Zachary Stevenson
Loudoun Valley High School
Purcellville, Virginia
10th Grade
First Place Winner, Virginia

My American Dream: Junior Achievement Essay Competition

In his 2009 essay for Vanity Fair, David Kamp traced the evolution of the American Dream [3] from the pilgrims to the recent economic crisis. He argues that while the basis of the dream remained constant, the manifestation of those basic values did not. It spurred the “rugged individualism of the Wild West” as well as the “sitcom fantasy of [19]50s suburbia”. I have chosen to focus on its less glamorous but equally profound promises. My American Dream is that freedom of expression is respected, that service makes a positive impact, and that all have the opportunity for material comfort. Greater Washington has the potential to realize this dream.

In his work Democracy in America[10], Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that Americans “acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone”, noting Americans’ pride in both their distinct form of governance and unprecedented personal freedoms. Issues pertaining to one of the most fundamental freedoms, speech, have flooded the news in recent weeks. Students at Yale demanded the resignation of a faculty member for her “insensitive” remarks and college campuses around the nation are taking steps to protect students from “offensive” opinions. Apparently some erroneously believed the Bill of Rights to guarantee freedom from, not of, speech. To label opposing views hateful and bigoted may make headlines, but it corrodes the power of reasoned debate. Another right, that of voting, determines whether or not the American Dream is achievable. For years, Eugene Delgaudio, a member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, sparked outcry with his vitriolic rants; among other things, he labeled gay men “child predators” [4]. Activist groups tried to get rid of him, but he continued to be re-elected. Finally, this past September, he was defeated after voters voiced their disapproval through the ballot box. In the 2014 D.C. elections, the number of voters between 25 and 34 jumped 10% from the last election [5], signaling a rise in civic participation among Millennials.

Finally, the right to peacefully assemble is a tenant of the American Dream, and is a topic particularly relevant to Greater Washington. Thursday, April 4, 1968 is a day that casts a long shadow over the city of Washington. On that day, angry mobs unleashed destructive violence [11] in retribution for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, one of the most prolific pacifists the world had ever seen. Contrast this with recent happenings at Georgetown University, where students organized sit-ins to petition the university to rename buildings named after slave owners. Georgetown agreed to rename the buildings; some parts of D.C. never fully recovered from the riots. My American Dream is that if my opinions are thoughtful and peacefully stated, they will be recognized as valid, even by those a different view.

In his landmark book Bowling Alone, Robert W. Putnam diagnosed the problem in what he saw as an unhappy and unhealthy society [1]. He theorized that “[Americans had] become increasingly disconnected from one another” because of their declining participation in community organizations. Participation in local organizations such as church groups, volunteer groups, and book clubs has a personal impact, not just a societal one. Since my eighth grade year, I have been a member of my local library’s teen advisory board, which plans and carries out different events at the library. In monthly planning meetings I have learned the power of collaborative effort and the value of others’ opinions. As I have used my talents in harmony with the skills of others I have discovered that someone else’s genius doesn’t detract from my own abilities. The D.C. area offers a plethora of volunteer opportunities, with Loudoun, Prince George’s, and Fairfax all having organizations dedicated to the cause. The lessons gleaned from volunteering are not always of the moral variety; my visits to a nearby care center taught me the imperfect process of care for the elderly. It pained me to see residents confused or hurt that their families would “put them in a home”, yet many families feel they have no choice. I also glimpsed the disparity between those provided for chiefly by Medicare and those who could afford better. Too often those genuinely committed to activism are dubbed “do-gooders”. My American Dream is that earnest attempts to make a change for good will always be valued, and that civic participation will never be minimized as an antiquated ideal.

The material component of the American Dream is sometimes overstated as the desire for wealth. Yet, as Mr. Kamp points out [3], when the American Dream was first enumerated in James Trunslow’s The Epic of America, “there was never any promise or intimation of extreme success”. It would have been illogical for words written during the Depression to espouse exorbitant living. Instead, I believe Truslow regarded material security as the true essence of the American Dream. He spoke of a hope that a parent could sleep soundly at night knowing their children had beds on which to rest and food to greet them when they got up. Do enough Washington Area families sleep with this assurance? Thirteen of the top 30 richest counties (based on median-income) in the country form a ring around Washington D.C; taken at face value, these statistics would seem to answer in the affirmative. When examined more closely, however, the income gap is “painfully obvious” [8]. According to analysis from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, there was a $463,000 difference between the top five-percent and lowest five-percent of average family incomes in Washington D.C [8]. Additionally, an influx of young workers that has helped revitalize the economy has simultaneously pushed out low-income housing and other resources for the poor. The quality of education around, if not necessarily in, Washington D.C. helps to ameliorate the economically downtrodden. The CAMPUS program in Loudoun County prepares “historically underrepresented students” [2] for the rigors of college, many of them the first generation to pursue higher education.

“But the tigers come at night/With their voices soft as thunder/As they tear your hope apart/And they turn your dream to shame” [5]. These words from “I Dreamed a Dream” illustrate why my American Dream isn’t grand in its wishes. To hope for the realization of basic freedoms isn’t much of a hope at all, it should be a guarantee. However, as the song warns, the beast of reality have sharp claws. To hope that freedom, goodness, and equality will remain steadfast against the very real forces that oppose them is indeed a dream, and an audacious one at that. An emphasis on service, a common desire for justice, and a tradition of individual liberties make the area in and around our nation’s capital a place where the American Dream is very much alive.

Works Cited
1) "About the Book." Bowling Alone. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
2) "CAMPUS." / Program. Loudoun County Public Schools, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
3) Kamp, David. "Rethinking the American Dream." Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair, 31 Mar. 2009. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
4) Laris, Michael. "Defeat of Anti-gay Loudoun Politician Comes with Democratic Board Victories." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 4 Nov. 2015. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
5) "Les Miserables: I Dreamed A Dream Lyrics." Les Miserables: I Dreamed A Dream Lyrics. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
6) Lu, Denise, and Ted Mellnik. "Behind the Numbers: Changing Demographics and D.C. Voter Turnout." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 9 Mar. 2015. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
7) "NCoC: Two Special Generations: The Millennials and the Boomers." NCoC: Two Special Generations: The Millennials and the Boomers. National Conference on Citizenship, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
8) Simpson, Ian. "The Wealth Gap Is Painfully Obvious In Washington D.C." Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 01 Mar. 2014. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
9) Thompson, Derek. "Map: The Astonishing Concentration of High-Income Earners Around Washington, D.C." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 17 Dec. 2013. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
10) Tocqueville, Alexis De, Phillips Bradley, Henry Reeve, and Francis Bowen. Democracy in America. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1945. Print.
11) Willis, Denise Kersten. "People Were Out of Control: Remembering the 1968 Riots." Washingtonian. Washingtonian, 01 Apr. 2008. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.