It’s not about well-known elected leaders or social activists—not because people like these do not matter; they matter greatly. We rightly celebrate them. But at some point, somebody needs to serve on a committee, help build the roads, volunteer for a local charity, or just help a neighbor out. These daily civic virtues—doing one’s duty, I call it—took places in communities around the nation and formed the backbone of our democracy. Their civic labor mattered. It was through these daily acts that our democracy was built.
We tend to celebrate the most famous Americans. As important as these people are, the daily life of democracy happened in small towns across America as ordinary people, forgotten to history, stepped up to serve their communities. Neem offers a story about the ordinary citizens who contributed to the public good. A story that includes men and women, free and enslaved, rich and poor, it is about Americans who stepped up so that things could get done. They joined school committees, built roads, attended meetings, and cared for their neighbors. Some went on to fame, but most did not. Some went on to elected office, but most did not. These citizens express what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. At a time of intense partisan conflict, it is worth remembering that our democracy depends not just on those with the loudest voices, but those who take time out of their busy lives to do what needs doing in their communities.