What does it mean to be American?
Jessica Lander posed the question to the students at majority minority Lowell High School taking her seminar on American diversity last year. The answer, she warned, has been debated from the nation’s beginning and will likely persist as long as it remains.
Undaunted, students in the fall and spring semesters grappled with it and studied the history of equity in the U.S. before devising responses — 55 personal narratives collected in two volumes titled “We Are America” and “We Are America Too.”
The essays are deeply intimate, raw, and moving — covering a wide range of experiences from immigrating to the U.S., finding a sense of belonging and self-acceptance, losing loved ones, starting friendships, and overcoming adversity.
Lander Ed.M ’15 and her students — many of whom have graduated and are now in college — are now using the books to jump into the national conversation on American identity.
During the 2019-20 school year, Lander and 18 of her students are working with 36 teachers in 23 states to help more than 1,300 students weigh in on the topic with their own stories. These will likewise be published in books at the end of the school year (one for each school participating) and posted in audio form on the We Are America Project website.
The goal is to promote conversations about identity and belonging among some of the nation’s newest citizens, at a time when many of their issues sit squarely atop major fault lines in the deep riven nation. Lander and her students hope the stories will also build empathy among readers who encounter them.
“This is an essential conversation we need to have,” said Lander, who along with being a social studies and civics teacher at Lowell High is also a published author currently on sabbatical to work on her third nonfiction book. “Being American looks very different than it did 100 years ago and very different from what it looked 100 years before that.” Because of that fluidity, “it’s something every generation gets to redefine and who better to redefine it for this generation than the young people who are the future of America?”
It’s why Lander said she assigned the original project in the first place. She wanted her students to study their own personal histories and put them in context with what they were learning in the course analyzing key laws on equity, studying landmark Supreme Court cases, and looking at social rights movements throughout U.S. history, along with the advocates who led them.
“American history is made up of all these individual stories — these individual histories,” Lander said. “To really understand American history, to understand American diversity we have to also look at and study all these individual strands.”
Some of her students’ stories were about a single moment, such as dealing with racism for the first time or a conversation with a sibling that deeply affected them. Other stories spanned a young life, such as Diane Chikulu’s story of being born in a Zambian refugee camp — where she lived until she was 17 — and coming to the U.S., receiving her green card in 2017, and finally gaining a sense of belonging.