What the U.S. resistance can’t imagine at Day 100

Grassroots activists and organizations led by people in the Global South are already creating the future we can’t yet see.

By Jennifer Lentfer, Thousand Currents Director of Communications

This post originally appeared on Medium’s The Development Set. The photo above (Kyla Davis/Flickr) is a scene from a climate action march in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

It was Memorial Day in my rural Nebraska hometown, and I was on home leave from my aid worker job in Zimbabwe. To picture my hometown, recall all of the images of small town America that Hollywood and political rhetoric provides: a main street, a town hall, flags flying from every pole.

We were gathered for the American Legion’s Memorial Day service, where the high school band played and the old men donned the record of their service via their hats and pins and saluted to each other as they once did overseas. There was reverence. There was prayer. There was patriotism. 

Main street of my hometown in Nebraska

The winner of the 7th grade American Legion essay contest then stepped up to the front of the room, a room used for wedding receptions, family reunions, meetings, and fundraisers. Puberty had not yet hit the boy, and his innocence glowed from the podium. I recognized him, of course, in this town of 300 people. I knew his parents, his grandparents, his aunts, uncles, cousins. I had gone to church and school with them, seen them at the grocery store and the baseball game, and waved at them as we passed each other driving down gravel roads among the endless, straight rows of corn.

As the MC introduced the boy, they revealed the essay contest’s theme that year: “Why the United States is the best country in the world.” Except I knew how flawed this premise was.

I was experiencing this same sense of community, of connectedness, in a supposed “developing nation” on the other side of the world. As I listened to all the parroted freedoms that people in the U.S. have, I whispered to my mother sitting next to me, “Doesn’t everyone think that their country is the best country in the world?” And I began thinking about all the work the U.S. resistance movement could do if they truly reckoned with how un-exceptional we are.

“American exceptionalism” is a term that first surfaced in the 20s and 30s among U.S. socialists, and may have even appeared during the Civil War. There is nothing inherently wrong with having pride in one’s origins. We all need to feel grounded and special and part of something bigger than ourselves.

Except, as last November’s presidential election demonstrated, exceptionalism is dangerous when it translates to superiority. Now, 100+ days into the Trump presidency, we should recognize that the need to assert one’s intelligence, status or control is a throwback to colonization and imperialism. And that superiority is a slippery slope to supremacy.

What I hope we can understand, after crossing 100 days into the presidency — and the growing U.S. resistance movement — is that we are not exceptional. Nor are our struggles particularly new.

Around the world, people have been fighting authoritarian governments and oligarchic regimes for lifetimes, and in some cases, for generations. Citizens in the United States have an opportunity to learn from the visionary leadership of women, youth, and Indigenous people around the world.

Here are but a few examples: In India, women are creating new models of joint land ownership.

Sahyog Sansthan, Rajasthan, India

In South Africa, farming advocates are fighting large corporations like Monsanto — and winning.

Biowatch, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

In Mexico, activists are building alternative local economies that are deeply inclusive, healing, and transformative.

Desarrollo Económico Social de los Mexicanos Indígenas (DESMI), Chiapas, Mexico

That’s why it is time to remove the blinders installed by American exceptionalism. The U.S. resistance does not need to reinvent the wheel. It needs to remain humble and prioritize learning and cooperation across organizations, movements, and issues. Those with funding resources need to support more grassroots transnational work.

Creating complex economic and political shifts requires grounded solidarity and action.

Grassroots leaders around the world are the thought leaders and innovators within our movements. They are currents of change on all continents, teaching us what it means to lose, mourn, and then organize in new powerful forms to win for food sovereignty and climate justice; teaching us that these steps backwards are painful and historical, and that we must become even more courageous and creative for the struggle ahead.

What if the U.S. resistance adopted a world view? What are the grassroots-led changes we would see happening around the world, long before the U.S. election last November?

At 100 days and beyond, let’s boldly imagine what we could accomplish together.

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