How the Rust Belt is keeping the American dream alive

Betting big on Detroit manufacturing
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Story highlights

  • Peter Sims: To be inspired, look to companies and community projects in places like Detroit, Pittsburgh and Tulsa
  • Young people in these cities and others are connecting with a sense of place and restoring America's soul, he says

Peter Sims is the founder and CEO of Parliament Inc., the author of "Little Bets" and "True North," a social entrepreneur and angel investor for the BLK SHP. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author.

(CNN)I get it if you think the American dream is dead. I grew up in Trump country, so I have definitely heard it before. Anyone who studies economic mobility will cite it as empirical fact.

What's more, it seems like America is adrift, lacking the strong national purpose we had while fighting World War II or striving to put a man on the moon.
Peter Sims
That said, this lack of focus -- especially combined with the cynicism and despair left weighing us down after the 2016 election -- doesn't serve anyone. We need to be inspired.
And we can be, if we know where to look. Because the American dream isn't dead, it's just changing -- and it's starting to renew in places you might not realize if all you do is watch political news. It's waking up in the heart of the Rust Belt, and many other parts of the country.
If you want to be inspired, go to Detroit, where you will see a new generation of 20- and 30-something-year-old entrepreneurs, artists and social innovators repurposing old manufacturing plants into new work spaces and workshops. Others are working to reinvent systems of education and health care.
Take Shinola, a company founded on the belief that some of the finest watches and bicycles in the world could be made in Detroit. Its founders were determined to build on the foundations of the city's former greatness. Detroit provided fertile ground (and ample space) for invention, and today the company occupies 30,000 square feet in the historic Argonaut building, a building that housed General Motors Research Laboratory from 1936 to 1956. It's now a state-of-the-art facility and the company employs over 500 people, many of them young people.
Now, Shinola plans to open a 130-room hotel by 2018, occupying the now-vacant old T.B. Rayle & Co. department store in downtown Detroit, which was built in 1915.
Detroit has a long way to go, no doubt, but Shinola is not an isolated exception. In many ways, Shinola's focus, and Detroit's renewal, are predicated upon rediscovering and harnessing the power of craft and authenticity.
If you go to Pittsburgh, you will find a city that is even further along the curve toward renewal than Detroit. Through prudent long-range strategic planning, Pittsburgh shifted from steel toward an economy built on health care and technology as the dominant industries. Today, the city stands as one of America's leading centers for technology and health care innovation.
If Pittsburgh and Detroit can reinvent, so can America. So is America.
The new American stories already exist, although they don't get the media attention they deserve. An up-and-coming generation of makers, builders, social entrepreneurs, artists and entrepreneurs are reinventing America from the bottom up.
These young people are motivated by a sense of place — be it in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Tulsa (or Mobile, or Louisville, or perhaps your own town) — much more so than self.
The Petroleum Club building in downtown Tulsa was a hotbed of social activity 60 years ago, yet saw its fate plummet with the decline of the oil and gas industry as well as a fire in 1994 that destroyed the top two floors. Today, the building is undergoing dramatic reinvention thanks to its new marquee client, a fast-growing company called ConsumerAffairs led by a dynamic young entrepreneur, CEO Zac Carman.
Carman and his team of employees (now over 200, and currently adding about 10 per month, as Carman told me) have tripled ConsumerAffairs' workforce over the past few years, and tripled its workspace. "One of our big, hairy audacious goals as a business is to become a household brand, and change the landscape of Tulsa," he says.
When Trump said: "I alone can fix it," when referring to national problems like poverty and violence at home and abroad, at the Republican National Convention, he dismissed everyone who is actually working on the problems already.
Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton nor a knight on a white horse possesses all the answers to making America's reinvention and renewal a durable success. Leadership starts very small, with you, and with me. The answer to America's identity crisis is all of us, rediscovering what it means to be American.
America has been through painful transitions before, including going from an agrarian to industrial economy, and during this transition, I have every confidence that we will evolve and endure once again.
That won't happen if we continue to let a demagogic leader continue to cast a pall of fear over America's national psyche to advance his own goals, or preserve his own power. Instead of succumbing to feelings of anger and vitriol or, worse, helplessness, we need to step out of our own safe echo chambers.
As the economist Paul Romer has said, "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste," and we should embrace this moment of crisis as an opportunity for a generational shift in America. The election results awoke a sleeping lion, revealing much about the ways we do -- and do not -- really see each other. We are indeed in a moment of instability and profound change, and what's happening in Detroit, Tulsa, and other cities shows me how younger Americans are making the most of it. Now is the time for America's millennials, gen X, and gen Y to continue to take the lead.
Sometimes, taking the lead can be as simple as taking control of your own destiny. On death's doorstep after years of addiction, for example, my cousin checked himself into a nonprofit, Christian rehabilitation program and became sober. Today, he regularly shares his personal story and testimonial, including at the local high school. That's leadership at the most local level. He remade his own life and tries to help others do the same. His leadership is akin to what young people in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Tulsa, and elsewhere are doing to make their own communities better.
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America has had to rediscover its soul before. The only difference today is that for young Americans, now it's our damn turn to take the wheel and do the work. We are the answer, rising up through countless small acts of reinvention, intervention and recreation. No matter how bleak 2016 might have felt, I'm not betting on cynicism. I'm betting on a new generation rising to reinvent their communities — people like Zac Carman, the founders of Shinola, and my cousin Nick. It is our moment. Let's do this.