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What it means to be American

by YES! Staff

America is the greatest country on Earth. Sure, there are all sorts of statistics that say differently — 8 th in education spending, 49 th in life expectancy, 35 th in math scores,13 th in arts funding… . But our statement is more of an abstract, a qualitative assessment rather than a quantitative one. This is the country that invented basketball, the primetime sitcom, the comic book and jazz. We are the loudest and proudest, and who cares if we rank 15 th in literacy? No. 1 is Finland, and we sure as hell don’t want to live there, even if we could find it on a map. The best thing about this country are its people — all shapes and colors, transplanted from every other country in the world. We are all Americans by virtue of living on her soil, whether we have the paperwork to prove it or not. And just as we all come from different backgrounds, we all have our own ideas of what it means to be living here in the good ol’ US of A. To celebrate this country’s independence, we asked a slate of Triad residents what being an American means to them. There are some commonalities, to be sure: freedom, diversity, service. And like the country itself, there are many variations on the theme. We don’t all look the same. We don’t act the same. We don’t share the same priorities or points of view. But we are all Americans. And we all get to celebrate her birthday. Millicent Wilder Greason-Spivak Artist One of my favorite parts about being an American is the potential that exists here. It’s pretty exciting to live in a country where we enjoy a lot of freedoms that we actually take for granted. I’m pretty excited about living in a country where there aren’t bombs going off everyday. I’m excited to live in a country where things can evolve and change. We could do something really cool like elect and African- American president. Wow! The potential for change… hot water. You know, all the things we take for granted — that’s what’s so really awesome about our country despite all the things that I find really disenchanting about this country — which I find a lot of things disenchanting. I am also very grateful that I live here because I do realize that I can talk about the things that I don’t like, and I can protest or do other things to try to change them if I want to. I think that’s pretty darn cool.  Lately it’s been really interesting the things that have come to the forefront with all the issues with civil rights for the lesbian/gay/ bi/transgender people. And a lot of stuff with women’s rights. I think you can sort of become complacent and feel like, “Oh, things are so much better than they were.” Then you realize, “Hey, things are really f***ed up.” Then I think about it more and I realize — I’ve been around for — I think I’m 47… 46. I’ll be 47 in November. Even though things right now seem kind of grim, like, “Wow, are we going backwards?” Then I look back through my years on this planet. And I think about how incredibly different things are just in that time period. Things have changed a lot for the better. The fact that people are actually having a lot of open dialogue about any issues that are in the forefront right now, I think is pretty exciting. Even 10 years ago people weren’t talking openly about a lot of this stuff.  People don’t even vote, for God’s sake. That’s the thing for me I feel like with the Amendment One thing I feel like a lot of my contemporaries or our contemporaries or anybody that would have voted no didn’t even bother to vote. Like dude, just go f***ing vote. If you want to complain about stuff or if you want to — I think voting is so cool. Most of the time I vote, the people I vote for don’t win. It can be a little bit discouraging, but ever since I turned 18 I couldn’t wait to be able to vote. I voted every single chance that I had to vote for anything because I feel like if I’m going to complain about stuff I have to vote. That’s just a fundamental thing that people need to do. Rob Coffman Forsyth County elections director  As cheesy as it may sound, number one in my mind is we have freedom that when you look around the world you don’t always see in modern societies. It’s, I guess, freedom to screw up, freedom to do things right. There may be consequences to pay for your actions, but we have a lot of freedom to do. I think of a quote from the Bible, of all things: To whom much is given, much is required. And I think that’s the second part that I think being an American is. To live in this country, to have the things available to us, even parts of our society that we’d probably consider the fringe still have some things available to them that many people in this world wouldn’t have, so that we have some responsibility to that, whether it’s helping in our community, whether it’s supporting our kids in school, assisting with the school district maybe. We have a responsibility that maybe goes along with being a citizen of this country. It’s my goal to provide the best service I can. In my instance, it happens to be elections. It’s kind of important in this American way of life. We’re here to provide accessible, accurate and a fair election process. Which is interesting because if you look at how turnout in elections seems to occur in this country, our major elections we get a decent turnout. In our presidential elections we’ll generally vote around 60 percent or so of registered voters. But then when you get down to some of the smaller elections — the local, community-type elections — you see turnout just drop drastically. Yet those are always the elections that I think probably those positions affect our day-to-day life more than the president of the United States does. Your city council person or your county commissioner are setting tax rates that will affect you I think more directly than anything the president does. Your school board is setting policy and making curriculum decisions for the education of your children in many cases. So those levels of office that aren’t as sexy as the president, but are probably more important to us in our day-to-day life, and yet those are the elections that very few people bother to vote in. Uriel Alberto Undocumented young person  It’s so contradicting. It’s hard for me to give you an answer. I don’t know a clear answer of what it’s like to be an American because I turn on the TV every day and I walk the streets every day and I hear people’s opinions that I’m not an American, you know, that I don’t belong here, that I’m leaching off of this society.  I feel that to a certain extent I’m a man without a homeland. I’m neither from there nor from here. But I love everything about this country at the same time. I consider myself an American to a big degree. I’ve grown up with the values and I’ve been inspired by this country’s history to act the way I act and to feel and believe the things that I believe. I don’t think if I hadn’t lived here I would feel as passionate as I do about certain things like people’s individual rights and whatnot. I’m a romantic, and I’ve always been enamored by these men who throughout this country’s history have stood up and challenged the status quo. On one hand I’m as American as they come, and I like apple pie and fried chicken and Southern cooking and Southern music and country and rock. And to another extent I’m made to feel like I’m not American at all. It’s a Catch-22.  I don’t know anything else. I’ve been here all my life. This is what I know. This is my country. This is my home. I think like an American. Obviously, I’d love to vote. People ask me a lot of political questions often, especially about this country. Yeah, I give them my opinion, but at the same time I tell them: “I can’t vote. It’s your responsibility, your duty. If you feel compassionate towards my situation or the situation of these other millions of people, then it’s your duty to vote for me.” I do voter registrations. For every undocumented person that does not have a vote I assure you that there is a voting US citizen who will vote for that person because we all have family members and friends, coworkers and people who have heard our stories and share our stories for that same purpose because a politician is not going to change your heart and feeling about an issue. If I get out there and I tell you about my personal experiences with an issue then you’re much more likely to change your mind and your heart about it. Alberto came with his parents from the Mexican state of Oaxaca to California at the age of 7. They moved to North Carolina when he was 8. Jodi Riddleberger Activist  To me the idea behind patriotism is the love of and passion for your country. And just like any great idea, if there’s no activity involved, the idea remains an idea.  Think about our military men and women — they’re the perfect example of action behind the idea. They’ve chosen to be the most patriotic among us; they chose to put the country in front of their own lives. The work and the sacrifice they do on a daily basis is completely inspired by their patriotism and dedication. They’re taking ownership of the idea.  Each individual citizen has the opportunity to be a great patriot themselves. For myself I feel like I need to put my country’s good before my own. I have the responsibility to speak out when unethical things happen in our government. I have a moral obligation to take action in the political arena to defend liberty, truth, the Constitution.  I guess in my life patriotism is engaging in the process of supporting the greatness of America through daily activities in our community. Jo Maeder Author of When I Married My Mother  I think it means so many choices and so much technology that it can be overwhelming and frustrating, but I am privileged to have these problems. Every day its choice choice choice choice, from, ‘Do I want to friend this person?’ ‘Do I want to send this post out to everybody?’ ‘Do I want water that’s flavored or unflavored?’ ‘Do I want yogurt that has fat nor non-fat ?’ It just goes on and on and on. It used to be when you went out to buy cottage cheese you had two choices: small and big. Now it’s, ‘What size curd do you want?’ • We’re living in this world of such bounty. We shouldn’t complain about these things it’s a privilege. We’re a country of bounty in so many unbelievable ways. Yeah, you can get upset with what doesn’ tcome your way or technological glitches that make you want to scream, but were still a land of great opportunity and blessings. Kevin Smith Filmmaker with Occupy Greensboro  I took a painting class in New Zealand and there was this guy that loved asking me questions about America… like is it true when you move into a new house that your neighbor will bring you apple pie… or if I knew certain celebrities. Whenever I am abroad I realize how close American pop culture actually is to my identity even though it’s not at the forefront of my mind, like, “Why do I miss baseball?” • I think part of being an American is to claim not to be American in whatever way you can, to say I am Irish or Scottish or Hungarian. I guess if someone asked me I would say I’m Scottish. I honestly don’t think about this stuff very much.  I grew up near the Tennessee border [in North Carolina] so my friends and I would always find creative ways to use illegal fireworks. That’s the only consistent tradition I’ve ever really had. I’m going to check out the Grimsley fireworks. To be an American is to be a paradox where we have so many resources yet it’s never enough, it seems. We strive to be individuals yet we also strive to fit in. Officer Matthew O’Reilly Winston-Salem police officer  I come from a military family. Both my parents were in the military, and there’s always been for me a sense of pride. My parents have always instilled that. They were never the type to just bark out orders or anything like that, but they instilled a sense of pride in our country as far as what we were able to do, the freedoms that we have. Although I’m not in the military — I’m only in civilian law enforcement — for me, I see law enforcement as a way to give back to my community for others, and to be part of something more than myself. As far as what it means to me to be an American and have these freedoms I’ve been lucky enough to travel abroad several times and to see the differences between what we’re allowed to do and what other people are allowed to do in other countries. It’s tough not to come back to our country and believe that we don’t live in the best country on the planet. The freedoms that we have that people have fought for, that people have died for over the years, it’s been a great thing to give back in some way. Even at a local level, to uphold our freedoms, the rights that we have, to try and make sure that everyone is able to enjoy their lives and to enjoy them in a manner that they see fit without any type of interruption or encroachment by others. It gradually dawned on me that there is something else out there. There’s always people out there besides yourself that could use some help — a helping hand, some type of assistance. There’s always folks that need help in some way, shape or form. For me, I guess if there is one moment that might define that for me, I understand like a lot of people back on Sept. 11 — I was actually in college at the time. I was old enough to understand that at that point the rules had changed. In a lot of ways the world as we knew it was not going to be the same. I think a lot of people at that time felt somewhat of a sense of helplessness, as if something needs to be done or there’s a greater effort that need contributing to in some way, shape or form. This is my way of doing that — by going into law enforcement and helping in the public safety realm, something that I could contribute without having to go abroad or something like that. Jodi Riddleberger Activist  To me the idea behind patriotism is the love of and passion for your country. And just like any great idea, if there’s no activity involved, the idea remains an idea.  Think about our military men and women — they’re the perfect example of action behind the idea. They’ve chosen to be the most patriotic among us; they chose to put the country in front of their own lives. The work and the sacrifice they do on a daily basis is completely inspired by their patriotism and dedication. They’re taking ownership of the idea.  Each individual citizen has the opportunity to be a great patriot themselves. For myself I feel like I need to put my country’s good before my own. I have the responsibility to speak out when unethical things happen in our government. I have a moral obligation to take action in the political arena to defend liberty, truth, the Constitution. I guess in my life patriotism is engaging in the process of supporting the greatness of America through daily activities in our community. Jo Maeder Author of When I Married My Mother  I think it means so many choices and so much technology that it can be overwhelming and frustrating, but I am privileged to have these problems.  Every day its choice choice choice choice, from, ‘Do I want to friend this person?’ ‘Do I want to send this post out to everybody?’ ‘Do I want water that’s flavored or unflavored?’ ‘Do I want yogurt that has fat nor non-fat ?’ It just goes on and on and on. It used to be when you went out to buy cottage cheese you had two choices: small and big. Now it’s, ‘What size curd do you want?’ • We’re living in this world of such bounty. We shouldn’t complain about these things it’s a privilege. We’re a country of bounty in so many unbelievable ways. Yeah, you can get upset with what doesn’ tcome your way or technological glitches that make you want to scream, but were still a land of great opportunity and blessings. Kevin Smith Filmmaker with Occupy Greensboro  I took a painting class in New Zealand and there was this guy that loved asking me questions about America… like is it true when you move into a new house that your neighbor will bring you apple pie… or if I knew certain celebrities. Whenever I am abroad I realize how close American pop culture actually is to my identity even though it’s not at the forefront of my mind, like, “Why do I miss baseball?” • I think part of being an American is to claim not to be American in whatever way you can, to say I am Irish or Scottish or Hungarian. I guess if someone asked me I would say I’m Scottish. I honestly don’t think about this stuff very much.  I grew up near the Tennessee border [in North Carolina] so my friends and I would always find creative ways to use illegal fireworks. That’s the only consistent tradition I’ve ever really had. I’m going to check out the Grimsley fireworks.  To be an American is to be a paradox where we have so many resources yet it’s never enough, it seems. We strive to be individuals yet we also strive to fit in. Officer Matthew O’Reilly Winston-Salem police officer  I come from a military family. Both my parents were in the military, and there’s always been for me a sense of pride. My parents have always instilled that. They were never the type to just bark out orders or anything like that, but they instilled a sense of pride in our country as far as what we were able to do, the freedoms that we have. Although I’m not in the military — I’m only in civilian law enforcement — for me, I see law enforcement as a way to give back to my community for others, and to be part of something more than myself.As far as what it means to me to be an American and have these freedoms I’ve been lucky enough to travel abroad several times and to see the differences between what we’re allowed to do and what other people are allowed to do in other countries. It’s tough not to come back to our country and believe that we don’t live in the best country on the planet. The freedoms that we have that people have fought for, that people have died for over the years, it’s been a great thing to give back in some way. Even at a local level, to uphold our freedoms, the rights that we have, to try and make sure that everyone is able to enjoy their lives and to enjoy them in a manner that they see fit without any type of interruption or encroachment by others.  It gradually dawned on me that there is something else out there. There’s always people out there besides yourself that could use some help — a helping hand, some type of assistance. There’s always folks that need help in some way, shape or form. For me, I guess if there is one moment that might define that for me, I understand like a lot of people back on Sept. 11 — I was actually in college at the time. I was old enough to understand that at that point the rules had changed. In a lot of ways the world as we knew it was not going to be the same. I think a lot of people at that time felt somewhat of a sense of helplessness, as if something needs to be done or there’s a greater effort that need contributing to in some way, shape or form. This is my way of doing that — by going into law enforcement and helping in the public safety realm, something that I could contribute without having to go abroad or something like that.

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