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Toolbox of a Citizen
I remember thinking when I was seven, “The president of the United States was seven once. If he can be president, so can I.” Lofty notions for a girl growing up in poor, rural Washington State with little access to the world outside the family prayer circle. Lucky for me, “It is a wise father that knows his own child” (thank you, Mr. Shakespeare).
I grew up a devout Mormon in a loving, close-knit family. It is no surprise that we were poor: with sixteen children, my incredibly hardworking father couldn’t possibly give us every tangible gift he believed we deserved. Instead he gave us hugs and support. Seeing that I had big dreams, he encouraged me. He forced me to ask hard questions, challenge my perceptions, and put myself in others’ shoes. Better still, he listened, opening the flood gates of ideas, opinions, and curiosity.
Unfortunately, opinions don’t get you out of poverty. So I built a long résumé and an exceptional GPA, earned a full scholarship, and ran to college. But when I arrived, I found no connections between my lectures and the real world. What I was learning incited no passion, no desire to continue in academia. In short, I was bored. Inspired by Mark Twain (“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education!”), I ran away from books, seminars, labs, and lectures. Having also left my faith, ironically, I moved to Utah.
Utah is a beautiful state with incredible diversity, if you’re willing to find it. Thanks to my father, I was. I began meeting people who were radically different from me and was frightened by our similarities. We all had dreams, ambitions, and nightmares; we all had love and heartbreak. We all needed food in our stomachs, knowledge in our heads, and passion in our hearts to find the strength to wake up in the morning. All of us—whether white, black, brown, gay, straight, Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Democrat, Republican, hippie, or veteran—knew the feeling of being marginalized, of lacking justice in our lives.
All around me I began to see things that made me angry. I saw Americans’ right to life shattered by foreign conflict. I saw policy changes that denied law-abiding citizens in love the liberty of legal protections. I saw hardworking people refused the pursuit of happiness. I was so angry that I ran again, away from blatant injustices that my uneducated mind could not reconcile. Finding solace in being someone else, I moved to Los Angeles to become a model.
At some point along the way, I met a designer who invited me to model in New York for Fashion Week. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was a turning point—but not of the kind I had anticipated. After four torturous days, the designer looked me in the eye and shouted, “The only things you can offer this world are money, fame, and sex. You have no money. You have no fame. So what can you offer me?” I thought, “There has to be more to life than this!” I had ideas and opinions, but no one cared what I thought. I finally stopped running and went back to school.
This time, I saw every class as a way of acquiring tools for building a better country. I had to understand geography to sway policy toward truth; statistics to argue for fiscal responsibility and public funding; foreign relations, religions, and cultures to recognize similarities and respect differences. I had to learn to speak and write to help organize within my community and elicit dialogue. I had to study politics to speak the language of governance, history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, and philosophy to reflect on whether we were succeeding. Internalizing Thomas Jefferson’s words, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be,” I made the terms “civic engagement” and “democracy” part of my behavior rather than my birthright.
While my presidential ambitions have subsided, I owe it to my father, my experiences, and the engaging education I experienced after returning to college that I have skills that aid in employment and make me a better American. My community college taught me to take chances, to talk about difficult issues and act on what I learned. My study abroad experience taught me to be a global citizen, and my university taught me to seek out professors who made content relevant. Thanks to my college education, I now have the toolbox of a citizen.
Amee Bearne is the national coordinator for The Democracy Commitment.