Bridging the American Divide: Post-Trip Reflections on Youngstown and Reconciling Polarization in the United States

After returning from Youngstown, we spent our last class reflecting on our time spent in the city and our thoughts on Youngstown’s future. Students continued to have many diverse perspectives. In fact, Professors Jick and Usher took a poll of whether we had a glass half-full or half-empty perspective on the city. We were split almost directly down the middle, with 13 having a half-full perspective and 11 having a half-empty. With 26 students and a variety of different viewpoints, it was hard to nail down a specific synthesis of our experience. Ultimately, I came up with four key themes that provide a general summary of our experience on the ground in Ohio.

Themes:

  1. The key to solving polarization at the national level is working to end polarization at the local level, which begins by having conversations with people who have (seemingly) opposing viewpoints.
  2. There is a privilege inherent in voting based on social issues. For many people in Youngstown, voting is more about economic survival.
  3. Many of us are optimistic about Youngstown’s future. We were particularly moved by the pride of the community and the incredible commitment of local leaders to revitalizing the city.
  4. Many of us remain concerned about Youngstown’s future. The continuing racial and socioeconomic divides leave us apprehensive that a “new Youngstown” will only benefit some citizens and not others.

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When we took a poll in class after our trip, students were split nearly down the middle about having a half-full or half-empty perspective on the future of Youngstown.


Theme #1: The key to solving polarization at the national level is working to end polarization at the local level, which begins by having conversations with people who have (seemingly) opposing viewpoints. 

“If we want to strive for a country that we are proud of and believe in, then we need to have tough conversations with individuals and communities that are unlike our own. Furthermore, we need to approach these conversations with empathy, patience and respect. The people of Youngstown know that they possess the potential to be great, and I am so grateful that I now know that too. Difference in and of itself is not what harms our country. It is when we refuse to understand that an opinion or perspective in fact stems from the same place as our own: our loved ones, the towns and cities that have made us who we are, the conversations we have with one another, and all the other things that occupy places in our hearts.” -RH

“I don’t think we are as divided as we think we are. It was very easy to connect with each other. Polarization seems to steep from our officials and our media.” -AS

“For the divide to decrease, we need to engage each other more in conversations. People from all ends of the spectrum just want to be heard and be included in the conversation. Solutions to get people closer together can and should be very practical. Communities in these places are very strong and that should be leveraged. I’m am not more or less hopeful, I do feel that I have a much better understanding of where to start the conversation and how I can better engage in them.” -MR

“Paying attention to the national conversation isn’t very informative if you’re looking at what’s actually happening on the ground in America. Each interest group we talked to was voting from a place of self-interest, and most of them rightly so. I didn’t realize how much of a privilege it is in New York to get to have such a broad, wide-ranging approach to issues.” -EM

“All politics are local. The issues that affect people’s lives are really basic: good schools, clean water, drivable streets. A big takeaway for me as a leader is that all decisions are local and all decisions have local impact.” -DR

“As residents from the coast, we need to think about how to make the world better for people not just from our region.” -AM

“Entire regions and cities cannot be fairly described in flippant political commentaries. I was so pleasantly surprised to experience the diversity of thought and opinion in Youngstown. The American Divide is real, but it needn’t be scary – it is our civic duty to talk to one another.” -MP

“I personally feel like the current problems and potential solutions are more complex than I initially appreciated, but there is also a lot of hope. There has already been progress in the community towards their goals. I think bridging the divide should start with conversations between these stakeholders directly and I think as students, we can have a significant role in these future discussions.” -KT

“I have met the most incredible people in Youngstown that not only give me hope for the revitalization of the community, but also have shown how important it is to actually talk face to face with those you disagree with rather than hide behind a geographic, socioeconomic, or racial divide.” -KL

“Compassion and openness to others’ experiences is the first step and only way forward to bridging the divide.” -MV

“I was impressed with the two men who ran the 3-D printing studio. They have very different political opinions but were able to work together. That used to be something our country could do. Before this trip, I couldn’t understand why the U.S. was so obsessed with political correctness. But now, I kind of see the point. It’s necessary to move forward when you have radically different opinions.” -CS

“We had the privilege of talking to everyone in Youngstown. But is there a place in Youngstown where everyone is actually talking to each other?” -KT

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One of our opportunities for dialogue included this panel, “Understanding the Socioeconomic Divide: The Coasts vs. The Rust Belt.” It was hosted at the Youngstown Center of Industry and Labor and featured panelists from both sides of the political aisle, including Glenn Hubbard, CBS Dean, and Matthew Stewart, reporter for The Atlantic.


Theme #2: There is a privilege inherent in voting based on social issues. For many people in Youngstown, voting is more so about economic survival.

“People are always going to vote in their self-interest. That was an epiphany for me. When your back is against the wall, you’re going to first and foremost vote your way out of that.” -MV

“After this trip, I see elections very different. Rather than posting online, ‘How could you vote for Ted Cruz?’, I want to reach out and ask, ‘Tell me about why you voted for Ted Cruz—I’m listening.”’ -KL

“Humanizing others through conversation is key. Just because someone votes for a fiscally conservative candidate doesn’t mean they are denying climate change.” -RH

“People in Youngstown don’t have the privilege of prioritizing social issues when voting. The priority is economic survival.” -DR

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Students outside UAW Local 1112 HQ before a conversation with Youngstown union members and leaders.


 Theme #3: Many of us are optimistic about Youngstown’s future. We were particularly moved by the pride of the community and the incredible commitment of local leaders to revitalize the city.

“Youngstown should serve as an example to all struggling American cities about how grassroots efforts and citizen-led initiatives can successfully turn the tide.” -DE

“I was struck by the tenacity and resilience of the people of Youngstown. I was moved by how involved the community members were and their desire/drive to keep giving back to their community. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for bringing new, entrepreneurial businesses into Youngstown, working with government in public/private partnerships, creating grassroots engagement and soliciting investment to build necessary shops and grocers to keep the momentum of growth.” -AS

“A key theme that emerged for me in Youngstown is the region’s unceasing pioneering spirit. From the glory days of the steel industry through four decades of economic decline to the present, Youngstown has retained its resilience and optimism for a better, more dignified tomorrow. In the present time of national division, the visit to Youngstown showcased how local leaders have an opportunity to lead the effort in improving quality of life and outlook for tomorrow.” -DT

“The combined efforts of the community, city government, and the private sector show great promise to stop the blight. Will these cities return to their former glory? Probably not, but the economic conditions created by their former misfortune creates a type of opportunity zone where historically underprivileged citizens can thrive.” -AL

“While Youngstown will likely be ultimately dependent on forces outside its control (shutting down Lordstown, further population drain, etc.), the community’s success at managing these forces will be determined by the coordinated response of leaders like we met on our trip.” -CW

“I’m more optimistic. You need to actually speak to people on the ground to get an understanding of how things really work. Youngstown has major strengths and will do well. And I’m less optimistic about the chance of Donald Trump winning a second term.” -EM

“In an environment of limited public funds, the private and non-profit sector is leading the charge in creating the Youngstown of tomorrow. Business leaders are job creators, mentors, and philanthropic donors. Those we met with have “opted in” to be a part of the solution and are tirelessly, selflessly and creatively engaged in rebuilding this great American town. For me, the key challenge of Youngstown’s revitalization is human capital; and not just creating jobs and filling jobs but keeping the inspirational leaders engaged, renewed and supported.” -KM

“I’m wondering why all our conversations about investment focus on NY, Silicon Valley, etc. There is so much opportunity on the table outside of a few specific metro regions.” -CW

“I am optimistic about Youngstown’s future and the city’s ability to reinvent itself after decades of decline. Every business owner, social enterprise worker, student, teacher that we met on our trip here emphasized how significant of a role Youngstown has played in their personal or professional development. More so than any other city I have visited, the residents of Youngstown and the valley identify strongly with the city’s strong roots in manufacturing excellence and innovation and their pride gives me the most hope for the broader American Divide playing out across the rest of the country.” -VM

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Students at Youngstown Business Incubator, which supports entrepreneurs and software and manufacturing companies in the Youngstown region.


Theme #4: Many of us remain concerned about Youngstown’s future. The continuing racial and socioeconomic divides leave us apprehensive that a “new Youngstown” will only benefit some citizens and not others.

“I continue to question if the racial or political divides here can be bridged. Intense economic and social inequality remain, and I’m concerned that these divides will impede any attempt at a meaningful regional recovery.” -AA

“In general, we saw a very positive side of Youngstown, but after talking to our Uber drivers, we heard about (in their opinion) the complete failure of the city to address some of the root causes of poverty and division. I think my biggest takeaway is that even as Youngstown the city improves, some people will be left behind. Moving forward, I will keep thinking about the role of politics and government of caring for the people who can’t participate in the new version of Youngstown, and how this affects the divide(s) within Youngstown itself.” -KB

“Even if the community turns around, there will still be people left behind.” -Anon.

“If geographically concentrated poverty is inevitable in Youngstown, maybe we should focus on policies and investments that move people to where opportunity resides rather than trying to herd opportunity to Youngstown (e.g. placing workers and assisting with down payments outside of Youngstown region, funding school choice, etc.).” -AC

“For me, what was missing most was politics. The local business initiatives make me optimistic, but they’re not enough. I don’t think they have the scale to turnaround a community like this.” -MS

“The education system in Youngstown has failed its people. Youngstown State University has not served its people well (low graduation rate) nor been an attractive option to bring in students and attract talent. I would summarize the trip as a glimpse of the struggles of a society that has been reluctant to move on from the past and embrace the future.” -DR

“The communities we hope Youngstown one day emulates—Pittsburgh, Cleveland—have been heavily gentrified as their economics improved. What does that mean for a place like Youngstown?” -Anon.

“Youngstown is still a place that is very focused on the past. The small pockets of growth and opportunity are few and far between. For there to be a “Youngstown 2.0,” the fundamental mindset of many people in the city needs to change. Further, there seems to be a need for a major economic kickstarter – an outside organization that comes in and spurs excitement and energy in the community. The progress that has been made seems to be at the micro level. I fear that the sum of the small steps forward will not amount to enough progress for there to be real change in the community.” -EE

“Perhaps my biggest takeaway from the trip is wondering if there is a misalignment between who is benefiting from these revitalization initiatives and who needs it the most. Lots of engineering and skilled jobs are now available, but the people who need jobs (mainly under-educated and former manufacturing individuals) cannot obtain these jobs.” -ZS

“In terms of this ‘New Youngstown,’ I’m thinking about who gets to participate and who gets left out. There’s this fancy new downtown hotel, the one we stayed in, but our Uber driver said he could never afford to stay there.” -KB

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Lindy Gould (’19) is an MBA candidate at Columbia Business School.

 

Bridging the American Divide: Mid-Point Student Reflections

Mid-way through our trip to Youngstown, I interviewed three of my classmates on their reflections from the experience so far—and the ongoing questions they still had. Thank you to Mike Paranac, Monica Villar, Eric Morden for sharing your thoughts!

Mike Paranac (’19), Monica Villar (’19), Eric Morden (’19)

Q: We’re now on Day 3 of our trip to Youngstown. What key themes are emerging for you? 

Mike: There’s a redemption narrative here in Youngstown. Although, depending on who you ask, it’s further or less along in terms of Youngstown’s return from economic dismay. Some people have more optimistic assessments while some people think economic restoration is never really coming back to the area. It’s interesting to see how those fault lines play out between business leaders, who seem optimistic, and those closer to labor, who are clearly still very anxious about it—despite the presidential rhetoric around a “comeback story” for the region. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Is there a rebirth for this area after steel? Is there life after steel? Is there life after coal? The legacy of those industries is still so fixed in the public consciousness.

Monica: I’m thinking a lot about the idea of dignity. Unprompted by us, that’s been a theme we’ve heard across people and groups in Youngstown. When we met with the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, they were talking about the dignity of homeownership. There are these foundational elements of the American Dream—having a job, having a home—and the point isn’t grasping the financial stability of those things. It’s the actual dignity associated with them. It really ties together the human aspect. As we think about solutions for Youngstown, we need to remember how people feel.

Eric: One thing that’s top of mind for me is just how many interest groups there are when thinking about the American divide. We’ve seen redevelopment organizations, labor unions, Trump-voting business leaders, local community leaders… and none of them are really on the same page about what exactly the challenges are and how best to solve them. The takeaway for me is that there is a lot of complexity below the surface. Unfortunately, it’s too easy to turn this complexity into one-word or one-sentence issues–which is inevitably what happens on the national stage.

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“Bridging the American Divide” students standing in the vacant structure of Republic Rubber, an Ohio factory that once employed 2000+ workers.

Q: Last night, we listened to a panel of three local business leaders who proudly voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. What were some of your takeaways from that dialogue?

Mike: The thing that was most salient in my mind was how the panelists expressed a feeling of being under siege by the Obama administration. Particularly how they view the war on coal not only as an attack on the coal industry, but on their personal way of life. That sensation of feeling under attack is something I’ve only really noticed recently. For example, they were lauding the tax cut bill of 2017, which, to them, felt like vindication. They shared how it gave them more money to give back to their employees. Now, part of what paid for that is taking away the state and local deduction for federal returns, which was born exclusively by blue states. To me, it was just a poignant moment for me to see that justice done for them was something that made people in other parts of the country feel the opposite. It makes me worry if we are just kind of stuck in this civilizational struggle every four years in which you reward the people who voted for you and punish those who didn’t.

Monica: I tried to take to heart everything we had discussed in the class prior and focused on really listening. It’s unfortunate that’s where we are in terms of having a dialogue—just trying to listen to each other—but that was my challenge to myself. To summarize the panel, my takeaway from their position is that they are making decisions based on what is best for their business. That’s absolutely valid. But at the same time, I remain very skeptical of the kinds of decisions they’ve made about what constitutes a business concern vs. what is actually good for jobs and business in the area.  For example, the #MeToo movement came up, and I think that is very much a business interest. How does job loss and the economic drivers of this city affect men vs. women within the labor force? It’s not hard to make a case that women’s participation in the labor force is something that has economic returns and should be a business issue. To hear that the panelists considered it strictly a social issue—that was hard for me.

Eric: Part of it, I understood their perspective. And some of our reactions maybe point to what fails about a more liberal strategy. We asked, for example, about what they would say to a transgender person in their community who wants to serve in the military but can’t under current policy. And they said, “That is an issue. That’s bad for those people. But that’s not an issue that affects that many people. And in the context of all this wider, important economic situation for our region, it’s nowhere near on the spectrum of what really is important.” So for me, the takeaway was that Democrats and liberals need to change their pitch. The liberal side of “single issues” is not a very good strategy, and it’s not very compelling across the aisle.

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Kenny Thompson (’19), Lindy Gould (’19), Daneh Elihu (’19), Monica Villar (’19), and Zach Stone (’19) at the General Motors factory outside of Youngstown.

Q: As of today, are you feeling hopeful about a) the future of Youngstown and b) reducing polarization in our country?

Mike: Is bridging the divide possible? The jury remains out for me. If you live on Twitter, you will not feel very good about this world. But actually speaking to people across the aisle, as we’re doing on this trip, gives me some hope. When you talk to someone with a different viewpoint and ask them questions, you realize there is no palpable animosity. The more people can have conversations like the ones we’re having—and not just on a trip but living life that way—the more our fears and anxieties about the political “other” will melt away. So, I guess the question is, what will win the day? Will people show proclivity for seeking out these conversations and trying to challenge themselves? Or, is the siren song of social media too strong to resist?

Monica: How do you revitalize a city? We’ve been talking about jobs in the traditional sense—manufacturing more cars, retraining people for the future of work–but I’ve also been struck by places like the art gallery we visited. My big takeaway from this class is that you can’t just focus on jobs. There’s also a need to fortify a city not just in diversity of professions and industries, but also in the diversity of all the things that make a city truly great and a place that people want to live. The grassroots work that is being done in Youngstown to address some of the human suffering in this area—it’s very inspiring. It makes me feel hopeful about our country and especially about places like Youngstown.

Eric: I’m probably more optimistic. I see the divide maybe more as a channel issue rather than people actually having changed that much. Listening to the business leaders, the ones who voted for Trump, they definitely don’t endorse all of the things that Trump is saying. So there seems to be space, especially when you focus at a local level, for a lot more collaborative discussion.

Lindy Gould (’19) is an MBA candidate at Columbia Business School.

Bridging the American Divide: Preparing for Youngstown, Ohio

downtown_sticky-750x422Americans are a deeply divided people. The purpose of the Bridging the American Divide course is to help us, Columbia Business School students, gain a better understanding of the causes and consequences of the American divide—and what we might do to help bridge it.

The first half of the course contained on-campus class sessions devoted to topics exploring the causes and consequences of a divided America, including globalization, automation, immigration, race relations, and the opioid epidemic.

Now, we are about to embark on a four-day visit to Youngstown, Ohio. There, we will meet with people whose fortunes have been changed by de-industrialization—manufacturers, unions, local government, and nonprofit service-providers.

As we travel, I interviewed five of my classmates on our class thus far—and what they are looking to learn on our trip. Thank you to Anna Schiller, Grace Yi, Kenny Thompson, Martijn Repko, and Katherine Bergstrom for sharing their reflections!

Q: As we conclude our in-class portion of Bridging the American Divide and prepare for trip to Youngstown, what have been your key takeaways from the class so far?

Anna: We begin each class by grounding ourselves in the facts. For each module, whether it’s the opioid epidemic or manufacturing or job displacement, Professors Jick and Usher spend about a third of the class giving us the facts on the issue. You come in with your preconceived beliefs, but having that ground work, before you get into what tends to be often a very personal class discussion, has been really helpful. It allows you to question your assumptions and adds a lot of layers and depths to the conversation.

Grace: First and foremost, I’ve really enjoyed our classmates. I think that Professors Jick and Usher did an excellent job of crafting a cohort of people with diverse backgrounds and views, and that shows in the different conversations that play out in class. For example, I come from working in the non-profit space, with a specific focus on solving educational inequity in the U.S. in low-income areas. One thing I learned from that work is the importance of putting a face and a name to different statistics. That human aspect of meeting people and being on the ground is key. I’m excited that we get to do that in Youngstown.

Kenny: I think that our last class about having difficult conversations is one that we’ve all had to embrace, early on in the class. Professors Jick and Usher push us to have difficult conversations–but also not back down from what each of us believes. They encourage us to put those ideas and opinions out into the general forum. It’s been a learning experience not only from the materials we’ve grappled with but also hearing everyone’s perspective.

Martijn: I took this class because I wanted to learn more about the U.S. and specifically topics you don’t come across in your daily life—and this class is doing that. We’ve talked about the opioid crisis, race issues—different divides, not just the political ones. One thing that’s been interesting across every divide is how much “identity” matters. From back home in the Netherlands, that’s less of a topic. In the U.S., people very much identify themselves as a certain person, and as part of certain groups, and that really defines how they look at things.

Katherine: Going into the class, I was a bit skeptical because I thought we would all have similar starting viewpoints. I was concerned that there would be so much similarity, it would be hard to get a conversation going. But I was pleasantly surprised at how wide our views range, on pretty much every topic. Like when we were talking about labor, there was a question about whether or not immigration has improved the local economy. And there were a few people who had very real reasons for why it had worsened their personal or family’s economic prospects—and I just thought that was interesting, to have that perspective represented at a business school.

IMG_5386Students Martijn Repko, Marek Slobodnik, Ashley Allen, and Daneh Farahi Elihu prepare to depart for Youngstown, Ohio.

Q: We’ve explored a lot of complex topics that each contribute to the growing divide in our country, from immigration to race relations to the opioid epidemic. Which of the topics has been most interesting to you, and how are you thinking about it now?

Anna: The opioid crisis—it was interesting to see the scientific research behind how people can be predisposed to addiction. Looking at that, and thinking about whether people are responsible for their own drug use, and there’s a wide spectrum of opinions there. But the scientific facts our guest speaker [Catherine Paquette] presented were quite startling and really powerful. Knowing that there are people out there that are born being more predisposed to addictions. It changes the way you think about treatment and addressing the issue. I also thought it was fascinating to see where drug support funding goes to in the U.S. today and how much of it goes to law enforcement and more punitive measures rather than treatment and rehabilitation.

Kenny: The “future of work” conversation was interesting because it’s one we don’t really talk about as a society. And on a lot of the other issues, I have more hardened views on, but on this topic I really didn’t. That was particularly troubling for me because I just don’t know—like, what are we supposed to do about how quickly the nature and type of work is changing? Whereas with issues like immigration and race relations, that was also a difficult conversation, but I think in terms of how we feel at Columbia, there’s more consensus in the room and among our generation and how we tackle those issues going forward.

Martijn: I’m constantly interested in how much zoning matters. People are very much gathered in their zones, even if they are a ten-minute walk away from each other. And growing up in the right or wrong zone makes a big difference. One thing I learned a lot about was these pockets of a lack of transportation. You can’t physically get out of some of these zones even if you want to. That’s something I didn’t know existed.

Katherine: One topic I felt was very important to talk about was the opioid crisis, and the question of whether for people who use drugs, if they are responsible or if society is responsible. I thought that was interesting because this really is a systematic problem and users aren’t the only variable in that equation and the only thing we would need to address. The first class was also one of my favorites—when we talked about “dream hoarding” and how you define classes in the U.S. I had always thought of myself as a solidly middle-class person, but that conversation made me realize—I’m the 1%. I can’t hide from that anymore. There is so much power and privilege that comes with getting a degree from Columbia. Now I’m thinking, what will I specifically do differently if I truly care enough that I want to make a difference in my community and country. Like, asking my friend to get my kid into college—am I going to give that up? We love systems, and we love to believe that if we put systematic standards in place, then equality will come—but then there’s always a loophole.

IMG_8623Our first night in Youngstown at Noble Creature Cask House, a small batch independent brewery. The brewery seeks to “be a launch pad for the next step in Youngstown revitalization.”

Q: As we board the plane to Youngstown, what are you most looking forward to about our trip?

Anna: I’m looking forward to the impromptu conversations we’re going to have with people. You can make a lot of assumptions about the type of person who lives in Youngstown, but I know that the expectations I have now are going to be shattered when I get there. I’m looking forward to being surprised.

Kenny: I’m excited to go to Youngstown and see in practice how these issues, historically and also looking to the future, manifest in an actual community that has felt a lot of the effects of transition and a global economy. I’m excited to listen and hear how people in Youngstown are thinking about and grappling with the issues we’ve talked about in class.

Grace: We’ve all put in a lot of work—reading, learning, and analyzing these issues—and now I’m excited to just be on the ground and listen.

Martijn: I’m looking forward to siting in a random bar, with a PBR in my hand, talking to the random guy next to me, talking to the bartender… because I think those conversations are the most important and the ones we never really have.

Katherine: One thing that I’m thinking about is how we, the East Coasters on this trip, can be skewed in thinking that people in the Midwest can be less than people on the East Coast. I think that the media perception of who voted what way says a lot—and it’s not helping. We get all these stats like, “If you don’t have a high school diploma, you probably voted for XYZ candidate.” Sure, those are statistically true, but it also writes these people stories before giving them any choice. I hope what we get out of this trip is recognizing that these people do have a choice and we should learn why they decided to do certain things—that what we know about them, the facts of their life, are not necessarily why they are making those choices. We assume that a person in Ohio voted for Trump because they were less educated or because Trump pandered to them; but I don’t think anyone voted for Trump for those reasons. If anything, I think they were probably offended by a lot of things he said. I hope we get a sense of why people made the choices they do, and I actually hope a lot of them don’t regret it. If you have a good reason for something, I’d love to hear about it.

Lindy Gould (’19) is an MBA candidate at Columbia Business School.