We’re likely look back at the past few days, weeks, and months as some of the most divisive in American history. It’s certainly the most sharply divided time in my life. If you take the popular vote in this week’s election to be a rough indicator of overall American sentiment, it’s safe to say that around 120 million adults – half of the adult population – are super happy and 120 million are very sad.
Division, though, is the antithesis of what America is all about. We’re about coming together, finding ways through even the most difficult challenges, and a common belief in the power of the American Dream. Keep in mind, we’re talking about the nation that overcame every obstacle thrown in its path. That’s not something that just happens.
As a rough definition, the American Dream says that, with hard work and sacrifice, anyone can achieve their goals and leave the world a better place for the next generation.
If you want to see the American dream in action, step onto any Main St. Wander around the ethnic neighborhoods in your nearest city. Find the guy who’s grown his farm from 200 acres to 400 acres with a decade’s work. Find the kid who’s the first in his family to finish college. These are all snapshots of what makes America so American.
No matter where your candidate ended up on election night, know this – America is right here.
The foundations of a dream
George Walton was born around 1749 – records from that time are a bit hit and miss. Like disco. Walton was adopted by his uncle as a baby when his parents died. As a young boy, he apprenticed as a carpenter, studying academic subjects on the side.
His uncle didn’t love his extracurricular, but apparently Walton did well enough that, when he finished his apprenticeship, he felt compelled to leave carpentry behind. He moved to Savannah, GA in 1769 and took up the study of law.
From there, he took an active role in politics and the defense of the burgeoning state. He signed the Declaration of Independence, was injured in the Revolutionary War, spent about a year in prison, was freed, became governor of Georgia, became a US Senator, and finished out his run as a superior court judge.
Walton is just one many self-made founders of America. These were the men and women that first had that American Dream and that worked so hard to make it the shared dream of an entire country.
The American Small Business Dream
Many of the American Dream’s roots can be found in the Declaration of Independence. In particular, the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” strikes me. Not just because we treat it as fundamental, but because that’s not the first iteration of the idea.
John Locke, the English philosopher, had this idea in mind back in 1689, when he published Two Treatises of Government. In it, he said that humans joined together to find protection of our individual lives, freedoms, and estates. In Locke’s formation, he recognized the value of seeking freedom and success through worldly goods.
To put a finer point on it, Locke believed that we could acquire property from the “common store” – which is to say, from nature – by using our labor. Once we plant and pick the wheat, it becomes our private property.
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin both thought that happiness was a cleaner freedom and that “property” placed too much emphasis on material success. Nevertheless, the impetus for the inclusion came from Locke’s notion of a society centered on the defense of property and liberty.
In our contemporary American Dream, property plays an important role. I don’t want to downplay the value of public service, happiness, or intellectual pursuits – those things are all incredibly important – but when we say that we want the next generation to be better off, we generally mean we want them to move up the social ladder.
To have fewer constraints placed in their path by scarce resources. To spend less time laboring and more time enjoying the time they have with loved ones.
Entrepreneurs embody this American concept of social mobility more profoundly than almost anyone else. They spend their labor in the pursuit of new resources. They demand more from the world than that it just be there for them. Small businesses employ 55% of all working Americans, so their focus and drive doesn’t just go toward enriching themselves.
Let’s go back to how we started this discussion. America is a politically divided country. What can bring us together and bring out the best in all of us? How can we heal the wounds that we’ve given ourselves and find a way to make tomorrow better for everyone?
I would argue that we can start by looking to the small business owners in our communities.
Five things any small business can do
If you want to go beyond just bringing people together by virtue of running an awesome business, there are plenty of ways for a small business to help out. You don’t need to pick sides, either. Here are five ways you can be a leader in your town of city without running for office.
1) Get involved with Habitat for Humanity.
An oldie, but a goodie. Habitat builds houses for needy families, and it’s always looking for more help along the way. If you have a construction-specific skill, great. If not, you can still get a lot done.
Trips to the jobsite with a whole business can help work get done quickly. Making it a regular part of your efforts can help Habitat plan accordingly and spend less time worrying about who’s going to show up.
2) Mentor a small business owner.
When you got your start in business, you probably didn’t know a financial statement from a copy of Moby Dick. Now, you’re a seasoned veteran with years of experience and plenty of information to share.
SCORE is a nonprofit associated with the SBA that puts new business owners in touch with industry leaders to help them get off the ground. You can mentor a like-minded owner and help them from making the mistakes you made.
3) Take ownership of a park or roadway.
This one is simple, straightforward, and fantastic. Get in touch with the parks department in your town our county and let them know that you’re interested in helping out in the local park. You can plant trees, cleanup trash, and fix broken benches.
If you’d rather see the sights, check out your state’s adopt a road program. You can make everyone’s commute a little better and you’ll often get some publicity out of the work, as well.
4) Start a skills-based volunteering program.
Pro bono work is a major part of the volunteer efforts in many businesses. Lawyers, doctors, and accountants regularly do pro bono work to give back to their communities. As it turns out, anyone with a skill can help out. If you run a software company, you could organize IT troubleshooting for seniors. A car mechanic could help tune up single, working parents’ cars. Your goofy t-shirt company could design logos for local baseball teams or academic groups.
Points of Light has organized an entire movement for pro bono work through A Billion + Change. The organization has a great introduction to skills-based volunteering, with helpful tips on getting your plan started.
5) Teach financial literacy to high school or college kids.
Finally, you can help kids get a head start on their own finances. Americans aren’t great at personal finance, but you understand it. You’ve got a business that hasn’t folded, you’ve made payments on time, and you know what compound interest is. Teaching young Americans how that all works is going to set them up for success.
The future of America
You have a hand in the future of America. If you love Obama or Trump or neither or both, you can make a difference to the people you see every day. Small business owners are the lifeblood of America. They employ people, add value to the world, and determine what tomorrow looks like.
Take a firm hold on that power and use it for good. Turn your small business into the point around which people can rally. Americans can achieve the American Dream, and you can be the catalyst that starts that process.