When I was a child, I remember being very proud of being an American. Every cartoon seemed to reinforce that we were special in the world. My family was financially poor, but rich in spirit. We were close-knit and flush in unconditional love. Even though there were hardships and we had to do without from time to time, I was mostly not cognizant of our financial fragility. All I knew was that America was the best place on the earth and because I was an American, I too must be special.
That changed as I progressed through elementary school and began to see a consistent pattern: other kids had plenty of toys, the latest lunchbox adorned by their favorite action hero, or went on vacations, while I had yet to experience these things. They chased the ice cream truck to buy their favorite treat, while I chased along mostly so I wouldn’t be left standing with those of us who had no reason to run. As a minority child, I began to experience more direct ways of being left standing alone as I became older. Whether it was because of my accent and difficulty pronouncing some words, a surname that seemed synonymous with “you are not one of us,” or the self-awareness of an active and questioning mind, I came into a new consciousness that no child should have to encounter.
I came to realize that as a Puerto Rican American, my citizenship came with an asterisk in the minds of some. I would later hear my father called a guerilla, see my mother belittled at store checkout counters, have my face spat upon because I was different and my citizenship questioned. Over time, I began to cringe when others spoke of American Exceptionalism in a way that excludes more than it includes. I sensed that the way some invoke it is not so different from the way racist extremists separate themselves from the rest of our country. Is it reasonable to think we can lead other nations over the long term by placing ourselves above them? I believe we should hold ourselves to a high standard, but only to serve the world community and not to feed our own need to feel superior. In the end, the latter may produce some semblance of shallow alliance, but it will not truly unify, and certainly not in a way so that community can endure and continue to grow.
Similarly, as a business executive who, among other things, has responsibility for the health of my company’s people-centric culture, my paradigm for diversity and inclusion is shaped by personal experience. I believe that only by recognizing and valuing all we hold in common can we promote a sense of unity that better enables us to love the unique qualities that make each of us special. A commitment to inclusiveness – a sense of family in its broadest sense – must be the foundation for reaping the benefits of diversity. Throughout its existence, America’s success has been fueled by its rich diversity as various immigrant groups arrived and contributed significant building blocks to our country’s foundation. What is remarkable about our national success story is not as much the momentous achievements, but rather that they have been accomplished despite our relative immaturity in harnessing the richness of our diversity. For all America has offered the world, our potential is so much greater. Its realization is dependent on the quality of leaders that we elect, but perhaps even more by a commitment that every citizen must make to nourishing our diverse national community.
We can heal our country and usher in an even greater era by promoting our common humanity and shared citizenship. Once upon a time, we were urged to ask what we could do for the country instead of what it could do for us. Let me suggest that at least some portion of the energy being freely spent at demonstrations shouting at each other instead be diverted to volunteering to mentor disadvantaged kids, rebuild homes in decaying towns or alleviate the ravages of the opioid crisis. You and I could easily identify many more worthy endeavors. Many people fear their lives are headed in the wrong direction with no relief in sight. Fear breeds hopelessness and contempt. The remediation is empowerment through education, decent jobs and a caring community. People need to experience dignity in their daily lives and feel hopeful about the future if they are to be inspired to care about the plight of fellow citizens and our country.
We need to lift each other up as family and strengthen our communities. That is how you unify. It is the foundation to nation-building. One day we may remember the current times for causing us all to get involved in serving our country and securing its future. Because as noted author and activist Jane Jacobs once described, a community is like a neighborhood sidewalk ballet with everyone dancing their unique parts in a unifying ritual. It is about mutual responsibility, with time for saying but mostly for doing.
There once lived an energetic and forward-looking immigrant from the isle of Nevis who, were he alive today, would likely say to us to be of good cheer because the race that really matters has not been lost. Alexander Hamilton and his fellow founders were far from perfect, but they envisioned a nation with a never-ending quest to improve the lives of the citizenry. We are barely out of the starting blocks on our way to a more perfect union. I hope you are as proud and as grateful as I am to be a part of our great nation. Let’s recommit to the “united” in our country’s name and revive the charity in our hearts. Because we’ve only just begun in America.