Be Careful What You Wish For
To power a better tomorrow, it’s never been more important to harness lessons from the past. History has been unevenly written and unevenly shared, but even if we never arrive at a singular “truth” or telling of our story, it is our aim to do better, to make the tent bigger, to understand a more multifaceted perspective. Made By Us is a beacon, a collective effort and guiding force that provides historical context and perspective to inspire action. We use our Medium presence as a forum for exposing more of our process, our perspectives, and the people doing the day-to-day work behind our projects.
What can we learn from our history to power our future?
When we set out to create My Wish For U.S. as a forum for inviting more people to share visions for the future of the United States, we knew a few things would be true: we needed to find ways to welcome diverse voices; people would share wishes that conflicted with one another; and the wishes that were shared would reflect our current moment.
Because Made By Us is grounded in sharing history as a tool for younger generations to use today, we recognized early on that these patterns are anchored in history.
Americans have always had hopes and dreams that conflict with one another. Some people have been excluded and oppressed from voicing their “wishes” in the past, or they’ve been ignored, or have kept quiet. (We specifically aim to counter that). And, while our wishes for the future may seem to arise exclusively from our current circumstances, they are almost always a product of how our past echoes in the present.
So, inviting the American people to envision our shared future requires shedding light on our shared past. Our coalition of 65+ partner organizations dug through their archives, scoured oral histories, and examined their collections to find “wishes” for the future — from history.
And that’s where things got interesting.
Be careful what you wish for
Our mission has been to welcome more voices into the choir through My Wish For U.S. — but what happens when someone sings in a different key or wants to sing a different song altogether?
Disagreement and debate are core to American history — sometimes through dialogue and sometimes through destruction. The United States today is the result of many voices clashing, often unequally, and the evidence from U.S. history demonstrates that the path ahead is not inevitable or straightforward.
For example, the debate between business and construction versus environmental concerns or the displacement of people is not new.
In the early 1890s, Julia Tuttle traveled to swampy South Florida, which was very sparsely inhabited. She immediately had a vision for turning it into a metropolis — and with great persistence, she convinced the steel magnate Henry Flagler to build a railroad to this part of the country, leading to buildings, businesses and commerce. As our friends at HistoryMiami Museum shared with us, she’s known as the “Mother of Miami.” But while her vision led to more jobs and neighborhoods, what might have been sacrificed in realizing this vision? What about those who wished to preserve the wilderness and protect nature? What if indigenous communities might have returned to this land, were it not for the rapid development of the region?
Many of us today see technology as a double-edged sword. In this wish from the National Museum of American History, we hear from a former Governor of Illinois, John M. Palmer, who in 1873 gathered with some of the earliest white settlers there, who were getting older. Palmer was not afraid of change or progress, having worked to end slavery in Kentucky, yet he voiced concerns around technology as threat to privacy and individualism: “We can scarce conceive the progress of the next fifty years. But I do not wish to see it. I do not wish to be trampled upon by the rapidly advancing strides of civilization.”
Some “wishes” expose conflicts over human rights, something far from unique to our United States history. In 1879, Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, known to European Americans as Chief Joseph, gave a speech in Washington, D.C. after his people had been forcibly displaced from Oregon onto a reservation in Idaho. He decried not only his people’s treatment, but the range of violence and oppression Native Americans had experienced over the centuries at the hand of Euro-American settlers and their government. He opened with a simple yet stinging plea for a better future, a wish or advice to the generations to come as much as his own:
In 1869, this wish for the right to vote from Charlotte Rollin shared by the New York Historical Society might have been considered extremely idealistic, if not also controversial. Despite the “all men are created equal” phrase written into the Declaration of Independence, in 1869 we had not lived up to those ideals — nor had we even 100 years later, when Texas Senator and civil rights leader Barbara Jordan wished for “an America as good as its promise.” (And maybe not even today — take it from 16-year-old Danielle, and many others).
Certainly, some people in Rollins’ time “wished” for suffragists to give up the fight, believing it was wrong. That kind of ideological conflict is common throughout our history. But Rollins, and other advocates, worked through it, winning over more people to the cause and taking sustained action by many people over time to legalize and normalize women’s right to vote.
Even though sharing your vision is the first step, it doesn’t stop there — it’s also important to consider how the future you seek might affect others and to keep others’ stories in mind as you explore their wishes. When you share your wish, we also ask why this is important to you and what we can learn from your story. That’s a way to surface the history that each of us brings to the table, how we got here and what it’s going to take to realize change.
Who are we missing?
When you explore some of the historical wishes on My Wish For U.S., you will see a lot of politicians and presidents, leaders of movements and authors. Even though we’ve curated a pretty diverse set of voices from the past, there’s an obvious bias towards public figures. Why? Because that’s whose words have been recorded and preserved most. Recent decades have seen a shift towards capturing everyday life (just see our map of over 400 institutions collecting your COVID-19 stories!) But for most of history, many people’s visions for the nation’s future were overlooked, let alone preserved in museums and archives.
Even today, many of our formal channels of influence — voting, legislation, holding public office, a blue check-mark on Twitter — are limited. My Wish For U.S. seeks to open the door wider for participation, making space for anyone who cares about the future of the United States to play a role in envisioning and articulating the path forward (within our Code of Conduct, thanks very much).
Only including the fullest range of voices today and the fullest range of evidence from our past will allow us to channel resources, support, and education toward a future where everyone can equally join our democratic experiment.
As you’re exploring wishes, whether from the past or present, keeping an eye to who we’re not hearing from is important. If you know an organization who has preserved the histories of groups you don’t see represented, please put them in touch. And if you want to hear from others, invite them by sharing on social media or tweeting wishes to your local representatives right from the platform!
The onward march
Weaving the future of our country from our varied wishes is part of the work that goes into sustaining and improving our nation. It is a civic duty to sing our part in the choir — and to hear the different voices that are singing around us. And when we’re not in harmony, it’s an opportunity to explore the history that shapes us, the power structures that define us, and the work left to do to get to the future we envision.
By sharing your vision, you’re part of the story. It starts with a wish — what’s yours?