Michael Nutter: Citizenship Is More than Paying Taxes and Voting

Citizenship is about coming together with neighbors on your block and cleaning up.

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Often, the most visible public service is performed by those who have run for and been elected to political office. In good times, they sometimes get some of the credit. In bad times, they receive most of the blame. That's the lot of a public servant. So why do it? U.S. News asked four current and former public servants. Here's what Michael Nutter, mayor of Philadelphia, had to say:

We live in a time when growing fear about our uncertain future has pushed the political system, from small towns and big cities to our nation's capital, into frequent bouts of gridlock.

As a 24/7 news cycle has quickened with social media, the level of political discourse has become increasingly mean-spirited and personal. Recently, for example, a former elected official made personal, racially divisive comments about me. Is it any wonder that many people flee from the political system in disgust?

I believe in the critical importance of participating in the political system—from voting to standing for election. It's both rewarding and necessary that men and women of good will and clear thinking engage in honest, open debate.

To succeed in big-city politics requires a powerful, motivating vision of a better world, a plan to get there, a willingness to meet constituents on their terms, and a tough political skin.

My pathway to a profession in public service extends straight back to my childhood in a rowhouse on a close-knit block in West Philadelphia. When it snowed, my parents told me to keep shoveling past my house right on down to the corner. If I saw someone carrying their groceries home, I ran to help. I always gave up my seat on the bus to an elderly person, and while I experienced the excitement of learning at an elite high school as a scholarship student, I often returned to my neighborhood elementary school to tutor young kids.

From the home-grown value of volunteering in my neighborhood grew a love of my city. Philadelphians are a gritty, tough people who will help you when you're down. They built a grand city that suffered severe disinvestment in the last century. I wanted to be part of the team that built the new Philadelphia with broadening opportunities and a growing middle class.

We are on our way, despite a national recession that caused unemployment to rise to double digits here. Frederick Douglass, the great American statesman of freedom, once said, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." In Philadelphia, we've progressed through struggle. We fought for and achieved major ethics reforms in government and a smoking ban in workplaces. In our first try, we came up short on a plan to tax sugar-sweetened beverages to fund an innovative anti-obesity program to cope with an epidemic that impacts children and adults. It's an important initiative and we won't give up on it.

A range of evidence convinces me that cities like Philadelphia will have a bright future in an era of reduced carbon emissions. We have a highly efficient transportation system and a plan to dramatically cut energy use in our buildings throughout the city.

But continuing our progress toward this safer, greener city will require the kind of political leadership that honestly addresses and strongly encourages residents and businesses to volunteer their services in a time of strained city budgets. I recently launched a strategy for promoting service. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Cities of Service, of which Philadelphia is a member, we are attracting adults to programs that will help us cut our high school dropout rate in half and double the percentage of college graduates.

Citizenship is certainly about observing the law, paying taxes (what FDR once called the dues we pay for the privilege of membership in an organized society), and making choices in elections.

It's also about coming together with neighbors on your block and cleaning up, walking a shift for a town watch organization, and mentoring a child who must prepare for post-secondary training.

Politics in Philadelphia is a contact sport. But if you're equipped with a strong vision of a better future, plans to get there, and support from citizens who care, then the campaign for change is like a walk in our Fairmount Park, one of urban America's largest and most beautiful parks.