J.D. Vance Challenges Wittenberg to Help a Culture in Crisis — Megan Winters

“What do I do with all my utensils?”

At a fancy law firm dinner interview, J.D. Vance had never had so much cutlery to choose from nor felt farther from the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio. He grew up bouncing from house to house and father figure to father figure. His mother struggled with addiction, his father was scarcely around and the only stability in his life came from his loyalty-loving Mamaw.

“She was gun-toting. She was foul-mouthed. She was very loving. She was wicked smart,” Vance said.

Defying statistics, Vance enlisted in the Marine Corps and went on to attend The Ohio State University where he graduated in three years as a double major, Summa Cum Laude. He attended Yale Law School and is currently a lawyer, a husband, a passionate public speaker and a New York Times best-selling author. His road to the American Dream was anything but smooth, and Vance addressed the challenges he faced Monday, Oct. 30 in the HPER Center.

Vance spoke about his best-selling book “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” The book documents Vance’s life, from his unstable childhood to his graduation from Yale Law School. Vance decided to write the book because he felt troubled internally. He often asked himself, “Why do I feel like such an outsider?” He wrote the book for himself, with only 10,000 copies printed initially.

Vance wanted to address the cultural dichotomies present in America. Vance wanted to challenge readers with his book, and the only way to do that was to make it about real people. His ultimate goal was to start a conversation about what kids face in their disadvantaged communities.

The explosive success of his book was unexpected, though the recent presidential election likely aided in the book’s popularity. People wondered why this demographic of voters from disadvantaged communities shifted from staunchly Democratic to staunchly Republican, and why they were voting the way that they were. “Hillbilly Elegy” provided insight into the lives of these people, and Vance’s hope is that people are grappled by what is happening and why achieving the American Dream is a problem for these communities.

One aspect of the American Dream is upward mobility. Vance said that the biggest disadvantage for many kids is coming from the background that they do. Vance said there is “something wrong with the way people grow up. The reason for poor kids in America is a ton of different factors, all of them.”

These factors include family, substance abuse, poverty, childhood trauma, education and social barriers. Regardless, Vance claims that the American Dream is fundamental no matter where a kid comes from.

While Vance overcame many of his obstacles, his background prohibited him from some experiences. He said it was useful to think that anything is possible for a kid from his background, even if it is not true. It is necessary to recognize the obstacles in order to overcome them. Still, Vance said that people from his background do not always have hope.

“They don’t see opportunities as available for people like them,” Vance said.

This mindset provides yet another obstacle for them to overcome.

While Vance has great pride in America and emphasizes the role of personal responsibility in fixing disadvantaged situations, he has started his own nonprofit, Our Ohio Renewal. This organization aims to create more pathways to the middle class by reforming education and attacking the opioid crisis to help orphaned kids being raised by their own “Mamaws.”

Vance said a large issue facing America is the lack of patriotism. His time in the Marine Corps gave him the structure and skills necessary for success. He is increasingly convinced mandatory national service is “something we should look into.” Vance believes that national service would help develop a culture that enables Americans to share common values under a common patriotism.

Vance challenged the audience to connect kids to people who believe in them. He said the best way for college kids to help is to try to spend time with people who come from another background. He said that a college degree is also a social degree that creates a social barrier.

“The current generation must recognize the most important thing is to bridge these barriers,” Vance said.

Adjusting to the lifestyle of Yale was difficult for Vance, but he has adapted. Vance said there are certain things he now knows how to do. He is not always comfortable, and the change in lifestyle never becomes natural. 

While Vance now “isn’t startled when someone says ‘chardonnay,’” his past is still affecting him. Vance began to fall into his mother’s habits in his relationships.

“Nothing compares to the fear you’re becoming the monster in your own closet,” Vance said. “I still struggle with the thing I wanted most: a happy and stable family.”

Still, Vance said if he could grow up anywhere in the world, he would choose Middletown. He would not have changed anything. He said growing up there gave him a perspective no one else has on the world.

“Disadvantages make you who you are,” Vance said.

Vance said success and the American Dream are not leaving behind and forgetting childhood homes. Rather, it is an art of constantly building bridges.

“You never make it if by making it, you mean detaching,” Vance said. “You’re always going to be a part of them. They’re always going to be a part of you.”

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