“Modern nations are principally defined by the stories we tell about our collective selves: our victories and defeats, our heroes and foes; our distinctive values and ways of being, all of which are encoded in the tales we tell and enjoy.”
Will Storr, The Science of Storytelling

Happy 4th of July.

My apologies that this email is coming to you so late in the day. It’s been difficult to draft. To narrow down what I want to say. Because what I feel isn’t just blind patriotism, and it isn’t just outrage.

I am thinking today about how when I began this work, the aversion to fireworks was particular to people who had been exposed to war. It was one of those things that divided Veterans from civilians. Remember the lawn signs? But now, 12 years later, so many Americans have experienced gun violence that the county I live in has been issuing trigger warnings about various fireworks displays for the past week. This isn’t how we planned for this story to go.

I wish I could celebrate this holiday with the enthusiasm of my father and his siblings and cousins, who arrived in the United States as young adults during or just after Bangladesh’s war of independence. Each year on the Fourth of July they’d celebrate being American by gathering at one of their homes, making the roadtrip to or from Michigan, Illinois, Maryland, or New York. Together they would speak in their mix of Bangla and Urdu and English and try to figure out how to barbecue and set off fireworks. We weren’t always welcomed by our neighbors or classmates, but our parents never lost their absolute relief at well-paved roads and a stable government. My father never took for granted the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next. Every single inauguration day, whether his candidate won or not, he stopped to marvel at it. This was the story of America he told himself, and us. It was not untrue.

I love this country. Glaring flaws and all. The way I love my children despite what I may think of their father, the way I love them even when they don’t seem to love me, when they didn’t feed the frogs or put away their things or broke my stuff or told me they hated me. I love this country because I believe it can get better. Because I can’t wait to see what it becomes if we can do the work to help it live up to its potential. Because I believe it is my responsibility to help it get better. In the past few years, these beliefs have been tested. It is hard for me to believe these things, but I do—mostly because I want to. Because it would be devastating not to believe that another story is around the corner for America.

It is our responsibility to tell a different story than the one we’re being told today about ourselves. About how divided America is, about how most people hate each other’s differences. America’s got some skeletons, and they are not staying in the closet, to be sure. But when we hand over the story entirely to those who capitalize on our fear and rage and division, we lose sight of the truth—that most of us (and our neighbors) just want to feel safe. We want to help one another out.

One of the the things I’m proudest of is how CBAW programs are spaces where people from really diverse backgrounds—socioeconomic, racial, political, you name it—come together to be vulnerable. In CBAW spaces people change their own minds, challenge their own stories and beliefs. Take big risks and are rewarded by a community that applauds them for the effort, regardless of whether they think and believe and experienced the same things.

Let us write a story of interdependence, of apology, of acceptance. Let us write the story of a country that stumbled and made mistakes and turned into a place where everyone is really free.

With admiration and respect,

Seema Reza, CEO, Community Building Art Works

Article originally published in the CBAW Newsletter on July 4th, 2023.