It’s that time of year for us to make New Year’s Resolutions that will fail by the second week of January.
But as America closes out a year that finds us so divided in so many ways, let me suggest one resolution all of us should make and resolve to keep.
We should resolve to become better citizens.
By some important measures, the tie that binds America together—our civic life—is still strong. Voter turnout in the 2020 election was the highest of any U.S. election in the 21st century. And according to World Giving Index, the largest global survey of charitable giving, Americans are the most generous people in the world; we donate our time and money in greater proportion than those in other countries.
But we all know, deep down, something is off. We’re so angry with one another about everything, be it over longstanding issues like immigration or abortion or new ones like COVID vaccines or masks. And, our way of expressing our opposition is much more belligerent and confrontational.
As we enter 2022, we need to ask ourselves: “How can we be better—as neighbors, as friends, and as citizens?”
We rarely seem to talk about citizenship in America anymore except when it comes to whom we want to deny it.
But U.S. citizenship is an amazing gift, handed to us for free, for the most part, by fortune of birth or open borders.
Here is a list of ten things all of us can do in 2022 to give thanks for the gift of being an American, to be better citizens and to do our part to knit back together our fraying country.
- Take the U.S. Naturalization Test and Oath of Allegiance: Every immigrant who wants to become a U.S. citizen must take a test of their knowledge of America’s history and democratic system as well as an oath to defend our Constitution. It’s a 10-question test drawn from a list of 100 possible questions and you need to get six questions right to pass. You should study up and take the test yourself. When you pass, ask someone meaningful to you to administer the Oath of Allegiance.
- Research your immigrant story: Most Americans trace their lineage to ancestors who came from somewhere else. My American story begins when my great-grandfather, Shlomo Tichinsky, fled the anti-Semitic pogroms of his native Ukraine to arrive at Ellis Island in 1904. Knowing his story has given me such an appreciation for what America meant to him and what it should mean to me. Of course, we can’t ignore those who were brought to our shores forcefully or the indigenous people who were here before anyone else. Each story contributes a tile that makes up America’s history and together these tiles of many different colors and shapes which are indistinguishable from afar but quite distinctive the closer you get, shape the American mosaic.
- Attend an immigrant naturalization ceremony: A few years ago, I had a chance to see hundreds of immigrants naturalized at ceremonies at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson and at the New York Historical Society. The joy and pride I saw on the faces of these new Americans was indescribable. Every American should see this for themselves. Naturalization ceremonies occur in federal courthouses across America. Most are closed temporarily due to COVID restrictions, so in the meantime you can watch a video to get a sense of the magic.
- Visit Normandy, preferably on a chilly and cloudy day, and imagine the bravery it required for thousands of allied soldiers to storm that beach during the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944 to protect our democracy. And if you can’t make it to France, watch Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers or The Longest Day for a bracing reminder that freedom is never free.
- Spend a week living at the poverty level: Don’t move out of your home but try spending a week meeting your most basic needs on a poverty level income. According to the latest federal poverty guidelines, that’s $26,500 for a family of four, or $509.61 per week. At the end of that week, we might just have a bit more empathy for the millions of Americans struggling to keep food on the table, to pay their medical bills, care for their children while working multiple jobs or to heat their homes.
- Go on a police ride-along: Many local police departments offer them, and they can show up close just how hard the job is and what it takes to keep our communities safe. Many police officers are feeling burned out and unappreciated, with a recent survey of 200 departments finding retirements are up 45%. Please also remember that saying a simple thank you to our public servants can go a long way.
- Visit a courtroom: If this isn’t practical, go to your on-demand TV and watch the 1957 classic movie 12 Angry Men. It offers a lesson that must be taught and retaught to every generation that America must always strive to be a place where every citizen is equal before the law and anyone accused of a crime has a right to a free and fair trial before their peers.
- Visit a National Park: America has an amazing National Park System that spans every state. If you’re over 62 years old, you can get a Lifetime Senior Pass for $80 that gives you and all those in your vehicle free entry into any National Park for the rest of your life. It’s the best deal you will ever get from the government. Whether Acadia in Maine or Everglades in Florida or Yellowstone in Wyoming or Denali in Alaska, there are so many beautiful gems for you to see.
- Contact an elected official: Speak up and speak out. If elected officials do not hear from you, they will only be able to react to the voters they do hear from. An example: Did you ever wonder why Congress can never pass major gun safety legislation even though polls show huge majorities support ideas like expanded background checks? It’s because gun owners are almost twice as likely to contact their elected official about the issue than non-gun owners. If you are silent your elected officials may think everything is fine, when it’s not.
- VOTE. VOTE. VOTE: Although voter turnout was relatively high in the November 2020 general election, fewer than 20% of registered voters voted in the party primaries in the 2018 midterms. Why does this matter so much? Because gerrymandering and self-sorting have made almost 90% of congressional districts reliably red or blue, making primaries the only elections that really matter. Voting is a “reality check” for politicians. Staying away on election day is like saying you don’t care about your own rights, so let’s all stop complaining about the extremists on both sides and make sure we get out and vote. Take advantage of the different ways to vote and don’t take yourself out of the game. The goal is to make more districts purple, not blue or red!
Marian Wright Edelman once said, “democracy is not a spectator sport,” and neither is being a good citizen. If you do even one of these 10 things, you might find it easier to recognize that all Americans occupy common space and we need to figure out how we can find common ground.
In 2022, let’s make a resolution to be better citizens and to do our part to make this a better country. We owe it to ourselves, our children and to our fellow countrymen and women.