Toward a More Perfect Union
in an Age of Diversity

Study Circle Session ONE:

Who Are We?

The Many Faces of America

One beautiful, powerful question that we can ask each other is
"What is your experience?"

-- Mary Pipher, psychologist


Introduction: The Ideas Behind This Session

How can we talk productively about the state of our union? One way to start is with our own stories. Let's begin with this question:

How do we describe ourselves, and why do those descriptions matter?

Have you ever considered why we describe ourselves and each other in so many different ways? When asked who we are, or when describing someone else, we mention race, religion, or home state. Sometimes we vary these descriptions depending on the audience and what we think people are trying to find out. When asked about our national identity, some of us feel comfortable saying, "I'm an American," and some of us don't. Some of us hyphenate the description, to include our country of origin, or describe ourselves in other ways.

What do these labels mean to us? There is a lot of passionate talk about the "right way" to describe each other. Do these labels reveal something about our past experiences, present concerns, or hopes? Do these descriptions reveal our attitudes toward our country or about who belongs here?

By telling our stories, we may discover how our diverse experiences have shaped us, divided us, and linked us. Through this dialogue, we may come to understand each other better and begin to find ways to move toward a more perfect union.

Session One Discussion-Starters

  1. Introduce and describe yourself to the group.

    1. Why have you described yourself the way that you have? In what ways are the group members' descriptions alike or different? What do you make of these similarities and differences?

    2. In what ways have your upbringing, experiences, or thinking influenced your description?

    3. Might you vary your response in different situations or company? Why or why not?

  2. How have others described you?

    1. Do the ways that others see and describe you match the ways you think about yourself, or are their descriptions different from your own?

    2. In his interview for the film Talk to Me: Americans in Conversation, historian John Kuo Wei Tchen said,

      People always ask me where I'm from. If they're Chinese, I need to tell them that I'm from JiangXi Province. If they're Americans, they're not happy enough by my telling them I'm from Wisconsin. I have to tell them that my parents came from China. I was born in General Hospital the year after my family arrived in this country, and I'm the first American citizen in the family.
      What does his statement mean to you?

  3. Think about the labels you use for yourself or that others use to describe you.

For examples of what some Americans are saying about these questions, check out what some people in the AMPU videos had to say for themselves.


  1. View Section One of the discussion-starter video Toward a More Perfect Union with the whole group.

  2. Take a moment to read each of the quotations in What Some Americans Are Saying.

  3. Relate a story that expresses an important aspect of your heritage, or of becoming or being American.

  4. Introduce each other.

    1. Pair up and interview each other about your family backgrounds. When you reconvene with the whole group, you will be telling your partner's story.

      • You might start your interview with these questions:
        • Where were you born? Where were your parents born? Where did other family members come from?
        • How did your family express your cultural heritage -- through language, cooking, faith, music, or in some other way? Have the same traditions and values remained important to you?
        • Add your own questions.

      • Try to retell your partner's story when the group reconvenes. All together, consider the similarities and differences in your experiences.

    2. You might follow these introductions with further discussion about how your families handled cultural differences.
      • In what cases did your family adapt or assimilate; in what cases did your family maintain your own traditions?
      • How frequent or infrequent were interactions with different cultural groups, and what were those interactions like?

    3. If your discussion group wants to go even deeper, look at the role that prejudice played in your homes.
      • Did you learn attitudes of prejudice or tolerance when you were growing up? Was part of growing up learning how to cope with prejudice? What do you think about this in hindsight?
      • Have times changed?

  5. Divide into groups of two or three. Take ten minutes to tell each other about funny or awkward situations that you have been in or seen that have to do with how people describe each other. What, if anything, do these moments tell us?

Go to the What Some Americans Are Saying page for this session

Go to Session Two of the AMPU Study Circle outline

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