We’ve had the chance this summer to appreciate the enormous vitality of community life in America, and here’s our conclusion: Whatever is happening in Washington, whoever is leading the country, however deep the rivalries that divide us politically — that is not the whole story of our national experience. And perhaps not even the main one.
At ground level, far away from the capital, America is bursting with generosity and goodwill, with men and women who come together — often voluntarily, without pay — to make life a bit better for their friends and neighbors.
In July, Cokie spoke at a ceremony honoring 10 local institutions for their innovative programming. They ranged from a library in Long Beach, California, that celebrates the language and culture of that city’s large Cambodian population, to a museum in Skokie, Illinois, that educates school children about the horrors of the Holocaust.
Steve followed our grandson’s Little League baseball team through the city championship in Washington (which they won) to the Mid-Atlantic tournament in Bristol, Connecticut (which they lost). At each game, each team was coached by dedicated parents and cheered on by platoons of enthusiastic rooters. Our boys’ caps said “D.C.” on them, not “Dem” or “Rep” — what a refreshing relief.
These stories have been repeated endlessly across the country this summer. Whether folks gathered to cheer double plays or double basses, whether adults taught kids to throw curves or throw pots, the spirit was the same: Americans working for a common goal and a common good. The outpouring of volunteer help in the face of Hurricane Harvey only reinforced our faith in the country’s cooperative spirit.
That spirit is hardly new. In the 1830s, the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the country and famously observed: “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations.” And all this community activity, he concluded, shaped the core of America’s democratic character: “Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America.”
What de Tocqueville saw 180 years ago is still true today. Take the library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which was honored for welcoming immigrants like Hassan Selim. Selim grew up in Egypt, “where Western books were banned,” and said he was never “exposed to the concept of a public library.”
After arriving in Iowa, Selim became a library regular, then a volunteer, and finally a board member. “For Hassan,” said the official award citation, “the library epitomizes everything he values about his adopted country.”
For Fritzie Fritzshall of Buffalo Grove, Illinois, volunteering at the Holocaust Museum in Skokie was a way of keeping “her promise to the 599 women living with her in an Auschwitz labor camp — that if she survived, she would tell their stories.”
Fritzshall, says the award citation, “reflects that while earlier she hated the color yellow because it reminded her of the Yellow Star of David patch she was forced to wear, yellow now reminds her of the many school buses that come to the museum each day.”
Then there’s baseball. The sport has languished for years in the nation’s inner cities, but a group of parents in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington decided to change that. Led by Keith Barnes, a former college player, they formed the Mamie Johnson Little League in 2014, named for one of only three women ever to play in the Negro Leagues.
Many of the players “could hardly swing a bat” when the league started, reported the Washington Post. This year, they formed an all-star team with two other leagues and made it to the D.C. championship game — the first all-black squad to get that far in the 30-year history of the event. Mamie Johnson herself, now 81, attended the game and said proudly of the players: “They’re mine.”
The team’s families came out in force, with signs and cowbells and a big tent. One parent, Stephen Makle, said: “Being unnoticed, and then all of a sudden people notice you, it’s all about that respect. Being visible in the community — your actions have to speak up.”
The team’s actions did speak. They led 6-0 in the final game before losing to the team from the city’s Northwest neighborhood, 7-6. Mamie Johnson League parents “hugged their boys, many of whom held back tears.” Coach Barnes said, “I told them everybody was out there cheering for them, rooting for them. Just keep playing.”
That’s the real America in the summer of 2017. Keep cheering for each other. Keep playing.