In our meeting with Pastor Willingham, “The American Dream” was a major focus. Of course, that ideal is a critical point of inquiry for this project. Pastor Willingham discussed how the absence of General Motors is treated as an oversimplified explanation for the city’s complex issues. He spoke of a simpler time, before the advent of GM, when the city and its people were still prosperous. Together, we wondered if this corporation, with its promise of “The American Dream,” and the advancement of attainable material wealth, didn’t also trigger a culture of entitlement that continues to pulse in the undercurrents of this community, despite the rapid decline of GM activity.
Pastor Willingham spoke of how his work as both pastor and cop has led to encounters where he witnesses “The American Dream” interpreted as entitlement—what he calls an attitude of “bigness.” He attributes it to violence and other crimes that occur in the pursuit of material wealth or gain; in the absence of jobs and opportunities, people turn to other practices to obtain money or achieve status. As I research this city and its history, it is clear that this ideal was thrilling and seductive to many families in pre-war America, as thousands migrated to Flint until its population reached 156,492 in 1930 (up from 13,103 in 1900; the population continued to climb until its peak in 1960, at 196,940). For me, in the course of our conversation, the enticing promise of this dream*, so critical the ethos of the United States, becomes grotesque; a mockery of idealism.
Pastor Willingham spoke about how, for many people, a version of “The American Dream” has taken them outside of Flint, to pursue opportunities where they are available. Forty or fifty years ago, he said, “everything was local. Now, everything is global.” I think about this often. I am twenty-seven years old, and since graduating from high school at eighteen, I have lived in Florida, New York, and Iowa, and will likely live several more places in my lifetime. Technology has made our world “smaller” than ever. Though we might be “far away,” geographically, we have the power to feel emotionally close—distance carries different value than it did before now. But has it also changed how we define or relate to communities? Does it change how we think about the community we come from? Do we still feel the same connection? What are the implications for a community like Flint?
*For the record, I am operating under a commonly accepted 1931 definition of “The American Dream” penned by James Truslow Adams in The Epic of America. He described it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”