Viewpoints

A road trip through rusting and rising America

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. – In his dystopian Inaugural Address, President Donald Trump painted a picture of America as a nation gripped by vast “carnage” – a landscape of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones” that cried out for a strongman to put “America first” and stop the world from stealing our jobs. It was a shocking speech in many ways and reportedly prompted former President George W. Bush to say to those around him on the dais, “That was some really weird (stuff).”

It was weird, but was it all wrong?

I just took a four-day car trip through the heart of that landscape – driving from Austin, Indiana, down through Louisville, Kentucky, winding through Appalachia and ending up at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to try to answer that question.

Trump is half right in his diagnosis, but his prescription is 100 percent wrong. We do have an epidemic of failing communities. But we also have a bounty of thriving ones – not because of a strongman in Washington but because of strong leaders at the local level.

Indeed, this notion that America is a nation divided between two coasts that are supposedly thriving, pluralizing and globalizing and a vast flyover interior, where jobs have disappeared, drug addiction is rife and everyone is hoping Trump can bring back the 1950s, is highly inaccurate.

The big divide in America is not between the coasts and the interior. It’s between strong communities and weak communities. You can find weak ones along the coast and thriving ones in Appalachia, and vice versa. It’s community, stupid – not geography.

The communities that are making it share a key attribute: They’ve created diverse adaptive coalitions, where local businesses get deeply involved in the school system, translating in real time the skills being demanded by the global economy.

They also tap local colleges for talent and innovations that can diversify their economies and nurture unique local assets that won’t go away. Local foundations and civic groups step in to fund supplemental learning opportunities and internships, and local governments help to catalyze it all.

The success stories are all bottom-up; the failures are all where the bottom has fallen out.

I started in one of the bottomless places: Austin, Indiana, a tiny town of 4,000 off Interstate 65, which was described in a brilliant series in The Louisville Courier-Journal “as the epicenter of a medical disaster,” where citizens of all ages are getting hooked on liquefied painkillers and shooting up with dirty needles.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that Austin “contains the largest drug-fueled HIV outbreak to hit rural America in recent history.” Its 5 percent infection rate “is comparable to some African nations.” Austin, the newspaper noted, doesn’t just sit at the intersection between Indianapolis and Louisville but at the “intersection of hopelessness and economic ruin.”

I chose to go there to meet the town’s only doctor, Will Cooke, whose heroic work I learned of from the Courier-Journal series. Cooke’s clinic, Foundations Family Medicine, sits at 25 West Main St. – opposite Marko’s Pizza & Sub, a liquor store and a drugstore. Down the street was a business combination I’d never seen before: Eagle’s Nest Tanning and Storage. It’s the Kissed by the Sun Tanning Salon and a warehouse – both of which seemed to be shuttered, with the space available for rent.

For generations Austin’s economy was anchored by the Morgan Foods canning plant, but, as The Courier-Journal noted, “then came a series of economic blows familiar to many manufacturing-based communities. The American Can plant next to Morgan Foods shut its doors in 1986 after more than 50 years in business. A local supermarket closed. Workers left along with the jobs and poverty crept up among those who stayed.”

Austin, Cooke explained to me, got caught in the vortex of declining blue-collar jobs, leading to a loss of dignity for breadwinners, depression and family breakdown, coinciding with doctors’ and drug companies’ pushing painkillers, and with too many people in the community failing to realize that to be in the middle class now required lifelong learning – not just to get a job but to hold one.

“Thirty percent of students were not even graduating from high school,” said Cooke. “Then you take high unemployment, generational poverty, homelessness, childhood abuse and neglect, and cloak that within a closed-off culture inherited from Appalachia, and you begin to have the ingredients that contributed to the HIV outbreak.”

Austin’s insularity proved deadly for both jobs and families. “The close-knit, insular nature of the community worked against it, with the CDC later finding up to six people shared needles at one sitting, and two or three generations – young adults, parents and grandparents – sometimes shot up together,” The Courier-Journal reported.

Lately, though, Cooke told me, the town’s prospects have started to improve, precisely because the community has come together, not to shoot up but to start up and learn up and give a hand up.

“The local high school has introduced college-credit classes and trade programs so people are graduating with a head start,” said Cooke. Faith-based and civic groups have mobilized, celebrating social and economic recovery, providing community dinners called “Food 4R Soul” and even installing community showers for people without running water.

Addiction is often a byproduct of social breakdown leading to a sense of isolation. Cooke feels hopeful because he sees the tide slowly shifting as “social isolation gives way to community.”

“Only a healthy individual can contribute to a healthy family, and only a healthy family can contribute to a healthy community – and all of that requires a foundation of trust,” said Cooke. “That kind of change can’t come from the outside, it has to be homegrown.”

I shared with him the business philosopher Dov Seidman’s admonition that “trust is the only legal performance-enhancing drug.” Cooke liked that a lot and only wished he could prescribe it as easily as others had prescribed opioids.

But just 40 minutes down the highway from Austin, I interviewed Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville, a city bustling with energy and new buildings. “That ‘Intifada' you wrote about in the Middle East is happening in parts of rural and urban America – people saying, ‘I feel disconnected and hopeless about participating in a rapidly changing global economy.’ Drug-related violence and addiction is one result – including in a few neighborhoods of Louisville.”

But Louisville also has another story to tell: “We have 30,000 job openings,” said Fischer, and for the best of reasons: Louisville has “a vision for how a city can be a platform for human potential to flourish.” It combines “strategies of the heart,” like asking everyone to regularly give a day of service to the city; strategies of science, like “citizen scientists” bearing GPS-enabled inhalers that the city uses to track air pollution, mitigate it and warn asthma suffers; and strategies for job creation that leverage Louisville’s unique assets.

One job-creation strategy led to creation of a slew of businesses that make “end of runway” products for rapid delivery by leveraging the fact that Louisville is UPS' worldwide air hub; “bourbon tourism” that leverages the fact that Kentucky is the Napa Valley of bourbon; a partnership with Lexington, home of the University of Kentucky, has created an advanced manufacturing corridor; and by leveraging Humana’s headquarters in Louisville, the city has unleashed a lifelong wellness and aging-care industry.

Show me a community that understands today’s world and is working together to thrive within it, and I'll show you a community on the rise – coastal or interior, urban or rural.

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