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Sara Weinberger: We must unlock the power of engaged American citizens

NORTHAMPTON — The transition from summer to fall took me by surprise. This would be the first September that I would not be busily preparing syllabi, organizing my office and learning the names of my newest batch of social work students at Western New England University. My first September of retirement means that I no longer need to mourn the passage of summer.

Yet I continue to inadvertently recall highlights of a summer that always passes too quickly. This year, July 4 held particular meaning for me, since it was the first time I witnessed this year’s group of new Americans take their citizenship oath. Judge Ponsor remarked during the ceremony that when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter was asked to name the most important position of his career, he replied, “U.S. Citizen.”

While the array of people who became citizens on the steps of the courthouse lawn that day may have agreed, for those of us born in the U.S., citizenship is often a privilege taken for granted. We are spectators rather than participants in the business of running this country, and many of us pay more attention to the latest goings on with the Kardashians than to the workings of our government.

Less than 60 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 2012 election, and elected officials are surprised when more than a handful of people voice their opinions in writing.

Media scholar Marty Kaplan compared how thousands of Brazil’s citizens took their dissatisfaction with their government this year to the streets, while the United States is devoid of large-scale protests. Our country struggles with record income disparities, housing foreclosures, invasions of our privacy, sequestration, continued war in Afghanistan and a Congress that gives primary attention to the interests of multi-national corporations.

Yet we respond to these problems with barely a whisper. Kaplan believes citizens of the United States have learned to be helpless and cynical. A few years ago, I listened to a student tell me he was not going to register to vote because it didn’t make a difference. I was appalled, but not surprised.

In a world where we are bombarded by tweets and cable news images that change by the second, it’s easy to feel disempowered. Frustration and helplessness quickly give way to apathy that drives us away from civic engagement. We get our satisfaction watching Paula Deen get crucified by the media instead of using social networking to organize this country’s citizenry in a war against Citizens United.

What then, did Felix Frankfurter mean? Citizenship is an unearned privilege for the majority of people in the United States. Does birthright come with responsibilities? I don’t remember much about eighth grade, but I do remember Mr. Cira’s civics class, where I learned about our government, the constitution and most importantly, that the essence of patriotism is taking an active role as a citizen.

My right to vote as a woman, my friend’s right to marry the woman she loves and a whole host of other freedoms we enjoy came from ordinary people who decided that, in Nancy Amidei’s words, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.”

If we remain bystanders, we lose our democracy. If we organize and use our voices, we stand a chance.

Being a citizen is so much more than taking an oath of allegiance. It’s figuring out what each of us can do to make sure that everyone is accorded fundamental human rights.

Identify and learn about the issues and take a stand by educating others, joining activist organizations, conveying your message through letters to the editor and to your government representatives and displaying your views on a bumper sticker or a button. The list of actions we can all take is endless, particularly in this age of social media. And of course, don’t give up. Rights and freedoms are only won through struggle.

Activists in their 90s like Northampton’s Francis Crowe and Arky Markham have spent the better part of their lives trying to make this country better and they haven’t given up yet.

Alessandria Schumacher, a recent graduate of Northampton High School, took her responsibility as a citizen seriously when she wrote a letter to her state representative discussing her concerns about school funding. He surprised her with a phone call to talk further about the issue. She learned that her actions get noticed.

With the end of summer came an earlier-than-usual Jewish New Year and with it the customary blowing of the shofar, a ram’s horn blown in synagogues to wake us from our lethargy so we can attend to the task of repairing the world.

As I heard the sound of the shofar this year, I was reminded of the call to honor the privilege of citizenship through action. I invite you to join me.

Sara Weinberger of Northampton, a retired professor of social work, writes about human rights issues on the third Monday of the month.

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