What does it mean to be part of the UnitedStates of America? Some people hardly think about it. Some people respond proudly "We are a city upon a hill, an example for the rest of the world. Ours is a society that is based on the idea that all people are equal in this land of opportunity. "
But when others think about our nation's past and future, they look at the people who have been left out of America's promises, and how their exclusion continues to affect us. Many things can affect the way we view being American: whether we are white or black or Asian, whether we are rich or poor or middle class, whether we are straight or gay, whether we are men or women, whether we graduated from high school or not, to name just a few. How can we look at the ways in which America has drawn its boundaries? Who's "in"? Who's "out"?
Today, plenty of people are concerned that the union is threatened by our differences. Others worry that too much emphasis on melding will threaten our diversity. There are many opinions about where we are, where we have been and where we should go as a country. They fill the airwaves, the coffeeshops, the laundromats, the halls of Congress, and the media. In all of this conversation, it seems as though people are struggling to find one clear, simple answer. But in a democratic society, the only real answers are
those we create together.
We, the people, make up the union of the United States of America.
Conversations about what matters to us will help us understand our
respective experiences of America, past and present, and our hopes for the
future. Through telling our own stories and sharing our ideas and life
experiences, we may find our common ground. Throughout our history, when
have our experiences been the same? When have they been different? When
have we helped each other? When have we hindered each other? Because we have
often lived separately, or because we have had little chance to learn about
our history, we may have forgotten -- or never before discovered -- how much
we have in common.
These conversations may not be easy. They may touch on different ideas
about power and interest, about privilege and need, and about how we value
each other. Talking together will be hard work, but it begins some of the
most important work we can do.
How would you convey your own vision of America to others? Is there a
story or an event, from the past or the present, that expresses your vision
well? Does your example apply to you alone, or do you see it as part of a
larger story about our country?
We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
These lines come from the Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4th, 1776. The ideas recited in this passage have inspired and linked generations of Americans. Is there an idea, set of ideas, or a document such as the Constitution of the United States of America, the Bill of Rights, or the Declaration of Independence that shapes your connection to America?
Do you recollect a time when you first became aware of yourself as an
"American," as part of a larger country? When are
the times you feel most "American"? If you don't, what do you identify with?
Are you one of the millions whose connection to the country is shaped by movement -- by immigration or by moving from place to place? Or are you one of the settled ones with long roots in a particular place? How has this
influenced your sense of belonging, both in your community and this country
as a whole?
What meaning and promise does the "American Dream" hold for you?
Was there a time when you or your family lived better? Or has your fortune improved over the generations? What changed to affect your family's
well-being? How do those changes relate to your ideas about the American dream?
Some people have been willing to give up what is most important to them, even their lives, for their country -- or their dreams of what the country could be. Are there things you would be willing to sacrifice or even die
We might identify common interests by remembering the times we feel most connected to each other. When and where do you feel part of the nation? during particular events? when you vote in an election? when you volunteer to help others? in the wake of a disaster? through favorite or special TV shows? at other times?
Keeping in mind what you've learned today and in the previous sessions, what might be some points of agreement, or common interests and values that people in this country could unite around?
America has been described as a melting pot. Others have likened the USA
to a mosaic. Still others say our country is like a jazz ensemble. If asked
to fill in the blank, how would you complete this statement?:
Would you choose one of the descriptions listed here?
Would you invent your own?
In what ways does the strength of your attachment to America affect your attachment to your particular community (and vice versa)?
With the whole group, view Section 3 of the video Toward a More Perfect Union.
Take a moment to read each of the quotations under the heading What some
Americans are saying. How do these quotes relate to the discussion today?
Which statement do you find most interesting? Why?
Bring in an object or photograph from any point in your life that helps describe
your ideas and experiences about being American. Please be prepared
to describe this to others in your group.
Working with imagery.
Get discussion going by talking about photographs, pictures, and objects that
have traditionally been used to represent America. These might include a New
England town, the Lincoln Memorial, the Declaration of Independence, Statue
of Liberty, cars, Cowboys & Indians, a log cabin, a baseball, a dollar bill,
images from a well-known movie, etc. Do these images give a full picture of America? Ask each other what these pictures mean
Next, make a list of the modern images that you would choose to
represent America today. For example, one group listed pictures of Martin
Luther King, Jr., Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, Rodney King, freeways,
McDonald's, and Michael Jordon. What would you put on your list, and why?
Compare the traditional and the modern images. How do the images
indicate ways that America has changed?
Prompt a discussion about shared values by having each participant make a
list of the most important values they believe they share with other
Americans. Each participant in turn cites a value from the list and all
ideas are discussed. Questions might include:
How many participants have
listed the same values? Why?
Is there general agreement in the group about
the American values most participants share?
Which values are in dispute?
Have each participant draw a simple map or chart starting with his or her
home, and branching out to the neighborhood, town, region, country, and the
world. The map should show his or her own connections -- personal, familial,
political, economic -- to the larger communities he or she inhabits. Share
these maps and discuss. How do the maps differ from what you expected? How
do these connections affect the ways we live with one another?