This Presidents’ Day

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Maya Shen/File

With Presidents’ Day on Monday, we’re all thrilled to have an extra day to ourselves, but the holiday in itself is radically ironic — the men we honor this weekend worked tirelessly for the American people and so, on their behalf, we take a day off from our duties.

Presidents’ Day was initially a federal holiday designated for Feb. 22, specifically designed to commemorate George Washington’s birthday. Later on, officials chose a weekend between Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays so the holiday could celebrate both men. Now, the long weekend serves as a reminder of every president who has left their mark on this nation’s political and cultural landscape. Expanding the holiday to include each of our 44 past presidents exemplifies one of America’s greatest values: diversity. America was founded on dissenting opinions and varied beliefs being allowed to find a voice in our government and the public sphere. Although celebrating 44 almost exclusively white men as representatives for the billions of citizens of our past, present and future, is rather narrow, I prefer instead to view this holiday as a cohesive celebration of the American spirit and the values we hold so dear.

Presidents such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are perceived as heroes in American history because of their bold and unprecedented actions. Both men embodied key values of the American Dream: opportunity, freedom and democracy for all. Washington led our early nation to victorious independence and a Constitution that serves to protect every single American. Lincoln put into place policies that began to diminish racial discrimination. Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought our country through the Great Depression, reforming our financial system to be more inclusive and secure. Woodrow Wilson helped expand voting rights to include women and most recently, Barack Obama’s tenure secured marriage equality for all Americans. The progressive steps taken by these men, however applauded, often overshadows the priceless work of our citizens. And this Presidents’ Day, I would like to honor the ability of the American people to inspire and create change nationally and abroad.

“America was founded on dissenting opinions and varied beliefs being allowed to find a voice in our government and the public sphere.”

To this day, that very foundation of our country — diversity and freedom — is continually tested and often times suppressed. Each president has had to strategically create and change policy to meet the standards and hopes of American citizens despite reaching crossroads and experiencing backlash. Although men like Washington and Lincoln were successful in progressing America far past what was ever imagined for our country, it was the people who enabled their heroism. Americans have never let any group stand alone in their fight for freedom and equality. White abolitionists fought with Black slaves for freedom, straight and cisgender citizens stand with the LGBTQ+ community for marriage and social equality and men stand with women in their fight for gender equality. No community, however big or small, can be denied basic rights in a country that stands together despite great differences amongst individuals.

Today, we’re at another crossroads in the course of this country’s development. Issues spanning from religious freedom to climate change are being debated every day. Schools across the nation are exercising their right to free speech and are struggling to create an impact on the political agenda. An issue in today’s America may not impact you directly. But it may deeply affect your neighbor, your coworker, your friend. A cause you believe in and a cause you support, however mildly, is a cause worth speaking out for. It may not benefit you personally to fight for funding for Planned Parenthood or to advocate for positive policy in the name of climate change, but it will benefit America. Stand with your peers and your neighbors. Speak out for change and resist the urge to be merely a bystander. Our nation is experiencing unprecedented and increasing division sparked by issues concerning our society today. I plead with my fellow Americans to read news stories from trusted media outlets, form opinions, take a stand, understand the opposing side and engage in the political process we all have the right to be a part of. America is the leader of the free world not because it amplifies the voices of those at the top, but because it promises a voice to everyone.

I am so proud to be on a campus that values free speech, accepts every human being for who they are and fights for change when something isn’t right. UC Berkeley students always have and always will continue to raise their voices for the democracy and values that America was built upon. As a student, I realize the tremendous power I hold in my words, in my learning and in my influence on campus. I stand with my fellow peers who serve as beacons of hope and progress in today’s America, and I urge students to realize their rights and become activists for the America we will soon inherit.

Our past 44 presidents have been both wildly successful and, at times, wildly ineffective in steering our nation as the leaders of the free world. The respect (or lack thereof) we feel for them is in no small part due to the active changes they have made to our society. But our presidents don’t stand alone. They represent the people. We the people must continue to guide the leaders of our nation and help them understand what we want. Today’s president is leading in extremely controversial times. We have key issues on the line that are being overlooked and it is becoming easier for us to be disregarded in important affairs in Washington; therefore, we must speak louder for the America we believe in. It is an undeniable component of human nature to expect tremendous change from those in positions of power. I sincerely believe that the common man can exert equal, if not greater, influence on the political and social changes this nation undergoes. I can stand with my friends on the corner of a busy intersection and advocate for a cause I believe in. I can change minds and introduce new ideas. I can write letters and make phone calls to the people I voted into office in order to make my voice heard in our government. I can talk to people from different walks of life and broaden my perspective of the world.

“I stand with my fellow peers who serve as beacons of hope and progress in today’s America, and I urge students to realize their rights and become activists for the America we will soon inherit.”

So, President Trump, here you are. In four years, you’ll be one of the men America remembers on Presidents’ Day. You have a chance to leave your mark on the landscape of our nation. We won’t stop fighting for what we believe in, for what’s right. You are now the most powerful man in the world, but please, remember what America stands for. The America of immigrants, of religious freedom, of racial cohesion, of gender equality, of love. You have an unbelievably powerful chance to create an America that every single citizen is proud to belong to. We will do our part, and the American Dream will live on past your presidency, whether you support it or not.

Contact Priyanka Athalye at [email protected].