Sorting through the stack of mail that I hadn't checked in weeks, my heart sank as I picked up a letter from the Los Angeles Superior Court. I knew what it was -- a jury summons.
For most, this is one of the worst pieces of mail they can receive. My mind raced through the list of things I needed to be doing and the various ways in which this was going to prevent me from doing them. When I mentioned it to a few friends, they started telling me how I could get out of it: "You're an educated woman of color, they don't want people who are critical of 'the system.'"
And we digressed into a discussion of the criminalization of communities of color and the prison industrial complex.
A few days later one of my friends, who happens to be undocumented, saw my summons lying on my desk. His response: "You're so lucky!" Seeing my confusion, he confessed that he wished he could serve on a jury. It was one of the many privileges that his undocumented status forbid him. I was surprised, but it made sense. We talk a lot about the limitations undocumented status poses to undocumented immigrants -- unequal access to higher education, no access to legal employment, fear of deportation, limited access to driver's licenses, etc. But we don't talk about the civic responsibilities and privileges, like voting and jury duty, which are also denied to undocumented immigrants.
I instantly began to feel ashamed about all the complaining my citizen friends and I had been doing only a few days earlier. My citizen guilt began to creep up inside of me. As we continued to talk, I realized that this was not something to complain or feel guilty about but rather was an opportunity to embrace my privilege and use it for positive change. I began to re-imagine the significance of jury duty.
My friends and I had been criticizing the injustices committed by the judicial system but then refusing to sacrifice our own time to take part in this system and make a difference on an individual level. Maybe that's me being overly optimistic, that my one voice on a jury of twelve can make a difference in one trial. But if we think about our organizing strategies- every additional voice or body at an event makes the group stronger. Voting strategies are the same -- every vote counts. Why should it be different when we think about jury duty?
Yet, this form of civic engagement is plagued by a certain complacency. To encourage participation we say that every voice counts but we also tend to re-frame the event -- Get Out the Vote rallies become concerts, social justice rallies have bands, feature celebrity speakers, or offer food. On The Simpsons, they tried to make jury duty more interesting by framing it as joining the "justice squadron" at the "Municipal Fortress of Vengeance." So maybe citizenship itself is in need of some re-framing so we can increase civic participation and get citizens like myself to appreciate the privileges we are afforded.
One way of re-framing citizenship, while radical, could be to associate formal citizenship with citizen-like action or civic engagement. Not every country assigns citizenship in the same way. Most commonly, you can be a citizen by birth (like in the U.S.), or you can be a citizen by blood based on where your parents or grandparents were citizens (like in Germany). But, what if we assigned citizenship based on one's actions rather than something a person cannot control? Kind of like in elementary school when you get awards for "citizenship" which is really a code word for participating in class, being respectful of your classmates, and helping others. People who live in a country would then have to demonstrate their citizen like qualities in order to get certain privileges. If we did this people would be a lot less likely to take their citizenship responsibilities for granted because they worked so hard to get them.
Now I know this new action-based means of assigning citizenship is highly unlikely and practically impossible because it would be hard to implement. But it makes us think about the two sides of the citizenship coin- it is a legal status but it is also an action. You can be a legal citizen with or without practicing good citizenship. Alternatively, you can be undocumented while practicing good citizenship; this is often an argument used to gain support for the DREAM Act. In fact, given my undocumented friend's reaction to my jury summons, it's likely that he has the potential to be a better citizen than I. In fact most of the undocumented young adults I meet are good citizens despite their legal status- helping their families, neighbors, co-workers, friends, and strangers, speaking out against injustices, fostering abandoned animals, spearheading community clean-ups, encouraging younger kids to stay in school.
These actions give me hope and make me strive to be a better citizen. I've decided to maintain my optimism -- my voice on a jury, in an election, at a rally, or in a blog post can make a difference. If we each come to live our citizenship, we will be able to make our community a better place, one small action at a time. My first action will be showing up to jury duty with a smile on my face. What will yours be?
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