In N.J., helping citizens live up to their civic duties

It has been more than 50 years since President John F. Kennedy challenged us to live up to our responsibilities as citizens, famously saying, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Kennedy recognized that the problems facing our nation could not be fixed by leaders in Washington alone.

What was true then, when most people had faith in our democratic institutions and in government, is even more true today, when faith in our government is questionable for so many. What we need now is a civic challenge for the 21st century - one that enlists us all.

We need to remember the ancient roots of citizenship in all democracies, as expressed by Kennedy and embraced by our founders - namely, that we are all charged with the responsibility to actively pursue the public good.

Simply voting and paying taxes is not enough in today's world. It is up to us to repair our democracy and restore the core standards of unselfish service and mutual respect. It is up to us to learn about the new powers that are available to citizens of this new century - powers that we can exercise "beyond the ballot box" to better our communities and our country.

In my lifetime, our society has never been so bitterly divided along racial, class, ethnic, partisan, and ideological lines - and these divisions are exacerbated and exploited by too many politicians and so-called news outlets. We must develop a new understanding of the common good, whether for a single community, a state, or for the nation. This only happens when citizens identify and address concrete issues with practical solutions that serve the broader community, address one another with mutual respect, and demand the same from their elected officials.

In strengthening our democracy, new technology provides both challenges and opportunities. The internet and social media can sometimes amplify divisions and make it easier for people to exist in their own reinforcing silos, but it can also provide the tools for citizens to identify and seek solutions to problems facing their communities and share their solutions with other citizens and other communities across the nation - powering national impact through local citizen problem-solving efforts.

I am pleased to report that the Citizens Campaign in New Jersey is making a 21st-century civic challenge, complete with all the tools, training, and expert support needed for citizens to find and advance practical solutions and, in so doing, help to restore and improve our democracy.

Their civic challenge begins with a civic pledge, which former Govs. Jim Florio, Christie Whitman, and I have taken. In it, citizens promise to work together to leave their community and country better than they found them by pursuing practical solutions that are cost-effective, success-based, and advanced with a "no-blame" approach. These citizens, by their example, are setting a standard that calls for a solutions-first approach from their fellow citizens, and also from candidates and elected officials.

This 21st-century citizens' movement is taking hold and already mounting accomplishments. For example, in the New Jersey cities of Perth Amboy, Newark, and Trenton, pledge-takers, serving as civic trustees for their cities, are already advancing solutions in the areas of police/community relations, climate-change adaptation, neighborhood improvements, and student discipline. These include working with neighborhood associations on implementing citizen-driven improvement plans and winning the adoption of an innovative resolution to reduce flooding by moving storm-water protection to the center of city infrastructure planning.

In addition, the civic challenge prepares adults and high school seniors by offering an advanced form of civics - a type of "basic training for 21st century citizenship" - where they learn about their power to solve problems without waiting for the political establishment. This "Solutions Civics" training can be applied nationally.

Our nation has serious problems, but they have been created by people and can only be solved by people. At this critical point in our nation's history, we must all live up to our responsibilities.

The Citizens Campaign's Civic Challenge is a very concrete and straightforward way for each of us to play our part in moving our country out of the rut of blame-game politics and onto a path of positive and practical problem solving. It could be the spark that reignites a national movement toward renewed civic responsibility.

nc@thkconsulting.net