On January 9, 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense, providing the intellectual architecture on which the Founding Fathers built the framework for our American experiment in democracy. He wrote of the opportunity found in the bold undertaking that was already in progress and that would be finalized shortly thereafter with the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  In Common Sense’s appendix, Paine summarized the significance of the moment, writing simply that “[w]e have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

Although he wrote nearly 250 years ago, Paine’s words are just as fitting today. This American experiment is ever-evolving. It is constantly in a state of re-building and re-imagining as we seek to live up to the ambitious ideals set forth by the Founding Fathers. For me, the Fourth of July offers an opportunity each year to celebrate how far we’ve come, to confront the barriers that still remain and to recommit to finding solutions that could offer more people the opportunity to achieve their dreams. Your American Dream is different from mine, and each person’s dream continues to evolve throughout their lifetime and from generation to generation. But throughout the history of the country and throughout our lives, the possibility of achieving the American Dream is predicated on the freedom of all people to pursue their own happiness.

This past year has reminded us of the many challenges and obstacles that still stand in the way of our collective dreams. We watched the COVID-19 pandemic pull apart not only our healthcare protections, but also the economic health of many American families. At the same time, we were confronted-- in sharp relief --by the impact of social inequities that have pervaded our society since our country’s founding. By June of last year, Black-owned businesses had declined by 41%  highlighting the gap between financial institutions and the Black community. Throughout the pandemic rates of COVID-19 were markedly higher in communities of color. Disparities in technology and access to the internet heightened the existing inequity in our education system, leaving many poorer students in a precarious place for learning. These are not small challenges. Addressing them requires bold and creative thinking in line with the courageous, entrepreneurial spirit that led the United States to be founded in the first place.  

Conversations with small business owners have left me optimistic about the drive and innovation of people around the country, and almost every week a new initiative is launched to support small businesses. I recently heard from experts in healthcare and medical research, and their insights served as a reminder that although we have a long way to go, there are many brilliant and dedicated minds applying their talent and resources to address health inequities and disparities around the country. I was inspired by the reflections of young people from almost every state in our I, Too, Am the Dream Contest which demonstrated that the next generation stands ready  to lead our nation to its full potential.  

I have always thought that Langston Hughes beautifully characterized this ever-present push of progress in his poem “Let America be America Again.” He writes,

O’ let America be America again-

The land that has never been yet-

And yet must be- the land where every man is free.

The Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream exists to ensure people across America can experience this freedom and have the opportunity to achieve their dreams. This Fourth of July, we celebrate the resilience that we have demonstrated this past year and we look forward to continuing to strive towards the perpetually elusive and inspiring ideal of America.