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.

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