Being a Good Citizen…and a Good Person

Fron a speech I gave at this year’s Civics Days:

My speech today was going to be about the theme of Generation Citizen, the notion of being an active citizen.   The notion of working in your communities, using the democratic process, to make change.  To make things better.  This, after all, is what you did throughout the semester.  You chose an issue.  And you tried to make a difference.

To give you context, this speech was going to be about my own life story.  You see, any story of myself begins with the fact that I spent almost my entire childhood living overseas, in Latin America and Africa. I came from an upper-middle class white family, and was lucky enough to always have what I needed to survive, and even thrive.  But as I spent time in my youth walking through slums in Kenya and rural areas in Ecuador, talking with opposition political candidates in Zimbabwe who had been tortured to the brink of death, interacting with refugees in Chad forced away from their families in Susan- all this instilled in me a deep sense of justice.  A sense of wanting to make this world a better place.  A sense of needing to make this world a better place.  A sense of doing everything I could to be a good citizen.  To make a difference.  I made a commitment to that goal, and much of my life’s work has been based on that.  Of attempting to put a cause on a pedestal, and doing everything I can to work on that cause.

And after telling you my story, I was going to tell you about some of my citizen heroes, – individuals who have put their causes, and the needs of larger communities over themselves. It’s a lesson than in a time like today, a time where we can be engrossed in our cell phones and social media, and really, ourselves, bares mentioning.  How can we be about more than ourselves?  The speech was going to be about individuals like Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa who was in jail for 27 years during the Apartheid era for the sake of his country, and who, upon returning, peacefully reconciled the country.  Individuals like the man who, on April 15th, 1947, put a 42 on the back of his jersey and took the field just miles south of here in the old Ebbets Field, determined to both play baseball and make history, paving a better path forward for all African American baseball players, and a path towards equality for all Americans, period.  Jackie Robinson sacrificed much of himself, and in turn, made this country a better place.  Mandela and Robinson are undoubtedly heroes.  To me.  To all of us.

And then I realized that would be a silly speech.  That it would be rather cliché.  And it would be wasting an opportunity.  Because my actual hero, the person that has taught me nearly all the lessons I know today, the person I try to be more like every day, is sitting here today.  That person, my hero, is my mom.

When it all comes down to it, unlike Nelson Mandela and Jackie Robinson, my mom is probably not going to be in the history books.  In my account, she did leave a successful life- she was a probation officer and managed a small business, she worked with women on self-help projects in Zimbabwe, and she’s volunteered her entire life.  But what is most important is that not only is she a good citizen.  But she is a good person.  An incredible person. She is kind.  She is generous.  She brightens the day of anyone she comes into contact with.  She is honest.  She listens.  She puts the needs of others above herself.  She pushes me to be a better person, a person that she would be proud to call a son.  And to this end, she has made a difference in so many lives.   In my life.  In the lives of so many people she interacted with in Latin America and Africa.

So why is this relevant to you?  Why should you care about my mom?  Or Jackie Robinson, for that matter?  What do they all have to do with Generation Citizen?

Because the truth is, being a good citizen and being a good person are one in the same.  In order to really make this world a better place, in order to really make a difference on all the issues you all talked about today- from gang violence to teen pregnancy to public transit, you need to use all of the skills and knowledge you learned throughout the semester in being a good citizen.  But you also need to be a good person.

For much of my life, I have focused so much on being a good citizen- I’ve done everything I could for the greater cause.  I’ve racked up the accolades, passed bills, and started a good program in Generation Citizen.  But I haven’t always been a good person.  I’ve bulldozed people along the way.  Friends, family members. But what I’ve started to learn, largely through my mom, is that it’s not all about the big change.  It’s not all about changing the world.  Sometimes, most of the time, it’s about our day to day interactions. It’s about being good.

The truth is, being a good person can be really really hard.  Think about yourselves.  When is the last time you were rude to a classmate, a teacher, a parent?  When is the last time you judged a peer, thinking they weren’t as good as you?  It’s not that we’re all bad people.  But our natural tendency is to think about ourselves.  The harder act to learn is to truly be empathetic.  Radically empathetic.  And to treat others like we would want to be treated ourselves.  All the time.

We have a lot of problems right now.  In our city, in our state, in our world.  And it’s incumbent on us to fix them.  The way to do so is to figure out how to combine being a good citizen with being a good person.

So how do we do this?  On one hand, I am telling you that in order to be a good citizen, we have to put the cause above ourselves.  We have to care less about our own needs, and more about those of society.  On the other hand, I am telling you to be deeply attuned to yourself, so that you can be radically empathetic to those around you.  Again, at least in my opinion, it’s really really hard.

But here’s a truth, that I really do believe in:

We all have a little bit of Jackie Robinson in us.  We all are ready to take a lead off first base, ready to sprint into second on the way home into a country of greater equality and acceptance.  And we are all ready and able to put that big cause, whatever it may be, above ourselves.  We need to do that.  We live in a society in which all too often, we are thinking about ourselves.  We need to think about more than that.  We need to channel Jackie.

And at the same time, we all have a little bit of my mom in us.  We can all be kinder to the people around us.  More empathetic.  We can listen.  We can make time for our friends and loved ones.  We can smile more.  We can make every interaction with those around us make their days better.

For, as the African American innovator and pioneer George Washington Carver stated, “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong.  Because someday in life, you will have been all of these.”

So today, I leave you with a challenge, a challenge that I have started doing myself.  Every morning, when you wake up, ask yourself two questions, which are really one in the same.  Today, how am I going to make this world a little bit better of a place?  And today, how am I going to be a little bit of a better person to those around me?   You won’t always succeed.  But just by trying, you will make the world a better place, and you will be better to those around me.  Every day, channel a little bit of Jackie.  And channel a little bit of my mom.

– Scott Warren, Generation Citizen Executive Director