris, Michael Dubie and Nicaila Matthews. Thanks to all so much for making our Going There series a phenomenal success these past three years. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.