LTE: This is What the United States of America Looks Like
A rally cry, in memoir, for 2021.
In my youth I was ashamed to be an American.
I felt it with the cold certainty and self-righteousness that fuels the late teens and early twenties.
I found so many reasons to be ashamed. After all, our founding fathers committed genocide against the people they found living on this land. They built our foundation by exploiting free labor from forced migrants, stripped of their humanity, and enslaved for generations. As a nation, we have used our buying power to indebt small countries and support authoritarian leadership in others. We have spent centuries at war. We demolished thriving neighborhoods to connect our highways. We built institutions that concentrate wealth in the hands of few. We built systems that nurture some while terrifying others.
After a year of stewing in my shame after high school, I emerged curious. No less distressed—but motivated by a drive to understand. I went to college to study the human experience.
This study of anthropology began to open my understanding of human thought and patterns of human behavior at a global scale, at an evolutionary scale. I leaned into questions and discourse about how culture shapes our behavior, how language shapes our thoughts. How slowly change occurs. Studying cultural conflict across nations all over the world and throughout human history, you can articulate how easily a single narrative can motivate a group of people to fight with another. How disagreement can simmer over a century.
After college, I built a company and began to appreciate how hard it is to target an audience. The time it takes to strengthen trust in individual relationships and expand them into a network.
I grew a garden and saw through my own sweat and scuffed knees how hard food production is, and how willing I am to participate in an economy where others grow and harvest my food for me.
I sewed garments and through pin-struck skin and ill-fitting skirts, grew an appreciation for the designers and producers and distributors of clothing I could find at the thrift or on the shelf with little time and money.
I built structures and with bruises and sore muscles grew reverence for builders and engineers and architects that make the foundations and infrastructure that we so easily take for granted.
I helped to raise a child in a blended family of fierce and passionate individuals and grew respect for how monumental every decision can feel. For conversation and negotiation, for mediation and compromise. I revered in how invaluable it was to have trusted individuals who cared for her when I or her mother were not there – for her extended family, her teachers, for the library, for park programs and summer camps.
I attended protests and yelled at the top of my lungs on the plazas of institutions. I volunteered and organized and sat on non-profit boards. In these groups of passionate people, I began to respect how difficult it is to build a just system—to hear all voices and to care for all members.
Throughout these experiences, my shame began to transform. It was no less intense—but became more self-centered as I began to recognize my own power, and the incredible privilege I have in the world.
I studied martial arts and began to stand taller—to walk with confidence and trust in my own ability to protect myself. This opened a freedom of movement I had never experienced before. My palms no longer sweat in parking garages. I walked home from friends’ houses at night while happily reflecting on the fun we had rather than anticipating predators lurking behind bushes. I rode bikes with joy and abandon in groups of women of all ages and reveled in how beautiful each of their experiences were. I traveled by driving and flying and steeped in other cultures and communities—amazed by differences and similarities I found across people, language, food, architecture, nature, and music.
My curiosity opened again. I wanted to understand how the systems in our society function. How did we build them? How do we change them? How, in a nation with incredible wealth and privilege, are so many people deeply unhappy?
After years of distrusting “the system,” years of rallying against it on the steps of its institutions, I decided to dive in. I enrolled in a graduate program to study city and regional planning.
I cast away my shame, adopted a willingness to feel vulnerable, and dared to be brave.
I entered the institutions that my whole life—my childhood-friend culture, my female socialization, my LGBTQ community culture, my small-town upbringing, my undergraduate education, my leading narrative—had convinced me were corrupt. I assumed—I was certain—they actively did not want my voice or contribution, they did not care for my safety, they worked to build walls and rules to keep me out. I entered the realm of local and regional government, of infrastructure planning, of state policy, of civic engagement, elected officials, conflict facilitation, and corporate collaboration.
I could hardly believe what I found.
Everywhere. Everywhere I have dared to step beyond my shame and bring my curiosity, I have been embraced. I sit at tables with groups of (mostly) white and educated men who breathe a sigh of relief that I am there. Who know the strength of diverse voices and have been searching to expand their circles. Who barely have the language or experience to know how to build cross-cultural relationships or have the necessary and awkward conversations that build trust with people who look different than them. But they are learning. They are practicing how to listen. They are casting away their shame and daring to be brave, too.
Everywhere I spend my time I find leaders and mentors and friends and colleagues who are invested in my success. Who share lessons learned, connect me into their networks, engage in curiosity, and seek life-long learning.
Everywhere I work with local officials and elected leaders I find people who are dedicated to public service. Who want nothing more than the communities they care for to thrive. Who are deeply passionate about individual strength and wellness and access to resources, jobs, transportation, recreation, housing, and education. Who work into the night to write policy, to argue on behalf of their constituents, to understand the perspectives of people they represent.
I see how long and difficult it is to strike compromise across groups of people who disagree strongly. How much funding and time it takes to make (seemingly) simple things happen – from striping a crosswalk to installing a playground in a vacant lot. Let alone attracting thousands of good jobs or replacing a multi-lane bridge or overhauling a system of lead-based water infrastructure or transforming a polluted river into a functional ecosystem.
I see how much time meaningful change takes. How much passion is present along all sides of every table. How hard it is to build trust with people in communities that have been disenfranchised and are, to this day, actively discriminated against and often, justly, fear for their lives—LGBTQ people, immigrants, people of color, people without homes, families in poverty, and especially Black Americans.
Humans fight over the distribution of resources. We disagree on how to care for each other. We naturally argue for people and experiences that resemble our own. Distrust can stall change for generations. Stories have power to motivate massive amounts of people to change their minds and behavior.
Through all this—this time, this work, this education, these relationships—I have become proud. Proud to be seen as LGBTQ. Proud to be a stepmother to an amazing young woman. Proud to be married to an incredible woman for whom I’m grateful every single day. Proud to love and be loved by a brilliant and hilarious family and several groups of wonderful friends.
Proud to have been an entrepreneur, to be educated, to work with amazing and passionate people across dozens of communities. Proud of the institutions that work tirelessly to make our world better.
Proud of the millions of people who understand the diversity of human experience makes us stronger, who finally are doing the work to understand (including myself) how to be anti-racist and commit to dismantling systems that leave people out. Proud to have the freedom to challenge and to be challenged.
Proud to be an American.
This is what the United States of America looks like.
Please don’t tear it apart. Please don’t tear each other apart.
Join me in working every day to make this country—this culture—this world—a more loving, healthier and supportive place for all humans and the ecosystems upon which we rely on to survive and to thrive.
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