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.

 

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