- - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

My first summer in America was during the country’s bicentennial. I was only 12 years old, but I can still remember going to a July 4th parade with my aunt and uncle. At the time, it was almost too much for a young girl from Panama to understand. But I did know I was witnessing the celebration of something awe-inspiring. And I was aware that my new home was a beacon of freedom for the world.

Nearly 25 years later, I finally became an American citizen. By then, I understood much more than I had all those years before. I knew what it meant for my parents to send their daughters away to the land of opportunity. And I had done my best to make them proud.

At my citizenship ceremony, I spoke about the honor and privilege I felt in becoming an American. The ceremony was held in September 2000, just weeks before a major election. In my speech, I explained why I was so excited about the chance to exercise my rights as a citizen for the first time: “Last year, I decided that it was time to become a citizen. I have issues dear to my heart, particularly education. So, I wanted to vote. This November 7th is the first election of the new decade, new century, new millennium, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

For me, voting would be the truest expression of what it means to be an American. Even as a child, I’d thought about how America stood for freedom: freedom from poverty, freedom to learn, and the freedom to dream. Now I was going to participate in that process and (in my own small way) help spread freedom in the world.

Somewhere between the day I gave my citizenship speech and the writing of this article, our country turned its back on freedom. And it happened so quietly that many of us didn’t realize what had changed until we found ourselves shunned, mocked, sued, marginalized or intimidated into silence by those who disagreed with us.

In recent years, it seems as though the freedom of speech and diversity of thought that we once prided ourselves on has turned into, “freedom of speech for me, but not for thee.”

Good people — ordinary Americans who are trying to live their own dreams — are targeted by bullies who seek to shut them up, run them out of business or otherwise ruin them — just because they hold different political beliefs.

Gone is the idea that there is value to be found in ideological diversity. Instead, we see organizations like CRTX and Susan B. Anthony List (groups that are well within the mainstream of American politics and have no questionable affiliations of any kind) labeled as “hate groups” by leftists seeking to shut down anyone who doesn’t agree with their radical agenda.

I can’t understand what happened to the America that inspired me back when I was a little girl. It wasn’t all that long ago that I contributed my citizenship speech to a compilation of essays about the history of the America’s fight for freedom (in faith, speech, civil rights and more). The following is an excerpt from my essay, “Freedom to Be,” which was published in the book “Freedom” in February 2008.

During our first summer, America celebrated its 200th birthday on July 4, 1976. I remember my aunt and uncle taking us to the parade, which was so spectacular to see. I was in awe. I did not comprehend the meaning of that day until years later. What I now understand is that America was liberated and set free from a monarchy that ruled her. Because she was freed, she now extends freedom to persons from around the world. She opened her arms and received my sister and me 31 years ago, and I showed my gratitude by pledging to become an American citizen on September 22, 2000. I do not take what she offers for granted. Since that day, every time there is an election, I vote. I vote because it is important to keep America free from tyranny and everything else that seeks to destroy what she stands for. Freedom to me is America. She allows you the freedom to be!

In the Forward to the book, Dr. Benjamin Hooks — himself a noted civil rights activist — spoke of how “elated” he was to participate in a book where blacks and whites came together to write about freedom: “This book was written to tell what I believe to be an important story of tearing down walls and breaking down barriers from each contributing author’s perspective. Each come from different backgrounds, each has his or her own unique story to tell, which I am sure you will find inspirational.”

Dr. Hooks meant that there was something valuable to be gained by an enterprise where people were willing to share and accept different points of view in pursuit of greater freedom. The key was knowing we all wanted to make this country better.

If we do not reverse course and begin treating different views with respect and dignity (rather than name-calling and contempt), we will lose the freedom that makes our country great. And that will destroy the dream that is America.

Deborah De Sousa Owens, Ed.D., is Founder and President of Education for All whose mission is to advocate for K-12 students, especially those living in low-income and urban areas. She also leads the education department for the Coalition of African American Pastors. In addition, Dr. Owens is on the staff of the College of Education Department at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada. Dr. Owens is an author, lecturer and education consultant. For more information on Dr. Owens, please e-mail [email protected]

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