May 28, 2013
By guest blogger, Valerie V. Gay, Executive Director, Art Sanctuary
“Naturalize: intransitive verb: to become established as if native” (Merriam Webster)
On a beautifully blustery spring morning, I was privileged to witness 47 people from 31 countries become “established” as US citizens during a simple and elegant ceremony held at the National Museum of American Jewish History.
In fact, it was a day of privileges: I was asked to introduce and sing “God Bless America” during the ceremony. Prior to this occasion, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that Irving Berlin, born, Israel Isidore Beilin, immigrated from what is now Belarus to the United States. I always thought of him as one the most important “American” composers: an important American composer. Period. So my first privilege that day was to remind these newly established Americans that immigrants like them have made incredible contributions to our country and the people who live herein.
The 2nd privilege that day came as a surprise. As a participant in the program, I was asked to stand in the receiving line and shake the hands of each person as s/he walked across the stage of the auditorium having first received his/her Certificate of Naturalization. The smile never left my face as I shook each hand, looked each person in the eye and said, “Congratulations!” I was privileged and honored to be one of the first to welcome these new citizens, and I don’t think I will ever forget the look of gratitude on the face of one particular elderly woman, who has undoubtedly experienced much in her life. The tears in her eyes mirrored my own, as I felt a sense of accomplishment and pride for a group of people I’d never met before and will probably never meet again, but with whom I now share a profound memory.
I know all is not right with our country; there are so many societal ills and injustices within our borders. One can easily wax on about a plethora of systems that are broken; however, even with all of our messiness, I’m glad to be an American and can choose to join others to fix the broken. My ancestors did not choose to come to this country, but once here they no doubt aspired to have the freedom we enjoy. Which brings me to the 3rd and final privilege of this experience: being reminded that I have a responsibility to those who came before me (many of whom did not have the opportunities I enjoy), and those who will follow, to exercise my inalienable rights as an American citizen, not just for my benefit, but for the benefit of my family and community.
Valerie V. Gay is the Executive Director of the Art Sanctuary in Philadelphia. Having been named one of Philadelphia’s “101 Connector Leaders,” Ms. Gay serves on the Board of Directors of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the Marian Anderson Award and the Blues Babe Foundation, is a Trustee for the Concerto Project of New York, is a member of the Arts Rising Steering Committee, Fresh Artists Advisory Council, and Virtuoso Committee for the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia.