What is involved in being an advanced citizen in America? Is it just being civil to our neighbors, celebrating on the Fourth of July, and showing up to vote? Or is there more?
In our last blog, we talked about decision-making in communities and how decisions are made by the people who show up. This month, we will explore who these people are who show up and the role of citizens, and residents who are actively working towards citizenship, in creating excellence in communities. Let’s take a look at some definitions to start. According to Oxford Languages, a citizen is defined as “a legally recognized subject or national of a state or commonwealth either native or naturalized.” In other words, a person who was either born in the country where they live or gone through the appropriate measures to be considered a legal resident with certain privileges and responsibilities. If we add “ship” to the end of the word, the meaning expands dramatically. Merriam-Webster says citizenship is “the status of being a citizen and the quality of an individual’s response to membership in a community.” I think citizenship is more than a status or a response. I like Dictionary.com’s definition as “the state of being vested with the rights, privileges, and duties of a citizen; the character of an individual viewed as a member of society; and, behavior in terms of the duties, obligations, and functions of a citizen. Encyclopedia Brittanica, now a great online resource that extends much further than the dusty volumes still sitting on my parent’s bookshelves that captivated my attention as a child, talks about citizenship being a mutually beneficial relationship of allegiance and protection between a state and an individual. It balances freedoms and rights with responsibilities such as allegiance, taxation, and service to the country.
Advanced citizenship, then, goes beyond the basics of just showing up. It is thinking ahead and proactively behaving to keep up with the times. It is going out of our way to think beyond our own needs and desires to consider those of the people around us. Being advanced is much like being a student in advanced classes. It requires more critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It involves doing a bit more homework to understand the interconnectedness of behaviors, the impact and influence of our words and actions, and the importance of following through on commitments.
In a video about the story behind the formation of Communities of Excellence 2026, Co-Founder Lowell Kruse shares a quote from Eboo Patel, the founder of Interfaith Youth Core. He says, “America is an unfinished masterpiece. America, like no other nation, allows you to participate in its progress, carve a place in its promise, play a role in its possibilities. This is both a privilege for Americans and a necessity for the nation.” Kruse draws on this quote as a call to action stating this message describes advanced citizenship. As citizens, we are responsible for showing up. To be advanced citizens, we have to step up with a mind to do the work even when it is not easy or simple.
“The American ideal,” said C. Everett Koop, former U.S. Surgeon General (1916-2013), “is not that we all agree with each other, or even like each other. It is that we will respect each other’s rights, especially the right to be different, and that, at the end of the day, we will understand that we are one people, one country, and one community, and that our well-being is inextricably bound up with the well-being of each and every one of our fellow citizens.”
One of the most famous quotes about this idea of practicing next-level citizenship and what it means to uphold and defend freedom comes from a fictional character created by Aaron Sorkin in The American President. Played by Michael Douglas in 1995, President Andrew Sheppard says in a pivotal scene, “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “you want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free.”
Wow! I don’t know about you, but it is sometimes tough to defend people with who I disagree unless reminding myself they, too, share many of the same values and concerns I have. They are humans, just like me, who have different experiences and perspectives. We may disagree on philosophy, theology, and politics, but we all need to eat and sleep and likely care deeply for someone other than ourselves. When I need to find common ground in community work, it helps to remember these fundamental truths. It is also extremely helpful in groups of inclusiveness to agree to a set of shared values ahead of inevitable debates. Doing so can keep the group together and moving towards the goals.
Kruse says, “We tend not to have culture and values discussions in communities, but they are essential to set the tone. Culture and values by themselves will not get the job done. You need a system that helps you, which is basically the Communities of Excellence Framework.” He goes on to share, “The United States can only be successful if communities are successful. We need the federal government to do its thing. We need state governments to do their thing. But community is the foundation of success in this country, and in communities, it’s the success of individuals. That’s why we educate our kids. Communities thrive because people are successful. The country thrives because communities are successful. We have to figure out how to make communities more successful.”
The Communities of Excellence Framework is a nonpartisan approach to building systems-leadership capacity and expand decision-making ability in communities of all sizes. Building on the foundation of democracy and liberty established by America’s founders, communities engaged with Communities of Excellence 2026 develop the critical thinking skills necessary to look at the bigger picture and see how to align resources and energy best. Their ability to take the responsibilities of citizenship to the next level is inspirational and a model for building greater economic prosperity, educational attainment, health status, and other key measures of community health and well-being. The values and culture promoted through the framework that support these measures, like The American President states, are not easy to follow. Still, they are promising of a more ideal democracy.
When watching the battles going on – philosophically and literally – in our country right now, I am reminded that the 40th U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) said, “The future is best decided by ballots, not bullets.” In an election year where the choices are challenging, we yearn for simpler debates and likable charismatic candidates that don’t make people feel uncomfortable or force us to think beyond our concerns. However, the reality is that very few elections are as idyllic as we might like to romanticize. Democracy is messy and challenging work that brings about not just equally extraordinary – but exponentially beneficial – results of human freedom, opportunity, and joy. It is worth the journey.
Our 6th U.S. President, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), responded to citizens' concerns two centuries ago with words that I feel are just as helpful today as they must have been then. He said, “Always vote for principle though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.” Every person and every vote matter. The responsibility and opportunity to do so based on our personal values is one of the most meaningful aspects of citizenship. The advanced version of this act is what happens when we think about ourselves and loved ones and the greater good of our communities.
I leave you with the words of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), who summed up why continuous improvement and leadership development is so significant when he said, “A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.” What skills and tools do you need to develop further to help take the leadership helm of your community’s potential? Communities of Excellence 2026 offers community leaders working in all sectors the opportunity to prepare, think ahead, and work together in both calm waters and the proverbial adventures of crisis on the high seas of contemporary society. If you are already involved, we are delighted to be on the journey with you! If not, and you’d like to learn more, please give us a call. We’d love to talk.
Information for this post was gathered from the following sources in addition to the author’s insight gained through experience:
Kruse, L. C. (2020). A Co-founders overview of how and why Communities of Excellence 2026 was formed. www.communitiesofexcellence2026.org.