When my family gathered at my mother’s house for Thanksgiving, we included two veterans; one active duty military member (about to be deployed to Afghanistan, after two tours in Iraq); a doctor; an engineer; scientists and a retired teacher. All of us stand on the legacy of our ancestors, including a group of proud black farmers in Virginia and my grandparents, who were book collectors and culture mavens on a shoestring salary. My grandfather dropped out of high school to support his family. My grandmother was the valedictorian of her high school class but too poor to attend college. (She later put herself through college classes after having six children.)
My grandparents have long passed on, but they had dreams for us. Although none of our lives are easy or perfect, we have followed path of achievement they told us was possible. This is the American Dream, of course, plus the African-American legacy known as striving. “Striver’s Row” in Harlem, for example, is named for the upwardly-mobile African-Americans who put their cultural stamp on the neighborhood. Harlem has seen a resurgence (not solely among Black residents). But many neighborhoods across America, like the one where my mother lives, have been battered by the economy and the housing crisis.
Next door to my mom’s house is a sad, burnt-out shell of a home. To our relief, it’s scheduled for demolition. (I’ve written more about it here.) As opposed to the well-kept brownstones of Striver’s Row, my mother’s neighborhood probably has more in common with many communities — black and non-black — in our volatile times. The community includes the house-proud and the derelict, unlike previous years where most if not all people lifted themselves to high standards. Of course there are people who are bad actors, but mainly it’s a reflection of people being dealt a bad economic hand.
Nationally, Occupy Wall Street emerged with force, if not always clarity, precisely because so many of us saw our communities, families, and lives going from everyday struggle to outright trauma. The trillion dollar question is: how do we right this ship? And that’s where we get into tricky territory. Last night, our Thanksgiving dinner ended with a bitter fight over how to deal with the problems facing the community. The specifics of the fight were about what happens in Baltimore, but of course the issues apply on a national level. How do you encourage good actors and justly (but not unfairly or hyper-reactively) fight crime? How do you encourage sustainable communities, jobs and enterprise? How do you re-create the American Dream from the American Nightmare?
My family, like many, includes people of varied and sometimes opposing political views. But underneath our self-identification and labels, we have a common goal of making life better. Take my cousin, who was at home out West last night, not in Baltimore. She’s around my age, and has a husband and two kids in grade school. This summer, they all went on an epic road trip. They camped, went fishing, and got their car towed in Philadelphia. Then they stayed with me, and learned that in New York, life comes in small packages. We all squeezed into my apartment and went out to the Brooklyn Museum late at night on First Saturday to see the mummies.
One day, my cousin was talking about raising the kids right; looking out for education and the economy; and mentioned a few times that she saw society from her perspective “as a conservative.” But what she was speaking about didn’t sound to me like conservatism as much as good common sense.
The issues we’re facing in America today are bigger than politics. We’re seeing, and experiencing, a permanent shift in labor patterns that will leave more people episodically employed. For many people out of work today, or even those in the factory or office, the road ahead will be making a quilt of different paying gigs versus having the security blanket of one long-term job with benefits. Long-term labor shifts are changing and will continue to affect our tax rolls, schools, and even our physical and mental health.
The game has changed. As my uncle put it: “I used to feel like I could switch jobs at any minute, because I had confidence that I could learn anything and there would be jobs out there.” He was proven right again and again, working at everything from being a Marine to a fine artist to a telephone lineman to a computer programmer. But today, his kids and so many others face a job market where mobility is trending downward rather than up; where cold job applications meet silence; and where more aggressive means of connecting with work (putting your own portfolio online; networking via Meetup and local groups) absolutely have to be employed.
Our family’s political disagreements mirror those on a national level. That said, we are still striving — still working to make our lives and our communities better. I see more success on the local level than the national in defining how we’re going to move ahead. In my mother’s neighborhood, for example, six years of community action finally produced the funding and plan for a business district redevelopment. We can rise; we can succeed; and we can produce new opportunities. On a good day, I believe that without reservation. Even on a bad day, I believe it can happen in time… if we make it so.