Forty-eight people became American citizens at a naturalization ceremony during a Phoenix Suns game put together by Citizenship Counts, a nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia.
Basketball enthusiasts got to see more than just a game when they watched the Phoenix Suns play the Houston Rockets on Feb. 19.
Though Suns fans saw a losing game, they also saw a big win for 48 people who became American citizens at a naturalization ceremony during the game.
These new Americans from 16 countries became citizens before thousands of people, including their friends and family, during the ceremony put together by Citizenship Counts, a nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia.
“During halftime of the game, the 48 candidates literally walked across the stage, raised their right hands and took the oath of allegiance, and were sworn in in front of 18,000 fans,” recalled Citizenship Counts executive director, Alysa Cooper. “It was wonderful.”
Cooper started Citizenship Counts in Phoenix with her grandmother, Gerda Weissmann Klein, in 2008.
Klein has a personal connection with Citizenship Counts, which provides a curriculum to schools in more than 36 states to teach students about, of course, citizenship and focuses mainly on the process of naturalization.
A Holocaust survivor, Klein grew up in Poland before German troops invaded her hometown. After time in concentration camps, she was liberated in 1945. She lost her friends and her family, but met someone else. That was Kurt Klein, a German Jew who had become an U.S. Army intelligence officer who liberated her and went on to become her husband.
After moving to the United States where she knew no one and spoke no English, Klein became a citizen in 1948, which was a proud moment for her that has affected her life, Cooper said.
Klein has been more than outspoken about her past, telling her story multiple times a year to schools and communities around the world. To name a few accomplishments, she wrote a book titled All But My Life. It also was adapted into an HBO documentary film that won an Academy Award, as well as an Emmy Award. She was the keynote speaker at the inaugural United Nations International Day of Commemoration in Memory of Victims of the Holocaust in 2006. In 2010, she was named a recipient of the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
Almost 92, Klein is “an eternal optimist,” Cooper said of her grandmother, whom she calls her hero.
“She always focused on the positive, despite the odds she was faced with.”
For Klein, helping others realize their dreams of becoming American citizens is a gift, Cooper said.
It began when Klein took a trip to a school in Cincinnati about 10 years ago in which a middle school teacher arranged for the school to host a naturalization ceremony. This teacher taught the students about naturalization, had them trace their own family histories, and engaged in discussions “to show we need to celebrate all of our differences,” Cooper said.
Klein was invited to be the keynote speaker during the ceremony, and Cooper said if you ask her, this is probably her favorite memory.
According to Cooper, the day of the ceremony, the school’s gym was adorned with red, white and blue banners, ribbons and decorations, plus Statues of Liberty and eagles and flags. Students were dressed up, and the band played “The Star Spangled Banner.”
“All 700-plus students had an opportunity to witness the special moment when, I believe, there were 84 people from 62 countries, ranging in age from 18 to 80 years old,” become American citizens, Cooper said. “Many [of the new citizens] had tears streaming down their cheeks.”
Her grandmother was able to extend a congratulations to these people, who became citizens just as she had years prior.
“She basically was able to say to these new citizens, ‘the sky is the limit,’” she said.
This is the experience Klein wanted to bring to other schools around the country.
“She always taught us to be proud of who we are, our Jewish heritage, our American identity,” Cooper reflected. “She had this vision and dream that students across the country had to have the opportunity like what [the teacher] gave” the students in Cincinnati.
Cooper, who has a marketing and public relations background with writing experience, was working in Washington, D.C. and at a crossroads with what she wanted to do next. She took on the role of helping her grandmother with her writing projects — Klein has written 10 books — which she thought would be just a three-month gig.
At a meeting in 2007 with her grandmother and the past president of textbook publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, formerly known as McDougal Littell, Cooper got off on a tangent about the class in Cincinnati which learned about naturalization.
And thus was born the early incarnation of Citizenship Counts.
She worked with the publishing company and created Path to Citizenship, a curriculum that could be used in social studies classes for middle school and high school with the option to bring a naturalization ceremony to the school.
In Phoenix in 2008, Citizenship Counts was born as a nonprofit providing materials to schools, communities and after-school programs that want to use the program free of charge. Now based in Philadelphia — symbolic because of the city’s significance in American history — its demand quickly exceeded the print supply. It moved to an online format, where educators can log in to citizenshipcounts.org to get the materials to print for their students.
The basic format of Citizenship Counts — which Cooper worked on with a teacher advisory committee — is comprised of six lessons that build upon each other that focus on the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen of America, from jury duty to serving in the military.
The lessons can change, as each year teachers are asked for feedback and suggestions for edits to the program to help it grow and expand. The lessons can be tied into English classes and math classes, as well, but at its core, the program is really focused on naturalization.
“The bread and butter of what we do is really the naturalization process,” Cooper emphasized. “We want to educate students because we think there’s a little bit of a disconnect. They don’t realize it can take 10, 15, 20 plus years.”
The students also take the naturalization exam to see if they can answer the questions. Cooper said this is often “eye-opening” for them because they didn’t understand how difficult it is.
With the current political discourse on immigration and other foreign and domestic policies, Cooper said they stay away from the political debates and focus on the lessons.
“Our lessons are basically teaching them you’re a citizen of your classroom, of your school and your community and your country,” she said. “We are a nonprofit, totally nonpartisan. We’ve stayed away from the whole immigration debate. Our goal is strictly to educate students on the legal process to become a citizen.”
The lesson plans are integrated in public, private and charter schools in 36 states and often culminate with the school or community hosting a naturalization ceremony. While most have been held in schools, they have done several special venues such as the Smithsonian and Mall of America.
“We’ve done some wonderful things on a large scale to create visibility,” Cooper said.
The Suns game came about after Cooper jumped through hoops — pun maybe intended — for the opportunity for a naturalization ceremony to take place at an NBA game for the first time.
It was a way to expand the work she’s been doing with Citizenship Counts on a broader level, so it wasn’t just the students but also the community at large getting this experience.
An avid sports enthusiast, Cooper was excited to combine the organization’s roots in Phoenix with a large venue like the Suns game. While most of it took place off the court (it’s hard to do a ceremony for 48 people with only 15 minutes available during halftime), it was still a unique experience that Cooper would like to bring to Philadelphia, as well.
“It was a lot of craziness,” Cooper laughed, adding they only got approval to hold the ceremony at the game three weeks before it happened. “It was awesome to see this dream of mine come to life, and it was wonderful to be able to do it and have my grandmother be present and see this dream she had to create this opportunity for students across the country to appreciate what this country is.”
She recognizes that being born an American citizen comes with its own privileges, but it can also deter someone from realizing the difficulties of not being in the same situation.
One of her favorite memories is actually the first naturalization ceremony she witnessed in Phoenix before moving to Philadelphia.
Of the 90 people being naturalized, one man from Taiwan in particular stuck out to her. He was wearing a tuxedo, which she thought was oddly formal, and she learned after talking with him that it was the same tuxedo he wore at his wedding — an occasion that he said was one of the two proudest moments in his life, the second being the ceremony to become an American citizen.
It’s this opportunity that she enjoys most being able to give students: the chance to talk with the candidates and watching the students’ reactions during the ceremony.
She is excited to continue doing work in Philadelphia — including hopefully partnering with government agencies and sports teams to host ceremonies at Phillies or Sixers games — because of its ties to Citizenship Counts’ mission.
For Cooper, being a good citizen means “to be responsible, to be engaged, to be caring and, I think, to keep an open mind.”
She hopes that Citizenship Counts will help students become more accepting of others and learn more about what it truly means to be an American citizen.
“[It’s an] incredible country we have and we want to take pride in what this country has to offer to all of us,” she said, “and that started for me with my grandmother telling me about this event in Cincinnati and to see how inspired she was.”
Contact: email@example.com; 215-832-0740