A Monitor reader on a mission

Is America is a political prize to be fought over? Or rather, is America an idea to be fought for? Lucy Harper asks Americans to consider the latter.

Sue Ellen Coughtry/Bankside Repertory Theatre Company/Principia College
Bankside Repertory Theatre company members rehearse J.C. Steele’s newest play “We.The.People.” at the Davis Theatre at Principia College.

For seven years, Lucy Harper has been trying to get Americans to think about their country differently. She has taught classes and led workshops from Florida to Illinois, all to instill the conviction that America is not a political prize to be fought over, but an idea to be fought for.

Recently, it has felt like an uphill battle. So this June, she and her colleagues are going to try something different. They’re going to make their case through a play.

Ms. Harper is a Monitor reader, and I occasionally like to take this space to highlight the things our subscribers are doing to support their communities and to heal the rifts in their nations and in the broader world. I talked with Ms. Harper recently about the work she’s been doing and what she thinks needs to change.

Her most recent journey began in 2015 when she became part of the Idea of America Network. The organization’s goal is to create a network of Americans who can help their communities look at the country through the lens of values.

“When you talk about values and America, everyone knows life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” says Ms. Harper, referencing the Declaration of Independence. But the values that really drive the United States are all about balance, she argues. Freedom and equality, law and ethics, common wealth and private wealth, unity and diversity. How citizens find the balance between these essential but conflicting values determines the nation’s character and direction.

It’s that last set of values – unity and diversity – that is under the most strain today, she says. Since joining the Idea of America Network, she and her husband have taught a class on this vision of America at the University of Miami’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. But she notices that, these days, there is also a current events class with a conservative bent and one with a liberal bent. “It didn’t used to be that way,” she says.

That’s partly the inspiration for the play – to find a new way to break through what have become entrenched ideological lines. The general idea is that a quirk at an imaginary “Hall of Legends” allows some of the most renowned thinkers in American history – from Thomas Jefferson to Elizabeth Cady Stanton – to come together and debate what makes America special. Parts of the show are interactive, aiming to educate as much as entertain, and reaching out to people of all political stripes.

The play opens the first weekend in June at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, with plans to move to the University of California, Berkeley in the fall. The hope is that more colleges will follow.

America is not a birthright nation – founded not for any religion or race, but on the values we share, she says. “It’s about seeing this as a country of good people,” she adds. “There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, but we jolly well better see [the good in] people, ... giving people the room to grow – including ourselves.”

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