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.

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