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Panel: Conversation Is Crucial To Defining What 'American' Means

A large American flag overlooks the waterfront lawn during the Louisville Waterfront Fourth of July event.

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Panel: Conversation Is Crucial To Defining What 'American' Means

More than 300 participants are expected in Louisville this week for the inaugural Define American Summit, which aims to spark conversation and change around immigration, identity and citizenship. WFPL’s In Conversation invited officials and guests taking part in the summit to talk about how they define the word ‘American’ and ask how they use their stories to make change.

Our guests were:

  • Comedian Nikita Hamilton
  • Define American Executive Director Ryan Eller
  • Comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh
  • Actor Christian Arteaga

Some of Define American’s work has focused on changing immigration policies, but Eller said the country cannot do that without changing its narrative. He said if the nation confronts its troubled history of killing Native Americans and of slavery, then it can craft its identity.

“Until we can grapple and wrestle with that … we ultimately are not sure that we’ll be able to reconcile with some of those identity challenges,” Eller said.

For Noorbakhsh, identity in America is personal. She is a first-generation Iranian-American, and said her work has helped dispel stereotypes about Muslims and strengthened her own identity.

“It’s nice to able to center my identity as an Iranian. I wish not like this. I wish not because of a ban, I wish not because of increased sanctions and the lack of rations in Iran,” Noorbakhsh said. “But it is nice to be able to take that and center it around stories of family.”

Arteaga, who is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, said national conversations have also pushed him to speak out through his work.

“I feel like because of where I’m at in the world, I have to use my platform in a way that wakes people up,” Arteaga said. “Even then, in our society, people see it as radical and people see it as crazy.”

Such conversations are important to Hamilton She said the definition of "American" is based on perspective, so conversations about it bring people closer.

“Being able to embrace those different experiences and have true and open conversations — that’s what I love about this country,” Hamilton said. “That’s what we need to be pushing towards and striving towards in talking about our histories and sharing in a real way.”

Join us next week for In Conversation as we talk with Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.

Kyeland Jackson is an Associate Producer for WFPL News.