Jamie Piltch is on a mission. The 23-year-old from Bryn Mawr is scouring the country hoping to discover something in short supply: good citizenship.
"I am in search of the things that we still share, and I'll call those, for lack of a better term, civic values," he told me. "I really, firmly believe that as polarized as the country might be right now, there are still certain things that we do agree on."
After graduating from Harvard last spring, Piltch jumped in his 2011 Honda CRV looking to add to its 60,000-mile odometer reading by navigating through more than 15 states (so far). For several months, he's been staying at Airbnbs and eating peanut butter sandwiches and beef jerky while conducting interviews of a diverse pool of people. By the time he comes home next month for Thanksgiving, he will have traversed the Rust Belt, Sun Belt, and the South, visiting small towns and big cities and interviewing more than 150 Americans from a variety of backgrounds.
He's interacted with African Americans in Detroit; evangelical Christians in Mishawaka, Ind.; a Sudanese refugee in Dubuque, Iowa; Lakota on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota; and soldiers at Fort Rucker in Enterprise, Ala. To each, he puts a direct question: Do you consider yourself to be a good citizen?
"People often say yes, because of the way they help their communities directly," he told me. "For some, it's volunteering, others it's local politics, and others it's how they support their neighbors."
The citizenship subject matter is nothing new for Piltch. He studied history and literature as an undergraduate and wrote his senior thesis on civic education.
"Basically, what I argued is that the Depression brought in a new idea of citizenship, and in some ways an even deeper commitment to it, than had existed before," he said. "Because it introduced the idea of the worker-citizen, someone who contributes to democratic society through their work, through voting, through the way that they build streets, and so many other ways."
Thereafter, says Piltch, a combination of factors led to a decline in citizenship. They include an increased focus on STEM subjects (and therefore less class time for civics), a loss of faith in the federal government after the Vietnam War, and concerns that civics treated American life too homogeneously for an increasingly diverse country.
He calls his project the Citizen's Story, and he asks his subjects eight core questions. Though most think themselves good neighbors, Piltch said the conversation gets interesting when he asks about their neighbors and whether they think people of the opposite political party are good citizens.
"There are two sentiments I'm hearing from people," he said. "There are people who say, 'I have friends who are Democrats or Republicans and, absolutely, they're good citizens. Political leaning doesn't affect whether someone's a good citizen.' The other thing I hear is 'I want to believe that they're good citizens, but the media makes it so hard to do that. All I ever hear is bad about them.' "
According to Piltch, if there is any common denominator thus far, it is that everyone agrees that serving one's community, whether through volunteering or a political/community-driven job, is "amazing" citizenship. Still, he's surprised by how many he has interviewed who say they don't know anyone from the opposing party. "They say they don't have anyone close to them who rebuts the negative image they are getting of that party from the media," he said.
Piltch also asks his subjects how people can improve as citizens and is encouraged by the answer he most often hears: Make an effort to find and listen to people with different perspectives.
"This excites me," he says, "because it suggests that even if people aren't taking that step yet, people genuinely recognize our country has a problem with the way it's polarized and 'bubble-ized.' It gives me hope that whenever someone does reach out that hand, or enter that new space with people different than themselves, citizens on both sides will want to listen and learn."
So, how does the young man in search of good citizenship define that value? He says: informed advocacy, a willingness to listen, compassion, confidence in our actions, and a belief in the process.
"I think I'm an OK citizen," said Piltch. "I actually think I do better at the informal aspects of citizenship than the formal ones. I seek out people different than myself, I listen, and I try to learn. But I don't vote in local elections or primaries, and I tried hard twice to get out of jury duty. I also know very little about local politics and issues."
He promises to improve on some of those formal aspects.