Lately, people who have never been too politically involved have been re-examining their detachment. Over three million people showed up for the Women’s March; 28 scientific organizations are joining in a demonstration to raise concerns about the politicization of science and facts. Over 31,000 U.S. faculty members signed an “Academics Against Immigration Executive Order” petition, pointing out the harm that the order has on the academic community and the future of U.S. leadership in research and technology.

But this letter is not about those protests. There’s a deeper concern that speaks beyond partisan lines.

Even before the election, only 19 percent of Americans believed they could generally trust the government, according to a Pew Research poll. Seventy-five percent believed the government suffered from widespread corruption.

A fatalistic attitude accompanies these feelings: “What could I possibly do about it?” But as the anthropologist Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The bedrock of democracy is an organizationally strong and politically responsive civil society — a dense network among the people, formed through the bonds of community and interest groups. Most tasks are too large for individuals working alone in their spare time: keeping track of politicians’ actions to hold them accountable, finding solutions to complex issues, seeking compromise with other interests, and organizing local voices to maximize impact, to list a few. All these tasks require the coordinated effort of groups, communities, and alliances.

We have all the ingredients to create effective civic action here at Princeton University. We are connected to wealthy and impoverished communities, rural and urban, religious and secular, U.S. and international, business and political, and academic and recreational. We have people who have personally worked on policy, who have worked with the environment, with healthcare, trade, security, human rights, and more. Each of these people is a vital resource. They bring us knowledge, understanding, and the potential to collaborate and compromise.

Our interest and responsibility here at Princeton is to fully employ those resources for the common good. It is not enough to narrowly pursue specialized fields of study. We must empower ourselves to serve our civic duty, to act in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.

Today, Mar. 6, is a day of action put together by Princeton students. Frist Campus Center will host discussions on over 60 topics, from the civic issues that we face to what we can do about them. Students, staff, about 50 faculty members, and even former ambassadors will help lead these discussions. Over 1,200 Princetonians have signed a call for the community to “pause their regular activities at Princeton” today and “examine the present situation and its alternatives.”

In helping to organize this event, I hope that it empowers community members to participate in civil society, with respectful dialogue held in good faith. I envision a chance to gather around shared concerns and figure out responses to them with each other’s help.

But even for those who opt not to attend today, I urge every Princetonian to take an interest in our national and local issues — to take one issue and not be satisfied that “someone else understands it better,” but to work with others in service and advocacy to make sure that every issue gets the attention it needs. It is our future.

Jonathan Shi is a visiting graduate student from Sammamish, WA, studying theoretical computer science. He can be reached at jshi@cs.cornell.edu. 

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