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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

The Reflective Citizen

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Adapted from a Spirit & Place Civic Saturday talk given Aug. 19, 2023

We spend a lot of time at Spirit & Place reflecting on our civic values and beliefs. That is, those American values like freedom, liberty, equality, and justice that supposedly unite us as a people – but that we rarely talk about in specific detail, especially with strangers.

In both staff conversations and in the public programming we create, we routinely and deeply examine civic values and challenge each other on how and why we think as we do. There is a lot of tension and friction in this work. It can be too challenging for some and disappointing for others as, oftentimes, there are more questions than answers. Nothing is ever black or white.

At the same time, this work of clarifying civic beliefs and values is incredibly gratifying because it provides a framework by which we can be reflective citizens. Citizens who think back upon our actions, willingly engage in continuous learning, and who never stop growing or asking more questions.

More than that and borrowing from the work of education reformer and philosopher John Dewey, a reflective citizen is open-minded, responsible, and wholehearted.

Reflective citizens are open-minded in that they listen deeply to multiple sides, consider new possibilities, and are resilient enough to face the possibility they might be wrong. To be open-minded does not mean accepting every new idea that comes along. Rather, it means being brave enough to examine new ideas in pursuit of new insights and solutions.

A reflective citizen is also responsible, and they demonstrate that responsibility by reflecting not just on how well something is working for them, but how it works for others. They show an appreciation for how their neighbors think, feel, and experience our shared society. (A reflective citizen moves beyond the “me” to the “we.”)

Putting both open-mindedness and responsibility into practice is what makes a reflective citizen wholehearted. To be wholehearted is to actively pursue new knowledge and differing points of view. Being wholehearted means being humble and empathetic to the realities of others. It also means being clear on one’s civic values and wrestling with how to put those values into action, but never stagnating on a dogmatic way of thinking.

When we get locked into fixed ways of doing and thinking, our communities and our very democracy suffer because our curiosity is stifled. We see this at the local and especially the national level in Congress. Clarifying one’s civic values and practicing reflective citizenship strengthens our imagination by opening us up to unexpected connections. It’s in those unexpected connections that inspiration awaits and our ability to truly show up for each other and put our values into action rests.

Being a reflective citizen is not easy. Reassessing your civic values and allowing yourself to be pushed and challenged on a regular basis is not for the faint hearted. Just remember that the goal is not necessarily to come to agreement, but to strengthen your capacity to learn, grow, and problem-solve with others.

The reward is a civic life where we realize we are in this together and we are all better off when we are all better off.

Erin Kelley is the program director of Spirit & Place.

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