When our local public school system had to undergo severe budget cuts a few years ago, I witnessed firsthand vicious democracy. The PTA organized itself to demand accountability and transparency from the school board and the administrators. Parents not only wanted the best public education for their children, but they owned the process of ensuring it would be equitable for all. So they dug in to understand how the system works, they reminded elected officials that they were working for the public and they reminded the parents that it was their job to hold the system and the people within it accountable.
“Elected officials,” “public servants”: These are words that are powerful and are translated into other languages to the less powerful “politician” and “bureaucrat.” These two former terms used relentlessly by parents awakened me to what it means to be a citizen in the United States. Even “citizen” is something that comes with more responsibility than rights here in the U.S.
I come from Austria, one of the best countries in the world – a small, neutral and prosperous country in the middle of Europe. With its passport, I can travel and work peacefully almost anywhere in the world. So, even after I married an American, worked, paid taxes, bought property, started a small business, earned a degree and started raising three children here in the U.S., I had no need or desire to get U.S. citizenship.
Due to simple curiosity about topics related to the environment, infrastructure and city planning, when I moved to Charlotte, I signed up for email newsletters of groups such as the Catawba Riverkeeper, Clean Air Carolina, UNCC Urban Institute, Charlotte Spokes People and NC Sustainable Energy Association. I had no ulterior motive really, except to educate myself and understand where I lived, geographically. It turns out, the emails encourage the recipients to go from passive reader to critical thinker and maybe even activist. They push you to want to understand more than your immediate geography and environment but to try to understand the sociology, policy, politics and the role of each individual as an active citizen. They teach the power citizens can have.
In our increasingly specialized and data-driven world, these groups carry a heavy load.
With limited resources, these groups keep the gates, and are game changers that benefit the entire society. The Catawba Riverkeeper monitors water quality, files lawsuits against toxic ponds, flies over chicken farm waste ponds and cleans up trash from tributaries to ensure our drinking water reservoir remains safe. The Clean Air Carolina, among others, collects and studies data on air quality. The Urban Institute writes about how our city is about to bust out of its seams and offers a wealth of information on tools available to grow attractively and prosperously. The Charlotte Spokes People is a loose organization of cyclists alert to infrastructure, transportation and traffic policy that could negatively affect equitable and safe transportation for all.
The groups are fierce in understanding, continuing to learn and protecting what they stand for. They have a sense of ownership. It doesn’t make them rich monetarily but they make our city rich without most of us knowing about them.
Their diligence, perseverance, intelligence and enthusiasm made me realize they are the best America has. They made me grow my own sense of ownership. They are why I got U.S. citizenship in 2015. In 2016, I used my citizenship to vote.
When I moved to the U.S. almost 20 years ago, and to Charlotte 10 years ago, I found policy and politics messy, chaotic, without any master plan. It bothered me. Then I learned to appreciate this democracy always-in-progress. The democracy that the citizens through very specialized groups keep an eye upon, step on and shake, because while they are lean, they are also fierce.