Reclaiming “Citizens”

Like many who work in the civic realm, I use the word “citizens” a lot. Usually with the clarification that I don’t mean the term as a legal status, but rather as a way of describing people who are part of the same community or who live in the same area.

This difference in meaning is significant. To talk about the work of improving communities as relying on the engagement of citizens (of legal status) has wholly different moral and political connotations than seeking the engagement of all citizens (who are connected to a community, regardless of legal status). .

For that reason, many civically-minded organizations have elected to drop or minimize use of the word “citizens.” In my days as a marketer I would have advised them to do so. It’s a bad enough sign if you have to explain a term to your audience, but you definitely don’t want people  to interpret something as exclusive when it is intended to be inclusive. That is not a miscommunication you want to have.

So why persist in using a term that is so widely understood to mean something different than what I mean by it?

First, there’s the poetry of it. “Citizens” is a simple word, and there is no other term that so concisely indicates “people who are part of a community.”

But more importantly, citizens have rights.

Again, this could be interpreted in the legal sense – legal citizens have legal rights – but the word has a broader civic meaning as well.

All people who are part of a community or who are affected by a decision have the right to participate in shaping that community or making that decision. Regardless of legal status, citizens have the right to participate as full members of the community.

I think of this non-legal use of the word “citizens” as a reclamation of sorts, though truth be told the word “citizens” has always been problematic.

It is a word whose function is to divide the haves from the have nots; to indicate who has power, who has the right of full participation. The precise legal and social understanding has changed – “citizens” were once only wealthy white men; our current understanding is only slightly more benevolent.

That’s why it’s so important to reclaim – or perhaps simply claim – this term. All people have rights; all people have the right and responsibility to participate in their communities as citizens.  This right is not bestowed by some legal definition; it is an intrinsic human right.

Until we recognize all our neighbors as true citizens and as equal partners in shaping our communities, we not only impinge upon this important right, we shut out important voices and energy, harming our communities through a narrowed perspective.


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