Many Americans are frustrated, and rightly so – they’ve gotten a raw deal. Jobs have left. Wages are stagnant. Society has changed. Politics are driving us further apart. And there is a growing gap between those whose dreams can be realized – and those whose dreams cannot.
The fate of Dreamers – the young people brought to the United States without papers as children - leaves us wondering about the fate of all Americans who aspire to more, and whether at this moment when so many feel their dreams undercut and undervalued, if there’s an opportunity to revisit the notion of the what, precisely, we mean by the American Dream.
Historically speaking, the American Dream is rooted in the pursuit of freedom, opportunity and ideals sought by individuals migrating to America, or in some cases, migrating across it. The term was popularized in 1931 by the writer James Truslow Adams, who wrote that it was “the dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement…..It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman.” Yet, Adams also wrote of the weariness and mistrust of this dream, rooted in the misplaced view that its pursuit should be rooted solely in material wealth, instead of in a society that also enabled the achievement of deeper aspirations of freedom and fulfillment. Some 85 years later, this feeling of disenchantment is all too familiar.
If the American Dream is about growing to our fullest development, it must be about the higher order achievements of freedom and fulfillment - to not only be independent and materially successful, but also to see worth in one another, and to belong. These more deeply psychic needs aren’t divorced from material ones, either - research shows that that belonging in turn shapes our educational achievements and resilience, the foundations of material success.
As data from the last election shows, societal change and immigration have left nearly all segments of American society – from immigrants themselves to the residents of places reshaped by immigration – feeling on the outside, alienated.
In that sense, all of us are dreamers – yearning to belong, thwarted by the vast chasms that divide us and leave us feeling unwelcome. Likewise, we all have tribal instincts, biases, and fears that make us hold back, close the circle, retreat into what is comfortable. But what also makes us human is the instinct to dream – to learn, to grow, to follow our better angels and rise above these base instincts. What makes us American is that we don’t settle for what is, but instead we strive for more; for ourselves, for our children, for our communities.
As Americans, we also believe that our strength comes from the fact that we may not all look alike, we may not all pray alike, but what defines us is E Pluribus Unum – out of many one. To fulfill that credo, we have to do more than dream – we have to step out of our individual dreams and get to work together on building our shared future.
What we need is an American Dream that's about all of us belonging and succeeding - the Dreamers, the people who feel left behind by change, and by the changing economy, and everyone who feels unwelcome in this country.
More than the social and economic contributions being lauded, we believe the Dreamers have already given us something even more profound – a reminder of what fighting for the American dream really means. It’s just that fighting spirit - when directed toward a common dream, rather than at one another – that we believe can lift this country and its people to its highest potential.
That work of building a common American Dream will not start in Washington. It starts in communities, where neighbors of all stripes can get to work on common projects. The cooperation we see during times of natural disaster show us that this possible. We have also seen this sense of possibility in our work at Welcoming America, and from Sept. 15-24, more than 700 events are planned around the country as part of Welcoming Week, which celebrates our American values by bringing together U.S. and foreign-born residents, and people of all faiths, on soccer fields, over meals, and in community gardens to plant the seeds for a new kind of American Dream.
Welcoming Week – hosted for the 6th year to show the unity and can-do spirit of communities - is about bringing together our country, community by community, during a time of great division. We hope you’ll join by visiting www.welcomingweek.org.
By David Lubell, executive director of Welcoming America, and Rachel Peric, managing director of Welcoming America