American Dreams for Today’s Dreamers

March 21, 2014
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There is a dream American, and it called and carried my ancestors on ships from the old world to a little Ellis Island just off of Manhattan’s shores. That same dream has spurred millions to immigrate along as many roads with the hope that hard work and fresh opportunity would lead to a better life. Many were right, but for their children’s children, rather than the fulfillment of dreams there are mostly only new questions. For many living here today, unfortunately, the American Dream has been a blatant and coercive lie.

At one point all may have been as hoped, when the remnants of Manifest Destiny, growing room, and untapped natural resources made the illusion of perpetual growth possible. It was reasonable to work oneself through college, get a job with a company that respected you as a worker while offering loyalty and solid benefits, and raise a family knowing that you could give them a little better than you had. That state of affairs and stability, if it ever truly existed, is gone.

Today Americans work more hours for a relatively lower quality of life. The political environment has the people focused on many issues that have little to do with our national welfare and more to do with jockeying for votes via wrangling the discontent of the populous into a frenzy of misdirected energy. Why are we in wars in foreign countries when our own house is in disorder? Why is the government nearly shutting down while our representatives are still getting paid? Why is the idea of reforming the corrupt health care industry even an issue to debate? Why are 5,000,000 Americans unemployed when so many others are raking in money, and our policy makers are building bombs that cost hundreds of thousands each, ending in an explosion of dollars? And then there is the Patriot Act, which can be more aptly titled the Anti-Bill of Rights Act.

We had an American President, GW (cough) Bush say that the way to save the American economy is to buy things and fill up your credit cards. This is said after Wall Street corruption and greed guided us into what some now call the “Great Recession.” This is said when college loan debt has soared to the hundreds of thousands for current graduates; the same students that were told 4 years before by their non-profit, tax exempt universities that tuition costs need to go up so that “the quality of education can be improved” while the truth is more and more cuts are made each year. These are the same young professionals for whom job prospects are at their lowest, and for whom a wake up call of the actual State of the Union has come a little too late.

Opportunities for the elderly and immigrants are diminishing, while the salary of the average CEO has gone up. Our privacy and habeas corpus rights have been compromised, and last I heard the Yankees didn’t even make the playoffs. We have missed the point of America.

It was never about riches and houses and fancy cars for all 8 of one’s children. The true American dream is in the ability to change who we are to be who we want to become, unfettered by limitations of cast or oppression based on race or creed. The time has come for a major perception shift, a great change, and once again engaging that good ol’ American way.

We have more access to knowledge via the digital revolution than any generation before. We have more information at our finger tips than kings and industry giants just 100 years ago. We can send messages back and forth nearly instantly to anyone in the world, at almost any time that we have the inkling to do so. In the same way educational resources have become free or close enough to it with university sponsored websites such as Coursera, edX (MIT, Harvard), TED, Khan Academy, and others.

We know that globalization has its merits, but that the natural environment is suffering to a point that may destroy the biosphere. The power of local economies has been demonstrated over and over again: the kibbutz movement (to some extent), Ithica Hours (local currency), community credit unions, Permaculture agriculture, exchange networks… all of these (and others) have proven to be strong examples of tools for productive, local economies that benefit our regional environments.

What seems to be missing (or have been forgotten) from the current equation is two-fold and easily re-discovered: neighbors and chutzpah.

I hope that this coming generation can be the age of the American neighbor, when trust between peoples living so close to each other can be restored. It is scary that it can feel safer to find a date over the internet than to walk up to someone and strike up a conversation. It is equally scary that I don’t know the names of most of the people on my floor, nor have shared a tea with them and know little about their lives. Yet, it is the people in our closest proximity that can be there fastest if need be, and might have a cup of sugar to share that I need on a rainy day.

This leads to the second need: chutzpah. It will be hard to break away from social norms and expectations to do things a little differently. Maybe this means starting one’s own business or not going right into school, or going abroad for school where it is less expensive, or living at home a little longer, or fixing and re-purposing old clothes, or giving services away for free, or taking care of our own health with diet and exercise as opposed to placing our well-being in the hands of pharmaceutical conglomerates, or, going and saying ‘hi’ to that neighbor you’ve never met but for talking about the weather on your last elevator ride. The beaten path is not working anymore, and has not been for a while. We must take a Great Leap Forward, and blaze a new trail for our society, our families, and ourselves.

Bread and games worked as a means of control Roman politicians because they effectively distracted and captivated an uneducated and angry populous. I venture to assume that we are more intelligent and informed than that. The American Dream has gotten a bit rusty, I hope we can together, with great effort, awareness, and vision, forge a new one.

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Lee Frankel-Goldwater is a professional environmental educator, writer, and social good project developer as well as a recent graduate of NYU's Environmental Conservation Education masters program. Lee has also studied at the Center for Creative Ecology on Kibbutz Lotan, Israel and at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Currently he has been leading development of the Global Action Classroom, an Earth Child Institute initiative focused on global youth environmental cooperation and helping to create the Global Sustainability Fellows, a program of The Sustainability Laboratory seeking to design a new and innovative, international sustainability masters program. Other projects include: developing mobile applications for encouraging social action, mixed media video design, leading peace and environmental education workshops, and doing his best to live a life in connection with the Earth while helping others to do the same. At heart Lee is a poet, traveler, musician, and philosopher with a deep curiosity for new experiences, unfamiliar cultures, learning languages, and often dancing to the beat of a different drummer. As student of yoga, meditation, and spiritual arts, Lee aims to connect the inner journey with the outer one, hoping, as he can, to share what is learned along the way, enjoying the journey.

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