American greatness is not born from the ink on centuries-old documents. The principles we hold so dear, “unalienable human rights” and “all men are created equal” are not valued because their publication coincided with the creation of the United States. Those words are enshrined in the American soul because of the millions of Americans that live and have lived through that lense. American greatness comes from the endless fight for justice and the inexhaustible struggle for freedom. Being a patriot is, as Mark Twain said, “loving your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” Patriotism and belief in America are not owned by whichever party claims them, they are owned by the people.

America’s darkest stains are inextricably linked to its brightest moments. America has been on the wrong side of many chapters of history, from the original sin of slavery to the indiscriminate killing of civilians during the Vietnam War. But as slavery shattered millions of families and took human worth away from even more millions of people, abolitionists fought for their liberty and smuggled them to safety through the Underground Railroad. As Vietnam raged on, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against American involvement in the war and championed human rights. 

The United States of America is exceptional, but we are nowhere near perfect. Many of the same founders who touted “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” turned around and enslaved hundreds. For those who were kept from the promises of our original creed, this declaration of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has acted as a North Star since our founding . While many of the guiding ideals in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence have not been fulfilled, the continued struggle to make them a reality for all is what makes America exceptional. Progress is made one step and one person at a time. But progress is not an ever-forward moving needle. Sometimes, the needle turns back. 

I believe these past several years have starkly demonstrated that fact. Children are dying in concrete cells on the border. The White House refuses to speak out against an autocrat who killed a Washington Post journalist. President Trump stays silent on the detainment of millions of Uighur Muslims in “re-education camps” in China. An entire news broadcast company is at the president’s disposal, acting as the closest thing this country has to state-run media. The needle has undeniably moved in the wrong direction. Still, I believe in America.

Becoming disengaged can be quite easy, sometimes even seemingly beneficial. To be involved is to give up your time. To fight passionately is to suffer painful losses. To wave a white flag would not only be a disservice to ourselves and to future generations, it would demonstrate a complete disregard for the Stonewall Riots, Bloody Sunday, the Dakota Pipeline protests, the Chicano Movement and the Seneca Falls Convention. Apathy is a timidity that we cannot afford to sustain.

If you don’t know where to begin, that can be addressed. If you are passionate about immigrant rights, donate your time and money to RAICES, an organization that offers pro-bono legal services to migrants, assists in citizenship and residency applications as well as DACA renewals. If you think we need gun control, donate to Moms Demand Action, a grassroots organization that advocates for gun control legislation across the nation. For those who see climate change as an existential threat, volunteer with the Sunrise Movement, a nationwide organization led by young people that champions climate change legislation. If you want to focus on change locally, volunteer with MOVE Texas, a statewide organization that works to lift the voices of young people across the state and push for policies that support young, underrepresented and impoverished Texans. 

The United States has not always been a shining light of justice, freedom and equality. However, throughout every single era of American history there have been people in this country that have given their sweat, tears and even their lives to furthering those principles. Those people embody American greatness, and it is because of those people, not ancient documents or an ignorance of our nation’s sins, that I still believe in America.

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