Putting the “Us” Back in the U.S.: Celebrating 250 Years of a Nation

Article In The Thread
Brandon Mowinkel; Keith Yamashita; Gautier Salles; Flora Hanitijo; Platon; Phinehas Adams; and Dan Winters.
March 7, 2023

In 2026, a few short years away, we will commemorate the 250th year of the United States of America. It could be a time of great division — or an inflection point to recommit to the creation of a nation that values equality, justice, and liberty. At New America, we hope to use the semiquincentennial, or 250th anniversary, as a bold call to action toward building a shared future, an America big enough to hold us all.

New America’s Us@250 initiative seeks to do this by advocating for a reimagination of the American story. It focuses on three themes: pride in the nation’s progress from its origins, reckoning with historical and contemporary wrongs, and aspiration for a multiracial and inclusive democracy. The initiative sees democracy as a journey, not a destination. To stay on it together, we must aspire to the promise of America, perpetually renewing and revitalizing it as we go.

This week, we launched a call for the inaugural class of Us@250 Fellows. The five selected individuals will champion the spirit of Us@250 — citizens across the U.S. working on innovative and engaging projects that offer ways to renew and expand the American story and identity. To mark the occasion, we sat down with Ted Johnson, Senior Advisor and Director of the Us@250 Initiative, to discuss the initiative’s work and what this moment might offer us and the future of America.

What does putting the “us” back in the “U.S” mean to you and how it shapes your work?

We talk a lot about America but take for granted that Americans all have the same vision of America. In that framing, when we’re doing something for the country, the inaccurate assumption is that it’s going to benefit all of us because we all have the same aspirations or goals for what we want the nation to be. But putting the “us” back in the U.S. centers the people — it centers Americans instead of America. The country is a product of us and not the other way around.

For the Us@250 initiative, and especially the semiquincentennial, our goal is to inspire Americans to think about the future of the country, the progress we have made, and the distance we have left to go to become the nation we want to be. That requires that “we, the people,” as our founding documents suggest, share a vision for what the country should look like. For this initiative, the “us” is more important than the U.S. because the U.S. will move forward as we do. And centering us for this inflection point of the 250th is the best way forward to create a better version of America.

The Us@250 effort is described as a national intervention that hopes to align us across disagreement. How will you know that you've changed hearts and minds?

This is tough stuff; I mean, it’s hard work. One of the primary aims of Us@250 is the focus on narrative change work — trying to reimagine or change the way people think about our national narrative, American identity, and the future of the country. This work is hard to measure. It’s hard to know when you change someone’s mind, when you change someone’s thinking.

We plan to approach it by putting forward a narrative framework around three terms: pride, reckoning, and aspiration. We’re already seeing people on one side pushing the pride theme very hard, saying we should only talk about how exceptional America is, that we should just be thankful and grateful that we live here instead of lingering on the imperfections. On the other side, you have people advocating strongly for reckoning, saying that there’s tons of inequality and injustice in the country, and wondering, “How can we possibly ignore that and just celebrate the nation when we clearly have so far to go?”

For Us@250, we are pulling together both themes of pride and reckoning to say: You don’t have to choose which of the two to put first. You can actually hold both of them at the same time. You can be very proud of the nation’s progress and recognize we have not yet achieved the more perfect Union that folks have long talked about.

So, how will we know when that message takes hold? Frankly, it’s going to require putting that framework out there in every manner possible: op-eds, documentaries, through influencers, convenings, and meetings, and so on. It’s going to require that we do that almost incessantly from now through to 2026. And then the hope is that along the way, and certainly by the 250th, we see how people are talking about the semiquincentennial. If the dominant narratives are “there’s no room for confronting our shortcomings, only celebration” and “there's no room for pride in our progress, only reckoning with injustice,” then that will signal to us that our narrative didn’t take hold in the way that we hoped.

But, from all of the research leading into this effort, the vast majority of Americans want the message that we’re championing: the one that holds pride and reckoning together and fuels an aspiration for a shared vision for the country. The ground is fertile for a more inclusive framework. There is a desire for more connection, but there is also a hesitancy to be vulnerable with strangers. So, at its core, this is cultural work.

As we head to the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, this effort takes aim at division sown by groups and individuals who gain from our distress. How does this effort seek to incentivize unity?

Author Amanda Ripley uses the term “conflict entrepreneurs”: people whose business is divisiveness; the market is good for them right now. They’re having quite a bit of success sowing and profiting from division. So what we hope to do is leverage what we're finding from political scientists, sociologists, and other researchers, which is the thirst in the country for more unity — people do not want to spend their days hating other people or being obsessed with politics.

What we hope to foster is a vehicle for people to talk across differences. Us@250 will show that the openness to challenging traditional and exclusive narratives of American history is there and the openness to expanding our concept of the American identity is there. This is why we’re focusing on narrative change and how people think about the moment. Operationalizing this is tough, but we’ll proceed in three ways: The first is by building the framework around pride, reckoning, and aspiration, and getting that framework across by flooding the zone. The second is by establishing a fellows program. The Us@250 fellowship will support five to 10 fellows who are already doing the work to reimagine the American story, challenge the American identity to be more inclusive, or tackle parts of American history to inform and educate the public. These fellows and their work will also inspire the public to think about the nation we could be if we acknowledge some of the shortcomings. And the third effort is setting up a constellation of like-minded organizations, scholars, journalists, influencers — people who also believe that you can hold pride and reckoning together and are willing to incorporate that framework into the way they talk about the semiquincentennial and the way they recognize it. We’re planning to host a set of convenings across the country to engage local communities and conversations about the American identity and the American story and then connect that to the 250th. We think of these as “constellation conversations.”

How does the Us@250 fellowship help the entire initiative reach its goals? What are you looking for in a fellow?

I actually had a little trouble answering this question for myself early on because there is no archetypical Us@250 fellow. They’re not necessarily a graduate student, or an executive, or an author, though they can be any of those things and more. But concisely, an Us@250 fellow is someone who is engaged in their community in a way that is creating active public dialogue and is thinking about American history and identity and challenging narrow and exclusive conceptions of that. It is not contained to a set of professions. There are no bounds for what the work looks like, as long as it’s focused on those two points. There are no bounds with regard to the type of projects they can be doing (exhibits, community service, murals, recitals, etc.). The work is as expansive as the kind of people we are looking for in the fellowship. Fellows will be people out in the country doing the work, and we hope to find them where they are and shine light on them. Our fellowship program will provide them a stipend, resources, a network, and the New America spotlight so that other people in the country become aware of their work, become inspired by it, and replicate that work in their own communities. We not only want to get the message out there; we also want to provide exemplars of people who are living the Us@250 spirit out loud.

Is there anything else you would like to add as the country approaches its semiquincentennial and the work Us@250 will be pursuing?

I want to note that this is distinct from the important federal effort to mark the anniversary through the America250 commission. What distinguishes Us@250 is our narrative framework. We are focused not as much on what people do on July 4, 2026, but how they think about America and Americans. Ours is a unifying framework in hopes of influencing how people think about that date. And, this effort isn’t in competition with the other efforts: To the extent we can shine light on others’ 250th work as part of our constellation, that’s all for the better. We don’t want to lead the nation’s effort, we don’t want to be the authoritative voice on 250. We want to be part of a larger national conversation and set of activities around the 250th anniversary. And we hope that our narrative framework, our fellowship, and our constellation efforts will be influential in how Americans approach this national milestone.

Applications are now open for the next class of New America’s Us@250 Fellows are now closed.

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