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Column

GUEST COLUMN_A-meritocracy the beautiful: An American dream come true would be one without privilege

David Hellmich
David Hellmich

I replaced my American flag yesterday. It had become worn to the point of tearing, leaving a small section that repeatedly wrapped itself around the flagpole. I carefully lowered the old flag and stored it with other weathered flags, attached the bright new flag, and gazed at it with pride.

My deep feelings of pride in the American flag date back to my childhood, saying the pledge of allegiance in grade school and seeing the flag at half-staff when a local soldier and family friend, Pat Shutters, was killed in Vietnam. I cheered with pride when the flag was raised for American Olympians Mark Spitz, the “Miracle on Ice” hockey team, and Mary Lou Retton. I watched the television in awe as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the American flag on the moon.

Even though this pride was tested as I learned about our country’s many historical transgressions (slavery and Jim Crow, the genocide of Native Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans, and the toppling of foreign governments, to name a few), it was sustained by my faith in the American Dream of success – anyone and everyone can use his or her hard work and talent to be successful in America.

In other words, I take pride in the dream of America as a meritocracy.

I know it is not as simple as that. I know privilege is real in America even though it should have no place in a meritocracy. Privilege must play a role when the richest 1% of Americans own 35% of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 80% own only 14%. Privilege must play a significant role when America has a greater disparity of wealth between rich and poor than any other major developed nation.

Privilege is an assault on meritocracy; it is an assault on the American Dream of success.

I am not so naïve as to believe privilege will abate any time soon, but I am hopeful enough to have a think globally, act locally partial solution.

The toxin at the heart of privilege is the belief that people like us (people who look like us, talk like us, live like us, love like us, and pray like us) are better and more deserving than people not like us. Instead of a meritocracy, we find ourselves with a mirror-tocracy of assuming people like us (people who mirror us) have more merit than people different from us.

The Sauk Valley has a wealth of diversity, and my think globally, act locally partial solution is to challenge ourselves to look for, encourage, and reward merit in everyone, no matter the person’s race, accent, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, or religion ... no matter if the person mirrors us or not.

The first step for me has been to acknowledge the natural mirror-tocracy within me and to be open to the possibility that everyone can realize the American Dream of success. Next, I listen and learn what a person has to offer and ask myself what I can do to foster that person’s pursuit of the American Dream of success.

I think about my Sauk colleagues – professionals I have gotten to know throughout the Sauk Valley, and professionals I have worked with over my 30-year career – and I am amazed how many of them do not mirror me in profound ways. I think about the most effective and creative professional teams I have been on and marvel at the importance of having diversity within those teams.

Just as a torn flag can be replaced with a new one, we can hope in the Sauk Valley – and even across this country – that we can learn from our past and current imperfections to be the meritocracy the American flag symbolizes.

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