The American Dream is a great ideal. Everyone can own their own home, have their own things, and enjoy life to the fullest. It is a dream that promotes hard-working, individual achievement. It is a dream that rewards people for the things they do.
And it is a dream that was initiated by one group of people who took land away from the people who already lived here and took another group of people away from their homeland in chains, shipped them across the ocean, and had them work the “new” land.
Regardless of how true it may be that the American Dream is available to everybody, we cannot erase the years of history that indicate it is a dream created by one culture and perpetuated by that same culture. To say that enough history has passed that it should no longer make a difference is a statement that can only be made by a dominant culture trying to escape the shame created by what has occurred in our past.
So if we cannot change history, what can we do?
First: be aware. While working on my degree, I took a class that assigned all of the students to participate in six cultural plunges. These were assignments that had students experience something for one week that members of the dominant culture typically do not face (wearing a rainbow pin, attending a non-Christian worship service, attending a celebration of a different ethnic group, etc.).
These assignments made me aware of two important lessons. One lesson was that it truly is different to experience life outside of the dominant culture. The second lesson was that the experience of living outside the dominant culture was only a weeklong assignment for me; it is everyday life for others.
Being a member of a non-dominant culture is different—not necessarily better or worse, just different. Let us all learn that.
Second: be involved. Even as we acknowledge the differences that exist based on the culture in which we are placed, we can also thrive as we live together in community. We learn to accept, acknowledge, and appreciate those things that make us unique while learning to draw closer to one another. We grow in the knowledge that we are people, not categories; that although we come from different cultures we learn to live with, support, and root for one another. We do this by getting involved.
There are a number of ways to be involved.
When you receive a jury summons show up for it. Take the time to be a part of the justice system. Fight against the stereotype that the system is corrupt by being a part of it. Bring integrity, respect, and justice to a system that often lacks those characteristics.
Pay attention to what is happening in your school system. Are some schools chronically under-performing? Why? How can you help improve it? What does the school need? Is there a distinguishable difference between successful schools and under-performing ones? How can your presence make a difference?
Become involved in your local political process. (This comes from someone who hates all political processes!) If there are unjust laws or practices in your community, find out how you can initiate change. Maybe it is campaigning. Maybe it is talking to your local representatives. Maybe it is just deciding that you will not the fact that you are one person stop you from initiating change.
Find out what community agencies exist in your community and pick one or two to be a part of. Look especially for those groups that work on development of the whole person. If there are ways to help with furthering education or employability, jump on opportunities to help. If those agencies do not exist where you live—create one. Do not tell me it cannot be done: I am working for an agency that was created when one person had a dream of a way she could help improve employability of those most in need of work. Ten years and 350 people later, I am about to do my part to help that dream continue.
Third: change the dream. The American Dream has many components that make it desirable. But it is too individualistic. Let us learn to dream in community. Let us learn to dream dreams that celebrate togetherness. Let us learn to dream of ways that instead of attaining things we are distributing things. Let us learn to dream of a world where no one is in need because all people are sharing what they have with each other.
We cannot change our past. But the ways we live in the present can yield substantial benefits in the future.