What Makes America Great?

Posted on in On Our Radar by Laurie Marshall

The Art of Curiosity and
the Dance with Diversity


What makes America great? This question has been permeating my consciousness since the 2016 presidential election. I go to sleep thinking about it. I lie in bed thinking about how young an idea democracy is on our planet. I think about how for 3.2 million years humans knew about 170 people in their entire life and anyone who was not in that 170 could be dangerous. We are so deeply wired for “stranger danger” that a country founded on the vision of “liberty and justice for all” flies in the face of what many consider to be human nature. An Italian woman once told me that we Americans were crazy to think that so many tribes could be united in one country. Hitler boasted he could win against the “mongrel nation,” yet our holy experiment to include all tribes gave us clarity of purpose and strength in unity that defeated him. Our “mongrelness” is what makes us great. Yes, we aren’t doing democracy very well. It’s messy. Yet I have a lot of compassion for what an extraordinarily difficult task our country asks of us.

Along with our hard-wiring to be suspicious of those who are different from us, we also have hard-wiring for curiosity. Our country was founded on the self-evident truth that all people are created equal. Every time we exercise our curiosity and our creativity, we rewire away from racism and toward inclusivity and collective problem-solving.

At my birthday gathering last November, 22-year-old Robbie Powellson of Corte Madera suggested making a collaborative mural about this question, bringing together people from different points of view. Working with Create Peace Project (CreatePeaceProject.org), a nonprofit dedicated to peace building through art by youth, we have set about to explore what makes America great. We pulled together a design team made up of Hispanics, African Americans, Caucasians, Native Americans, youth, elders, males, females, liberals, and conservatives living in Marin County. Through deep dialogue about what makes America great, we are co-creating an eight-foot-square background painting on wood that will be added to throughout the summer. Making something with our hands that expresses our hearts and minds has been inspiring.

Statue of Liberty

We began the process by honoring the ancestors who brought us to the United States. We found that we came from Ireland, Russia, Bulgaria, Poland, Mexico, England, Germany, unknown African countries, and Spain. The figures holding up the earth at the bottom of the image are our ancestors whose shoulders we stand on. We also honored the Miwok tribe whose land we occupy, using a basket motif that communicates community at the base of the earth. We then made drawings and wrote statements about what we think makes our country great:

“What makes our country great is the way we keep to the rights that made it great in the first place, especially the Bill of Rights.” —Andrew, 18

“What makes our country great is that all these people from all over the world came from stressful circumstances and we’re just trying to figure things out together.” —Lili, 22

“The incredible land we are blessed with is the root of our greatness.”
—Laurie, 67

“Personal and collective creativity, learning to change and grow, and challenging the status quo so we can evolve.” —Robert, 65

“What makes our country great is the diversity of it and the never-ending fight for equality.” —Deborah, 16

“What makes America great is our freedom to express ourselves, to be any religion, to be any political party, to start a business, to move and travel.”
—Maria, 60

“What makes America great are the people.” —Alice from Finland, 43

“What makes America great is freedom of expression.” —Victor, 77

“What makes America great is that we have the opportunity to pursue our dreams.” —Emma, 19

The mural will be taken to five locations in Marin for potluck dinners, hosted conversations, and art-making. All participants are invited to bring food from their heritage and add their unique vision of our country’s greatness onto paper cut into the shapes of leaves, flags, and stars, which will be glued to the background wooden painting.

Here are the times and places for the free opportunity to build community and explore the mystery of the United States’ greatness:

Friday, July 28, 5:30–8:30 p.m., Margarita C. Johnson Senior Center, 640 Drake Ave., Marin City

Friday, Aug. 4, 5:30–8:30 p.m., Mill Valley Community Center, Mountain Room, 180 Camino Alto, Mill Valley

Friday, Aug. 11, 5:30–8:30 p.m., Corte Madera Town Center Community Room, 770 Tamalpais Drive, Corte Madera

Friday, Aug. 18, 5:30–8:30 p.m., YMCA Youth Court Office, 734 A St., San Rafael

Friday, Aug. 25, 5:30–8:30 p.m., Hill Community Room, 1560 Hill Road, Novato

Thursday, Sept. 21, a final exhibition at a location to be determined to celebrate International Day of Peace.

A film is being made about the project to add to the positive conversation about how to increase our country’s greatness and to multiply the positive connections between people of differing worldviews.

What makes our country great is the vision that individual responsibility and initiative can make a difference. Please join us.

Laurie Marshall is a Novato-based educator, author, leadership trainer, and artist who is dedicated to partnering the genius of youth to heal the world. She is a lead artist for Create Peace Project (CreatePeaceProject.org) and founder of the collaborative mural Singing Tree Project (SingingTreeProject.org).

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