My first trip to New York City more than 20 years ago proved a bust. I’d wanted to see the Statue of Liberty, but going in January, during a big, smelly garbage strike, with blustery rain, well, you see what I mean.
I just returned from NYC last week, and I’m happy to say it more than made up for the trip.
We’d organized our trip around a play, The Democracy Project at Federal Hall, that depicted a journey through the first of the 527 momentous days when New York City was the first capital of the revolutionary United States government.
The presidency itself was new, the slave trade was in hot debate, and the fledgling Constitution — and the rights of all this land’s inhabitants — hung in the balance.
In the rotunda of Federal Hall, the play turned out to be a provocative spoof on an issue still keenly relevant today: the fundamental rights of human beings to be free.
We took an early morning ferry over to see what we commonly call the Statue of Liberty, whose official name is Liberty Enlightening the World.
On a lovely, sunny morning, the ferry was full on all three levels. In our tour group of 25 or so, we had folks from Italy, Bangladesh, Virginia, Canada, France, and Washington eager to see the quintessential tribute to freedom.
As we boarded the boat, it struck me how the 18 million immigrants who came to the US between 1880-1924, known as the great migration, would’ve also been cramped together only with about 5 times as many passengers for 4000 times as long (30 months vs. 30 minutes).
The immigrants came from across Europe – Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, the Balkans, Ireland, England – seeking respite from the troubles of 19th-century European life: overcrowding, land shortages, disease, underemployment, hunger, discrimination, and religious persecution.
The stately Liberty statue stood tall as we were herded off the ferry to explore her beauty. She’s a symbol of many ideals, not the least of which is an identity rooted in freedom of expression and exploration of possibility as individuals and as a nation.
In the words of Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
I was moved to awe.
Back on the ferry, we shuttled over to Ellis Island, where those millions of new arrivals were processed, eager to create new lives.
My sense of awe only deepened as we toured the grounds and huge reception area, listened to immigrants own stories, and viewed countless pictures and artifacts from what seemed like around the globe.
I was struck by a few things.
Those coming to our shores absolutely wanted it – freedom. They were eager, even desperate, to reach the U.S. given the oppressive circumstances in their homelands.
They were willing to sacrifice the familiar of their lives, and tolerate abysmal conditions, to make the arduous trip to create a new future in the U.S.
Our nation was looking for reasons to admit immigrants. Officials, and the structure of the process, were welcoming and caring.
Did you know that 98% of all who came to Ellis Island were admitted, fed, and cared for if ill before being sent ashore, and welcomed as new citizens?
I’m wondering . . .
…what so moved me on this trip?
My heart flooded at once with sadness, yet joy; an awareness of strife, yet of possibility; an impulse to take a stand, and an urgency to act.
I disembarked for the walk back to our hotel, near the 9/11 Memorial, full of resolve to dig deeper into what’s possible for us all today.
We’re confronted daily with complex, entangled issues that require us to turn and face reality, like our forebears. To take risks. To be willing to put ourselves on the line for dignity.
Democracy is messy. It pulls at each of us to pay attention, to make choices, to stake a claim in the land of responsibility and freedom.
I’d love to hear from you and your experience of feeling messy with your big and small concerns. Drop me a line and I’ll get back to you, I promise.
I challenge and support leaders to sharpen their focus, grow their resilience & improve their energy for exemplary results. In addition to private coaching sessions, Calm the Chaos for Conscious Leaders, an 8-week course, is open now for those who’re ready to sharpen their awareness.
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