As President Obama's words rang out from Capitol Hill into my family room, as the camera panned over the thousands bearing witness to his second inaugural address, I found myself moved.
By the significance of the tradition, its symbolism and shout to the world that regardless of who was elected, this transition from one presidential term to another would be a peaceful one.
By words that spoke of equality for all.
And by faces that seemed at once jubilant and expectant. “We, the people …,” President Obama repeated throughout. “We, the people …”
But as I watched and listened, enveloped in the moment's oneness, a question slipped in: Do we all feel as if we are the people?
Those three words have become a mantra of what America represents, taken from the document this country was built on: “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
It is a lofty ideal that at times has been shoved into the shadows by such abuses as slavery and inequality of rights because of gender, race and religion. That we have amended some of those wrongs is an inspiring tribute to our foundation. But we are, most definitely, a work still in progress.
“`We, the people' is our vision for America,” says Amy Montague, a social studies teacher for 15 years whose passion for history lights her eyes and fills her voice. “`We, the people' is what we are always aspiring to be.”
Empowered toward unity. Even when it is difficult to achieve.
Stephanie Noll is a social worker for Mi Casa Resource Center, which serves the underemployed and unemployed in the Denver area. She works daily with women and men struggling to overcome financial, educational and other challenges in their pursuit of stability.
“When people don't have access to be able to meet their basic needs,” she says, “they don't feel included as the `we' who are taken care of in society.”
Something as simple as language can exclude people from the circle, says Alejandra Harguth, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Mexico who works with immigrants in Littleton. “Just because you were born somewhere else doesn't mean you are different from the person next to you” in terms of human value.
Moe Keller, a Democrat who championed mental health, child care and developmentally disabled issues during her years in the Colorado House and Senate, believes that, overall, the country's “general welfare” isn't being promoted as the Constitution asks.
“We need to invest and believe in ourselves. I don't think we do that right now,” says Keller, who taught special education for 25 years and remains active in the mental health arena. “Even at the federal level, we don't,” referring to the legislative fight over Hurricane Sandy disaster relief and other political challenges to civic and social programs.
“I believe in economic patriotism,” she says. “We have an obligation and a duty to pay taxes because democracy is not free. Taxes are not evil. They are what keeps us going as a country.”
To Bob Beauprez, a buffalo rancher and former Republican congressman who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006, President Obama's “we, the people” means “we, the government.”
John F. Kennedy had it right, Beauprez says, when he proclaimed in his inaugural address, “`Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.' It's bigger than us. The cause is bigger than us.”
But the elemental essence of “we, the people” as an instrument of cohesion and change gives us the tools — despite differing philosophical views on government — to work toward that dream of unity.
The teacher, the social worker, the politician and the community activist see evidence of it every day.
Steve Burkholder, a former mayor of Lakewood, talks about the sales tax increase of 2005 that led to the building of a new mall and increased revenue during tough financial times.
The city asked its residents, “What type of city do you want?” Burkholder remembers. “We can give you this type of city at 2 percent sales tax or we can give you this type of city at 3 percent sales tax. This is your choice. We had this dialogue about it and we talked about it and we tore down their favorite mall …. The citizens were a part of it. That was `we, the people.' ”
He talks about the importance of establishing inclusivity across all areas, from ethnicity to gender to income level, and excitedly mentions an early intervention educational program that will soon begin in the city. “We have this opportunity to make a major difference.”
That kind of empowerment of others, he says, is “we, the people.”
Keller highlights community service organizations such as Optimist, Rotary and Kiwanis, which regularly provide scholarships to young people for higher education. One, in particular, recognizes students who have stayed in school despite great adversity.
“They want these people to be successful,” Keller says. “This is `we, the people.' ”
Beauprez, although saying he doesn't agree with all its tenets, points to the Tea Party movement.
“The people were saying loud and clear, `Something's really screwed up here … and we have to get off our couches and do something about it,” he says. “That kind of citizen action … it's an extremely healthy `we, the people' kind of statement.”
Noll, the social worker, isn't sure those who are marginalized ever fully feel included in society as a whole. But the success of her program's participants — representing such a broad diversity — gives her hope.
“There is a sense of empowerment in that process,” she acknowledges. “People do regain a sense of belonging.”
Amy Montague, the teacher, looks to history for reaffirmation.
If it's read just right, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation can still move her to tears. The power of the words and the foresight and courage it took to write and deliver them take her back to the nation's roots and remind her of its strength.
“People have to remember where we came from and that we can get through whatever is happening,” she says. “We can, as a people, make it.”
Our founding fathers believed we could. I do, too.
We just can't ever forget the “we.”
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4110.