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  1. Opinion

Perspective: What unites us as Americans

WASHINGTON POST Retha Fay Goff, 96, of Ocala, Fla., misses working. â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u009CI sit here mostly by myself. I used to be a very busy person. I always had jobs where I worked with people,â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u009D she says, â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u009Cbecause I rose during the Depression. And you have no idea what that was like.â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u009D Her family lost their home, her husband went to war, she went to work in a factory even though she had a little girl. She has toured nearly every state in a motor home. â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u009CI see a lot of hope for America and people that are discouraged. If you canâ\u0080\u009A\u0080\u0099t make it, itâ\u0080\u009A\u0080\u0099s your own fault. You got to work harder.â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u009D
WASHINGTON POST Retha Fay Goff, 96, of Ocala, Fla., misses working. â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u009CI sit here mostly by myself. I used to be a very busy person. I always had jobs where I worked with people,â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u009D she says, â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u009Cbecause I rose during the Depression. And you have no idea what that was like.â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u009D Her family lost their home, her husband went to war, she went to work in a factory even though she had a little girl. She has toured nearly every state in a motor home. â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u009CI see a lot of hope for America and people that are discouraged. If you canâ\u0080\u009A\u0080\u0099t make it, itâ\u0080\u009A\u0080\u0099s your own fault. You got to work harder.â\u0080\u009A\u0080\u009D
Published Jan. 25, 2018

Over the past year, Washington Post photographers set out to explore what unites Americans. What values and beliefs are shared in a country often described as polarized? In 102 conversations, two in each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., we asked people to contemplate what it means to be American in this time of upheaval and rapid change.

Together, their interviews reflect the core beliefs and values that connect Americans to their fellow countrymen and women. And they reveal commonalities and convictions that bridge geography, gender, occupation, race or religion — an indication that perhaps what unites Americans to one another is as powerful as what divides them. There were seven unifying themes reflected most prominently in our collection of American stories. They represent a provocative and surprising atlas of the country's values — one that paints a complex picture of what it means to be American at this moment in history.

For this project, we used the most recent census data to assemble a group of Americans that closely resembles the overall U.S. population in terms of gender, race, age and class. See all the photos and hear snippets of the interviews at http://wapo.st/2DwU4Hp. Here's a sampling of those 102 conversations.

Freedom

We are equals, united by our freedom to say what we want and go where we please. Sixty-four of the 102 we interviewed pointed to the United States as the land of the free and said they believe most Americans hold dear the individual freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights. That fundamental principle of democracy was cited more than any other as a value that unites Americans; 19 people expressed it as the foundational value of the country. Many people in this group brought up freedom of religion and freedom of speech, which, several noted, includes the right to disagree with each other.

Yvette White, 50, of Scottsdale, Ariz., is a body spray painter. "We all want to live a life in peace. A life in comfort, to have opportunities that other countries aren't blessed with. And we want to all be treated with respect."

"There are differences that you know you face as an African-American in America. But overall it has been absolutely free for me."

Community
and empathy

We are united by a capacity for empathy and flourish when we come together to help each other. Fifty-nine of those interviewed brought up this idea. They value a sense of togetherness built from compassion for others and believe most Americans share that notion. Seventeen of those people discussed community and empathy as the traits most essential to the American character. Many recalled a sense of unity in the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and pointed to an outpouring of aid after recent hurricanes. In all parts of the country — from rural towns to big cities — people described a yearning to feel connected. Who was included in their concept of community, however, varied widely.

Andrew Castro, 31, of Hot Springs, Ark., grew up in Los Angeles and moved here to take care of a sick grandmother. A culinary school graduate, he's a chef and a new father. Family is key, he says, and "just putting in everyday work and becoming a part of the community, just everybody thriving on each other."

"I believe that we all can help each other out and that we're all here for the bigger picture," he says. "One person's dream helps the other."

Kevin Hollatz, 52, of Bismarck, N.D., is a horticulturalist and avid reader who has "gone insane in my yard." Married, with two sons, he likes the solitude where he lives. "We're one of the most charitable nations ... but let's just admit, if we did something wrong, that we did it."

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People are instinctively compassionate, he says, "but we all get too caught up in 'my worldview is correct.' "

Faith in the country

We are united by our faith that American democracy is sturdy enough to see us through social and political disruption. Twenty-seven of the people we interviewed expressed confidence in our system of checks and balances on governmental power; thirteen of them said it was the central conviction that Americans share. But the fewest number of people volunteered that they have faith that the founding principles of our government and the rule of law will hold fast. Those who did ranged in age from young adults whose faith has not yet been tested to those who have lived through other eras of upheaval, such as the Vietnam War and the fight against segregation. And people born outside the country pointed out that Americans live relatively safe lives, free of war, displacement and famine.

Retha Fay Goff, 96, of Ocala, misses working. "I sit here mostly by myself. I used to be a very busy person. I always had jobs where I worked with people," she says, "because I rose during the Depression. And you have no idea what that was like." Her family lost their home, her husband went to war, she went to work in a factory even though she had a little girl.

She has toured nearly every state in a motor home. "I see a lot of hope for America and people that are discouraged. If you can't make it, it's your own fault. You got to work harder."

Diversity

We are a nation of immigrants and are united by our pride in that fact. Fifty people talked about the concept of America as a melting pot and beacon of hope. They embrace people's disparate backgrounds and experiences and believe most Americans value that variety. Of the 50 people who talked about America as a melting pot, 11 said the country's diversity is the most important bond between its people — and its chief source of strength. Immigrants, many said, bring an economic and cultural vitality to America that keeps it strong.

James Davis, 33, of Las Vegas, Nev., grew up with no indoor plumbing in rural Maine and moved to Vegas at 16. He has toured the world as a Chippendales dancer and as a competitor in The Amazing Race. His travels to other countries have underscored this country's diversity.

"We have so many different cultures kind of melting together, and it's just inspiring that we function as well as we do. We trip, we fall down, but we always are striving ... always to be, you know, hey, we can do this better."

Camille Walker, 33, of Farmington, Utah, is a former mortgage broker who now blogs for moms. She has four children under 10. "One of the best things about our country is the diversity. I love being part of that ... meeting people of different backgrounds and cultures and faiths."

Many summers, her grandfather took all 21 grandkids on tours of the country in a bus. "He was a big proponent of experiencing different things. We learned a lot about our pioneer history, of LDS Mormon pioneers coming from the Mississippi Eastern America and settling Utah."

Ferial Pearson, 39, of Ralston, Neb., a professor and doctoral candidate in educational leadership, came to the United States at 19 from Kenya and is now a citizen. "In Islam, we believe that we have to donate a certain percentage of our income to people who need it. ... America should be a place where everybody has their basic needs met so they can create the (needed) change in their communities without putting their lives in danger.

"America could be that way if people were willing to put their egos aside and think about other folks as a part of their family, as opposed to this us vs. them rhetoric."

Fear for the future

We are united by our misgivings about the current direction of America. Of the 102 people we interviewed, 15 people raised concerns about their own futures and those of their fellow Americans and said they believed many people share their fears. For 12 of those people, these worries were paramount in their reflections on the country. They said they didn't feel as financially secure as they had or as personally safe. They talked about intolerance and income inequality eroding the promise of the American Dream. Many said that the proliferation of social media has deepened acrimony in an already divided country, speeding up and intensifying often anonymous attacks on different groups of people.

Maryam Elarbi, 25, of Philadelphia, is a writer and recruiter for a nonprofit group. She had a "really fortunate" and "really complicated childhood in that I never felt American enough. ... Should I be more Libyan or more American?"

Now, she sees being an American "as dealing with America for better and worse and owning the pain and suffering that this country is responsible for causing in so many parts of the world. But also acknowledging that I do have certain liberties and freedoms and taking those opportunities to challenge the current power structures in place."

Paul Seyfried, 62, of West Jordan, Utah, a father of four, got involved with self-help civil defense in the '80s and has been building and selling multi-hazard shelters and underground bunkers since 1998. "If we ever lose the grid, it will be a monumental problem for most people."

Being American is "having the choice to determine your own destiny. ... The right to bear arms gives the average citizen the power to say no to a violent criminal or to a government." Current protests and intolerance are coming from outside agitators, he says; "Americans hold certain core values that will survive this awful period that we're going through right now."

Opportunity and drive

We all have a shot at making the life we want, and that unites us. That ideal of the American Dream still has a powerful hold on the imagination. Fifty-eight of those interviewed voiced a conviction that gumption and persistence can bring success. Seventeen of those people talked about opportunity as the most important value that they believe Americans share. You can go a lot farther, by working a lot harder. And by being a lot smarter; education was named by people from all backgrounds and ages as the path to prosperity. But many people noted that opportunity is not equal for all and talked about a need to recognize the barriers that exist and to remove them.

Tina Gregg, 45, of Caryville, Tenn., owns five pawnshops with her husband. She says everyone has the same opportunities; success "depends on your drive." Divisiveness has to end.

"As an American, I have the ability to bring about my hopes and dreams. I'm allowed to open the doors of my business daily. I can walk my daughter into school. I can hold her hand and walk up the stairs to our church to worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and enter without the worry of being killed."

Responsibility to engage

We are united by our obligation to create a more perfect union. America is a continuing experiment that requires civic engagement from everyone. Thirty of those we interviewed introduced a personal responsibility to participate and said that value guided the way they live. Most, including the 13 who spoke most forcefully about this trait, said the only way to secure freedom and opportunity for all is to fight for it. All of them talked about being part of something larger than themselves, whether it was military or volunteer service or political activity, including exercising their right to vote.

Megan Hunt, 31, of Omaha, Neb., is co-founder of a clothing company and a single mom. A sixth-generation Nebraskan, she's running for state Senate. "We have the highest population of refugees in the entire country. I have to do everything in my power to make sure the state is a place where they can put down roots, where they can say, 'I'm an American, I'm accepted by my community, I belong here. And I contribute here.' "

"It's a country founded by dissenters and troublemakers and exiles and refugees, and as a new country, we're still going through some growing pains."

Tom Huntley, 41, of Kodiak, Alaska, is a Coast Guard helicopter pilot who rescues those stranded in treacherous seas. He quit his corporate job after 9/11, "drawn to a patriotic duty especially to help other people. I wanted a career that had more impact and import, I guess, to our country."

His wife urged him to do it and stays home with their two children to support his work.

"Helping each other is I really think what bonds us as Americans ... desire and duty to assist one another when called upon."

© 2018 Washington Post

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