Friday, March 25, 2011

California Dreamin'

Alice Liou, '13

After many indescribably wonderful days of service across the city of San Francisco, I’ve been compelled to think deeply about the state of the American dream. Throughout my academic experience, the concept of the “American dream” has been a vision surrounded by profits and incentives-- individual economic improvement, if you will-- and the ability to pursue a comfortable life of independence and liberty (white picket fence optional). Domestic government and the American public mind love nothing more than “choice” and wealth, and because my conception of the state of the union has been distinctly classified in this way, I’ve run into a couple challenges in the past week surrounding the issue of homelessness: what does it mean to be homeless, to lack social and economic security to the point where I wouldn’t even be offered the option to view the American menu of choice? What happens when there are no public officials representing my preferences, or if I didn’t have the capability to partake in the political process? On a simpler, human level, what if I just weren’t considered by the vast majority as a contributing (and consequently “legitimate”) member of civil society, and fear crippled others’ willingness to understand me?

Perhaps the American dream is, or at least I hope it will someday be conceived as, a communal and moral affair. The American dream can be about all of us, rather than just about “me” and “my” pursuit of personal success. While I’m aware that these are not mutually exclusive, after working with Zaytuna, the urban garden, Glide, Larkin, and Hamilton, I've realized that promise for the future is clear amidst the compassion and selflessness that these organizations embody.
Hopeful sectors of American society that care for the well-being of the whole, rather than their individual stakes in the collective good, exist... and their increased prevalence is more than possible. I’m grateful that this trip has given me the opportunity to work with so many individuals who have devoted their careers to community service, and thankful to have learned from those individuals that service takes on different shapes, forms, and degrees of involvement. I’m also grateful that such a lesson applies to more than just the issue of homelessness, and that if I can expand the communal attitude I’ve seen here over the past week and a half (if I and others prioritize advancement of all before advancement of self), challenges we currently face in public education, environmental justice, and healthcare (just to name a few) can also be effectively addressed.

I’ve also been thinking about this idea in relation to faith, as first brought up during Friday prayer service at UC Berkeley: what does it mean for humanity if we spiritually accept that all human beings are grafted from the same soul? Intellectually this may not be an easy-to-swallow statement, but our faiths (in God, gods, humanity, etc.) have the capacity to influence our conceptions of morality and, consequently, our sociopolitical behavior. It seems to me that faith enhances human connections in this way, in a way that encourages individuals to help their fellow human being; belief in a communal origin or some collective good prompts us (or at least is a reminder) to think of service, justice, and other human beings on a consistent basis. I hope someday faith, ethics, and collective advancement are the ideas that overwhelmingly define the American dream, and that the abstract ideal associated with the American future is one of compassionate duty towards one another.

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