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American Identities with Vikrum Aiyer

Vikrum Aiyer - American Identities

Is America a land of abundance, or a place of scarcity? There are so many aspects of being human that can sometimes eclipse the notion of what it means to be a citizen. In this episode, we talk to Vikrum Aiyer. He’s VP of Global Public Policy at Postmates and Former Senior Advisor at the White House. He hosts American Enough, a weekly town hall-style podcast discussing current events and American ideals. When you think “American,” what comes to mind? Are you comfortable, or nervous? How do you participate in American life? And how can you participate more fully?

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Speaker 1:                           You’re listening to In Times Like These, a production of CLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. In Times Like These, explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt. Vikrum Aiyer is former White House, senior economic policy advisor for the Obama administration and former chief of staff for the US patent and trademark office. His town hall style podcast, American Enough, fosters dialogue about current events, politics, and American ideals.

Aiyer has keynoted panels about everything, immigration reform, patents, wearable tech, smart fabrics, advanced manufacturing, the regulatory process, STEM education, so many of the strands that connect what it means to be an active, engaged human in the world today. He’s also the VP of public policy at Postmates where he leads a legislative regulatory and policy discussions impacting the future of work in a gig economy. In this episode of In Times Like These, we talk politics, culture, education, what it means to be committed to a more perfect union, and how to answer yes to the invitation to the tapestry of engagement.

Speaker 2:                           Vikrum, thank you so much for being here. I’ve been reading for the last couple of weeks and listening to American Enough podcast. Tell me about that project and why it’s so relevant right now. It feels like a lot of my peers, I’m 40 years old, we’re getting news from places that our grandparents didn’t get news from and we want to hear from voices that are like us. It seems to me that American Enough is answering that. You’re opening kind of a civic space for us to get information and share our concerns. How did you come up with that?

Vikrum Aiyer:                     I think just in terms of the medium, it’s kind of an incredible time. It almost feels like the golden age of radio. Not to say that I grew up at the dawn of radio as a means of news or storytelling or disseminating information, but we always look with fond memory at images of the families first gathering around early commercial TV sets. Black and white evening news being broadcasted in living rooms or notably when I think it was George Orwell’s tail detailing kind of the first sort of fiction of a world that could be believed to be here, but it ended up just being a fictitious story telling evening that was broadcast over the radio.

There are these iconic moments in particularly America, but around the world in the way that technology has sort of given birth to how information is digested and consumed. I think for our modern times, even though we have a litany of technological ways to gather and sort through and digest information, some may even argue too many ways. The podcast is sort of reverting back to what we’ve always known to be a tried and trued form, which is an audio exercise in which you’re sort of your mind gets focused on the content that you’re listening to and a long form exercise of digesting information on a topic on such as the topics that we’ll discuss today.

I think that that is just a pretty interesting way to pause and reflect and sift through a lot of the noise of news digestion in this day and age. Because in the same way we saw those images of folks huddling around the TV in the living room or huddling around the radio in their living room and hearing what the world had to say. Now when you have pings from your cell phone and your smart phone and you have email alerts and you have tweets that give you anxiety every four minutes because you’re not sure what’s going on in the world next. A chance to sort of have a deeper dive into a issue and to really kind of form your own opinion as the podcast hosts or the podcast guests and invoke their own opinion.

I think that’s a much more intimate way to digest information and in almost counterintuitive form a much more thoughtful and comprehensive way to digest information. I know that the concept of podcasting almost feels ubiquitous now. People might walk down the road or drive their car and be kind of listening to a podcast by Ambient Noise, but in many ways it sort of is a circling back to what we know to be foundationally core to how we should digest information. But the medium aside, for us at American Enough and for those who have not had a chance to hear it yet, you can download the podcast or subscribe to the podcast in Google or iTunes or Stitcher, wherever else you get your pod.

But American Enough was really and is really an experiment designed to sift through what it means to establish or talk through an American identity in this modern time. I think that there are many characterizations of what it means to be American. I think for some, a sense of patriotism and duty in serving in public ways is American. Whether that means you’re a school teacher working in a public school or whether you’re a soldier serving in uniform. This concept of service is often invoked as being truly, truly core to our identity.

In other respects, the concept of being American is this basic social compact that if you work hard, you sort of do the right thing, that you should be able to not only put food on the table and provide for your family, but maybe just maybe if you work hard enough that this basic American exchange would come about. That your kids are a little better off than you were and that pays dividends into a future generation and that can be American. Other depictions of American identity seem to have this sort of 2.5 children, white picket fence, American dream when it comes to amassing wealth or amassing opportunity for your family.

These are just three straw man, very simple characterizations of our identity. But you can imagine that the way that we think about it here and the way that civic textbooks in social studies classes think about American identity and frankly in the way that the world around us sees what it means to be American. Whether it’s with a disgruntled taste of American as power overseas or whether frankly, it’s the incredible cultural exports that we have from the concept of having an annual Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island to having Brittany Spears or Justin Timberlake or Lady Gaga being icons of pop culture and entertainment here.

This notion of America is really cut splice and framed by multiple minds in real time around the world and that’s really applicable to any one country as well. But I think what’s going on right now is that all of a sudden, those characterizations of American identity are being talked about in a way in which you almost have to measure up to something. By that I mean, shortly after the inauguration or sorry, I should say, the election before the inauguration of Donald trump, but shortly after the election of then President elect Donald Trump, there was an uptick in violence against certain religious communities.

I believe synagogues and Muslim mosques were attacked pretty regularly and in Kansas there was this shooting and kind of bar brawl of two South Asian American males both that had established residence in the country and in Kansas and were just productive members of society. They both held down jobs and there’s someone at the bar that basically yelled at them. I’m sure he was [inaudible 00:08:21], so maybe it doesn’t really matter too much in the grand scheme of things, but yelled, “Get out of here. You’re not American, go back to your country.”

Those instances probably occur constantly around the country, they’ve existed. Those epithets or that kind of hate approach to different groups date well before Donald Trump and they will occur well after Donald Trump, so I don’t mean to ascribe any sort of specific connection to this presidency. But it sort of illustrates this notion of if you are American in any of the aspects that we described, that you’re working hard and just trying to provide for yourself or your family or that you believe in this basic idea of public service, working on behalf of others or you believe in this concept of a dream that you too can aspire towards. All of a sudden now that is overlaid with this mentality of yes, but do you measure up in the eyes of others to even be here in the first place?

Do you have a basic sense of who you’re supposed to be in the eyes of others to even feel like you’re welcome here in the first place? I think American Enough as a podcast tries to use this lens to really examine why is it that there are these different modalities, what it means to be an American. As a result of that, as we hear the policies, the rhetoric, the cultural debates, and frankly the discourse around the globe because American identity extends far beyond our borders, we try and examine what could possibly change and impact that narrative of our country’s faith in real time.

We do that kind of by examining everything under the sun. It doesn’t just have to be politicians or politics of the day. It can be even how is the CIA impacted when it comes to gathering intelligence when other countries, even our allies start to trust less and less our country when we do foreign policy by tweet. Or it could be how is the identity of the American woman in the workplace evolving as there’s more exposure and conversation around sort of the time’s up or me to movements.

Or it could be what is the identity of a candidate running for office Republican or Democratic that is running under this current climate in which a lot of people are sort of just they sort of scoff at politicians or assume that there’s a lot of distaste in the work that they’re doing or in effectiveness. What sort of identity do they need to invoke? Examining all sorts of stripes of life through this background lens of American identity and how it might be shifting is really sort of the ongoing colon experiment of the podcast.

Speaker 2:                           Oh my goodness. The three examples, the three sort of straw man basic, easy to paint in a picture examples of being American. I know that there are abstract and they’re not complex. But when you were describing it, I actually got a little nostalgic and that’s part of the power of using words like homeland. That’s part of the power of invoking something that I didn’t experience even though I grew up in a small farm community, I didn’t experience, but I feel nostalgic for that. I also feel this idea of enough taps into some kind of myth of scarcity.

Because there used to be promise, lots of land, lots of opportunity, lots of colleges, lots of home loans. This idea of like, yes you can, there’s flourishing, you can prosper, but there seems to have been a shift now that there’s a suspicion of scarcity. That there’s not enough jobs, there’s not enough childcare, there’s not enough health care. If this person gets into college, then my child won’t get into college. We have a lot. We have abundance. When did we shift from an idea of abundance and correspondingly, welcome, right? When you have enough, you’re welcoming to sort of shrivel up a little bit and say, “No, no, no, there’s not enough and in fact, we need to be suspicious and we need to draw lines and boundaries.”

Vikrum Aiyer:                     That’s a great question and I think that in some respects, one could argue, the way I see it right now, and obviously this is just one person’s opinion, I think it has to do with more recent economic tension, which I’ll speak in a second. But I think in some respects that tension has kind of been core to our identity all along. If you take a look at the way that our founding fathers crafted a constitution, or sorry even the basic ethos of who could weigh in voting. At early points, Black Americans, African Americans were not even given a totality and respect of being a full person under the eyes of the law.

Women were disenfranchised for generations under the American banner and as a result of just those two examples and of course there are several others attached to that, including the influx of Irish American immigrants or Chinese American immigrants, especially when the railroads were being constructed in America. All of these sort of cultural enclaves and identities of just different types of people, were all sort of part of a very, very early experiment for the country.

Folks that thought that they could pursue new opportunity or at a minimum, a different opportunity outside of the lands that they were coming from and they were doing it with essentially a rag tag bandit. [inaudible 00:14:10] of other folks try to do the same thing. None of these folks had necessarily built a country before, none of these folks had necessarily fled and started a new life before. It’s not like there was a tried and trued way to do it. That being said, it sort of quickly became the promise land, but at the same time as more and more folks in the eyes of some encroached upon that promise land or we’re not whole people in the eyes of that promise land.

It sort of was a country together on this concept of tension that my pursuits could ultimately butt up against yours and that is a problem to me. On the one hand, America has always even etched into sort of the founding ethos of a more perfect union. It has always sort of excelled when we’ve had those tensions and been deliberative, we’ve invoked very robust democratic processes to debate them. Frequently we’ve gone to war over them. We’ve changed our constitution, in examples of women’s suffrage over them, so unbalanced that pursuit is a very positive attribute to this country.

I think if you take a look at a phrase that President Obama always often invoked of Martin Luther King Junior, ‘One can take a look back and say that the long arc of history bends towards justice.’ However, that comes with a lot of blemishes and so right now one could argue that the way that much of the country might be viewing the immigrant mentality when it comes to jobs or when it comes to know recent travel bans or colloquially referred to as the Muslim ban that was issued in the first few weeks of the Trump administration.

That could be seen as a blemish or the transgender ban for service members in the military could be seen as a blemish. In many respects, one might be able to say that in the end, America gets it right. Whether it’s changing the laws or using the courts to defeat some of these executive actions or simply voting in a new president at some future point. Maybe that is okay, but in the now it does really threaten the concept of American identity because it shows that very basic vision that there are some here who believe that their birthright to a American concept is a little bit more theirs and a little bit more entitled than the than others may pursue.

That even would apply to consider the example of an immigrant who came to this country who through legal means pursued citizenship, raised a family here and still may not be seen in the eyes of others as wholly American. They don’t speak perfect English or they don’t have a certain look or they don’t watch the same sort of sports teams. I think that that is a massive concern that needs a commentary right now and it’s not just this podcast that reflects upon it, but it’s a commentary that asks ourselves as a collective nation, are we going to build bridges with one another or construct walls that exclude individuals?

Regardless of where you are on that equation, is that who America has always been is that what we want America to be today and is that what we want America to be going forward? In the context of the right now, I think many would argue that [inaudible 00:17:54] approach to assessing where a lot of this tension comes from or is derivative from. It could be irrational fear, but I would argue it’s more so a sense of uncertainty in the face of economic unrest and in our economic inequity. I had an opportunity to work for the last president of the United States and for however progress that that administration made in turning around the economy, getting out of a housing crisis, restabilizing the manufacturing sector and the big three auto makers in this country or adding new manufacturing jobs.

All of that, push that aside, one objective truth still persisted with the economy and that was a widening income gap, stagnating wages. Unemployment numbers were going down, some more folks were getting jobs. There’s also a number of folks that were working part-time or independent contractor jobs, working for platforms like Lyft or Uber or Postmates and so the sort of the concept of how we measure our economy in this world of employment, full-time employment and how people make money.

I think that has also posing a really strong rift when it comes to how individuals [inaudible 00:19:11] their ability to grab opportunity and all too often America will become a place of civil tension and conflict if we do not invest in really what can address those systemic challenges, which is next generation investments in the workforce of the future, STEM and arts education required to not just code things but to design things [inaudible 00:19:36] interface and all of the sort of competitive investments we would need to make in order to best other countries when it comes to growth, trade and just in general building a bench of talent for the future. I think that’s where our investment needs to lie as opposed to sort of creating the rifts of one community being pitted against another community

Speaker 1:                           Being human is a messy endeavor. We are made to be in relationship and yet our fear of diversity keeps us apart. My new book explores this paralyzing paradox, interfaith grit. ‘How uncertainty will save us’ is available now on Amazon and on our blog. It’s for all of us ordinary readers seeking ways to learn how to engage with difference. Interfaith grit is possible and it can save us.

Speaker 2:                           That list, I could do a whole course on just that bouquet of examples that you gave and when I asked the question I was picturing an either or. Either it’s a land of abundance or it’s a place of scarcity, but when you were talking about this idea that it’s a tension that’s always been there. I pictured like the bid land races, where people were racing out west and I pictured this idea of can you imagine all of that land in front of you as a white European American and the idea that it could be yours and yet even in that moment there was that competitive, I have to get it first.

Just that image for me, captures what you’re saying about it’s always been part of this push pull, this breathing in and out of yes, there’s a lot, but who is it for? I appreciate you framing it in a way that I can look at both sides of our history and our identity.

Vikrum Aiyer:                     Sorry I know this is your [inaudible 00:21:33].

Speaker 2:                           Yeah, no, of course,

Vikrum Aiyer:                     But like just as a citizen, as a educator, as a mother, as a neighbor, as a community member, do you see some of those tensions in identity flaring up or do you see this? ‘Cause there might also be a difference and I’m willing to sort of examine this on the podcast between talking about this in the theoretical or abstract and actually talking about it in a way that people feel and experience day-to-day. I’m just curious from where you sit in the world, do you see some of that tension flaring up?

Speaker 2:                           I do. I think part of it is coming from Southern Illinois and moving away, going to college, moving to New York City and now moving to California. My cousin little Larry, well he’s not little anymore. Little Larry and I both went to college and moved away. We don’t live in Hamilton County and we joke about the fact that it’s hard to explain to our uncles and people in town what we do. It was easy when I was a school teacher. I taught middle school so my uncles and everyone at town knew I’m a teacher. I do that. Well now that I’m working on like community activism. I’m building digital courses so larry and I joke that it’s hard to explain what we do because we’re not producing something.

I do see a mourning and a wistfulness from my cousins and high school classmates that somehow we were entitled to keep working in mines and oil fields and manufacturing and that’s owed us. I do see a sense of fear both the idea that immigrants are coming to take our jobs. That fear is definitely there, but also a fear that this way of life where I could graduate high school. I took a shop class. I have a light manufacturing job in the big town 30 minutes away, that somehow the world has shifted and I know that computers and Internet these abstract things that people are making are valuable, but I don’t have access to know how to do that.

I think when I see it in family and classmates, it is anxiety and it is anger, but it’s a wistfulness. It’s a mourning and I don’t know how our school systems and how higher education and community college and vocational programs can make that shift because I see STEM and innovation celebrated in places that are more progressive and places frankly that have wells but in tiny bitty rural communities. Honestly I taught in the city of St Louis and I taught in the Bronx and there is a celebratory, “Oh here’s a charter school. Here’s the magnet school for STEM.”

But in the ordinary classrooms or high schools, it’s still like flower arranging and votech. I don’t know if that’s an educational divide or an access divide, but I do. I see a wistfulness and an uncertainty. It doesn’t feel very good because we were sort of brought up to think of like you said, if we work hard, there will be a job and I can get a home loan and marry my prom date and build something. We see the world and it’s more complicated and there’s a lack of access. I wonder a lot thinking about Ed policy, like if I were superintendent of a rural school district, how do I help those people connect with something that they’re no longer necessarily making with their hands?

Vikrum Aiyer:                     Yeah, that’s a great point. Especially because this shift in the knowledge economy or sorry, a shift towards knowledge economy has benefited those that are invested in an education that value things like data science or coding or engineering or even a designer now. An artistically minded designer is more often than not being employed by an app company or a digital company in which their design can be integrated in a digital experience which has a back end of tech. How you train for that is a really big challenge and I’ll even say day-to-day it becomes a challenge when it is a little bit more convenient for some lawmakers or policy makers who would hold the purse strings to make those investments to try and create a bogey man or a scapegoat of the other or the anonymous [inaudible 00:26:32].

Rather than mustering or getting the votes to pass a multimillion dollar educational package that could invest in that. I will say that one interesting thing worth examining when it comes to how investments in our skills could impact not only in the face of who America is economically in the 21st century, but speak to some of the tension and divide in terms of who is qualified or not qualified for jobs is that it might be easy for me from the cheap seats to blame that politician from blaming another country as opposed to investing in an educational system here that’s fit for purpose for a modern economy.

At the same time, I would say that there needs to be especially as technology evolves, especially as making and things like hardware manufacturing are reduced to a 3-D printer in our desk and everyone’s sort of empowered to be able to make and tinker in their own right. There does need to be a bit of a two way obligation, if you will. Maybe responsibility is the better word among both the public sector as well as the private sector in this pursuit. Because I think what’s going on is a lot of this new technology and a lot of the new opportunities are fueling massive amounts of growth for the country.

At the same time it is not entirely apparent or clear to those law makers or those policy makers or even the superintendent of the school, what kinds of skills are required to back into those jobs, particularly if those 21st century jobs are being sussed out in real time. If you are an auto mechanic and you’re really conversing at poking around under the hood of a truck, but you are hearing news about driverless cars and driverless trucking. Now you’re not only worried or nervous about what this means for you, but instead of being able to poke around the hood of an engine, you might need to poke around under the hood of an operating system on that truck when it requires [inaudible 00:28:40].

Where do we get that continuous education when you’re in your twenties or thirties or forties or you’re sort of outside the normal K through 12 or college system. That’s one challenge. But then what that operating system looks like under the hood of that driverless truck that might need repair is also subject to the proprietary know how of have just those companies making it. Those companies may need to offer a sense of what the curricula is or are to tackle that challenge or work with the government or educators or school districts or community colleges or vocational training programs to describe here they are the sort of skills required.

I know that point isn’t rocket science ’cause a lot of people talk about a skills gap and how if it was closed, that could create more economic opportunity for all, but it is going to take some public private cooperation and in the same breadth that the private sector shouldn’t just be needlessly regulated by the public sector. As these new technologies come into light, the private sector needs to have a responsibility of sharing that information. Part of that is actually what I would argue especially important because now we’re facing this era of the CEO statesmen or stateswomen. In lieu of inaction from different governments, whether it’s federal or local, you have a lot more companies that are weighing in on kind of social good or social stances.

We famously saw in the United States a tiff between the ridesharing companies, Uber and Lyft right after the immigration ban came about in January of 2017. It resulted in one company saying publicly they’re going to donate to an immigrant rights advocacy organization, ACLU and it resulted in a viral online campaign of a hashtag to delete the other rival company. Or a right after the Paris climate agreement, the United States officially withdrew. You got a ton of companies from Apple to an even smaller or [inaudible 00:30:53] names talking about steps that they were going to take for climate action.

You have this instance in which not only are companies stepping up to express their values and not only are the customers becoming a little bit more activists with their choice and taking their business and their dollars to those companies that align with their values. But when you have this sort of sense of purpose and ethos and philosophy being deemed from the companies themselves, then they also have to take that a step further when it comes to how they can work with different stakeholders, including the government to try and fill the voids of opportunity that may in fact cause that riff in inequality.

Then as a result caused that riff in who is American or who is more deserving of that opportunity than the other. The blame is not to be pointed at one actor alone, but unless we sort of seize that moment and realize it takes a tapestry of engagement, we’re going to have a challenge in which American identity gets set by the fear of division as opposed to the prospect of collaboration.

Speaker 2:                           Yes, the tapestry of engagement. You used the word obligation, the public and it’s not just to point the finger and say they’re not giving us training, but it’s also agency. I have a sense of agency. I have a sense of participation and control in the civic space. It’s not just an obligation, it’s an opportunity. I also wonder, I’m thinking when you’re talking about the industrial revolution, and I’m thinking about Charles Dickens and the children in Charles Dickens novels and short stories, they don’t go to school. We had to decide as a civic community that public school would start in kindergarten. It would go most of the year, wouldn’t go in the summer.

We made these decisions based on the realities of the time and I wonder if we need to do that again. If we need to reimagine, “Okay, these, these are the levers of education, these are the opportunities for work. This is what work looks like.” It’ll be a long process, but it would be a delightful opportunity. It would be a luxury to reimagine given what we know about education and population, what really is needed and what could we do with that kind of push.

Vikrum Aiyer:                     Absolutely.

Speaker 2:                           We’ve done it before with trains. We did it with highways. We did it with public education not that long ago, just our grandparents were doing it.

Vikrum Aiyer:                     Yeah, and I think it actually underscores this almost whole plight, this concept of the opportunity that these are not impossible tasks and even if they feel that way, America has always stood up and we’re a lot better off in standing up if we do that with sort of a collective strength as opposed to a kind of a pointing of fingers and [inaudible 00:33:53] that sort of debilitates us from acting together.

Speaker 2:                           Yes. The last thing I want you to help me understand and you’ve mentioned it, this idea of CEO, of states people, this idea of companies and for profit companies engaging their consumers for social change. What’s happening with the idea that the government is responsible for x, private enterprises are responsible for y and then churches and charities are responsible for z. It doesn’t seem to be that it’s that way anymore. How do I as a citizen who participates in all three modalities to get services and give services. What are useful ways to think about engagement now?

Vikrum Aiyer:                     Yeah, it’s a great question. I think that in some respects the citizen has never been more empowered to act as a result. You have [inaudible 00:34:56] kind of what we talked about or maybe what I was rambling about at the top when it comes to the podcast as means to digesting information, social media as a means of digesting information. The fact that anyone with an Internet connection and an idea can be a citizen journalist or convey their views to the world and publish them quickly in real time. In terms of expressing one’s voice or an unprecedented moment in the world in terms of being a consumer of corporate goods or capitalists goods and just purchasing power as we talked about a moment ago.

If you see more companies expressing a vision about the environment or about labor conditions in textile manufacturing facilities or codes and wanting to align with those companies that support healthy working conditions and fair working conditions. Or when we talk about the concept of individual companies that really put a premium on protecting our data privacy for example and wanting to align with companies that reflect that choice in the world. I think you have more and more of pronouncements from companies. Now as a customer, as the citizen customer, you can take your dollars to more places.

When you have kind of a 360 degree way of engaging with your elected officials, whether that’s the standard in person, at a town hall or tweeting at them or being able to get on Facebook and live stream an event that they’re hosting in a part of the state or the community that you can’t get to your still able to soak in that information. In this day and age, you have sort of the omni channel or the 360 degree informed citizen being able to spend in a way that is informing and informative of their values. Being able to consume information in a way that is fit for their needs and their daily life or even engage in their government in a way that has way more inroads or nodes of interaction than we’ve ever seen before.

That being said, that means that you have a lot of extra noise and it’s not easy for anyone of us when we have to take care of our kids or pay the rent or pay bills or get through our next deadline at work or raise a single family household. There are so many aspects of just being a human that can sometimes eclipse the notion of what it means to be a citizen. That the concept of a choice in that so much choice of how to engage might seem overwhelming. But I do think that for those that want to lean in with some of these options and want to be able to have their voice heard, now couldn’t be a more exciting time to be alive and that ability of expressing that voice.

Speaker 2:                           That gives me a lot of hope and you know what? It’s not all or nothing. It’s not I have to participate in all of the channels or I’m not engaged. I can’t make a difference. We move on the spectrum at different times in our life and when we have more power and social capital and when we have less and so to see it as an invitation to the tapestry of engagement and not as something that we are not already part of. ‘Cause we do purchase, we do get online, we do read, we do consume and vote.

Vikrum Aiyer:                     Absolutely. I’m with you loud and clear. I mean it’s a difficult time in that the sense of how best to engage is quickly shifting underneath us. Whether is your news verifiable in the context of the fake news? Are you listening to information that’s [inaudible 00:38:59] where they’re fully informed? Are you almost too overwhelmed by the shenanigans that you hear coming out of Washington DC that you don’t even want to engage in own town election or school board or parent teacher PTA association. All of that creates real challenges and I think that unless we start being a little bit more inclusive in the way that we think about who is an American and how we invest in opportunity and how we create skills and jobs for the future, so that way we create a future that works for all.

Unless we do that, there will be this cynicism that sort of calcifies across all of our minds and that’s not a bad way to engage because if you go back to that kind of core point that America has always been aligned to pursue a more perfect union. That’s big because we’ve been motivated to know that that union can be built for the better because we’re motivated to try and make it work for the better. The moment we start to lose sight of that is the moment that, that sort of basic ethos or compact starts to slip. I would argue that podcasts like yours that unpack these issues, conversations at Church or at the dinner table that unpack these issues, all of that can be additive to the way we see the world, even if we disagree with one another.

Speaker 2:                           Yes. That gives me a lot of hope and we’ve come full circle. Thinking about engagement as an invitation to come to one another with open hands and a hermeneutic of generosity, let me assume that you have the best intention this conversation. Instead of letting the great massive details and anxieties paralyze us so that we don’t want to be open to engagement.

Vikrum Aiyer:                     Absolutely.

Speaker 2:                           That’s the posture of engagement. Thank you so much Vikrum. This is an amazing conversation. I’ve learned a lot. I’m going to add some resources to it. I think my community is going to learn a lot. I’m so appreciative of your time and perspective.

Vikrum Aiyer:                     Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me and I appreciate the thoughtfulness of all your questions and what you’re doing.

Speaker 2:                           You’re very welcome.

Speaker 1:                           Thanks for listening to In Times Like These where we explore issues of politics and faith and learn from one another how to navigate difference for maximum flourishing. In Times Like These, is a product of CLU, live at Claremont Lincoln University. For more subscribe, share, and visit us at claremontlincoln.edu.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • List the various subtopics covered in the episode
  • How we can think about what it means to be American, and why that matters
  • What ordinary citizens can do to sort through a never-ending news cycle and participate in civic engagement
  • Why it’s important to address the uncertainty we feel around economics and cultural changes
  • Examples of how America has thrived in the past when it addresses challenges like we’re facing now
  • How we can respond—day by day—to the tapestry of engagement that is American life

Top 3 takeaways from this week’s episode:

  1. “This notion of America is cut, spliced & framed in real time by minds around the world.”

Our identity in the modern time includes images, tweets, video, and commentary from thousands of co-participants via social media and streaming news and entertainment. We are participating in our own story. What it means to be “American” is up to us, minute by minute. How do we participate in understanding our shared identities?

This notion of America is cut, spliced & framed in real time by minds around the world. Listen now: Click To Tweet

       2. “America’s always been willing to engage in a more perfect union.”

Since its founding, we’ve always been working in a tension of ideas of abundance (the American dream) and scarcity (“Immigrants are taking our jobs.”) We have always foregrounded diversity as both challenge, and promise. In different times, we either celebrate difference, or vilify it. In times like these, we have another opportunity to decide who we want to be. Who we are.

America’s always been willing to engage in a more perfect union. Listen now: Click To Tweet

     3. “Are we going to build bridges with one another? Or construct walls that exclude.”

Diversity is here to stay. Whatever your nostalgia for an American past looks like, our neighbors, colleagues, and families include people with religious, ethnic, racial, and cultural differences. This can be a good thing that we celebrate, or something scary we try to hide from. For community leaders, we have the opportunity to teach the skills and practices that facilitate bridge building.

Are we going to build bridges with one another? Or construct walls that exclude. Listen now: Click To Tweet


Mentioned on the episode:













How to connect with us:

Twitter: @VikrumAiyer and @AmericanEnough

You can connect with me on Twitter here: @SVarnonHughes.

And you can always connect with us at CLU on our FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn accounts linked here.

Like the show? Help us spread the word by giving us a rating and review on iTunes!


About the Podcast

In Times Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt. We talk to voices from the field, in law, activism, civil rights, and from places of struggle and places of deep learning. In Times Like These, we unpack the most troubling issues of politics and faith we face, together.

In Times Like These is hosted by Dr. Stephanie Varnon-Hughes and is a CLU Live production by Claremont Lincoln University.

Claremont Lincoln University offers the following graduate degree programs:

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.

Claremont Core

Claremont Lincoln University

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Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.

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