Hello, my name is Kate Tucker and I’m co-founder and creative director of BriteHeart. This summer I was invited by Citizen University, a non-partisan civic engagement organization, to attend Civic Seminary in Seattle. There I was given the charge to lead two Civic Saturday’s in my home state. Last week we had Civic Saturday in Nashville, and I’m so glad to be here with you in Cookeville this weekend. Today I want to explore a definition of citizen that transcends party lines. We are here together to find common ground in our individual responsibility as Americans to uphold and practice values of civility, respect and service. I believe this is a conversation about power, about character and about greatness. But first, I’d love to share a little about where I come from.
I grew up on a farm in Ohio, in a town much smaller than Cookeville, I was homeschooled for a while, I was a youth leader at my church in high school and college; and after I graduated from the University of Akron, I moved to Seattle to pursue music. I became a songwriter and touring artist, traveling the country with my band. Two years ago, if you told me I’d be standing here at Tennessee Tech, speaking at a Civic Saturday, I wouldn’t have believed you. I have no background in politics and until recently, little experience in civic engagement. But as an artist, I know how to make something from nothing, which I’ve learned is also how you build citizen power.
As an artist, you get used to people attempting to determine the value of your creative work. If you were to listen only to the market’s measures of success, you might never release another song. You might never finish that painting or make that film. But luckily, artists tend to have a deeper sense of vision that drives us to create in spite of circumstance. I like to call this intentionality. I’m talking about intention informing action in spite of circumstance — not a blind faith, but a steady belief in the ability to generate something from nothing with authenticity and hope. From this practice, true art emerges and in the same way — power and character.
For the sake of today, let’s assume that there are three laws of power. Power concentrates, power justifies itself, power is infinite. That last one is my favorite. You see, people who hold power want those without power to believe it’s a zero sum game, that there’s only so much power to go around, and they have the monopoly on it. They hoard power (and so power concentrates, “you watch the rich get richer while the poor get poorer”), and they justify why they have power, and why we don’t (so they can keep their power and we in turn continue to feel powerless). But the truth is, just like artists, creators, builders, architects, dreamers, we can generate our own power at any given moment because power, like creative energy, is infinite. We can rewrite the story by first asking who decides and why?
That’s what I did in my tiny little life back in Nashville Tennessee, instead of just playing music, writing songs, I started asking “who decides” and “why” when I would encounter something that seemed unjust or downright destructive to my family, my friends, my community. I realized that there is strength in numbers and magic in organizing and so I did what I knew best how to do, I got together with some friends, set an intention, and made something from nothing in creating BriteHeart, which is now a vibrant community with a collective mission to engage, connect and empower positive change through arts-driven civic participation and voting.
You see, looking around and asking why is the beginning of reading power. And reading power, understanding how it flows, is key to effecting change. Eric Liu, the co-founder of Citizen University, wrote an amazing book called You’re More Powerful Than You Think – A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen. Much of what I say today about power I learned from Eric.
In the book, Eric talks about how we give our power away daily in decisions big and small, one of the most obvious and insidious ways we do this in Tennessee, is by not voting. We’ll get to that in a minute. Another way we misread power is by assuming it is corrupt. Power is neutral. It is how we handle it that determines corruption.
Earlier I mentioned power alongside character. Character is something we might be more comfortable determining. When someone exhibits integrity, authenticity, dedication, responsibility, we often call this person a man or woman of character. Well what if we said, power plus character equals citizenship? The citizen equation is power + character. How much of a citizen are you by this measure?
I want us to think about that equation: power + character = citizenship, in light of intention informing action. Intention — how we read, write and determine our power through the lens of character (integrity, responsibility), informing action — how we channel our power — in spite of circumstance, how we do this with character even when the going gets tough. We all know we are experiencing some tough times. There’s a lot of fear right now.
We are divided at every turn on issues that cut to the core of who we really are as Americans — who is allowed to enter our country and who is allowed to stay, who has access to healthcare, jobs, guns, education, a fair trial, the right to vote. How we define gender, how we define marriage, how we define citizenship, how we define America. Who decides and why?
As Tennesseans, we are experiencing massive disruptions to our healthcare system, an opioid abuse crisis, rising housing costs, environmental degradation, and structural issues around historic and current day racism. In the past, we’ve addressed disputes with basic rules of civic engagement upheld in civil conversation, resolving issues through an agreed upon democratic process, but even this seems to be changing. It is easy to feel powerless right now, especially in a state that is often dismissed on the national scene.
But let me tell you, Tennessee has always been a major player, all the way back to the Civil War. Did you know that Tennessee was divided from east to west on whether to join the Confederacy? More battles of the Civil War were fought in Tennessee than in any other state. The battle of Nashville ended the war in Tennessee and we went on to become the first Southern state to ratify the 14th Amendment and the first to rejoin the Union. Andrew Johnson, our state senator, became military governor and eventually Lincoln’s vice president. After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson became president, undermined Reconstruction, betrayed the freedmen and vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. He was overridden and then impeached by a Republican Congress frustrated that Lincoln’s former deputy would turn out to be a friend of the unreconstructed Confederacy and a foe of black aspirations to citizenship. In 1869, Tennessee rejected the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave ex-slaves the vote – and didn’t ratify it until 1997.
It was also in Tennessee, that women got the vote. Did you ever stop to think about how a whole class of people who had no voting rights themselves could bring about women’s suffrage by entirely non-violent means and without any political power of their own? These women asked who decides and why, and with their intention informing action, in spite of circumstance, they made something out of nothing. They generated new power that would empower women for generations to come. There’s a wonderful exhibit covering this very time, called “Cookeville’s Great War” at the History Museum. If you haven’t seen it, get over there after this, it ends today at 4pm. Like Ashley McKee at the Cookeville Depot said about children when they see the trains: “It’s easy for kids to get excited about local history because it’s their history.”
This is our collective history! It is deep, it is rich, it is flawed, it is human, it is full of power and character. We’re about to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Women’s Suffrage. The Civil Rights Movement played out in our streets with the lunch counter sit-ins led by John Lewis, think of all that was birthed at the Highlander School and, ultimately all that was lost in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr whose power and character made him one of the greatest citizens of all time.
We’ve come a long way together, let’s talk about where we are now. We are in the midst of a heated midterm election with a track record of not showing up. In 2016, 1.5 million people threw away their right to vote in the Presidential election and right now 750,000 people of color, single women and under 30 are eligible to vote but have not registered. In the last midterm elections, we were 50th in turnout. Voter turnout is directly correlated to the health of a democracy and to its self-worth — would we so easily throw away what President Reagan called “the crown jewel of American Liberties?” I don’t think so. Not this time.
When I am overwhelmed with all I see on the news, on Facebook, on Twitter, when I am not sure what to think or how to feel about any given issue, I am challenged to lean into the Constitution, to know it and test it and grapple with it as we see Dr King doing from the Birmingham Jail, when he writes: “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” He’s pleading the Constitution which at the time was being used against him, to arrest and imprison him, but would also serve to liberate him and all people of color along with him. Our laws are resilient, flexible, able to be manipulated and therefore must constantly be measured against the civic moral intention that informed the very foundation of our country, complicated as it may be, by a human history of self-interest.
We are in a time where much is being asked of us morally. We must act intentionally, in spite of circumstance, as the great leaders of the Civil Rights Movement did time and time again. Their faith in the Constitution and in the American Dream was undergirded by a moral fabric patterned in the principles of nonviolence –love over hate; courage over fear; hope over despair.
These are American principles. Traveling overseas, I’ve often been told “you Americans are so happy, so optimistic.” But I would argue that this is not optimism, because optimism applies to what you have no say in, like the Golden Eagles winning the homecoming game, or the weather today. What I’m talking about, and what others see in us, is hope — hope invites participation. Hope is intentional. Hope is active. Hope is not reliant upon the whims of the weather, the twitter feed or the stock market. Hope comes from within.
My hope in America is a complicated civic pride, you could call it patriotism. My patriotism is complicated by the tension between liberty (to do whatever I want) and justice for all (to consider others); between rugged individualism (each man for himself) and collective responsibility (loving thy neighbor); between radical secularism (no prayer in school) and religious nationalism (our creed and our creed only). But there is a deeper magic to our democracy, a moral foundation of power and character where intention informs action, guided by our Declaration of Independence, unified in a purpose of greatness so great it does not fit within any one party, label or identity beyond that of American. Active, intentional, character-powered citizenship is what makes America great. And it is up to us, each and every one of us, to be true citizens, well-versed in power and well-rooted in character.
One of the best examples I can think of for active intentional citizenship is our armed servicemen and women. Would those of you who have served our country please stand if you are able. Thank you. Thank you for your citizenship. Thank you for being examples of power and of character. Thank you for fighting for our safety, our freedom and our democracy.
It was a friend from Cookeville who brought this to mind. She said “Soldiers fight for all Americans. This is why we vote. These men and women are fighting for our rights. They are fighting to keep America safe so that we can vote and continue to be a part of the best nation in the world. A free nation. A nation that is for the people. They embody what it means to be completely American. They are giving their lives for this country. I think we can give our vote.”
I couldn’t say it any better than that. This is why we need each other, we need these conversations, this is why we have Civic Saturday. We won’t all agree on every issue and we won’t all vote the same. But I have to think that we share similar intentions when it comes to foundational American principles of love, freedom, health, safety, hard work, enough money to take care of our families and give our children a chance at the great American Dream. I know that the community of Cookeville is dedicated to these principles, to kindness, generosity and civility. I see it in Dr. Sam Glasgow’s recent op-ed in the Herald Citizen, where he calls on our better angels, in the spirit of President Lincoln, to put an end to hatred and intolerance. I see it in Pastor Mike Womack, bringing ½ a million pounds of food to the Cookeville area needy every year through Feed America First. I see it in the Cookeville Electric Dept going to Blountstown Florida to help restore power to a community devastated by the hurricane. I see it in Putnam County Habitat for Homes building an affordable, loving neighborhood of 52 homes at West End Place. There are over 100 civic clubs and community organizations in Putnam County. This is intention informing action and a sign of great hope.
So, in closing, I would ask you, what is your intention? Not only for yourself, but your community, your state, your country? What civic intention will inform your action in spite of circumstance? Will you step into your power and show your true character as a great citizen of this great civic experiment?
It’s not easy, but it’s necessary to the health of our democracy; and therefore to your own health as an individual living in America. The more we participate, the more reason we have to hope, and if the record early voter turnout is any indication, I think we’re changing the game here, and it’s not just because of Taylor Swift.
Regardless of what happens in the election, regardless of whether you think your vote actually counts, regardless of whether this gets passed or that person wins, we must continue to make it our business to vote not only with our ballot, but every day with our intention, informing character-driven action, with hope in spite of circumstance.
Let’s start with the ballot. Who will you show up for on Election Day? Who will you take along with you to the polls? We’re all in this together as Americans. Let’s vote for each other and for the future of our freedom.
Published on November 8, 2018 11:46am
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