An active citizen is a member of a community who is involved and dedicated to their local communities at all levels. Active citizens are crucial aspects of a healthy society, they are necessary for the growth and betterment of a community. Unfortunately, we often lack active citizens in communities, in which a spectrum can be observed based on a citizen’s contribution in the community. I was a volunteer before I understood more about the importance of going deeper into service. Now I believe I have transitioned into a conscious citizen. I have learned more about the importance of understanding and learning about the community, the importance of digging deeper, and the importance of reflection. A community with no active citizens is not a community. Everyone can become an active citizen, they just need to be willing to change and grow. A thriving community is one full of active citizens who are making efforts to connect and develop the area. This essay will uncover more of the importance of active citizens and the journey to becoming an active citizen.
Among the many, the two pivotal characteristics of an active citizen are that of passion and intrigue. How can you actively participate in something if you have no drive or interest in the topic? Every school student must understand this to some degree, most have a favorite and maybe a least favorite class. My least favorite was English, I just didn’t understand (at the time) how writing haikus would help me in architecture. This reflected in my grades, English was consistently my lowest. Active citizens know what fuels their fire, they know what they are passionate about. There is no lack of motivation or dread in the way they work. It is obvious when someone is on fired for something, their eyes light up, they sit up in their chair, and speak a little louder. Friends of mine know how passionate I am about stories, my eyes evidently light up when we start talking about them. There is a sacredness to the fact that everyone was born with a blank canvas and our experiences are the strokes of paint on the canvas so when we pass on, we leave with a full canvas (Baldwin). Our experiences are a telling aspect of that in which we are interested, “What we preserve in the larger human story determines what we believe is possible in the world” (Baldwin). This is evident in active citizens, they know what they are enthusiastic about and how to work with that issue in the world. Experiences shape more than just your beliefs, they also open your eyes to your strengths and weaknesses which play another pivotal part in active citizenship. Active citizens are comfortable with their strengths and weaknesses and know how to use them in their area of interest from experience. The experiences that shape strengths and weaknesses stem from that of drive and intrigue. Passion and interest are the primary aspects of an active citizen.
Once the passion is found, the next step is not just to wait around for someone else to fix the issue. We can’t rely on other leaders to change our world. That’s being a volunteer, the second step in the journey to becoming an active citizen. Being a volunteer is being “well-intentioned but not well-educated about social issues” (The Active Citizen Continuum). It’s not horrible to be a volunteer, it’s just a step in the road to becoming an active citizen. The next step is the transition to a conscious citizen, this transition is one where realizing the leader in you is exercised. Change begins with you, you need to be the one leading the charge in the area you are passionate about. “Citizenship is our capacity to create for ourselves what we have sought from our leaders” (Block). Look at all the great leaders in history, they all took the difficult steps in learning how to become a leader. They knew this quote to be true, all great active citizens were once like us. They journeyed through the active citizen continuum just like us. Yet, they knew the truth that change started with them, they were not going to wait around for someone else to do their work for them. Everyone has a specific job to do on this earth, we were all given these experiences and passions for a reason. They are what I like to call our “9-foot assignments” (Freeman). In every indoor water park, they have lifeguards at every turn. Yet, each lifeguard will not be doing their job if they just sit there, watching another guard, jealous of their assignment, comparing their assignment to that of another. Neither can they rely on someone else to do their job for them. We are each given a passion and interest in which we are called to lead. Find inspiration in those great leaders that came before and know that change begins with you.
We are not born leaders. So far, passion and interest are decided, we have gathered the motivation to know that change begins with you. Now, the steps to becoming a leader in your community, as I said, we are not born leaders. I believe that there are aspects of every unique person that make it easier for them to be a leader. Unfortunately, I was not born with these traits. When I got up to do a presentation in the third grade my knees were knocking. I had lost all control of my legs, it was the weirdest experience I have ever had. Needless to say, I was not born a leader, nor was I blessed with the characteristics of a strong leader. I would much rather be in bed, reading a book than being out in public, but our comfort zone is not where we grow. Leadership is learned. We must learn where our limits are, where our comfort zone is, and push out of those boundaries to experience growth. Kouzes states “that leadership is learnable, we can discover how many good leaders there really are. Somewhere, the leader within each of us may get the call to step forward- for the school, the congregation, the community, the agency, the company, the union, or the family. By believing in yourself and your capacity to learn to lead, you’ll make sure you’ll be prepared when that call comes” (Kouzes). Leadership is more learned outside of the classroom, it is another necessary experience to gain an understanding of it. As the quote suggests, this is something that follows closely with passion and interest. I am confident that there will be a call in everyone’s lives to go out and lead. In order to answer the call, we must have a passion for the subject. There is a Social Change Model of Leadership Development that describes ways to enhance student learning and development. The key concept they call for is that leadership is looked at as a process, just like the active citizen journey. The two are very similar, but the Social Change Model specifically calls for 7 C’s of leadership. They include consciousness of self which develops a better understanding of others, commitment which requires passion and drive, collaboration which encourages work as a group instead of one leader doing all the work, controversy with civility which stimulates understanding of differences and open-mindedness, and citizenship which should happen on every level of the model. The 7 C’s are evidence that leadership is a process, it may look different for everyone, but to each it is a journey. Not everyone is born a leader, but we need to understand that it is possible for everyone to become one. It is also necessary to be a leader to become an active citizen.
In the process of becoming an active citizen, understand that it comes with difficult obstacles. Every strong leader in our world today has come across these roadblocks once or twice in their experiences. When you overcome an obstacle along the journey to becoming an active citizen, it is evidence that you are growing and taking large steps in your journey. These are necessary roadblocks as well, those such as time, ignorance, failure, communication, money, priorities, etc. cannot be avoided along the journey. Someone along the journey can do everything in their power to avoid these obstacles, but they will come back around again along the route. One obstacle that most will face is that of motivation and confidence. Many believe that they cannot make a difference, so they step back into a follower’s position. We as citizens have a lot of power, look at all the stories that “beg[a]n as a small group of people in [a] living room and ended up as a force to be reckoned with” (Pipher). Just as the Social Change model suggests, an active citizen will understand the power that an individual has in a community and center that authority to motivate change in their world.
There is a fine line between a citizen and an active citizen. The word active is crucial while discussing citizenship aimed at changing and working with a community. Just being a citizen of a country or a community doesn’t require that you participate. Inevitably, you will meet people and engage in conversation in the community, but it is possible to purposely just be a citizen of a community and not engage in any way with others. When referring to active citizenship, it means purposely engaging and involving yourself in the community surrounding you. There are both active citizens and citizens in every community. I think it’s necessary to have both though, there would be no upward or dramatic growth in a community without citizens turning into active citizens. It’s upsetting that it’s possible to live in a community and not fully engage yourself in the culture. It’s upsetting in the way that I feel like I have a responsibility (my strength) to reach out to others and call them to be engaged citizens. An active citizen is one who not only engages in the community, but one who digs deeper. They want to find out more behind the work that they are doing and better themselves through it.
I think this same idea is reflected in the Virginia Tech community. Although, I am a bit biased being inside of a close community, it seems that it’s not possible to go to Tech and not immerse yourself in the culture. There may be students out there, but it’s hard for me to believe that you can go to this school for four years and not talk to anyone, serve anywhere, or get to know anyone. The fact that the motto of Tech is That I may Serve, had a great influence on the fact that I chose this school. We can co-create these social realities within Ut Prosim by being the example in the community in reaching out to others in genuine care, leading with kindness and grace, and attending service events and challenging others to reflect on what they had done. We have the responsibility on our shoulders, as those trying to become active citizens, to tell others of the steps to becoming an active citizen in the Virginia Tech community. I think this can be done by leading in example with our attitudes and genuine nature. The school as a whole seems to encourage students to get involved in the community, I mean we have 300+ clubs on campus, there has to be one for everyone to be interested in. They provide the opportunities for students to get involved, but there is a certain point to which they can encourage you to join a club or volunteer, as they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. I think that what I am trying to reach is the fact that Virginia Tech encourages their students to get involved, but for many that may just be being a volunteer on the active Citizen Continuum. With the 7 goals of student learning at Tech, it does seem that they are encouraging students to become active citizens, but I don’t think many are aware of those goals. The keys to student success define what it means to be a truly active citizen, but they do not advertise them as well as they could on campus. For me, Ut Prosim is a way of life, or at least is developing into one. This may be different for others, each student at Tech has a different idea of what this means to them, but I think that the definition of the motto calls us to take it as a way of life. I can personally reach out to people more in asking difficult questions about the service they are doing. I can call others to awareness in service by leading by example in the way I hold myself during service and on campus. As a school, I think that Virginia Tech could advertise the aspirations of student learning a little bit better, and maybe require that all go through some sort of service engagement class prior to volunteering. I think that they could really require reflection after service or something of that nature. It should not be possible that students go through their years on campus and not engage in the community or dig deeper into the meaning of their engagement. I feel blessed to be a student on this campus, but really because I have had the opportunity and knowledge to go deeper into the meaning of my involvement and purposely engage in the community in a way that is beneficial.
The growth I have experienced from August until now has been immense and life-changing. My eyes have been opened to the many complex facets of service. I have seen the worst in my volunteering and analyzed the positives. Honestly, at times it brought me to regret some of the work I have done in my past. Through this class, I have been made more aware of the positive and mostly negative aspects of service. Prior to the class, I only thought service could be good, I never dug any deeper to understand what I was really doing when I was hammering nails into a roof under the South Carolina summer sun. I knew coming into SERVE that my eyes would be opened and my understanding would widen, but I didn’t think it would be to the capacity it was. I have learned how to critically analyze my work prior and post service experience. I have learned to engage more in the event by opening up and talking with the other workers and those I am serving. I have also learned the power of a story and how I can even change someone’s view by just one story. I thoroughly enjoyed talking about stories and tying it into service, I had never thought about that before and I learned a lot about how I can empower and change through my stories. This class has been seriously eye opening and life changing. I will forever feel the effects of my learning in this class and I feel so blessed to be able to say that.
As I mentioned earlier, along with opening my eyes to the negatives of service, I have reevaluated some of my previous service experiences. Specifically, I have thought a lot about the mission trips I did with my youth group through high school. We worked with the company “REACH” at many different locations such as South Carolina, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. At the time, I thought the organization was doing effective work. We were nailing in roofs, fixing decks, making ramps, and putting up drywall. I thought we were doing good work, I was exercising my faith while spreading the good word through my deeds. On second thought, the organization was really enabling the homeowner in some sense, they were also not prepared to take care of the homes in the long term, the workcamps were pointed towards short term goals, they did not equip the homeowner with the proper knowledge or tools to keep up the housework we had done. I was shocked when I thought about the negative aspects of what I was doing, I was just being a volunteer. I really haven’t officially decided if it has a negative or positive overall outcome, but if I had the chance to go back and do another mission trip with them, I probably wouldn’t. My analysis of the mission trips is evidence enough to prove that I have learned so much from August to now. I would even stretch to say that this is evidence that I have taken another step in the Active Citizenship Continuum. I have moved from a volunteer to a conscious citizen this semester. I am now volunteering with more awareness of my actions and responsibilities. It is evident that I am moving along in the Active Citizen Continuum as I stated prior. I believe that I have been made aware of the negative effects of service which has changed my service habits. I am slowly becoming more of an active citizen in that I am serving with more awareness. In the next semester, I plan to take more steps on the continuum. I want to progress into the transition to an active citizen. I am excited to focus my efforts into one passion and to go full force into that organization. I plan on it being Appalachian Service Project, I am interested in getting more involved in that organization and working with homelessness and poverty in the surrounding area. I feel that by focusing my efforts into one issue, I will be moving into the position of active citizenship since I have found my passion and interest and I’m pursuing it with awareness and better understanding of the process. I hope to learn more about the system behind poverty and homelessness and see how I can make a difference in that area. I am excited to see what next semester has in store. Seeing the growth, I have done thus far, I cannot wait to see the growth in the next semester of drowning myself in a specific service topic.
As I uncover the meaning behind active citizenship and my semester spent in service, I am getting a chance to reflect on all the work done in these past months. I am eternally grateful for the immense growth I have gotten to accomplish. I have expanded my vocabulary, my understanding, and my comfort zone. I am excited to embark on this journey from conscious citizen to active citizen; I cannot wait to see where it will take me. I am so grateful for SERVE and the opportunities it has presented. I smile just thinking of all the active citizens the organization is creating and all the effective service work that will be done. It is with an overflowing grateful heart I end this semester, much more grateful than in August and maybe less grateful than I will be in May. This organization has really defined my first semester at Virginia Tech with joy and excitement. I could not imagine my experience at Tech without it. I cannot wait to see the active citizen that I will become and the others that I will have the opportunity to teach in this journey.
The Active Citizen Continuum. Break Away. The Alternative Break Connection Inc.
Asitn, Helen S. The Social Change Model of Leadership Development Guidebook Version III. The National Clearinghouse of Leadership Programs, 1996.
Baldwin, Christina. Storycatcher, Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story. New World Library.
Block, Peter. “From Leadership to Citizenship.” From Insights of Leadership (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 1 Nov. 2015. (Freeman).
Kouzes, James M., and Barry Z. Posner. Leadership Is Everyone’s Business. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer, 2007. Print.
Pipher, Mary. “Reluctant Activists.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.