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How do you define the American Dream?

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When interviewing people for the Your Fellow Americans (YFA) project, defining the “American Dream” has been a central theme in our discussions. Sometimes the people we interview are passers-by who pause and give us a moment of their time. Sometimes the people have a full lights-n-camera setup surrounding them and are meeting us for a second or third time.

But since YFA is a documentary web series discussing race, immigration and the American Dream, it’s a question that I’ve asked a lot in the last few months.

Now that the series is launching, our team felt we should turn the tables and try to answer some of these central question ourselves.

So, here goes: I would define the American Dream as having the ability to pursue your dreams.

Done.

But that’s not very helpful, right? That definition is vague, pretty much still undefined and I believe that, because it is so customizable, it becomes confusing. Even though we can choose to go any direction we want in this land of opportunity, we often just set our feet to the paths that already have been cut through these amber waves of grain, trusting that the dreams others have followed have been worthwhile. That they have been attainable. That, if nothing else, we can walk along for a bit and pursue our own path a little ways down the road.

In September, I was asked to present the YFA project at a college and, in tandem, to lead and moderate a student panel discussion around the project’s themes of race, immigration and the American Dream. The insight shared was powerful and insightful. But when we arrived at questions focusing on the American Dream, the students fell quiet.

They said they couldn’t define it. When pressed, they said that the only thing that comes to mind is a white picket fence around a house in the ‘burbs with 2.5 kids. And none of them wanted that.

In fact, many of them said they don’t want the American Dream precisely because they don’t want that house in the ‘burbs, and don’t want that debt and the cars and maybe not the kids. (They themselves are still kids, after all.)

It floored me! When they think of the American Dream, they think of something that they don’t want!

And so I pressed them: “What do you want?”

And one by one, they each talked about wanting to define their own lives. To seek out opportunities and, in doing so, create more opportunities for themselves and others. They want to pursue their own dreams … and to break away from “the American Dream.”

Since then, I’ve heard that again and again when talking with people. More specifically, I hear that very often when talking with people well under the age of 30 who bring up that white-picket fence in the suburbs with a look of distaste. Often, it’s followed by the speaker’s alternative to the American Dream being the pursuit of their personal dreams, desires and ambitions.

So why did these students have such different views? What influence in their lives made them view it that way?

For most of us, our family is the main influence, and I am no exception. Why do I view the American Dream as following your own dreams? Cutting your own path? It probably has something to do with growing up watching my Grandpa Bina and my father farm — the epitome of self-employment. It probably has something to do with the childhood visits to the screen-printing company, with its life-long employees, that my grandpa started in his parents’ garage. It probably has something to do with my dad going to work for a small catering business and seeing behind the scenes of management. These experiences influenced me.

If the students on the panel all come from the suburbs and have only seen their parents work hard to attain and sustain that lifestyle, maybe it’s not surprising that they push back against the idea that that’s the life they’re supposed to try for – that they ought to try for. After all, the American Dream, to me, is being able to choose your path.

So: What is your dream? Are you living the American Dream? Or are you running from it to something else?

How we view the American Dream is influenced by so many factors, and that’s why I’m excited to be working on the Your Fellow Americans series. This project gives the people we interview and the people who watch it an opportunity to think about their own American Dream. It asks them to think about the influence they have on the people around them and to consider what other factors influence the people around them: whether it’s the forces of prejudice or racism, or the challenge of forging a new life in a strange city or country. That’s why YFA is focusing on race and immigration, and asking how those two issues impact people’s view of the American Dream.

Issues of race and immigration are difficult, weighty and painful subjects. By working on this project, we aren’t claiming to be experts or have solutions. So if we’re messing up or missing something, please let us know. The only thing that gives us the right to produce this project is the simple fact that we started asking these questions. While some folks give us the cold-shoulder, many are grateful to be asked. Many are thankful that someone wants to hear their story.

In working on the Your Fellow Americans project, I’m pursuing my own dream of hearing and sharing people’s stories, which means I am pursuing — I want — the American Dream. It all started by asking questions, and I’d encourage you to give it a try. We have a list of questions that we like to ask posted on the project’s homepage. Ask them to others, and let us know your answer:

So, tell us: How do you define the American Dream?

Your Fellow Americans is a documentary web series exploring race, immigration and “the American Dream.” The six-month pilot series joins three generations from six different families as they discuss their American experience around the dinner table. Each family is featured in four videos, with a new video being released online every Monday. The series debuts this coming Monday, Oct. 20, at KCPT’s Hale Center for Journalism. Watch episodes, go behind the scenes and join the conversation at flatlandkc.org/yourfellowamericans.

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