I was 2 years old when the United States was attacked on 9/11. I was 10 years old when my family was shaken by the 2008 financial crash. I was 18 years old when I witnessed one of the most tumultuous presidential election cycles in American history. And as I graduate from college, the world is battling a pandemic, and I am entering one of the worst economies in recent memory.
Just when we thought that the state of our union could not get any worse, centuries of racial wounds have been ripped open as peaceful and violent protests spread throughout the country to express the frustration, anger, and sadness of millions of African Americans.
For most young people my age, our lives have been marked by political tumult, economic pain, and conflict. A broken democracy is our “normal.” If you are 21 years old, your lived history of the United States is one of significant setbacks, not transformative progress. The world seems to be far from the ideal that the history books have preached about and that our leaders speak of.
For some of us, it is worse than others, much worse. I am fortunate in that I had a stable childhood, a family that helped me get through college, and the opportunity to attend an elite educational institution. Nevertheless, privileged or not privileged, conservative or liberal, there has been one constant in a long period of instability: the necessity and desire for positive, unified, and lasting change.
As a young person, it is difficult to engage when democracy seems broken. It is frustrating to hear about hope and optimism when most people my age have seen a world stricken by despair and pessimism. And sadly, it is difficult to fathom that America is indeed the greatest country in the world.
Clearly, problems of inequity and injustice, which have been brought to the forefront through the killing of George Floyd and the protests that have followed, are rooted in historic trauma. The economic pain that Americans of all races and political parties feel is widespread and structural. The tragedy and losses of war are long-lasting and will always affect our veterans and their families.
While these problems have defined the past and continue to affect the present, we choose how they will shape tomorrow. After all, has that not always been the story of America? A constant push and pull? An ongoing struggle where we always have the choice to strive for a better future?
This country is unique in that it was founded on a set of beliefs: equality, liberty, opportunity.
These concepts were etched into the Declaration of Independence by our Founders, and they have served as the rallying cry for those who have come before us seeking a more prosperous and just country. And while these ideals have not always represented the lives of many Americans, they provide us with a sense of direction and purpose.
America has always been an idea, an aspiration for those seeking equality, liberty, and opportunity. And that is especially true today. Despite the current reality of pain, pessimism, and powerlessness, we as a people are being confronted once again with a choice. A choice that will determine both the direction of America and what can be achieved by all those who call this country home.
The 20th century began with World War I, the 1918 Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, and World War II. Subsequently, it was shaped by the Cold War, a civil rights movement that fought Jim Crow, various conventional wars, and structural instability. And yet, everyday Americans found their sense of purpose and persevered to overcome conflict and division in search of community and progress.
We have the opportunity to listen and to understand the pain and struggles of our fellow Americans, to move past our political affiliations in search of common purpose. We have the choice to empathize with those of different backgrounds, races, and ethnicities, to build coalitions that facilitate real and unified change. We have an opportunity to embrace the story of America.
As a young person aspiring for a more unified and fair country, this is not the time for hopelessness. Rather, it’s an opportunity to contextualize the current moment and use it as a reason to engage, to reaffirm our faith in the American story. The protests over systemic racial injustice represent another chapter in our nation’s story, a story that has always echoed the calls for change and highlighted the struggles for progress.
I still believe in America because these protests are part of the American identity. They are an attempt to address the problems that are holding our country back. Whether you agree or disagree with the message of these protests, we can agree on one fact: What makes America great is the ability for people to peacefully petition their government to be better. And in a democracy, the only way to translate aspirations into law is to vote in elections at all levels of our government. After all, has this not always been the story of America?
Manu Meel is a new graduate of the University of California-Berkeley and the CEO of BridgeUSA, a national student organization encouraging civic engagement and constructive dialogue, which has chapters on several dozen college campuses.