American Strength is in Diversity and Unity
Speech delivered at the Sonoran Science Academy Graduation, May 22, 2021
Thank you, Ms. Watson, for inviting me to speak to you today. And thank you Mr. Karatas, Dr. McFann, Dr. Doyuran, Mr. Yilmaz, and Dr. Francis, administrators, district leaders, faculty, staff, parents and students for all that you have done to make this school a top ranked academic institution and a caring second family. I have truly been blessed to be a part of this amazing community of scholars.
I first learned about the Sonoran Science Academy in April or May of 2001. My husband and I received a post card in the mail announcing an open house for a new charter school focused on a college prep and STEM curriculum. It initially opened to 6th – 8th grades but would eventually expand to include K – 12. My eldest son would be starting 6thgrade in the Fall and he had always been geared towards engineering, so we decided to attend the open house. It was held at a local library, since the school facilities were not yet ready. It was a risk, but we took it and enrolled our son.
That September 11th on the way to dropping him off at school, I heard that an airplane had crashed into one of twin towers in New York City. By the time I reached the school, a second plane had crashed into the second tower. We soon learned that a terrorist group Al Qaeda was to blame. As a result, while some Muslims were targeted with hate crimes around the country, our school community united together in support of each other. Over the weeks we had worked together, we had developed a mutual trust and understanding of one another.
This school was nearly as diverse then, as it is now, with dozens of cultures represented and languages spoken, with at least a half dozen religions practiced. I believe that this is one of our school’s greatest strengths. Later, I enrolled my other two children, started substituting here, and eventually was hired as a history teacher. Over the years, I have taught World, European, United States histories, as well as government and economics. So, it is from these varied perspectives that I speak to you today in this last lecture.
Since there have been human beings on this planet, diversity has been our greatest strength and also our greatest weakness. There are many theories about where and how humans originated. The most commonly held theory states that humans first originated in Africa and then gradually migrated, spreading out across Asia, Europe, over to Pacific Oceania, and eventually arriving in the American continents by several different routes. As humans migrated, settled, and adapted to differing geographies and climates, we developed different religions, world views, technologies, languages, cultures, and appearances. But humans continued to be restless and persisted in migrating. As we moved around, we came into contact with other peoples who were now different from us. Sometimes this resulted in conflict, sometimes in trade and the exchange of ideas, technologies, religions, but always a result was the blending of cultures. We call this process cultural diffusion.
In the 16th and 17th centuries a second great wave of migrations brought Europeans and Africans to the American shores. Again, there were conflicts, trade, sharing of ideas, technologies, religions, and continued cultural diffusion. It was not an easy process, it never is. It is easy to demonize one group over another, or to remove the agencyfrom those we perceive as having lost. But life is always more complicated than this. Whenever two or more groups meet, each side has choices, and each side chooses to act in ways they perceive to be most beneficial to themselves. Seldomly do plans work out as predicted, and always there are benefits and costs to everyone involved. Throughout the intervening years up to the present, people have continued to come to this country, though now also from Asia, Pacific Oceana, and Latin America. The struggle with cultural diffusion continues.
When this country was founded, we created a government based upon what we had learned and experienced. It was built upon the foundation of several documents and associations, such as: the Magna Carta, which first provided rights to the British people and held the king accountable to the same law as everyone else; the Mayflower Compact, which first established a self-government in the colonies; Native American confederations, colonial charters, and ideas of the Enlightenment, which spoke of government based upon a social contract with the people, natural rights, free speech, freedom of religion, and opposition to slavery. Though the governments were not perfect and often did not fully uphold these principals, individuals and groups continued to push for their fulfillment.
The first national government established under the Articles of Confederation celebrated our diversity over our unity, and as a result was weak and ineffective. So, we replaced it with another government established under our current Constitution under the motto E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one.” This document too celebrated our diversity by establishing a system of legislating requiring debate and the weighing of minority opinions to result in compromise. It makes the passage of laws deliberately slow and often times tedious, in order that we are forced to acknowledge our differences and work to unify our goals and purposes through compromise.
When the Constitution was finally ready to be put before the people for ratification, Benjamin Franklin said,
"I doubt … whether any other Convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an Assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another's throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best."
This country has never been perfect, but it has always been willing to look at our flaws and has continually striven to reform itself from the First Great Awakening in the 1740s, through the Second a hundred years later, and continuing on with the Abolitionist, Women’s Suffrage, and Civil Rights Movements. Abigail Adams urged her husband, John, to “remember the ladies” as he set out to sign the Declaration of Independence and to form a new government. We have been struggling to reform our country since well before the Revolution through the Civil War. Former slave, Frederick Douglas said of our Constitution in a speech before the Scottish Anti-Slavery Society in 1860,
“I . . . deny that the Constitution guarantees the right to hold property in man . . . The American Constitution is a written instrument full and complete in itself. No Court in America, no Congress, no President, can add a single word thereto, or take a single word thereto. It is a great national enactment done by the people, and can only be altered, amended, or added to by the people. . . . [As regards the Founders intentions,] It would be the wildest of absurdities, and lead to endless confusion and mischiefs, if, instead of looking to the written paper itself, for its meaning, it were attempted to make us search it out, in the secret motives, and dishonest intentions, of some of the men who took part in writing it. It was what they said that was adopted by the people, not what they were ashamed or afraid to say, and really omitted to say.
“. . . What will the people of America a hundred years hence care about the intentions of the scriveners who wrote the Constitution? These men are already gone from us, and in the course of nature were expected to go from us. They were for a generation, but the Constitution is for ages.”
The fight to free the slaves was not easy. Harriet Tubman said, “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have the one, I would have the other; for no man would take me alive.” Eventually the 13th Amendment was passed freeing the slaves and the Civil War ended. The Civil War cost the country enormously socially, economically, and in terms of human life.
Sojourner Truth said, “Because of them I can now live the dream. I am the seed of the free, and I know it. I intend to bear great fruit.” And she continued to work for more rights for African Americans and for women. Subsequently the 14th and 15th Amendments were also passed granting civil rights to everyone and voting rights to all men of color. Women did not gain the right to vote until the 19th Amendment passed in 1920 and various regions in the country continued to find ways to deny African Americans rights and the vote. So, the Civil Rights Movement continued into the 1950s and 60s.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial said,
“… [E]ven though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”
While it often seems that our diversity has brought weakness, it has brought strength too. It has caused us to grow as a nation. It has raised up people willing to fight for what is right and to strive to rectify the sins of the past. We must always remember that our strength comes not just from diversity, but also in our unity. We need both. Our country would not have survived under the Articles of Confederation, it required more unity. And in unifying, we cannot ignore the rights of those with whom we disagree.
Our first great compromise was the inclusion of the Bill of Rights, which was also designed to protect the rights of all people living in this country. The First Amendment is first for a reason, protecting our most valuable rights, those of freedom to practice our own religions, freedom from a state instituted religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition the government.
George Washington said, “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” Nearly a hundred years later, Abraham Lincoln said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
As long as there are human beings on this planet there will be migrations and resulting conflict and cultural diffusion. We will argue and fight, but hopefully we will also learn from one another and adapt.
Here in this school, as in this country, we have an enormous diversity in ethnicities, race, cultures, religions, and viewpoints. You have had a unique opportunity to mingle with people from various backgrounds and to be challenged in your studies. I hope that in your time here, you have used our diversity to grow by weighing multiple perspectives, to develop a better understanding of one another, and to draw your own conclusions. This develops critical thinking and problem solving, the very things this school was founded upon.
The future of this country depends upon all of us. In the end leaders come and go. It is the people working towards a common purpose, strengthened by diversity, that changes the world. As you leave these walls to move on to college or into the workforce, will you remember the lessons you learned here and the relationships you developed? Will you seek to protect the rights of all people? Will you have the courage to listen to the opinions of others, even if you disagree with them, or will you retreat into safe spaces where you will only hear an echo of your own voice? Will you have the courage to stand up for what is right and to fight for others?
In the heat of revolution Benjamin Franklin said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” And later after the bitterly fought Civil War Abraham Lincoln said,
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
This country continues to struggle with itself to improve our nature. Woodrow Wilson said,
“Liberty does not consist in mere declarations of the rights of men. It consists in the translation of those declarations into definite action.” What role will you play? Will you allow our country to be torn apart or will you work to unite us and to make America what it has been striving to achieve since its founding?
Congratulations on your graduation. You have achieved a milestone in your life. But your journey is not over. The work is just about to begin. For as Sacagawea said, “Don’t go around saying that world owes you a living.”
You will experience many challenges in the years to come. But do not allow them to discourage you. As Harriet Tubman said, “Every dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars and change the world.” And one last piece of advice before I close. Geronimo said, “Wisdom and peace come when you start living the life the creator intended for you.” So go forth from here and change the world.