The Work of the Citizen

“Why does Kettering use the term citizen?” I often get questioned about the use of this term—especially in a country where actual capital-c Citizenship carries with it a set of rights that non-citizen residents do not have. As someone who cares deeply about immigration issues in the US, I do not want to be perceived as exclusionary when I use the term. If anything, Kettering’s research interests identify greater inclusion in democratic practice as key to democracy working as it should. What word would do? Resident is one option. It reflects the idea that people who reside in a particular area share that space. People may reside together in an apartment building, but the word says nothing to me about the work of caring for that building or for the other residents in it. The term does not imply that residents have any responsibility for each other. Agent is another possibility. Agency certainly is an important academic word for the power to act, but it is just that—academic. It also seems to refer to an individual’s capacity to act. I suppose we could try collective agency, but that’s not a noun. Collective agent gets a little too close to someone trying to repossess my car. The term public comes a little closer—perhaps. Public often refers to groups of people at least, but sometimes the public is something businesses relate to as consumers or pollsters count when gathering opinions. Yet the public good is something that many people care about, not just academics. What is “the” public good anyway, and who decides what it is? Now we are getting to what I think citizens are and do. In my mind, citizen is the term that moves me toward the public good. A citizen has a larger responsibility to others who share space (residents in communities)—to decide what to do, to identify the public good, and to work to make it happen. Such citizens (responsible, deciding, working for the public good) are distinctly different—or could be—than the legal definition implies. Legal rights of citizenship imply the right to vote, access to particular federal benefits, and legal protections such as due process. These rights are incredibly valuable to people and they do impact the ability of some people to participate in democratic public life. For me, this use of the term citizen refers to the nature of the policies more than the practices in a democracy. The impact on undocumented persons can be severe if the very real fear of deportation prevents their participation as responsible, deciding, working people. When using the word citizen to describe the role of a people rather than the legal rights of a people, the term does not exclude undocumented immigrants. Many undocumented immigrants participate in democratic public life—sometimes at great risk. I would call them citizens. The implication that it is people who make democracy work as it should is a powerful one. The concept of people, living together in a place, developing the care, considering the direction, and making the choices of what is good, is a powerful one. Including diverse voices in these choices is what citizens should do to shape their shared future as best they can. They see and hear one another across their perceived differences, consider what is valuable to them in light of their shared futures, and decide for themselves and together what they should do to create public good. That is the work of the citizen.