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Why Businesses Are Now Obsessed With the Word ‘Citizen’

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But for some, the citizen-as-brand trend rings hollow.

“To me, the word ‘citizen’ is a synonym for ‘responsibility,’” Sarah Vowell wrote in an email.

Ms. Vowell, whose essays and books, including “The Partly Cloudy Patriot,” interrogate America’s past and present, said: “In a republic, every citizen is saddled with a perpetual, time-consuming, unpaid part-time watchdog job: keeping an eye on the patriarchs, extremists, egomaniacs and chumps who run our government and the military-industrial complex.”

“Sometimes,” she added, “the word ‘citizen’ reminds me of the first time I had to send in my income tax return after the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced, and just standing around the post office, unable to put my check in the mailbox because I wondered where that money would end up. So I guess go ahead and name your restaurant or hotel that?”

It was this darker implication of the word that inspired the name of the Upright Citizens Brigade in the 1990s. U.C.B., as it is known, grew into a major hub of improv comedy in Los Angeles and New York. Matt Besser, who founded the group along with Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts, said it was meant to evoke any number of “nefarious right-wing organizations” that were “trying to control the world.” “We wanted our name to sound like the opposite of comedy and the opposite of what we were,” he said.

An emerging group of citizens specialists has a more optimistic view.

Eric Liu, a founder of Citizen University, a nonprofit that educates and organizes people who want to participate more deeply in civic life, said the civic sphere is a playground for creativity, a place of imagination and innovation. Mr. Liu’s approach uses some of the secular appeal of religion, like connectedness, ritual and common values, to encourage becoming a “sworn-again American.” He emphasizes that acting like a citizen means engaging with power, which he hopes will bring some sex appeal to civics.

“How to Citizen With Baratunde,” a podcast hosted by the writer and media personality Baratunde Thurston, explores ways to “reimagine ‘citizen’ as a verb, not a legal status,” and promotes four pillars of “citizening”: participate publicly, deepen relationships, value the collective and understand power.

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