These Harvard kids got the lesson of their lives in the Heartland
By Salena Zito, June 16, 2018
On a blustery afternoon in April, I filed into a van along with 10 students from Harvard. We had just spent the last two days in Chicopee, Mass., where we had chatted with the police chief and his force, the mayor and his staff, small-business owners, waitresses and firemen about their struggles living in small-town America.
The undergrads were buzzing with their impressions. Chicopee is about 90 miles west of their prestigious university in Cambridge, but when it comes to shared experience, it might as well have been 1,000 light years away.
As they settled in, I looked at them.
“So,” I said, “who do you think most of the people you just got to know voted for president?”
None of the students had an answer. It hadn’t come up in their conversations and they didn’t know I had privately asked each person whom they’d voted for.
So I let a minute pass and told them.
“Nearly every one of them voted for Trump.”
My students at first looked stunned. But then recognition crossed their faces.
We were only a few days into a new course I had developed with Harvard’s Institute of Politics, called the Main Street Project, where students are immersed in small-town America. Even though these kids had almost all been raised in the United States, our journey sometimes felt like an anthropology course, as though they were seeing the rest of the country for the first time. And this was their opening lesson.
I have been a national political journalist for nearly 15 years. Whenever and wherever I travel in this country, I abide by a few simple rules: No planes, no interstates and no hotels.
And definitely no chain restaurants.
The reason is simple: Planes fly over and interstates swiftly pass by what’s really happening in the suburbs, towns and exurbs of this nation. Staying in a hotel doesn’t give me the same connection I can get staying in a bed and breakfast where the first person I meet is a small-businessperson who runs the place and knows all the neighborhood secrets. The same is true of going to locally owned restaurants versus chains.
Also, you have to spend time in a community to really report on it. Parachuting in for a few hours to interview the locals can lead to flawed evaluations. When you are short on time, your instincts can get blurred and you gravitate toward the shiny objects, the oddball people and conditions that make the most noise, instead of taking a broader focus on the bigger, fuller picture.
Those simple rules are what intrigued students at the Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP) after hearing me speak at a Pizza and Politics event on the school’s campus last fall.
Days after my speech, two IOP directors said the students wanted to learn more from me. I told them the best course would be a total immersion into the less-populated parts of the country, no different from the way I approach my daily job.
Chris Kuang, a 20-year-old sophomore from Winchester, Mass., and Sam Kessler, 21, a junior from Blue Bell, Pa., led the charge, recruiting 18 other students for the class, which began in February.
Because Kuang is chair of the Harvard Union, the nation’s oldest collegiate debating society, and Kessler is president of the Harvard Political Review, they were both hungry to learn what shapes people’s voting habits — particularly after the 2016 election, when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in an upset almost no one predicted.
“The best way to blow apart a stereotype is to challenge it,” Kuang, an applied math and economics major, told me.
So, before we started traveling, we held several workshops to discuss their ideas about the “other” America.
Nearly all of them said they didn’t know what life was like outside the coastal cities and states. Only one student, Henna Hundal, 20, had grown up in a rural environment — an almond farm in Turlock, Calif. — while Kessler, a computer science major, was the only member of the class who had ever fired a gun. The students ranged in age from 19 to 21, with an equal number of girls and boys and a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. The majority of them hailed from cities and suburbs in blue states along the East and West coasts. One was from Wales.
They admitted they had been fed a steady diet of stereotypes about small towns and their folk: “backwards,” “no longer useful,” “un- or under-educated,” “angry and filled with a trace of bigotry” were all phrases that came up.
And so we embarked on our journey. For the next few weeks, I would conduct three classes in rural and industrial towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Most of the trips were a two- to four-night stay, getting from place to place in a van and sleeping in locally owned B&Bs.
First we went to Chicopee, where my students met Tara O’Grady as she served her last table at the Polynesian restaurant she had worked at for over 23 years. The 27,000-square-foot Hu Ke Lau has been an institution in this town for over a half-century. Chris Rock, Joan Rivers and countless other comedians have performed on its stage, but after tonight it was closing its doors for good.
O’Grady brushed back tears at the thought of never walking into her “second home” again.
“The people I work with are family, and the people I serve become part of that fabric of community,” she told the students. “It’s a job I have loved and has helped my family have extra spending money.”
As my students took their seats in the crowded restaurant, they couldn’t help but notice a 37-member family seated nearby celebrating an 11th birthday for Jasmine Smith, complete with a sparkly unicorn cake.
Jasmine quickly struck up a conversation with the students and was thrilled when she found out they were from Harvard.
“Well, you know, I am going to go to Harvard,” she proclaimed confidently.
Her mother, Monique, smiled and shook her head in agreement. “That is all she has talked about doing for as long as I can remember,” she said.
After devouring her cake, Jasmine sat with the students to talk more.
“I want to go and be the best I can be at something that will help change my community,” she said. “I want to help make things work. I don’t want to leave and forget where I came from.”
This rang a bell for Hundal, a stem-cell biology senior. She also plans to return home after graduation “or as close as I can get,” she added. “Working in rural medicine is very important to me, so is being close to family.”
At the end of the day, Hundal was touched by the connection she felt with a group of strangers. “I had this impression before taking this class that there was a lot of anger and resentment towards people outside of their communities,” she said. “Well, I don’t have that impression anymore.”
Two weeks later in Londonderry, NH, the students visited a gun range at Fish and Game Club and saw something else they didn’t expect — 40 women of all ages, shapes and colors pointing pistols at a target.
Susan Olson, a silver-haired instructor, made her way over to the students with a broad smile and a swagger. For women, knowing how to operate a gun, she told them, is “the most empowering thing we can do.”
“We teach safe gun handling — from what parts make up a pistol and how it operates, to how to clean your pistol, how to store it and, of course, live-fire training and skill development,” Olson said, rattling off the key points like a shopping list.
In May, the students found more insights in the Mahoning Valley of Ohio, where they broke bread at the iconic MVR restaurant with Joe Cassese, the third member of his family to own the eatery.
Cassese’s enthusiasm kept the students rapt as he told them how he developed and grew a business in the downtown area of Youngstown.
“I could have gone anywhere, and I did,” said Cassese who worked for several teams in the NFL as an equipment manager. “But in the end, I wanted to come home to this,” he added, as he made a 360-degree sweep of his restaurant. “This is the greatest city in America, the people, the heart. I love my community.”
Cassese was interrupted several times as he talked to the students, but he was the first to interrupt himself.
“Hey, get these kids three pizzas as an appetizer, mix it up, they need to try our pizza before dinner,” he told Austin, the waiter.
Four different bocce leagues walked in, and every member either slapped Cassese’s back or hugged him as they walked toward one of several courts located outside the restaurant.
Above us, where the outdoor bar is located, the board members of his community group were passing the time with beers and gossip.
The aroma of the sauce that graced the dishes was intoxicating.
“That’s my mom’s recipe, we make it fresh every day, and oh, you should taste her meatballs,” he said, motioning to the waiter to bring us some.
At one point, Samantha Frenkel-Popell, a 20-year-old social science major from the Bay Area, declared that she was ready to move here.
“You don’t feel like a customer here,” she told Cassese. “You feel like family.”
The next day, the students sat alongside artisans making Fiestaware pottery at a china plant along the curve of the Ohio River. They got their hands dirty as they made their own coffee mugs, added intricate decals to handmade dishware and spun plates to the exactly right circumference.
Later, they dined at the famed Trumbull Country Club, where the robber barons of yesteryear once made their deals. Today, a new generation of leaders is helping the club regain its footing in the post-industrial age.
Amid the pristine greens of the club’s golf course, executive chef Chad Wilkoff greeted the students and talked about his decision to build his career in small-town America.
“The economy of the area has taken a hit, but this is a good place for myself and my young family to settle down,” he said. “The work they are doing here to maintain this club is incredible. It’s hard work, but there is a devotion to make us thrive.”
The students’ course was coming to an end, and while no one got college credit or earned a grade, they had all passed my most important test: They had taken a walk down Main Street and made a lot more friends than judgments. They had learned that, in order to understand a country’s politics, you first have to understand its people. That means getting out of your bubble and spending time away from people like you. If you don’t, Kuang said, “you lose the ability to spark the evolution needed to bridge the country’s divide.”
The students even came up with a better name for the Main Street Project. They called it #IOPening — a hashtag blending their eye-opening experiences with the acronym for their institute.
In our final week, the class attended Mass at St. Stanislaus, a Polish church in the Strip District of downtown Pittsburgh. Before then, only two of my students had set foot in a Catholic church.
At the end of Mass, an older gentleman came up to me and said how nice it was to see young people dressed up and going to church. When I told him they were students from Harvard, he beamed.
“I have been reading for years that college kids these days are thin-skinned, what’s that word … ? Snowbirds, snowflakes, anyways … that they have no easiness with meeting someone new or trying something different or won’t be open to opposing opinions,” he said.
He smiled as he gave my kids an approving thumbs-up.
“Don’t you just love when a stereotype is blown up right in front of you?”
. Salena Zito is the author of “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics.” She is scheduled to teach another Main Street Project at Harvard this fall.