The American Dream tells us that freedom is the state of being unburdened and unconstrained by others or systems. It’s about having choices and being able to fully express ourselves. It’s having the power to be who we want, go where we want, and do what we want. But we tend to understand it as an individualistic concept. This is where we have to expand our understanding to fold in what is actually an older understanding of freedom.
In Liberty and Freedom, David Hackett Fischer explains that the word “free” is derived from the Indo-European friya, which means “beloved.” Friend also shares this common root with freedom. A free person was someone who was “joined to a tribe of free people by ties of kinship and rights of belonging.” Freedom was the idea that together we can ensure that we all have the things we need—love, food, shelter, safety. The way I’ve come to understand it, freedom is both an individual and collective endeavor—a multilayered process, not a static state of being. Being free is, in part, achieved through being connected.
Our thinking about accountability has to expand as well. We often think of it as a system of punishment that’s meant to keep us from messing up. And if we mess up, we feel ashamed and feel like apologizing. It’s a responsibility to others. Accountability, as I mean it, is more about ourselves in the context of the collective. It’s seeing the ways we cause hurt or harm as actions that indicate we are not living in alignment with values that recognize our own humanity or the humanity of others. It’s about recognizing when our behavior is out of alignment with our best selves. And as Mia Mingus explained to me, you can’t hold another person accountable. You can support someone’s accountability, but we hold ourselves accountable. Accountability is also about recognizing and accepting that we are necessary and wanted. It’s understanding that when we neglect ourselves, don’t care for ourselves, or are not working to live as our best selves, we are devaluing the time, energy, and care that our loved ones offer us.
This idea of accountability exists in a gray area that asks us to examine what we have control over and what we don’t; what is our responsibility, versus what is our fault; who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. The truth is, we need to discard many of those binaries. One of the many things I learned is that sometimes those ideas are not static. We will benefit from giving ourselves and others the benefit of the doubt as we navigate our understanding of ourselves and of others. We need to reach for grace as we weave in and out of what is me and what is you, and what is us.
We exist, not as wholly singular, autonomous beings, nor completely merged, but in a fluctuating space in between. This idea was expressed beautifully in Desmond Tutu’s explanation of the South African concept of Ubuntu. He said, “It is to say, my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life. We say a person is a person through other persons. It is not I think therefore I am. It says rather: I am human because I belong, I participate, and I share.”
“We The People”
With these words, the drafters of the US Constitution established the idea of a self-governed union—one built and ruled by its residents. But when they wrote “people,” the founders did not actually mean all residents of the United States. They were thinking about people whose class, race, and gender matched their own. But thanks to the people they left out (and a few good accomplices), progress has moved us closer to realizing the aspirational sentiment of their words, instead of being limited by their intentions. It is that—the ability and desire so many of us have to make America better than intended, to improve upon what those who came before us did, planned, or even imagined—that is what we should recognize as the American Dream. Because a dream is an imagined reality, it is about bringing something into existence that wasn’t here before. As James Baldwin wrote, “A country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become.”
We are witnessing a shift right now. A stale version of the American Dream is crumbling, breaking apart, and being discarded as a new version emerges. People are widening the narrow roles they’ve been assigned. Many of us are refusing to feel guilty or shameful for not following convention when it comes to success or building family and community. Many of us are moving through the grief that comes from letting go of the picture we had of what our lives would look like so we can make room for a different, and maybe even better, picture. More of us are creating new (to us) and reimagined models.
These ways of creating relationships, family, and community are, of course, not actually new. What is new is that people who are following unconventional paths are more public, are documenting their experiences, and are able to find one another more easily (thank you, internet).
Part of the essence of this shifting is that connection is not about a particular structure, it’s about values and love and care. It’s about the things that provide what we long for, whatever form that takes. It’s about pulling apart the boundaries of what love and friendship look like, what romantic partnership is and provides, and who counts as family. It’s about finding your people and redefining who “your people” are.
Another world is not just possible, but is emerging all around us. The places that I’ve found the strongest, most expansive, boundary-bending, inclusive examples of family and community are among the people who experience the most adversity and oppression, the people who have always been at the forefront of progress in America. Poor people, queer people, Black people, un-housed people—especially the women and gender-nonconforming people among them—to varying degrees operate outside convention because convention has rejected us. People do not survive racism, xenophobia, gender discrimination, and poverty without developing extraordinary skills, systems, and practices of support. And in doing so, they carve a path for everyone else.
Excerpted from How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community by Mia Birdsong. © 2020. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc
Mia Birdsong is an activist, facilitator, and storyteller. A Senior Fellow of the Economic Security Project, she was also an inaugural Ascend Fellow of The Aspen Institute and New American California Fellow. She was the founding Co-Director of Family Story and Vice President of the Family Independence Initiative. Mia speaks widely at conferences and gatherings across the country. miabirdsong.com.