Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse; / Unsplash; Poster by Shepard Fairey

Heather Wylie pursued her doctorate in sociology from UC Davis and is a sociology teacher at Shasta College.  Her monthly Op-Ed column for Shasta Scout discusses the challenges facing our community through a sociological lens.  You can read more about Heather here.

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” These words – this fragment of a sentence- makes this country extraordinary. Given the historical record, this idea, this “we” wasn’t supposed to work. Tyrants, despots, monarchs, dictators- this is where power generally lived. For most of human history, the goal was “power over” the people. Our founding fathers dared to flip the script. In these first three words, power could now be something of, by and for “the people”. Power should no longer be the boot on the necks of the people, but in the hands of the people themselves.

My name is Heather Wylie and I would like to welcome you to my first column here at Shasta Scout. I was invited here because I am a sociologist – someone trained in studying society and social behavior. I agreed, however, not because I, as an academic pretend to know the solutions to the serious challenges facing our community but because I am a member of this community myself. Since 1980, the North State has given to me unconditionally. As a child at Project City School to graduation day at Central Valley High to my eventual return in 2006 as a sociologist at Shasta College, my North State “village” has been there for me.  And now I find myself with an opportunity to give back.

My first inclination was to use this space to “teach” in the hopes that my academic training might help the community in some way. But this community already “knows” and knows deeply. Then I thought my responsibility was to provide space for connection. But we are already connected – impossibly tangled up. Then, listening to a talk on none other than Dolly Parton, it occurred to me that what I really have to offer this community is a “third space”, a space that exists beyond our respective corners. Dolly’s concerts, full of conservatives, liberals, drag queens and born-again Christians, have always been places where people that “shouldn’t be together” are. This monthly column seeks to be such a space, one where ideas don’t come to win, dominate, or dictate but instead interact in ways that can possibly create something new.

To that end, I thought I’d start by exploring this idea of “we the people”.  Someone like me – a poor kid from Jones Valley, a girl, the child of divorced parents – historically, would not be of “the people”. Had I been born pretty much anywhere else, at any point in history, my lot would have been dictated by “power over” the people. Someone at the whims and mercy of those with power. But here in the US, I am, despite my disadvantages, of “the people”. I count. My voice is heard. I have power because of this radical, democratic experiment that is the United States of America.

But of course, it didn’t start out this way. Like others, I was not initially “of the people”. Our imperfect country was birthed of an imperfect document – a constitution that says “we the people” but really meant only a certain kind and class of people. From the start, the United States has struggled with who “the people” actually are. Who counts? Who doesn’t? Who has “power to”? Who has “power over”?

Our greatness as a country lies in the promises to the people inscribed in our founding documents and our history is marked by those trying to hold us to them – those groups of people who have been denied the “power to”. Consider the 14th and 15th amendments, passed after the civil war that extended the vote to Black men thereby including them in “the people”. Or consider White women who fought to be of “the people” with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920. Or Americans of Asian ancestry who were eventually considered to be of “the people” in 1952 only after decades of fighting for their constitutional rights. Or even US citizens living in Washington D.C. who were finally considered the “people” when they were finally allowed to vote for the president in 1961.

In fact, some argue that it wasn’t until 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, that we truly became a democracy, that “we the people” finally meant we the people. And this matters. The very first article in the constitution includes 11 sections that root the power of government in representatives that are chosen by “the people”. Article 2 of the constitution, on the other hand, outlines the office of the president in only 4 sections (one of which is on impeachment). Power, as written in our founding document, was to be “power to” the people, not “power over”. And it has been those who have been denied this power that have time and again, held us to our promise of power to “the people”.

Reflecting on our collective struggle to define who we mean by “the people” is not simply an academic exercise or even an opportunity to “hate on” white men, our founding fathers, or even the nation as a whole. Instead, these questions provide an opportunity to reflect on who we are, who we want to be, who we promised to be – as a country, community, and to one another. A collective, respectful reflection forces us to consider how forces bigger than us – economic globalization, tax policy, technology – come together in ways that dictate who “the people” are and who isn’t. Ultimately, our history forces us to reflect on our “power to” as individuals, uphold the extraordinary idea of “we the people”, even for a girl from a single wide trailer in Jones Valley.

Resource: How Dolly Parton Led Me to An Epiphany

Heather will be responding to comments on this post on the Shasta Scout facebook page.  Join the conversation there!