Redefining American Power

April 22, 2013

One of the most fun parts about traveling, for me, is learning about other nations’ image of the United States. They range from the amusing (nobody uses plastic bags for grocery shopping, only blank brown paper bags) to the alarming (nearly everybody in Texas walks around with a gun in his or her back pocket).

These occasional bits aside, I would say that the bulk of opinions fell into two streams: one about our power and the other about our engagement. In regards to the former subject, we are most assuredly the Land of the Plenty and Powerful. We have multiple televisions in one household. Kids receive hefty weekly allowances. Our president is the most powerful man on earth. Our country does what it wants, wherever it wants, whenever it wants.  In regards to the latter, Americans are dumb. We lack self-awareness and are oblivious to the problems of the world. As a country, we bullishly chase our interests. Individually, we don’t even know a lot about our own country and its government.

The question I heard, pondered in many different ways, sometimes only implied, was the following: how could people with so much power, so many resources, the potential to influence so many individuals, living a country with freedom of the press and freedom to assemble, care so little about what is around them?

One could raise the immediate objections and questions. We may or may not be relatively wealthy; we may or may not be intelligent; we may or may not be politically aware. The answers will vary. I have witnessed a very wide spectrum of political engagement and apathy in our country. The question I find more interesting is not whether we’d agree about how much money we have or how much we know and care about the world, but whether we all really feel that powerful.

My guess is no. My guess is that there are many Americans who witness community and structural problems on a daily basis. Change does not appear to be within grasp. It seems disconnected to their actions and distant from their reach. And this is what troubled me most of all when I was abroad. As people in other countries pointed out to me, the United States is a democracy; our country was created to give every person in it a voice and a means of acting on it.  But how powerful do we feel? Enough to defeat gang violence? Malnutrition? Unemployment?

Well, here is why I am so excited to join Generation Citizen. I am witnessing people putting power back where it belongs—with people. A group of 12th graders work on an internship corps program. Another on food bank donation systems. Another on the implementation of health courses. They are addressing issues that seemed impossibly insurmountable before. That is power.

I look forward to the day when I’m sitting across the coffee table from somebody in Indonesia, or Finland, or Paraguay, and our nation’s actions will have manifested themselves in the world and our image will have aligned itself to that of the country that we have attempted to be since the founding of our state. We may or may not be considered the richest then, or the smartest, but I will agree with them that yes, we are powerful. We are powerful, not speaking as a nation and its status in the world, but as individuals and as citizens who know their real place in society and the agency they carry within them.

~Liza Lopez, Operations Associate

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