John Stewart: Redefining American Identity

John Stewart, MALA’s summer intern, is a social activist, political enthusiast, and devoted owner of two amazing Maine Coon cats. After graduating from Cornell University in 2013, John spent over two years working as an HR professional with one of the largest health care companies, Aetna, Inc., in America. He is a graduate student of Development and International Cooperation at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. John is a traveler and has been to over 40 countries on 5 continents. He is also an avid runner, hiker, reader, kayaker and volleyball player. 


My passion for storytelling started at an early age. As a child growing up in poverty, my family moved around all over Massachusetts to make ends meet. I was raised by a single mom who worked her hardest to raise two children while keeping a job. She often couldn’t, leaving us without rent and having to move towns for a new job every couple of years. Although stressful for my mom, this was an exciting season for an adventurous boy who loved film. Each day I returned from school eager to re-watch my favorite movies and try to understand how actors in one movie could portray completely different people – with different values, norms, and morals – than in another. Getting a new school, new friends and a new home (or shelter) made me feel as though I was one of those actors beginning a new chapter or story in a film. Film had become the most impactful medium in my reality.

As I grew older, my fascination with and knowledge of people’s stories and culture grew. By my early twenties, I had traveled to over forty countries and had the opportunity to meet a multitude of people with so many unique perspectives. I met migrant workers, elected officials, children of the post-Arab Spring, and several generations of one family. I began photo-documenting my travels and realized how impactful they could be if captured and shared with others one day. While working in HR at Aetna, Inc., I had the chance to become a storyteller for outstanding employees by managing Aetna’s Leadership Excellence Awards. I worked with two videographers over several enlightening weeks to capture the struggles and successes of dozens of individuals. At the culmination of this project, I was overwhelmed by a sense of accomplishment in my work and felt privileged by the responsibility to capture and share these stories. I am looking forward to feeling the same excitement through MALA’s ‘Elevate Y/Our Story’ project.

Storytelling enables enlightenment and growth among all listeners. It opens previously unseen doors and captures kaleidoscopic new worlds. In my life, there have been several times where I’ve questioned my identity or experienced an identity crisis. As a child, I questioned my worth and deservingness of financial aid and other support due to my family’s socioeconomic status. As teenager, coming to terms with my sexuality, I’ve questioned what that meant to be a gay Christian. As an adult, I continue to learn, evaluate and grow as I come to terms with my privileged status as white male, realizing there are some worries I will never face.

As I continue to travel, live and study abroad, I continue to question what it means to be “American”, and for me to be American. Having backpacked across 40+ countries on 5 continents, experiencing so many beautiful cultures and meeting individuals of various backgrounds, I’ve been surprised by how many people identify as American. Individuals who I formerly would not have labeled as American. Individuals from Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru and Brazil who all identify and feel pride in being American. As my previous understanding of American identify was so focused on nationality, I started to realize that I didn’t really understand what it meant to be American. I have since strived to help create awareness about cultural identity and individuality, and I hope my experiences will make a meaningful contribution to the ‘Elevate Y/Our Story’ project.

I first became interested in MALA when I saw their incredible reach and ability to promote individuality. It was very inspiring to see MALA stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community, of which I am a proud member, in light of recent events in Orlando. MALA’s heartfelt response and words of encouragement are as beautiful as their commitment to building bridges through personal narratives. I am grateful to be a part of such a wonderful organization that is committed to uniting Americans of all backgrounds. As part of the ‘Elevate Y/Our Story’ project, I am looking forward to meeting many incredible and unique individuals and continuing to learn about what it means to be American.

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