More than half of Americans tell pollsters they believe our country is heading in the wrong direction, they doubt their children will have a better future, and they believe American values are eroding.
This summer, I set out in a minvan with my husband and two kids to check the nation's pulse, to meet with dozens of people who are on the front lines, dealing with community problems from hunger to homelessness, unemployment to the lack of affordable health care.
I expected to find people defeated from a long effort to deal with the most brutal recession in our lifetimes. But what I found instead, were people taking the future into their own hands and shaping it with effort and creativity.
After 5,500 miles in 14 states, I'm hard pressed to remember meeting anyone who was not an optimist.
In Buffalo, N.Y., Britney McClain led me through PUSH Buffalo's Green Development Zone, where a bunch of 20-somethings are transforming a declining neighborhood by renovating homes with green technology and planting lush community gardens.
In Cincinnati, Jeff Edmondson told me about Strive, the city's coalition of civic leaders supporting every kid from cradle to career. The group has met with extraordinary success -- a 9 percent rise in kindergarten readiness, an 11 percent increase in high school graduation and a 10 percent increase in college enrollment -- in just six years.
In Milwaukee, Susan Winans showed me the Urban Ecology Center -- formerly a crime-ridden park, now a fabulous environmental community center, abuzz with kids entering the building through landscaped slides and crowding around salamanders and honeybees.
In Portland, Ore., Dani Swope guided my family in cleaning gently used books. A few years ago, Dani started The Children's Book Bank to share the books her own children had outgrown. The group now distributes 96,000 books to low-income children every year.
The optimists I met along the way -- and there were hundreds of them -- share a belief in their own capacity to create change, no matter how difficult. That belief is so deeply ingrained in our culture that the places that characterize this nation and capture our imagination today are places that showcase American optimism.
In Mitchell, S.D., civic leaders believed they could create a monument to corn so big and unusual it would draw thousands. Sure enough, the Corn Palace's corn husk murals drew presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama. Even today, more than 100 years later, 500,000 people like us drive off the interstate every year to see this folk art wonder.
Or think about Mt. Rushmore, this quixotic, strange endeavor to make a permanent monument to democracy that would transcend the ages. The carving of Mt. Rushmore was, more than anything else, an act of optimism.
So don't let the polls fool you. Americans are an unyieldingly optimistic people. We have imagination and gumption. We have the ability to envision a better world and the determination to make it happen. We can and will transform a derelict lot into a beautiful park, build a corn palace, offer a drink of water to a stranger or a book to a child.
As we approach the electoral season and consider where to cast our votes, let's ask our political leaders this question: Do you believe in the power of citizens to provide the muscle and the intellect to forge our future? Will you inspire, equip and call on the fundamental optimism of the American people -- the hunger to be a part of something large and important -- to build something great?
Americans will follow those who say yes.
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