Well, this post title is a bit misleading. If I’m truly to reflect on how I became a global citizen, then this post would be really quite short. I was born into this global community in a hospital in Ping-Tung, Taiwan, by the same doctor who delivered my mom 25 years prior. Thus, I became a citizen of this globe.
But that’s not really the question I suppose I’m trying to ask. The question I’m trying to truly think about is, “Am I a global citizen who is living and contributing positively to this world?” And if my answer to that is yes, then the next question becomes, “What’s the story of how I became this kind of global citizen?” And then, following on as an educator I want to ask, “What role does education have in creating global citizens who will help, not harm, our world?”
It’s been over two years since I’ve written in this blog. In the meantime, my journey has taken me from trying to understand the nexus of sustainability and education to asking ever deeper questions about the purpose of education in creating the kind of world I want. I would say “we” want, but it has truly been a personal journey in thinking about the current state of the world, the global issues we all face, and trying to figure out my own part in all of it: as a citizen of the globe myself and as an educator.
This past weekend, at the Global Citizenship Summit II, I had the space and time and access to fellow thinkers and educators to really dig into these thoughts and questions. I am grateful to all those who were there; my thinking was challenged, my voice was heard, my understandings deepened. It left me buzzing with ideas, a solid action plan with my colleagues to carry forth at school, and with a need to personally synthesize some of my thoughts. So here we go.
Defining Global Citizenship
Global: “of, relating to, or involving the entire world”
Citizenship: “the quality of an individual’s response to membership in a community”
Some of the most interesting conversations I had this past weekend begged the question, “What is a global citizen?” People raised interesting questions of cultural imperialism, that perhaps as a group of well-traveled, Western, similarly-minded educators working in the very specific context of elitist, wealthy international schools, we were sitting in ivory towers and our conversations and programmes may actually create more division in this world, not less. Others raised interesting points about the words citizen and citizenship having negative connotations of governments, nationalism, and divisive attitudes.
Those conversations led me to the start of this post. Perhaps I was overthinking it. Perhaps it’s as simple as this: to be a citizen means to be part of a community — with all its rights and responsibilities — and we are all citizens of this globe. I mean, it sounds over-simplistic: I’m not from Mars; therefore, I am a citizen of this Earth. And that’s what it all really boils down to.
So, it’s not about elitism. It’s not about being a global citizen because we are well-traveled and have worked with people from all over the world. It’s not about ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ It’s not about deciding who gets to be a global citizen. It’s not about creating a single unifying definition of how a global citizen should act or be.
It’s about the simple fact that we — whether an international educator who’s chosen to live in dozens of countries and whose Facebook photo albums aspire to be some amateur National Geographic highlight reel, or an American who’s chosen to live within one zip code and takes pride and comfort in staying close to his family, or a Thai villager doesn’t get a choice about where she lives and whose life is devoted to her family and local community — we are all, by default, global citizens. Because we’re not Martians.
Though our choices are fundamentally different due to our circumstances, in our environmentally, economically and geopolitically linked world, every person’s choices has global ramifications; no one is ‘more’ a global citizen than another.
Perhaps, then, the truly interesting question is about citizenship: What is the quality of my own response to being a member in this global world? Again, none of us get to choose whether or not we’re global citizens (no chance to get citizenship to Mars yet, people), but we do get to choose the kind of citizen we want to be.
As such, I must ask myself …
Am I a global citizen who is living and contributing positively to this world?
Yes. (Or at least I try.)
If I were a year 9 student in my own English class, that would probably be the extent of my response to the question. But I’m not, so I guess I’ll try to dig a bit deeper.
I do my best, with mixed success, to make sure each of my personal choices and actions maximizes good and minimizes harm. I am kind to others. I smile a lot. I love and care for a beautiful street cat named Bangle. I listen to diverse peoples and opinions. I think about my own prejudices and try to combat them. I volunteer my time and energy to projects I think will make our communities better. I try to minimize my negative environmental impact and increase my positive environmental impact. I help students develop the skills and values I hope will help them make a positive contribution. I stand up for causes I believe in.
I’m sure some of my actions have led to negative impacts on others and I know I make mistakes, but on the whole I think I have made and continue to make positive contributions to our world.
What’s the story of how I became this kind of global citizen?
It was my friend and colleague, Kenny Peavy who got me thinking about this when we got dinner the night before the Summit. He asked, how did a boy from rural Georgia and a suburban Taiwanese-American girl end up becoming these kind of global citizens? The kind that so actively thinks about and considers how to make positive contributions, in very different ways? What’s been each of our personal stories?
My story starts with a crush.
I was a 16-year-old in public school in suburban DC. My entire concept of being a global citizen consisted solely of the fact that being Taiwanese made me feel awkward in a mostly white community, and I resented my family needing to bring dumplings to international days in elementary school.
Like most 16-year-olds, my greatest drive in life at that time was not to make a positive contribution to the world, but to get the cute boy I liked (so.much.ohmygosh) to pay attention to me. I’d walked by posters of clubs that I’m sure I’d now consider as an educator ‘service’ or ‘global issues’ clubs, but I neither knew nor cared to know what they were about.
But then I found out that the boy I liked (so.much.ohmygosh) had joined an after school club: a gay-straight alliance called Stand Proud. I became Stand Proud’s newest member shortly after that. Did I, at the time, truly care about battling homophobia or promoting equality? Um. No. But you can guess where this story leads.
At the start, I sat in on the meetings for the snacks and socializing; joined the AIDS Walk Washington DC because it was a Saturday with my friends; and attended various LGBT rallies (and even spoke about what it means to be a youth ‘straight ally’) with very little understanding of LGBT issues. Over time, as you’ve probably guessed, I did genuinely begin to care about equality and LGBT rights. What had started in pursuit of a crush (no, I never did end up dating the boy; though we are friends on Facebook to this day and he is still an active figure in fighting for LGBT rights) and in teenage defiance of my parents’ more traditional beliefs became my first encounter with advocacy and, perhaps, my first venture into contributing positively to this world. Or at least starting to think about it.
Thus, no, it wasn’t any formal school program or requirements that made me want to become a more responsible, active global citizen. Of course, saying that it started with a crush is an oversimplification. My family’s humble background, immigrant work ethic, and growing up bicultural certainly all contributed to who I am today and where my values lie. And since my failed crush in high school, other powerful experiences including typical liberal arts university activities and clubs (Take Back the Night, anyone?) and the privilege of living and working abroad have continued to push me to be an active global citizen for good.
At this point in writing, I have to pause for a moment and reflect on my reflecting (oh yeah, I’m that kind of teacher). Am I tooting my own horn? Am I suggesting that my journey has made me the ideal global citizen? No, and no. I’m simply trying to understand what got me here … so that I can start to think about how to get students to their own ‘here.’ Again ‘here’ being a place where (s)he lives and contributes positively to our globe, which looks very different for each of us. So, then …
What role does education have in creating global citizens who will help, not harm, our world?
An important, but not exclusive, role.
My short answer for now, as this post has taken me the better half of a beautiful day to write, is that because education shapes minds, builds skills and develops attitudes, we’d better do our part to make sure that the minds, skills and attitudes of the young people who experience education with us become forces for good in this world rather than harm.
Especially for us international school educators working with the some of most privileged youth in the world, we must recognize that the choices and actions of our students have a disproportionately large impact on our global community, and as such we have an incredible opportunity — and responsibility — to contribute to developing their global citizenship. This David Orr quote has always haunted me:
“The destruction of the planet is not the work of ignorant people. Rather it is largely the result of work by people with BAs, BScs, LLBs, MBAs and PhDs.”
Though education is not the sole contributing factor, or even in most cases the most important contributing factor, to global citizenship (thanks, unrequited crush), we must, within our sphere of influence as educators, do as much as we can, how we can, and when we can, to develop the people who will make our world a better place.
Thanks to these educators for getting me thinking so deeply I had to blog again. More entries soon, I hope. I have far more questions I need to ask and a lot more thinking to do.