Let’s show children what it means to be American and inspire them to honor our democracy.
“Every day, people serve their neighbors and our nation in many different ways, from helping a child learn . . . to defending our freedom overseas. It is in this spirit of dedication to others and to our country that I believe service should be broadly and deeply encouraged.” — John McCain
Belief in our collective mandate to serve others — in the context of our beloved democracy, in our day-to-day lives, and in the pursuit of the American Dream — is in my DNA. It was inserted there by another great American — my father.
Like my brown hair, kind eyes, and Roman nose, thanks to Dad, service runs in my veins as much as any other trait passed down through generations. But it wasn’t that simple. I wasn’t born with it, as I was with a Roman nose. Dad had to work a little harder to pass the trait to me. He didn’t just teach me. He showed me, and it was through all those examples I learned and absorbed what it really meant to be a citizen of this great nation.
My father was passionate about working on behalf of others, and he wore that passion on his sleeve. In his capacity as the President of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, Dad helped teachers navigate the educational system so they could spend more time teaching and less time worrying about red tape. As the Director of Policy in Governor DiPrete’s administration, he helped everyone from people with low incomes, to those with developmental disabilities, to environmentalists, to women seeking equal pay for equal work. As Assistant Director, Education and Training of the Laborers, he helped keep unionized workers safe. As a lobbyist for the United Nurses and Allied Professionals, he helped nurses resolve staffing issues to ensure their safety and to promote their wellness at work.
“People acting together as a group can accomplish things which no individual acting alone could ever hope to bring about.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt
My father also taught me the power of democracy. But he didn’t just teach me. Again, he showed me. He worked tirelessly on campaigns to elect officials to the RI State government, including Julius Michaelson and Denny Roberts and to Congress, including John Chafee, John Kerry, Claiborne Pell, Jack Reed, and Claudine Schneider. He worked on several Presidential campaigns including those for Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter, and Ted Kennedy. Then in his retirement, he became an elected official of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard to, among other things, rally the community to address the affordable housing crisis on the island.
As a young child, I can remember going with my father to campaign headquarters and helping blow up balloons, count and group flyers for the canvassing teams, organize lists for the telephone banks. I also remember, as though it were yesterday, being Dad’s 14-year-old guest at Senator Ted Kennedy’s swanky presidential fundraiser. The energy in the room was visceral and exciting. The people in attendance were united by a common cause. They were purpose-driven and hopeful, and in that moment, my US history lessons took on new meaning.
My father also showed me that anything is possible. He was the youngest of eight in a large Italian family. He grew up in a tenement home in Providence, RI and was the only one of his siblings to attend college. He was a dreamer and a doer, and he was always swinging for the fence. Some of his ventures worked and others didn’t, yet he persisted. Dad believed, and instilled in me the belief, that the American Dream is real.
“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” — James Truslow Adams
As a mother, I demonstrate these values for my children today. I show them that they too can swing for their fences just like my Dad did. I set an example of service. I show them how to value and respect democracy.
Sure, the environment I am raising them in is decidedly more complicated — politically, geopolitically, environmentally, socially, emotionally — than the one in which I grew up. But Dad always showed me that taking action makes a difference — even when it’s challenging.
That is why I was inspired to write What Does It Mean To Be American? I want children to understand the foundation upon which this country is built and the essence of what it means to be American.
I want children to know the value of service to others, the power of democracy, the reward of helping those in need, and to truly believe that anything is possible.
Above all, I want them to know that greatness is best when we achieve it together. Dad was always issue-oriented, which is why he worked on campaigns, and on staff, for both Democrats and Republicans. It was important to me that What Does It Mean To Be American? shows kids that the most powerful parts of being American are the parts we share no matter our political affiliation, so I asked my friend, Elad Yoran, to co-author it with me.
I’m of Italian descent and lean to the left politically. Elad is of Israeli descent and leans to the right politically. We balanced one another’s perspectives. We listened to one another and empathized with the other’s point of view. We were kind to one another and discussed and debated the messages we wanted to convey in a non-partisan manner. It is my hope that when children and their caring adults read the book together, they share that same respect and empathy with one another. Because we can’t teach children what it means to be American through academic lesson. We have to show them, literally, every day.