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Redefining Citizenship

Redefining Citizenship

Amid the Jan. 6 hearings, in light of the Supreme Court’s highly consequential decisions, and as the country reaches a record-low level of extreme national pride, there have been increasing calls to reexamine the true meaning of patriotism and being American. In last month’s Vox issue of the Highlight, Sean Collins reflected that Juneteenth, which falls exactly half a month before Independence Day, “is a holiday commemorating America as it is” while “July Fourth celebrates the country America pretends to be.”

On the heels of Independence Day, we invite you to consider what the truth of the American promise has meant for the myriad communities who live on this land and the possibilities of interdependence we can discover and realize — the threads of coexistence that many among us and before us have already weaved into their understanding of “citizenship,” as well as our intertwined ideas of rights and responsibilities that we want to practice now and into the future.

“(Patriots) combine a loving devotion to America with a demand for justice,” Robert Reich affirmed in the Guardian. As we define and redefine citizenship in America, we are guided by the love and justice fueling the work of our nonprofit partners who have been steadily moving our national narrative from one rooted in fear to one rooted in abundance.

By sharing their words and impact, the Catalogue hopes to articulate their work within the larger context of who we choose to include in our visions for this country and how we want to do so. We welcome your thoughts, experiences, and stories in this ongoing project.

From Othering to Love and Abundance

“Language that defines immigrants as “others” frequently dominates public discourse around immigration and immigrants,” Tara Magner and Marisa Gerstein Pineau wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2018. “In fact, framing immigrants as “others” has infiltrated the US national dialogue and seeped into the country’s collective consciousness, so much so that even progressive politicians often use it without realizing its toxic effects.”

From phrases like bringing immigrants “out of the shadows” to framing some immigrants as more “worthy” of support than others, much of the widespread narrative around who exists within the definition of “American” excludes immigrant communities. The consequence of such rhetoric is, as Define American elaborates in a recent report, “the systematic and sustained dehumanization of immigrants and people of color.” When it is no longer surprising or shocking that anti-immigration rhetoric is used by white nationalists to “promote isolationism” and then justified “as a form of self-defense,” we see how critical it is to deeply challenge the notion and weaponization of “foreign-ness” against immigrants and non-white people.

It is this rhetoric that local nonprofits like One Journey are committed to shifting — from the fear-based message of “refugees and immigrants (as) a cost or even a threat to our society” to a narrative that “(connects) people through the shared languages of humanity.” Vanda Berninger and Wendy Chan founded One Journey to celebrate the “vast contributions of immigrant communities,” economically, culturally, and beyond. Through their flagship festival, educational events, coalition and community building, and joyous emphasis on our common languages of music, dance, art, storytelling, technology, food, and more, they are harnessing the power of narrative change to build a more welcoming world.

This past June, The New York Times reflected on ten years of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) by inviting Dreamers to share what makes them American. In the article’s introduction, Isvett Verde wrote that “Lost in the conversation around who should and shouldn’t have the right to stay in the United States is the toll living with perpetual uncertainty exacts on a life — and the ripple effects it has on families.” This echoes what Ayuda and their immigration legal program team has experienced: “Whenever there is a window for immigrants to obtain stable status, it is never certain how long that window will remain open.”

It isn’t just that Dreamers and immigrants make vital contributions to our communities. As Esder Chong shares in The New York Times, “What we all really want is a guarantee that we can stay in the country and live a good life, one that includes access to health care, education, employment opportunities and a driver’s license, and the ability to travel to see our family abroad.” These are opportunities that have historically been precarious or inaccessible for Black and Indigenous communities in America, and other communities of color, and that we collectively continue to fight for. Not only is a better world possible when it is better for us all, but a better world is also made possible by the plurality of our experiences. It is through cultural, linguistic, and experiential diversity and visibility that we thrive.

And it is with solidarity that we materialize this world in ours. In the words of our nonprofit partners:

“To build the truly liberatory economic and political system that working class Washingtonians deserve,” Yannik Omictin, former Economic Justice Program Coordinator at Many Languages One Voice, wrote in a blog article, “we will need a strong coalition of Black native Washingtonians and Black and brown immigrants of all backgrounds — in addition to white accomplices.” Through “Know Your Rights” workshops and trainings, direct cash assistance for immigrant families, cultivating youth leadership, organizing an immigrant-led worker base for economic justice, and more, Many Languages One Voice builds power and mobilizes the community to prompt greater systemic change.

Recently, the Virginia General Assembly passed an amendment that would take the $5 million designated to help make higher education more affordable for undocumented and DACA students over the next two years and direct it to students at two of the state’s historically Black universities. “Funding for higher education should be a priority for all students who are in need,” the Dream Project declared in a statement they issued on this decision. “Rather than prioritizing funding for both underserved student groups, the decision pits the needs of one against another… Redirecting these funds creates a false narrative, implying that legislators had no option but to choose between immigrant students and Black students.”

What could it look like to operate from a mindset of abundance, not scarcity? We’ve learned how quickly grassroots operations like the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network and our nonprofit partner CARECEN, among others, can mobilize the community to care for each other, as they have done and continue to do for migrants being bused from Texas and Arizona to DC these last three months. And it is through their power-building that we can invest in long-term solutions and truly move our city and country collectively beyond “othering” to loving.

What Rights, Whose Rights?

“When someone’s locked away for a long time, when they come back, they don’t have an identity,” Paula Thompson, Executive Director of Voices for a Second Chance, told Lauren Zehyoue on the Unbossed, Unbothered, and Unfiltered podcast last year. “And so, we’re helping people get their birth certificates so that they can get their identification, we help people with clothing, food, shelter, and getting them connected.”

Because most incarcerated DC residents are placed in federal custody and housed anywhere as close as Maryland or as far as California, re-entry for returning citizens — many of whom grew up in under-resourced communities — is particularly challenging. This is in addition to the central narrative we hold of expecting returning citizens to “(pay) their debt to society.” As noted on A Chance to Thrive’s website, “for many, they never stop paying — their history of incarceration prevents them from renting a home, getting a job, making friends, and living without stigma or harassment due to their record.”

In our last article examining safety, we explored the devastating impact a heavily punitive criminal legal system has on BIPOC communities. Dismantling structural racism through decarceration needs to be accompanied by adequate support for people’s re-entry into the community. Again, we return to the question of who is considered “American” and what rights we all want to be afforded as participants in this country — if we operate from a place of valuing interdependence, love, justice, and plurality, how could we recreate our systems to actually love and support formerly incarcerated individuals so that we ensure their health and happiness?

Here, we want to echo the words of another nonprofit partner, Open City Advocates, who supports youth sentenced in the juvenile system both during and after incarceration:

“Treat the young people in our juvenile justice system like you would your own. Believe in them. Care for them. Invest in them.(Emphases ours)

“I get the idea (that) people coming home from prison can be scary, but none of us are scary,” Margaret, one of the three panelists featured in A Chance to Thrive’s event on the barriers facing returning citizens, shared during the conversation. “I want to be the best person I can to bring value to my neighborhood (and) to protect the children from not doing the things I did growing up.”

Citizenship as an Ongoing Practice

“Deeply listen to kids, their ideas, their concerns,” Amy Neugebauer, Founder of youth philanthropic organization The Giving Square, told Karen Leggett in the Washington Post, “because they will make us think and make us better people.”

Nationally and locally, our democracy currently faces a significant host of challenges, from declining faith in public institutions to the spread of misinformation to increasing polarization. “And yet,” Vernee Green, CEO of Mikva Challenge, asked, “which among them might not be helped by engaging the active and thoughtful civic participation of a wide array of our nation’s youth?”

What could America look like if we define citizenship as an ongoing practice, and if we commit to giving everyone full opportunities to participate in civic and political life? As it stands, “scholars have expressed growing concern about the ways in which our democracy fails tests of political equality,” Molly Andolina and Hilary Conklin wrote in a Mikva Challenge white paper. Alongside other growing gaps, “those with the greatest resources (participate) at rates much greater than those who have less access to key resources of “skills, money, and time”” — a disparity that both further marginalizes already under-resourced communities and, frankly, impoverishes our visions for what this country could be.

Imagine, instead, the vibrance of an actively engaged citizenry, where students ask questions of our political candidates as in Mikva Challenge’s youth-led mayoral candidates forum; where their visual storytelling talent is nurtured by organizations like Critical Exposure so that they have a platform to speak for themselves and take ownership over their narratives; where their advocacy solutions are given room and weight in spaces like the Washington Urban Debate League‘s programs; and, most importantly, where our empowerment of Black and Brown youth can reverberate and expand to include every American we don’t want to leave behind.

Finally, we take inspiration from the words of Lulit Shewan, a youth activist and board member of the Youth Activism Project, which holds as its core belief that “there is no minimum age for leadership.” In Shewan’s note to the youth, titled “Resistance is the Theme of Our Generation,” she shared:

“Investing in our communities — education reform, social work, mental health resources, safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth, etc. — will be the improvement in our quality of life that will furthermore reduce crime and incarceration… Revolution requires resistance and resistance can’t occur if you’re unable to see the impact of actuating on a small scale. Your voice matters.”

A practice of love can feel small, but we have seen that it leads to the largest ripple effects in our society. As you redefine citizenship with us, the nonprofit partners we highlight here, and the many other local nonprofits we support, we hope you will engage in the long-term, scalable work of love and justice so that we can collaboratively materialize and celebrate a good life for all Americans.

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