Be a citizen, not just a resident - Keith Roulston editorial
On a recent TVO show, The Life-Sized City, about Medellin, Columbia, an activist in that city made an interesting observation. “Residents,” he said, “have rights. Citizens have rights and responsibilities.”
The man who spoke the words was definitely a citizen, not just a resident. He was one of a large group of volunteers who took up the cause of fighting poverty and Medellin’s terrible reputation as a South American drug capital. Some organized to win election to run their city. Others took on smaller projects.
Medellin, for instance, is a divided city with prosperous areas in the valley and the poor left to spread up the mountainside with few city services. There aren’t even any streetlights so at night the streets are dangerous. So citizens organized a program to install solar-powered streetlights, adding one light at a time as they could afford it. The project had an unintended consequence – as the lights went on the prosperous residents of the valley were reminded 24 hours a day of the presence of the poor in their community.
There were larger projects as well. One of problems for the poor people on the mountainside was that it took them too long to be able to travel to jobs in the valley because they had no public transit. While on a vacation in Switzerland, one of the citizen leaders noticed the gondolas used as ski resorts and wondered if a gondola system could help get mountainside dwellers down the hill faster. The system was built and now makes new job opportunities available to the poor mountain-dwellers.
But it’s that definition of a citizen being someone with rights and responsibilities that keeps sticking in my mind. In a way, it’s like a resident is just a tenant while citizens see themselves as owning shares in their community. They realize that they benefit when the whole community benefits.
Rural areas and small towns traditionally have a large proportion of citizens. People had to take responsibility or communities would have little to offer. Those who realized they had responsibilities to their communities didn’t necessarily need to take bold steps like running for municipal council or the school board. They made their communities better by leading the Boy Scouts, becoming a volunteer firefighter, being active in the Lions Club or Women’s Institute or coaching baseball or hockey.
It’s easier to be a resident in a large city. You don’t need to take ownership in your community to be fully served. Between private businesses and government you can expect to have most of your needs taken
care of. Thankfully there are still people who take responsibility for leading Girl Guides or coaching soccer, but these citizens make up a smaller proportion of the population.
Changes in society have seen this mindset creeping into rural communities. The replacement of small, personally-run stores by large, corporate mega-stores disconnects the sense that the well-being of people you know depends on the dollars you spend with them. The growth of government services also gives the impression that we can relax and let somebody else pick up the slack.
But the perception that we can sit back and somebody else will take responsibility is flawed in rural communities. There’s a richness that’s lost, not only because we’ll lose services we’ve had when we used to provide them through volunteer labour, but because getting involved with others in the community is rewarding. I still remember the simple pleasure of washing dishes with a neighbour after a community supper many years ago, having a conversation we’d never have had if not being brought together by that shared task.
Taking ownership in your community pays off in big and small ways. Back in 1985, citizens in the Brussels and Blyth areas who missed having a local newspaper, invested in The Citizen. Their faith gave them a community-owned newspaper that’s still going strong nearly 33 years later (and has paid them a good financial return as well). Meanwhile, larger communities’ newspapers went through several ownership changes, each owner more remote from understanding of the needs and opportunities of the communities they served. Now it seems only a matter of time before those communities won’t have a newspaper at all.
We need more people who realize their community is not just a place they reside but is a place in which they own a share. Yes, it takes more effort than just sitting back and connecting through Facebook or being entertained by Netflix. But taking ownership, playing an active part in your community, is rewarding in so many ways that big business and big government can’t deliver.
If you’re not already a citizen, dive in. It offers so much more than just being a resident.