Practicing Citizenship (April 2012)

Practicing Citizenship: A view of action, belonging, and memories in a social movement public

The common conception of citizenship is that of belonging to a political community. This community tends to be naturalized as the nation-state, with participation subsumed under electoral politics and collective actions selectively remembered in national institutions. However, this location and practice of citizenship needs to be decentred in order to investigate current modes of democratic participation and its future potential. I argue the concept of “public” is key to reconceptualising citizenship as dynamic, situated, and actively practiced in multiple spaces of representation and participation. Publics brings together notions of space, identity, and action, highlighting forms of citizenship that emerge through public engagement over the collective question of how we will live together in these places. This conception of citizenship finds its richest contemporary expression in the struggles of social movements. Social movements bring new social identities, issues, and modes of participation into public view, as well as act to make democratic institutions responsive to the claims and demands of citizens, often those most excluded and marginalized. To elaborate upon the relationship between citizenship, publics, and social movements, I describe a social housing campaign in Vancouver, BC, between 1995-2005 that created an emergent public around issues of gentrification, social justice, and local autonomy. Reading this radical history from the activists’ own autonomous archive, I argue this campaign shows current conflicts, limits, and possibilities of citizenship occurring at national and local levels. I also suggest understanding citizenship practices needs to address how public actions are remembered within these diverse (political) communities in order that questions of collective belonging can be negotiated with greater justice and equality.
Presented at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies’ Diverse Spaces Conference, Peterborough, Canada (April 2012).

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