A few months ago I had the privilege and opportunity of meeting with several Asian and Asian-American seminary students in the San Francisco Bay Area. I wanted to create a space where they could reflect on their experience with U.S. democracy and consider how resources from our project could support their own lives and vocational interests in ministry.
We began our time together by showing this Practicing Democracy Video to set a foundation for our conversation. Then we reviewed the “Virtues, Values, and Practices Chart.” This was helpful for some of the students who are from different countries and are still learning about the foundations and history of democracy in the United States.
After we set up the basis for our discussion, we tried the “punctuation exercise,” which asks each participant to share their feelings on this day as well as their feelings toward the state of American democracy. This exercise brought up many talking points and led to participants sharing their mixed sentiments toward civic life in this country.
One shared, “The United States is known as the world leader in freedom and equality, and yet still there exist so many problems.” Another added, “While I respect that within the United States, people can protest and express themselves through public demonstrations, there are still so many exceptions to citizens being offered basic rights. One example of this is how African Americans are still being targeted and brutalized by police.” An international student shared another perspective: “I think if you are a U.S. citizen, then the United States values you. But because I am not a citizen, the United States represents imperialism to me. In my experience, the United States is about freedom and justice for their own sake and is primarily self-interested. They will only offer help if they get a large advantage for doing so.” All three of these comments reflect that the U.S. democracy has wonderful ideals in place but a long way to go to seeing them fully lived out and available for all people.
As a group we also reflected on the power of racism toward Asian and Asian Americans within the United States. Many shared the feeling of being invisible and overlooked due to their race. Some shared their experiences of having to work twice as hard just to get the same opportunity as others. Hearing this, I told them about our book study guide on Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer as a possible way to create further conversation.
Finally, I invited our participants to another practice called “Uprooting Racism,” to further reflect on ways in which Asians and Asian Americans have been and are continually affected by racism and even the temptation of anti-blackness. We each verbalized and made commitments on how we would take steps toward racial justice in our own lives and contexts.
Participants were grateful for having had this time to discuss their honest experience as well as learn about many different tools to pursue a more just U.S. democracy. We concluded our time with a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that reminded us of our own need to contribute: “In a free society, all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty. All are responsible.”