Citizenship: Changemaking through Critical Thinking

We need to teach our kids to ask why things are the way they are, even if we don't have the answers. We need to run the [coat] drive, while asking what created the need for the drive in the first place. We need to pause, reflect, think critically, and then act.

by Director of Public Purpose Rebecca Drago

I was about five years old, and the stacks of boxes reached far above my head. It was the first year of what became an annual coat drive that my mother created, organized, and executed out of my elementary school cafeteria, and my first real experience volunteering.

I remember those drive days each year vividly. The cafeteria was piled high with coats, sorted by color and size so people could shop for what they needed, and so volunteers (my family, friends, and anyone that had access to a truck) could pack boxes based on specific orders. I was given a clipboard with a list of what each box needed—three 4T coats, eight pairs of gloves and mittens, and as many children's scarves as could fit. I felt connected to something bigger, which started me on a lifelong path of changemaking.

To me, being a good citizen is all about making change, even when the sheer number of issues in our world can feel overwhelming. Citizenship begins first by noticing a problem—a gap, a pattern—then learning about it, and then acting thoughtfully and boldly to change it. But, doing good is far more complex than simple acts of kindness. We need those, but we also need to dig deeper. Citizenship is thinking beyond the coat drive to uncover and interrogate the layers of complexity that make coat drives necessary in the first place.

Have you seen the show The Good Place? (Mild spoiler alert ahead!) In it, the characters are given points throughout their lives that determine whether they will spend eternity in "the good place" or "the bad place." In the most recent season, they discover that the numbers are way down in "the good place," so they dig a little deeper to find out why.

When the characters peel back the layers of one particular woman losing points for the simple act of buying a tomato at a grocery store, they notice that the tomato was farmed by a woman who was exploited for her labor and that it had been sprayed with insecticides that polluted the soil. The tomato had also been shipped a far distance, upping the carbon footprint of the produce, to a big-box store that underpaid its workers and put small local businesses out of work.

The episode simplifies a truth we talk about a lot at Rye Country Day: We live in a big, complex world, and there are systems at play behind every choice we make that impact real people and lives.

Being a good citizen requires us to be aware of the small injustices that, when layered, unveil larger systemic issues. It is awfully easy to ignore what we can't see—to grab the tomato from the produce pile without thinking of all of the steps it took to get there. Some people are aware of the (metaphorical) tomato—they think about or are in touch with inequity on a daily basis—while others may not notice its complexity.

Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, good citizenship requires us to reflect on our own experiences and identities to understand how they influence any given situation. We need to teach our kids to ask why things are the way they are, even if we don't have the answers. We need to run the drive, while asking what created the need for the drive in the first place. We need to pause, reflect, think critically, and then act.

RCDS has a deep commitment to citizenship, which is often demonstrated through the Public Purpose and Diversity and Inclusion initiatives, both of which are designed to help us answer some of our most challenging, sometimes uncomfortable questions. These initiatives seek to help our bright, curious, and engaged students dig deep and understand the power of the impact they can have, while also understanding how their identities and experiences shape the way they navigate through the world.

In our public purpose work at RCDS, we ask questions. We engage. We notice issues, and we work together to understand how we exist in problematic, gapped, and patterned frameworks that lead to a society with an overwhelming number of issues. At Rye Country Day, we are guided by our founding motto, Not for Self, but for Service. And, while service learning is primarily to help others, in doing so, we learn so much about ourselves.

I wonder a lot about what I absorbed doing my mother's coat drives. Did I question why I had a coat in my closet in my home, while other children in the cafeteria did not? Did I notice that many of the people coming to get coats were from communities of color, while many of the volunteers (myself included) were white? Did I consider how that might impact my own understanding of race, class, and access? In a world where too many are worried about not having the answers, let's be brave enough to ask the questions together. Our Public Purpose work at RCDS encourages students to ask thoughtful questions every day, and it supports them in making long-term, systemic change.

Public Purpose at RCDS