Independence and freedom through the eyes of Report for America

On this Fourth of July, there is a growing consensus that American democracy is in peril.

A new poll by Suffolk University in partnership with USA Today found that 7 out of 10 Americans agree with the statement that American democracy is “imperiled” and the concerns cut evenly across partisan lines.

Debbie Tillotson, of East Corinth, Vt., puts up decorations for the Fourth of July at her East Corinth home on Friday, June 25, 2021. Tillotson, who works at Waits River Valley School, said she has been decorating her house for almost every holiday since she and her husband sold their dairy cows about a decade ago — she has more time on her hands and says the kids around town enjoy it. “Hi Miss Debbie!” someone shouted from a passing car while she was decorating. “That happens all the time,” she said. (Photo by Valley News / Report For America – Alex Driehaus)

So at a time when the country feels deeply polarized and a looming national election feels as divisive as ever, how do we mark Independence Day in the United States?

It was only recently, in 2021, after a year of outrage and a call for a racial reckoning over the killing of George Floyd, that the country officially declared Juneteenth a federal holiday, marking the day of June 19, 1865 when Black enslavement was officially ended. But as of this year, nearly half of the 50 states do not officially recognize the day.

There are some good reasons for Americans to feel less than celebratory about the country’s 247th birthday. There are ongoing struggles for people still pressing for rights that should be guaranteed to them and battles over voting rights that are playing out state by state and district by district.
Chronicling these daily struggles to make “a more perfect union,” to borrow the phrase from the preamble to the Constitution, is the work of local journalists, like our Report for America corps members, and on the lead in to this 4th of July we want to share some of the stories they have done on the subject of freedom.

Lexi Walker, 10, and Brooklyn Gaines, 9, oF Flint, lead the Amethyst Elite Dance Company. They prepared for two months to perform at the Champions Parade in Flint, Mich. to celebrate Juneteenth on June 19, 2021. (Photo by KT Kanazawich /Flint Beat)

Two Report for America corps members, Ariama C. Long and Tandy Lau, published a powerful, in-depth essay for the Amsterdam News titled, “The Fight for Liberation” about “modern abolitionists.”  As part of a special report by Word in Black, a partnership of the country’s leading Black newspapers, Long and Lau wrote:

“Today’s abolitionism pivots away from modern-day slavery—now an illegal and underground practice usually tied to human trafficking—to address new inequities in American power structures, namely the carceral system; in other words, policing and prisons.”

In Chicago, corps member Claire Savage, who is working with the Associated Press’ statehouse news initiative, wrote about quiet heroes of American democracy at the American Library Association’s national convention. She told the stories of librarians, including Jamie Gregory, who was named librarian of the year in South Carolina, for defending intellectual freedom and fighting against an attempt in her community to ban books on LGBTQ themes amid a surge in censorship across the country.

Feroz Bashari shows off the remnants of his past life in Afghanistan — a government-issued folder where he kept and transported official letters and documents. It now contains his and his wife Maria’s identifications, birth certificates and school diplomas. In the background, Bashari’s five-year-old daughter, Marwa, plays with a doll in the family’s Oklahoma City hotel room. (Photo by Lionel Ramos/ Oklahoma Watch)

The celebrations of the 4th of July and freedom itself  have been evolving in recent years, especially at a time where many people try to tie patriotism to a political party or narrow and exclusionary beliefs.

Stories from our corps members over the last year range from a small town in Vermont setting up decorations for traditional gatherings this year Oklahoma City’s community efforts to provide legal services for Afghan refugees who fled the war last year.

Our corps members’ coverage shows that America remains an imperfect union, where the efforts of those who defend their rights and those of vulnerable populations trying to find a place can give us a reason to celebrate this holiday. The truth of the path to freedom is that it really never ends. It is one long continuum of challenges, and, we might add, of local stories documenting those challenges.

Shair’Mae Harris, 17, of Flint leads the For The Love of Dance Studio group down Saginaw Street for the Champions Parade celebrating Juneteenth on June 19, 2021. (Photo by KT Kanazawich/ Flint Beat)