If you have not read JD Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy", you should, full stop. It's a riveting and powerful account of growing up and getting out of a deeply depressed and uniformly poor town in our country's Rust Belt.
His memoir mixes key elements of our society's decades-in-the-making divisive reality whose apex culminated on November 8 with the election of Donald Trump as our nation's 45th President. The elements Vance explores in his book include entrenched multi-generational poverty, verbal abuse, physical violence, extreme loyalty, deep love of country, substance addiction and dwindling economic opportunities. This mix yields a powder keg existence for tens of millions of working class whites in the United States, especially its heartland.
My wife (more on her in a second) had heard that the book provides insight to the dynamics experts and pundits yap endlessly about and quizzically puzzle over every day, but which Trump instinctively channeled into one of the most stunning political victories in history. His victory should not have been a surprise, not by a mile. My fingers are crossed as we await Trump's prescription to improve our lives and move the country forward. It goes without saying that the stakes are high, especially for the people that propelled him to become the single most powerful person in the planet. A brutally complex web of globally interconnected reasons will likely severely hamper Trump's fulfillment of the promises made.
But, this article is not about the election. It's about the decades-old collective lack of empathy and dearth of listening that has led to a fractured America, seemingly devoid of common ground. Entrenched camps have formed where identity political divisions fester. An increasingly divisive society at a global scale is a scary prospect. If we don't soon find pathways to common ground, our union may be hobbled permanently. But I believe there is hope, let me tell you why.
Back to Lori, my wife. Her story is less tragic than Vance's but similar in many important respects. She is white from a working-class family in the Rust Belt with deep generational roots in Appalachia. Lori was the first in her family to go to college, has traveled the world and has lived in major cosmopolitan American cities. She now owns her own successful branding strategy firm, eats organic kale and rescues dogs. Like Vance, on the surface, she seems like a rich coastal elite, out of touch with the dynamics of the widening gaps in our society. But that is incredibly far from the truth because at heart, Lori remains a hillbilly and is proud of her upbringing, her late bus-driving dad, multi-job holding mom and the place where she's from.
Those same dynamics apply to my own story. But I am not white nor grew up in the Rust Belt - I am brown and grew up middle class in Puerto Rico. Just as the Rust Belt, my little island homeland is in very deep distress, even worse than that being felt in coal-mining West Virginia, axle-producing Michigan or chicken-raising Arkansas. Like Lori I have worked as hard as I possibly can to get ahead. Like Vance, I always felt like an admission mistake at an Ivy League graduate school, but that experience completely changed the trajectory of my life. I had no clue why Goldman Sachs jobs were so coveted or how powerful networks like those of Stanford University exert influence.
In a recent chapter of my professional life, I had the unusual privilege of seeing our society from a sub-Cabinet role in President Obama's administration. I oversaw tens of billions of dollars in capital for investment and innovation small business programs. That experience provided me with an invaluable perspective. The main thing I learned from my interactions with many thousands of people: There is a lot more in common than not between Ethiopian immigrants in Virginia, Mexicans in Brownsville, Russians in Brooklyn, Dominicans in the Bronx and African Americans in Chicago with mostly white folks in Idaho, Indiana, Oregon, Utah, and Montana.
And this commonality is exactly my point. Lori and I on the surface seem very different as do the groups in the last paragraph, but the glue that binds us is much more powerful than the forces that pry us apart. The fact is that a multi-generational poor family in Wheeling of Irish roots has a lot more in common than not with a similar family in Anacostia whose ancestors came here unwillingly. I know this is provocative, but the same tools we need to lift a poor white kid in Beattyville are similar to those we'd use to lift a different looking kid from Watts. That commonality dynamic holds true for people of all stripes pursuing an education, starting a business, getting their first bank account or finding a steady job with benefits.
Millions live in chronic poverty in the US along with desperate billions around the world. The lack of participation in a more interconnected and technology-driven world and the evaporation of on-ramps have made people feel entitled to their angst and despair. Challenges and the suffering they cause are not an existence they are disruptions to an existence. While the prospects seem impossibly dim to fathom as wealth and power gaps widen, and political differences continue to wedge us further, the fact is that common ground needs to be baked into policies that enhance our union, not undermine it.
Is there a way to make economic advancement more accessible and inclusive as opposed of a "us vs them" game? How can we minimize the disruptive chasms that lead to division?
Daunting questions to be sure, but here are some examples of what each of you can and should do: Educate yourself about the issues. Genuinely help others and be open to accepting help. Get involved in your community, volunteer. Fight for a cause or charity you believe in, help them raise funds. Listen and empathize with people that have different realities than yours and explore common ground, you may be surprised. Take a road trip, talk to locals. Write your mayor, governor, congresswoman or senator and speak your mind - they all work for us. In two words, "get involved".
The bottom line is that civic engagement, even when it does not involve an election, fosters community participation which in turn leads to smarter and more inclusive solutions. Those solutions are typically borne out of finding common ground and finding it makes us stronger individually and as a nation. I really hope our political leaders are listening to us and to each other. Healing a fractured population, ensuring broad economic participation and lifting the disenfranchised is key to a functioning democracy.