Citizenship’s Just Another Word For Personal Responsibility

by Laura Foti Cohen

This election month, the theme is Citizenship. Ebell members with careers in government and related fields discuss every citizen’s responsibility to help their local and global communities.

Citizenship is identity: where you live, who you know, what you contribute through time, energy and money. As a philosophy, citizenship involves actively working toward the betterment of a community – and not just through voting, paying taxes and showing up for jury duty.

Careers established to improve communities, from local to global, attract idealists: those hoping to shape and implement laws and statutes, those with a sense of responsibility to the disadvantaged, those who believe that improving communication among fractious constituencies can reduce conflict.

Ginger Barnard has had three careers, all in public service working for Los Angeles County: social work, legislative analysis and protocol. Each taught her different lessons about citizenship on the local, state, federal, national and international levels.

As Deputy Chief of Protocol for more than 20 years, Ginger was the county’s liaison with the 100-plus members of the local consular corps. When visiting dignitaries came to Los Angeles, she would plan their schedules and make sure their time here was positive. After all, international relations and trade can be at stake.

The Office of Protocol was created 22 years ago by L.A. County Supervisors who recognized the importance of making a good impression on the rest of the world. “Protocol is about a lot more than knives and forks,” Ginger says. “We need to have a distraction-free environment. We achieve this through offering appropriate hospitality and respect to our visitors.”

This definition of protocol – hospitality and respect – informs Janet Elliott’s job as well. For decades, through its Leadership Program, the nonprofit International Visitors Council of Los Angeles has worked with the U.S. Department of State to welcome visitors from around the world. Janet, who has run the Visitors Council and the program for 16 years, calls her organization’s members “citizen diplomats.” They host and support foreign visitors who share ideas on topics ranging from HIV/AIDS prevention and human trafficking to entrepreneurship and intellectual property rights. To date, 46 heads of state have participated in the program.

Janet says. “When strangers from around the world get to know each other as people, it dispels myths about nationalities and religious differences. People have the right and the responsibility to play a role in their country’s foreign diplomacy. It’s true that one person can make a difference.”

Attorney Jocelyn Thompson of Alston and Bird works in environmental com­pliance. She counsels corporations and others on land use, endangered species and other issues as they go through the permitting and environmental review process.

A well-trusted counselor is someone whose advice is followed,” Jocelyn says. “My clients spend millions of dollars implementing my advice to study the ways they can change what they do to be more compatible with the environment, such as hiring experts in areas from water discharge to bighorn sheep. Huge sums are spent on environmental compliance. Making large investments is difficult to warm up to but there’s a payback: energy efficiency.”

With all the efforts she sees expended on behalf of the environment at the corporate and governmental levels,  Jocelyn is frustrated by what she sees as a lack of individual sense of responsibility. “People are starting to do little things like reusing grocery bags. But when I read public comments that refer to ‘the polluter’ I get crazy because we’re the polluters. If someone runs the air conditioner 24/7, that’s not the power company that’s polluting. It’s the compounding of each individual decision that puts us in the position we’re in.”

Areva Martin, an attorney with Martin & Martin, LLP, is no stranger to taking personal responsibility. An authority on workplace, disability rights, education, custody and women’s issues, Areva founded Special Needs Network, a nonprofit organization that works with children who have developmental disabilities. “We provide direct services and teach families how to advocate,” she says. “We take the pulse of the community, see what people want in terms of legislation, then draft legislation.”

Areva sat on The California Blue Ribbon Commission on Autism and Related Disorders convened by assemblyman Fabian Núñez. “The work done by that commission led to four bills being enacted into law, including one that requires mandatory training for peace officers on how to respond to calls involving people with autism and developmental disabilities.” She currently chairs the South Los Ange­les Advisory Committee to the Senate Select Committee, pursuing, among other goals, mandatory insurance coverage for individuals with developmental disabilities.

Her experience, she says, “shows the importance of the public-pri­vate connection. Every individual can get involved, from a nonprofit board to local school. As citizens we’re obligated to hold our officials responsible: to make our interests their interests.”

The court system is another key part of the equation. Marcia Mills, a retired clinical psychologist for 30 years, concentrated in forensic psychology: “using psychological tools for legal ends.” She explains, “I provided therapy to law enforcement personnel, screened applicants interested in police work, even participated in a couple of hostage situations with a SWAT team.”

In more recent years, Marcia’s work focused on answering psychological-legal questions. Her evaluations could determine whether a defendant was competent to stand trial or was sane at the time the crime was committed, or lead to the decision to try a juvenile as an adult.

“I’m most passionate about providing diversion programs for juveniles to lower incidences of reoffending,” Marcia says. “Preventative strategies include providing structure, education, and in some cases a change of environment. Unfortunately, in recent years there have been cuts to those programs that enhance rehabilitation.” As is true with other areas, Marcia believes, “As citizens become more aware of the complexities of these issues, they can lend their vote, their support and their volunteer services to help.”

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