Opening remarks delivered by Deepak Bhargava at the Unity in Movement Citizenship Day, September 18, 2009:
Good afternoon, brothers and sisters.
Unity in Movement is a beautiful, joyous sight. We are gathered here today as diverse community members from all parts of this country joined in common purpose to celebrate Citizenship Day and reflect on the meaning of citizenship at this crucial moment in our nation’s history when not just public policy but the values and character of our country are at stake.
I know that many of you, like me, have been shocked and saddened by the anger, the name calling, the racism, and the hate we have seen in recent months – at town hall meetings, in the media, and even in from our elected representatives in Congress. We should remember that the anger and hate we are seeing in the national debate is not new.
American history at its core been a struggle between two visions of citizenship: one that would restrict citizenship to a few – those with enough property, white people, men, and the native-born – one that seeks to expand citizenship to include everyone. Many of us would not be here today were it not for people like Frederick Douglas who fought to abolish slavery and Susan B. Anthony who marched to give women the vote, and in so doing to make our democracy real. Those incredible Americans and millions of everyday people faced opposition and hatred and violence that was even more intense than what we are facing today. We are the ones who carry the torch for those values of inclusion and democracy for this generation of Americans. It is the highest of all calls that we have answered, and no one said it would be easy. We must take heart in the fact that though there are very difficult moments in our journey, as Martin Luther King said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”
For those of us gathered here today, citizenship is not just a piece of paper. It is about the contributions we make in our communities every day to make the lives of our neighbors better. It is about community values of caring and inclusion. It is about our character. As I look around today, I see leaders who embody the values that define citizenship.
• Adán Ramírez, a retired sheep shearer, now lives in senior housing and registered over 100 people to vote in 2008. Just as importantly his community knows to drop off broken bicycles at his house because he rebuilds them for the neighborhood children.
• Tu Thomas Hoang, a graduate student in political science is a member of Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association and volunteers in his community in Louisiana to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
• Charles Yun immigrated to the United States from Korea in 1975, joined the United States Army, and served in the military for 20 years. He has helped many immigrants navigate the immigration system, get health care for their children, and help their families become economically secure.
These are only a few stories of the hundreds I could have chosen to read today. We are Korean and white and Latino and Vietnamese and African American and Native American. We are immigrants and native-born. We are women and men, from the north and south, the east and the west. We are Republicans as well as Democrats. What unites us is a common idea of what it means to be a citizen. The remarkable people here today hold in their hearts and express in their actions every day a generous vision of what citizenship means. Citizenship is about our responsibility to care for one another. It means living with the deep knowledge that our fates are linked, that we cannot succeed or find happiness or fulfillment while our neighbors are suffering. We acknowledge that we rise or fall together as one people.
This community-based vision of citizenship, elevated by President Obama again and again, is once again under attack. Some are bringing guns to town hall meetings to intimidate others. Others engage in hate speech that targets members of our community and incites violence. Many are fanning flames of hate and undermining the civility and respect that are so essential to a democratic society.
What is underneath all this anger and this hate? A vision of society in which we are all on our own and have to fight to protect what little we have because there isn’t enough to go around. It is a vision which says that our neighbor is not only not our responsibility, but she is our enemy. It is a vision grounded in fear, isolation, and yes – grounded in racism.
Brothers and sisters, this is once again a time for choosing in America. Not just between one health care plan over another, but also what kind of country we strive to be. Which vision of citizenship do we embrace? A vision that excludes or one that includes? A vision that says that we are all on our own, in a constant state of war with one another or one that tries to build a beloved community in which each of us has a place of respect and dignity?
This is a time for choosing in America. We are at a crossroads as a nation, and today WE choose the path of justice, community, and love.
Closing remarks delivered by Deepak Bhargava at the Unity in Movement Citizenship Day, September 18, 2009:
Brothers and sisters.
I am moved by what I heard today – the inspiring words of our President, but also YOUR words, the hardship and suffering of our nation’s failure to live up to these ideals.
What I heard is a vision of citizenship that speaks to a vision of our history in which we have come together time and time again as one people to redress the great wrongs of our time to make a more perfect union. We embrace a great moral vision that calls upon us to lift up and embrace those who are oppressed, exploited and suffering. Today, we affirm those values and we make that tradition of collective struggle for justice our own.
What I heard is a vision of citizenship that says that we are NOT a series of competing interest groups clamoring for our piece of the pie at the expense of others. We are NOT individuals who live in our private pain, or in fear of our neighbors. We do not feel better about ourselves by tearing other people down. When we live according to those values, we see the suffering, the pain, and the death that we have heard about that is pervasive in our broken health care system.
We are a FAMILY that cares for each other. WE can cross boundaries that divide and take the leap of moral imagination to understand each other and feel empathy for one another. We will not stand silently by while others are in pain. We will not allow politicians to demonize anyone, and we will hold them accountable to our American values when they try to score cheap political points by attacking the weakest among us.
What does this mean? It means that if we are not an immigrant, justice for immigrants is OUR issue and we will speak up. If we are not poor, justice for the poor is OUR issue and we will speak up. If we live in an urban area, what happens to our rural neighbors is OUR issue and we will speak up. We do this because we recognize that, as Martin Luther King said, we are bound up in a single garment of destiny, and that when injustice affects one directly, it affects all of us indirectly.
The truth, brothers and sisters, is that the vision we have heard today of a beloved community is not a dream. It is not unrealistic. It is not naïve. It is the only possible path forward. Our presence here today renews the true meaning of citizenship, and the work of our hearts, our minds and our hands will give it life. And because of what I see today and what I have heard, I have no doubt that our values and our vision will ultimately triumph.
Thank you very much.
The Choice Before Us: Letters to President Obama is also available in PDF format. Edited and compiled by the Center for Community Change, Northwest Federation of Community
Organizations and National Korean American Service & Education Consortium.