The Play

A few weeks ago, I had the fortune of seeing Hamilton on Broadway. Much has been written about the show’s brilliance – the music, the story, the visuals. All of these things are true. As a former history major, though, I found the historical aspect of it most interesting.

The play begins in 1776 as America begins its revolution against the British. From there, it tackles the questions of who had a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and who exactly “We, the People” was (along with questions about the structure of the federal government). It also looks at Hamilton’s own personal history. He rises as an immigrant “from the bottom.” He becomes Washington’s right hand man. He writes the Federalist Papers and becomes Secretary of the Treasury. And he has a fall from grace as he becomes embroiled in an extramarital affair and his ideas about the federal government become unpopular.

History during My Travels

This close examination of Hamilton and early America made think of something I heard often on my trip: that people, schools, and our country broadly need to reckon with the “good, the bad, and the ugly” of American history. I was honestly surprised to hear people say this. I assumed that most people – especially of an older generation – would want us to emphasize what makes America the “greatest country on earth.” And there was some of that: people mentioned the unique nature of the Constitution, the American melting pot (our ability to integrate immigrants; of course, the melting pot can also have a negative connotation for forced assimilation), and America’s leadership in the world (particularly during World War II).

But many people of all ages and backgrounds said that as important as these accomplishments are, the negative parts of our history are equally important. To understand modern America, and the work that remains to be done, we need to understand slavery and Jim Crow. To truly come to grips with our past, we can’t stop at slavery as our only sin. There’s the fact that we massacred hundred of thousands of indigenous people (and the ones who survived we forced onto limited lands). There’s also our long history of anti-immigrant sentiment that people felt we often didn’t discuss (because we like to think of ourselves as a melting pot of sorts).

The Brilliance of Hamilton

The challenge of looking at history can be that it’s really easy to just tell the good, or really easy to let all of the significant bad delegitimize any of the important good. But what I loved about Hamilton is that it didn’t fall into either of these traps.

Throughout the play, there were several references to the exclusive nature of “we, the people” at our founding. It talked about slavery and its betrayal of the founding American ideals. But it also highlighted – through the role of King George III – that America’s founding ideals did have some significance. It was the first time that an idea of “citizen” became relevant in the world. Before then, all people were subjects to monarchs. At the same time, the play highlighted the anti-immigrant sentiment and class resentment that made Hamilton’s success frustrating for the other founders. America and the men and women who created it weren’t monolithic. Some were good, some were bad. Most were products of their age.

And that’s the aspect of the play that excited me most. It looked at Hamilton as a whole, rounded character. The show treats him as overly ambitious and philandering. It also captures his brilliance and commitment to ideals. He believed an elite-driven democracy, like most people did during that time. But he also believe that government had a duty to all of its people. Hamilton, like all of our founders, wasn’t a perfect hero. He had some good, some bad, and some ugly parts of him, just like America then and now.

As people think about how the past influences the present, it’s worth thinking about the parts of American history we respect most and criticize most. Most people will have different answers. But this framework of “good, bad, and ugly” can be a productive one in conversations that are often uncomfortable.

P.S. For what it’s worth, here’s a “good, bad, ugly” for me of American history:

  1. The good: The defeat of Nazi’s and the Soviet Union (tyrannical countries that killed millions of their own citizens)
  2. The bad: Our treatment of other country’s sovereignties (Vietnam, South Korea, many Latin American countries during the Cold War)
  3. The ugly: Slavery, not just for the obvious moral reasons, but because America continued to practice (and even grow) the use of slaves long after many countries barred the practice (in other words, it’s not just that America was a “product of its time”; it went above and beyond in an already horrible, inhumane practice)
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After eleven weeks on the road, 191 interviews, and twenty-five states, I returned home Tuesday evening. Opening the gate to my house, seeing my dog, and eating homemade food were much-needed. Peanut butter sandwiches and spending every night alone are not the most enjoyable combination!

Although I was exhausted by the end, this trip was eye-opening and inspiring. I met people of all walks of life, of all creeds, of all races and ethnicities, and of all political leanings. I saw the country, from the Great Lakes to the Rockies, from the heart of downtown Detroit to the back roads of Maurepas, Louisiana.

Our country faces many challenges ahead, but I am heartened to hear that most people are aware of them and want to face them. People know polarization is a problem. They know we’ve stopped listening. Most people I spoke with acknowledge that racism is a long and powerful truth in this country, a road block to much of our progress and something that we must address.

There were, of course, disagreements. Some want stronger borders while others welcome immigrants with open arms. Many Republicans feel that Democrats don’t respect President Trump the way a President should be respected. Many Democrats feel that started with the way Republicans talked about Barack Obama.

But ultimately, most people I talked with want to be good citizens, and believe that political party says nothing about citizenship.

I realize, though, that despite that we might say that, we don’t act on it. We don’t seek out difference and disagreement. We shout at each other and at our TV screens. We ignore news that upsets us and revel in headlines that affirm our opinions.

We can’t keep doing these things and except these problems to get better. If we want to genuinely be good citizens – not just say we are – we have to step outside of our comfort zones, read new newspapers and watch new TV channels. We need to get to know our neighbors, even if they look different from us, talk different from us, and believe different things than we do. We need to help the needy, regardless of whether we think it’s the government’s job to.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be publishing some interviews from the trip as well as some other thoughts. I’d love to hear any ideas people have about the things they’ve read here or elsewhere. For now, though, I’m going to enjoy being home!

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Rain upon arrival:

As I entered Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota on my first day there, rain began to fall. It was slow rain, just enough to cover the windshield and make me turn on the windshield wipers, but not enough to stop me from seeing that I was entering a place completely different from anywhere I’d been. I saw the Rosebud Casino and the homes scattered around me, some cows in the distance and people walking along the highway. I knew immediately that these days would be informative. At the time, however, I didn’t know my time there would be a fundamental challenge to the very trip I’m undertaking.

Historical ignorance:

Growing up, I received the same education on indigenous people’s that I think many students do today. I heard about the way the Spanish massacred the first Americans; I read about the Trail of Tears; and then I learned nothing else. The Lakota, the Navajo, the Winnebago all faded into the backdrop of American history.

An education in Rosebud:

As a result, when I arrived in Rosebud, I didn’t know about the removal of indigenous children from their homes. I had heard of the Doctrine of Discovery, but didn’t know it was still relevant today. While studying history in college, I came to peace with much of America’s bloody history. I always thought that despite its flaws and failures, of which there are many, America has consistently come closer to living up to the world’s greatest ideals: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But that thinking rests on the idea that we’ve made progress, that we’ve become more inclusive.

It became clear this week, that when it comes to tribes such as the Lakota, we have absolutely failed. Our government took children from homes based on the idea that they need to be “civilized.” In 2017, people use a modified n-word to describe students from the Lakota community. When it comes to indigenous people, the idea of being an American still depends on defining “America” in opposition to “indigenous,” rather than in a way that’s inclusive of those people.

Whether people would like to admit it or not, indigenous people have contributed in a fundamental way to the American founding. As Dwayne showed me, our Constitution was inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy. Indigenous people created many of the crops that are crucial to American agriculture today. And indigenous people discovered the medical use for quinine.

But it’s not just their contributions to American life I was ignorant of. I also knew nothing about indigenous culture. Marianne explained that indigenous people valued and still value spirituality and family above all else. In that way, indigenous society was and is no different than Christian or Jewish America.

We are failing:

Despite all of these truths, I think people today sometimes have a historical stereotype of indigenous Americans that people held during the founding of the United States: they were savages, people unable to contribute or live peacefully. Although I think I didn’t hold this stereotype, I still didn’t reject it or disagree when people expressed it. Now, having spent time at Rosebud, I see just how wrong it is.

My time challenged me to think about what and who an American is. One student said to me that being an American is about “boundaries…between the reservation” and the rest of the country. If we continue to exclude and judge people who were so fundamentally important to all things good about our country, especially after massacring them and taking their land over several centuries, what does that say about us? About who we are? I don’t know.

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Until last week, I had never traveled anywhere in the Midwest other than Chicago. I was totally naive about the places, cultures, and people in the region. Fortunately, in my time in Waukesha, WI, Dubuque, Iowa, and Sioux City, Iowa, I had a chance to learn about what unites, and divides, people in the heart of our country.

The Flag in Waukesha:

When I arrived in Waukesha, President Trump had just said that players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired. While there, I made sure to ask people about their thoughts. Laura, a military veteran, told me that she fought for people to do “dumb things like that.”

Meanwhile, Terri, a self-described Christian woman, rejected the practice. However, her thinking intrigued me. Her rationale? “Use love to bring people to your side, not criticism.”

And finally, an artist I spoke with, who voted for Bernie Sanders, didn’t like that Kaepernick kneeled during the anthem. He did, however, support athletes’ right to protest. He said that he would love to see players kneel before  the anthem, then stand up during it, as a protest of what’s wrong but also as a signal that they believe things can be better.

There’s been many words written about the protests and Trump’s statement about them. But what I found interesting in all of these interviews, from three people with very different life backgrounds, was that they all appealed to two ideas in our conversations. First, they talked about respect, both for the flag, and for someone’s right to kneel (and in their minds, disrespect that flag). Second, they were the first group I spoke with that consistently mentioned patriotism. In fact, the thing that has most surprised me so far is how few people think we need to “love” our country. In Waukesha, however, love and respect go hand-in-hand.

America in a city:

Although I’ve found that stereotypes people have about other regions in the country are wrong, one that isn’t wrong is that driving through Iowa is phenomenally boring. It’s flat, and there are almost no cars anywhere. My first stop after Wisconsin was Dubuque, a town on the Mississippi river.

Dubuque was unlike any place I’ve ever been. A city of roughly 58,000 people, there was more variety of people and culture than I anticipated. As a former factory town, it still has a blue-collar aesthetic and vibe. But with a large affluent, suburban population, there were also places that reminded me of Bryn Mawr; yoga studios, custom cupcake shops, and several nice coffee shops lined the main street. And in recent years, there has been a large influx of African-Americans from Chicago, and so the city’s cultural events and social hangouts are increasingly diverse, too. It was as if three core aspects of American life had been squeezed into 30 square miles.

Most of my conversations in Dubuque were fantastic. From Taj, a Sudanese refugee, who talked about the importance of community, to Brisa, a Trump voter, who said jobs are key to civic life, and Maddie, a non-voter who thought we need to be more humble as citizens, I learned about the complex intermingling between economics, the community, and the individual. As much as try to divorce these things, we can’t. Brisa is right that people’s opportunities, and their freedom to pursue them, are crucial for citizens and for the community’s well-being. Likewise, we can’t underestimate how important our individual attitude towards others is.

My Worst Experience Yet:

However, I also had my worst experience to date in Dubuque. During one interview, I heard the first rhetoric that I would say is actively harmful to civic community. The person told me that the one thing that all American high school students needed to know was that the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers had sought to undermine the country from within. He also said that the anti-fascist groups they funded were, and the groups that their relatives fund are, the real threats to American freedom.

These words alarmed me on two levels. First, it was trademark anti-Semitism. Fear of powerful, wealthy Jews is as old as time. It saddens me that it’s still rampant. Second, the idea that we should teach in schools that there is a group of people, whose only tie to one another is a religion, or a race, that actively wants to ruin our country means that we are saying some groups don’t belong. Given that many people I’ve spoken with describe America as a melting pot, we need to actively reject this type of thinking.

The Representative Midwest City:

As much as Dubuque taught me, Sioux City reflected the image I had in my mind of the Midwest. I also think it’s the consummate story of a place where opportunity is lacking, and people are desperate. A couple I spoke with both said that the “lack of opportunity” for young professionals is draining the city. And the husband said he voted for Trump because he thought America needed to return to its industrial roots.

As I drove around the area, what he said made sense to me. There were abandoned factories and few office buildings. The downtown was small. The people seemed sad, something the other two people I spoke with in Sioux City mentioned. The unifying forces in Sioux City – factories such as Gateway’s – had left. The place was still trying to figure out a way forward.

Unity and Division:

More than any segment to date, my time in the Midwest reminded me that for all we share, there are substantive. One man told me he sees Black Lives Matter as the equivalent of the KKK.  Regardless of how one feels about BLM, the idea that white people are inferior to black people is not core to their mission (the way the reverse is central to the KKK’s work). But it says something that people now believe this to be the case. Another person told me he doesn’t see a future for people in his area. And as I walked around, I saw the way that community’s were faltering without jobs and hope.

And yet, most of my interviews reminded me that there is a way forward together. One might disagree with Brisa that Trump will create jobs. But I think it’d be hard to disagree with her sentiment that people deserve better chances and that we have to help. And Linda, a Clinton supporter, talked about the importance of knowing the First Amendment. Given the way we all scream about the other side’s abuse of free speech, I can’t help but agree with her that we might all need a refresher on speech, how it works, and why it’s important.

The challenge about division is that it’s easy to replicate, easy to be angry at those who are different or have had better lucky. But that’s exactly why need to be thinking about the things we do and can share.

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Concerns about the media:

When’s the last time you read a new media source? Or a source that doesn’t promote your world view? I ask because a theme I have heard in the last week or two is that it’s hard to trust the news these days, that people are turning it off. Jon, from South Bend, said, “I never know what to trust. The inaccuracies and political bias on both sides are absurd. I’m not smart enough to know what’s true or what’s not.” Rick said that he now turns off the news. This problem wasn’t unique to Indiana. Maxwell, a student at Bowling Green State, said that he feels like the media distorts our opinions of one another.

Staying informed:

Despite people’s concerns about the media, many interviewees, especially Matthew from University of Chicago, mention the importance of “being informed.” I agree them that knowing what’s happening in our communities and country is really important to being a good citizen. We can’t take political action if we don’t know what’s happening. Serving people is harder if we don’t the problems. It’s difficult to be respectful if we don’t know what’s happening in our neighborhood. Continue reading Staying Informed

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Last week, I wrote about stepping out of my educational bubble and how much it taught me. This week, I spent 4.5 days in Detroit and 2.5 days in Mishawaka, Indiana. During this time, I got a crash course in how both race and religion impact people as citizens.

During college, at home, and the news I often find that many people don’t recognize how much race and racism still affect so many Americans’ lives. Admittedly, as a white person, I will never fully understand. My time in Detroit, though, gave me needed insight into the personal ways racism still harms many African-Americans every day.

In my conversations with people from the coasts, I also frequently find they don’t quite understand the positive role that religion and the Church play in other’s lives. Admittedly, I don’t either. But in the last few days, I feel like I have come to see why religion matters so much to people

Structural Racism:

For those who don’t know, Detroit is 83% black. Due to white flight and the government policies that encouraged it, many of the Detroit’s black population has remained in the city, even while its economy struggled tremendously. Contrastingly, many white, affluent people in the area live in the suburbs and work downtown. They don’t pay the property taxes the city has desperately needed and don’t necessarily have an investment in Detroit’s schools or community well-being. As Detroit’s schools have struggled, the people who have been hurt are disproportionately black and disproportionately low-income. This sort of structural racism didn’t surprise me. I’ve seen it in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. It shows up in the civic learning gaps of students nationwide and the wealth gaps in cities such as Boston. It’s a civic problem, as well as a moral one, one that hurts democracy and makes equal engagement difficult.

Personal Racism:

But this recognition about structural problems often doesn’t create an emotional reaction for people. Statistics often don’t tell our stories or convince people to change. This week, I heard the more personal side of racism, one that as a white person who grew up in the suburbs, I heard very little about in my life.  One of my interviewees told me a story that brought tears to my eyes. He talked about when he was twelve and at a little league baseball game. Out of nowhere, a man in his mid-thirties – the parent of another play – screamed out from the crowd, “You little (n-word).” This man is now forty. Twenty-eight years later, he points to this moment as pivotal in his childhood and his ideas about America.

This story was just the beginning. Nicholas told me about how people used to cross the street when they saw him with dreadlocks, even though, he’s “the biggest nerd in the world.” Later that day, in an Uber, the driver, who was black, told me that recently, a rider referred to him as a “gorilla.” He said it took all of his self-control not to kick the man out of the car and curse him out.

The next day, Aisha told me about how growing up, neighbors would scribble racial epithets across her mailbox. Her parents put her in a different school district to avoid the people who did these sorts of things. And Adriel told me about when he realized that the three-fifths compromise existed, and how that undermined his feelings about our country. I spoke with eight black people in Detroit, and each had a story about racism hurting them.

Hearing these stories and learning about Detroit’s structural inequality in no way makes make me an expert. I have the luxury of not worrying about hearing these types of insults. I don’t have a childhood marred by the racist behavior of a grown man. But the last few days have underscored for me that when we talk about citizenship, when we talk about being a good community member, when we talk about respecting each other, we need to take race into account. We need to fight racism. Otherwise, the communities I’ve heard people describe and hope for can’t exist.

Religion and Community: 

Before this week, I knew even less about religion and the role it plays in our country than I did about racism’s impact on American life. In Mishawaka, I saw firsthand how much God shapes people’s lives. And, even more than that, I saw how important the community the church provides for people is.

I spent Sunday at Granger Community Church (GCC), a mega church in Granger, Indiana. When I drove in, I was stunned that the place was a church. It looked like a massive, modern school. At Granger, I sensed the same connection and community there that I often felt in my high school. When I walked in, people greeted me and my hosts, asking us how we were and how we were feeling. In the atrium, I saw a cafe and a bookstore, where people talked to each other and found texts that helped them think about their lives. I watched as people streamed into the auditorium to pray. Downstairs, there were classrooms, play areas, and praying spaces for children of all different ages.

Two hours later, after speaking with congregants about the role God plays in their life as citizens, I sat through a service. The topic was marriage. Certainly, there were aspects of the conversation that I disagreed with. When the Pastor said that having Christ at the center of marriage is key, I felt myself push back. But, at the same time, much of what he talked about resonated with me. He discussed the importance of good, healthy habits in relationships. Then, he used passages from the Bible to illustrate good and bad habits. He showed a video of a couple who used religion to heal their relationship after an affair. Just as countless articles have helped me in my relationships, countless bible verses had helped this couple and many others.

The Religious Divide: 

A conversation I had later that night confirmed the impact the Church has on people as citizens. One person I spoke with, an Evangelical Christian, talked about how God has shaped his idea of citizenship. He said, “Following what God has said naturally will make you a good citizen. The morals, ethics, and values that make a good citizen come from the Bible.”

We agreed on these ethics: hard work, honesty, love for others. When he later asked me my beliefs on God, I was frank with him. I told I him have struggled to find faith in my life. I explained, though, that I’ve turned to other sources, such as history and the classroom, to learn the lessons God taught him. He smiled and nodded, and then we talked about education reform.

The differences between me and this man were numerous. I’m an Agnostic from the East Coast who hasn’t attended a religious service in years. He was an Evangelical Christian from the Mid-West, whose goal is to raise children who love God. But we could still understand each other, understand we both wanted to be the best people we could be. I traveled America to learn about its people. For a lot of people, God, Christ, and their teachings have shaped their values and their communities. I wouldn’t be able to fully understand citizenship in America without talking to them.

Confronting Our Blind Spots: 

When I spent time at Findlay Community College, I realized why I need to leave my bubble more. In learning so much about race in Detroit and religion in Mishawaka, I recognized that I have blind spots. I would define blind spots as aspects of society I don’t understand as well as I should, often because of who I am, racially, educationally, and socioeconomically. Blind spots and bubbles are closely related. But I think blind spots, in some ways, are easier to fill. We can read about issues we don’t understand. We can reach out to people in our communities who may be different from us. For example, I could have learned about religion in college by talking to religious groups.

I do think, though, that part of being a good citizen is at least recognizing one’s blind spots. If we at least recognize what we don’t understand about others, we will be more likely to listen. Listening is something that many people I’ve spoken with have mentioned we all need to do better. As one person at GCC said to me, “We could be better Americans if we shut up, quit talking, and start listening. Western culture fosters that.  We (need to) stop debating for a minute, and listen to something on the other side, and see where they’re coming from. Then we can allow that to either bolster what we already believe or morph and change it for the better. Because we don’t have it all figured out.”

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My Skewed Education:

Having grown up the son of two teachers, education was always a topic of conversation at my dinner table. From what teachers could do better, to what I wanted to learn, I always talked to my parents about school. I’d always known that my experience was abnormal, both because of my parents’ jobs and where they had them: a secular private school. As I moved through high school at my parents’ school, the conversations I had with my peers turned towards college. Most of the colleges people mentioned were “elite” schools: University of Virginia, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, and so on. As a high school student, this conversation seemed like the norm to me, like the one everyone, everywhere had.

Leaving My Educational Bubble:

Until last Thursday, I had never stepped foot on a community college campus. While in Bowling Green, though, I was lucky enough to go to Owens Community College in Findlay, Ohio. I watched and listened as students scribbled notes, talked to advisors, and caught up with friends. But there was a difference in what students had to do to be able to go to school. Students such as Tosh worked full-time jobs and commuted to school. They needed to juggle two types of learning, two types of effort, in order to get to where they wanted to go. Continue reading Leaving the Bubble

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The Roads I Knew:

When I first started driving, I feared Route 30 and I-76 more than any other roads. Route 30 is called Lancaster Avenue in Southeastern Pennsylvania. To get to any doctor’s appointment or dinner place, I would have to weave through its infinite lights and avoid its impatient suburban drivers. I-76, on the other hand, connected my hometown to downtown Philadelphia. Forever busy, it never felt like much of a highway.

Growing up, these roads both symbolized my sheltered suburban life and the path to leave the bubble, if only briefly. On my journey from Mercersburg to Pittsburgh, I traveled Route 30 and I-76 again. The places and paths they took me to and on, though, were quite different.

Continue reading Same Roads, New Places

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Washington’s Stories:

In two hours, I’ll leave Washington, D.C., and leave for my next stop: Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. The last few days have been exciting, informative, and intimidating. I had twenty-two amazing interviews, and got practice with people not wanting to speak with me. An Army officer told me about the importance of democratic values and our belief. I spoke with two members of the U.S. State Department, too, about how others perceive us. I heard about the tensions that come with being a Muslim and being an American from Idil.

Just as interestingly, I spoke with many people who don’t live their life around governments. I talked with D.J., an immigrant who believes we can all work together to build one America, and with Amber, who thinks we need to stop thinking bad citizenship is fashionable. If nothing else, I feel more confident now that my work is worth doing. I am more confident now than five days ago that our citizens’ stories are worth telling.

Its Silences:

But the last few days weren’t only about people’s stories. I watched a video in the U.S. Capitol about how out of many people and beliefs, we are one (E Pluribus Unum). And I walked around the National Mall, looking at the statues and buildings that honor our founders and values. Yesterday, I also was able to attend the National Book Fair and think about the books that make us Americans. While there, I sat in on a panel about immigration literature and thought about the balance between assimilating and preserving one’s previous culture.

These moments when I wasn’t interviewing people provided me space to think about my work and our country. I think, more than anything, my time in Washington showed me that there are many ways to be an American. Likewise, there are a lot of types of good citizens. Now, my work is to figure out the exact ways we can be good citizens, and the key things all Americans share. I’m scared to leave a city I know for parts of the country I’ve never been to. But I know what I will find in new places is even more important than what I found in familiar ones.

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