The background to the #CitizenFriday campaign

Re-Action’s anti Black Friday #CitizenFriday campaign would never have come to life if the founders of Re-Action, Gavin and Heather, hadn’t read Jon Alexander’s book Citizens: Why the key to fixing everything is all of us. Jon’s theory is that there are three stories:

  1. The subject story (where the pre-ordained few tell the rest of us what to do)
  2. The consumer story (where our governments encourage us to buy things and support the economy to be good citizens)
  3. The citizen story

He argues that when institutions treat people as citizens rather than consumers, everything changes and that unleashing the power of everyone better equips us to face the challenges of economic insecurity, climate crisis, public health threats, and polarisation.

Jon very kindly agreed to answer a few questions so we could provide you with some context around our Citizen Friday campaign.

1. How do you define citizenship?

I see citizenship as a practice, a way of being in the world, rather than a legal status. I really like the way Baratunde Thurston in the US talks about citizen-ing. He hosts a podcast called How To Citizen, where he talks about making citizen into a verb rather than a noun. I also love the fact that I discovered in the research for my book, that the literal derivation of the word “citizen” actually means “together people”.

Citizening is about committing to the communities you’re part of. It’s coming together with others to find your collective agency, and choosing to see the world as a work in progress, there to be shaped and moulded for the better.

When you think in this way, you start to see that the true opposite of a citizen isn’t a non-citizen – it’s a consumer. As a consumer, you’re limited to being a narrowly defined individual, whose role in the world is to buy stuff and “contribute” to the economy. Even when you try to be good, the best you can do is consume less harmfully. But as citizens, we’re part of something bigger, and the contribution we can make isn’t just to the economy, it’s to society. As citizens, we make and remake the world; we don’t just buy stuff.

2. Can you give an example of citizenship in action?

There’s two kinds of example that I think really matter. 

One kind is when people come together in community, find agency together, and make something happen. One of my favourite examples is the Liege Food Belt (the Ceinture Alimentaire de Liege in French). It is a cooperative of food producers, owned and run by local people on land all around the city. They have come together to produce their own food, without waiting for permission from anyone. Or East Marsh United, a community organisation in Grimsby which started with litter picks a few years ago. It has since evolved to run an arts festival, a community magazine, and raise £500k through community shares. With the money, they bought ten houses in the town and refitted them using local tradespeople. They now let them out as a social landlord, using the revenue to finance the rest of their work.

The other kind of example comes when institutions shift to see people as citizens not just consumers. I’m really proud to have been part of an evolving project called the People’s Plan for Nature. This has seen the National Trust, WWF and RSPB come together to hold the space for a big participatory democratic process. Together they crowdsourced recommendations for what national and local governments, businesses and community groups could do for nature on a local level and put a load of money behind the communities who are doing it. When institutions like these shift role, people can come in behind their action, rather than just asking them for money, and huge things happen. 

3. What steps can people follow to unlock their agency?

I’ve got 3 steps for you…

First, decide where you’re going to citizen. That might be your street, your neighbourhood, your workplace, whatever.

Then find the others. Who’s already doing stuff you could join in with? Who isn’t, but like you, really wants to? How can you meet one another?

Finally, decide what to do first, together. It might be something small, like the litter picks East Marsh United began with. It doesn’t matter as long as everyone’s got energy for it, because the next things will flow from there as others join in with you too.

Thanks Jon! We hope Jon’s ideas and examples have inspired you too. If you want to know more, check out Jon’s book and keep following us and the #CitizenFriday movement to find out more.

Don’t forget to use the hashtag #CitizenFriday if you’re taking steps to unlock your agency.