Since the beginning of September, we’ve been talking every week or so with Oregonians about the American Dream — what it means to them, how their experiences inform their ideas and how they’re feeling about America in the midst of this most contentious of presidential election cycles. Today, we bring you an hour-long conversation with some of the Oregonians who will shape the future of the American Dream: high school students. This show was recorded on Tuesday night in a new collaborative youth space in North Portland called the CENTER.
Editor's note: Some students used racial epithets in the course of describing their own experience.
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Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer
Content warning: In this show, some students use the n-word as they relate their personal experiences of encountering hate.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Before the election, back in 2016, we had a whole series of conversations about the “American dream,” what that phrase means to Oregonians now, and how people’s experiences inform their hopes and their fears. Then, we recorded an hour-long conversation with some of the Oregonians who are going to shape the American dream and the American reality for decades to come: a group of high school students. We gathered at a place called The Center in North Portland
The small space was packed with 16 and 17 year olds, about three dozen in all. They were mostly from two private high schools: De La Salle North in North Portland and Catlin Gabel in Southwest. But there were also public high school students as well, from Grant, Jefferson, and Roosevelt. Juma Sei started us off, he’s a 17 year old junior at Catlin Gabel.
Juma Sei: I would say my definition of the American dream kind of changes depending on which community I’m in. So when I’m in America and around my friends and my school and so on, I see the American dream as sort of saying that anyone can come to this country and have some sort of opportunity, but at the same time knowing that that opportunity is subject to different factors in your life and some of those you can control and some of those you can’t. And then when I think of it in terms of my African community, I think of the American dream, or America itself, as a land of a lot of prosperity and a lot of opportunity and freedom to determine your own future in many lights. Whether or not that’s true, I’m not 100% sure, but I’d say those are my two definitions.
Miller: So it’s a little bit more positive, a little bit rosier if you’re thinking about it from an African perspective. Where have you lived in the course of your life?
Sei: Alright, I’ll just list it off. I was born in Maryland, moved to New York, and then from New York I moved to New Mexico. New Mexico, I moved to Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone back to New Mexico, New Mexico to Portland, Portland to Arizona, Arizona to New Mexico, New Mexico to China, China to here, and I’m here now.
Miller: You’re only 17 years old!
Sei: Yes. My dad works for Intel, so I’ve had to move around a lot.
Miller: Your very first answer to the American dream is “It depends what community you’re in,” but that was only two communities, they’re sort of America and Africa, Sierra Leone I guess in particular. But you’ve been in a lot of parts of America, and China as well. In the big picture, how do you think living in a lot of different places has shaped your understanding of what’s possible in America?
Sei: I would definitely say, especially in my experience outside of the country, there’s a lot of optimism I see. Like when I was living in China, when I lived in Sierra Leone, where I’m talking to people outside of the US, there’s a lot of optimism they see in America, and a lot of opportunity. And granted, I’m speaking from the perspective of a third-world country like Sierra Leone, but I also have friends in India and friends in Austria that think of America in a very critical light. So I guess I’d say living all over has given me a perspective as to how people around the world see America, and knowing that that’s not how we see America, or even how I see America is not going to be the same as how most people around the world.
Miller: Do you think that you have a more positive idea about America and what’s possible here because you’ve spent time in Sierra Leone?
Sei: Yeah, definitely, definitely. I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m 100% pro-America, like “Yes, we’re doing everything correct, and the American dream is you pick yourself up by the bootstraps and you can get whatever you want.”
Miller: That is the line though.
Sei: Yes, that is the line. And I feel like because like we’ve seen this more and more today, when we like bringing nuances of race and socioeconomic status and gender, there are certain things that kind of inhibit your ability to gain as much as others are. You can put in as much work as you want, but in some cases, based on your intrinsic and extrinsic qualities, you won’t reap as much opportunity or reward from that.
Miller: Are there other folks here in the audience who have lived in other countries, either born there or spent significant time there? I’m curious how that’s affected your idea of what’s possible in America
SPEAKER: So I was born in Bali, Indonesia, and that’s a third-world country. I just recently went back, I don’t get to go back a lot. But living there for the first parts of my life, I was raised with the concepts of the opinions of what America is from these people, and they’re saying “America is great, you go there.”
I went back and I started talking to my cousins, and I was like “What’s the first thing you think of when you think of America” and they said “You guys have a lot of guns there.” And I was like, “Yeah, we do.” There, there’s not a lot of gun violence, because they don’t let it out on the streets like it is here. It’s very different. I just think they believe that anything is possible when you come to America, and you have so much freedom to do whatever you want, to build yourself up. But when you get here, it’s different than what you believe it is.
Miller: Did you find yourself saying to them, “It’s not as good as you think it is?”
SPEAKER: Yeah, I did a little. I mean, I didn’t say “No, it’s not like that,” but I definitely said that there’s differences than what you think, what’s shown on the news is not what’s actually happening there. I kind of try to summarize it for them.
Miller: We had some other hands up for people who have lived or spent time in other places. What’s your name?
Karamnal Mugabe: My name is Karamnal Mugabe and I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I also went back there like two summers ago, and it was very interesting to meet all of my family there and to see their view of America. And it’s very similar, they think of America as being- they actually call it, what do they call it bulia, which means paradise. They think of this country as paradise; everyone here is wealthy, everything is of better quality than it is there. I would rag on my shoes, and my cousins, they’re like “Whoa well this is better quality than we have here.” And so they just always have this idea of moving here one day, and establishing a better life for themselves.
I think that as a refugee, in general, that’s living here in America, like my siblings and I, we also kind of think that way. Seeing the two worlds, the life that we could have had in the life that we have now, it definitely motivates us to excel, so that we can also possibly go back and help other people in our country.
Miller: What are the things where, when you were there and then came back here, that maybe you saw differently, you saw your life differently here because of your trip?
Mugabe: Everything. Like brushing your teeth, we brushed our teeth using water bottles. We had to wait for the water to come. The president is very corrupt, so he controls everything. Electricity, there would be a certain time that electricity would come on and off. We would always know when it would go off around the time. Drinking water was just not coming out of the faucet. It came to a point where we’re like wow like we’re really in a third world country, because we would always be so thirsty, but you can’t always afford water. And so they mainly drink tea and soda to fulfill that thirst. But then they would also go and buy water for us. But then we start to feel guilty because we felt like we were making them go out of their way to get water. It’s just simple things like that. And oh, the roads, they don’t have street lights. No crosswalks. It’s very chaotic.
Miller: It’s a huge standard of living difference that you’re describing there. When you’re here though, do you feel like you have all the opportunities that they assume are a part of an American life?
Mugabe: No, and even then we told them. They assumed that my family was extremely wealthy, because I guess we kind of would be. But we told them no, there are a lot of poor people here, there’s a lot of poverty here, it’s just probably a different standard, different according to your standards. I guess we do have this mass amount of food, even if it’s like not very good quality food, it still is food. Whereas when they say that they’re starving there, they’re actually starving. There’s no McDonald’s within a two-mile radius or within walking distance.
But then again, I definitely think that there are a lot of privileges that I have here. Like the ability to have this idea of being able to work to a point where you can better your situation, or you can I guess go up in life, if that’s your definition of progressing or bettering yourself. I guess opportunity is a big thing that I acknowledge and don’t take for granted.
Miller: Let’s get one more story from somebody who has lived elsewhere. What’s your name? What school do you go to? And what country is it?
Grace Fassbach: My name is Grace Fassbach, I go to Catlin Gabel school, and when I was in 5th and 6th grade, I lived in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. And before moving there, I was pretty proud to be an American. I honestly had no idea where Amsterdam was. When my parents told me we were moving there, I asked if it was in Texas because that was the farthest away place I could think of at the time.
Miller: There probably is an Amsterdam, Texas. You may have been right.
Fassbach: But after moving there, my perspective on what it meant to be an American began to shift. In Amsterdam, they’re a very liberal and prosperous society. And when I would tell people that I was American, I would kind of get this funny look like “Oh you’re American, you guys have tons of guns, you don’t pay women fairly, you discriminate against people in the LGBTQ community.” And I went to an international school, and when I talked to people from other countries, and they would talk about some of the bad things America had done to their country.
Miller: Can I just interrupt? So, as fifth graders, Dutch kids would tease you or say all these things to you? They were that politically aware that they would say you don’t treat the LGBTQ community fairly and you have guns? It’s sort of extraordinary that 5th and 6th graders were that aware about their understanding of life in America.
Fassbach: Yeah, no, it was a real shock to me because I had always lived in a pretty homogeneous community, and I never had exposure to these different perspectives. Living overseas forced me to consider a more nuanced view of my American identity and hear some of the perspectives on how, for them, the American dream wasn’t a thing. They were living their own dream in their own country, and it didn’t really exist. It made me have a different perspective on what the American dream and what it means to be an American really is.
Miller: Aaliyah Joseph is here, a 16-year-old junior at De La Salle North. And we’ve been talking a lot about places all over the world, but you come from right here, very close to where we’re talking right now. What changes have you seen in this neighborhood?
Aaliyah Joseph: Um, I-
Miller: I should just say, because people on the radio can’t see what you just did, you sort of put your head down and sort of hit your heads hands together as if to say “Where do I even start?”
Joseph: Yes. Okay, I was born here, I was raised here, I lived on Mississippi when I was born for about eight years, and then I moved to Ainsworth, then I moved to Albina, and then I moved back to Mississippi. So currently I’m on Mississippi. And when I was younger I went to Vernon Elementary, which is slightly off of Alberta Street. So my parents would drive me down Alberta Street and I would see like, “Oh that’s a Black-owned business,” or “Oh, my friend’s mom owns that,” or “Oh, my cousin works there.” And I would just see this sense of community and this sense of pride in my Black community, specifically, because we were there. We were visible, we were seen, and we were profiting, and we were like helping one another.
And then, gentrification came along. And everything around Alberta has shifted. I can’t even walk down the street without being like, when was this put here? Like two hours ago? It’s so different, every piece of community, every piece of home that I’ve ever had literally and figuratively. My mother used to live off of Alberta and 13th, in this white house that’s still there, but they bought out the building that was next to it. My mother used to live there and she told me stories all the time about like what it was like to go to Jack’s Chicken after school, what it was like to go to King, what it was like walking down Alberta, knowing it’s okay to be out at 10 o’clock at night because your cousin’s there, or your sister’s there.
She takes a sense of, like, disappointment in our community because it’s changed so much and there’s so little sense of community, and there’s so little sense of the black presence on Alberta, and overall in Portland in general. I had the privilege of going to SEI, which is predominantly African American. So basically my whole life I’ve been around people who look like me, spoken like me, work like me. But, that shift in my life, everything that I’ve known in life has changed.
Miller: In the course of your lifetime.
Joseph: Mhm. 16 years.
Miller: How does all of what you just talked about affect your understanding of the big question here tonight, the American dream?
Joseph: It changes it. It changes my idea of what a dream is. Like, actually dreaming and thinking you can do anything, to I just want to survive or I just want to make it in life.
Miller: Do you feel like there’s a place for you in the American dream?
Joseph: If you knew me on a personal level, then yes.
Miller: But what about other young African American women or men?
Joseph: I think it really depends on who’s around you, and who your friends are, and who your teachers are, and who your parents are, and what they tell you, and what they don’t tell you, and what they allow you to do, and what they push you to do. I mean I definitely think there’s a place, and I know as a community we could achieve any dream that we had relating to being American and being successful. But I just think we’re just kind of stuck in this cycle of “I am what I am, and I’m just not going to fight it.”
Miller: How would you describe your idea of the American dream right now? What does it actually mean to you right now?
Joseph: Right now, my idea of the American dream is taking advantage of the education I’ve received, and the education I can receive. As a woman and as a person of color, I think education is the most important thing in the world. It’s the one thing that separates you from the next person.
Miller: What do you want to do with that education?
Joseph: I would like to go into criminal law and go to law school, hopefully Harvard.
Hopefully, they’re listening to this and accept me.
Miller: You have it all planned out.
Joseph: Mhm. Kinda.
Miller: Cameron Santiago is here as well, a 16-year-old junior at Saint Mary’s Academy. What’s your vision of the American dream?
Cameron Santiago: I think for me as well, it also changes with which community I’m in.
Miller: What are the different communities that you’re a part of right now?
Santiago: I identify as a queer person. I’m also Latina, half Puerto Rican. And so the American dream means two very, very different things for both of those communities. Being part of the LGBTQ community right now, it’s something as little as being able to go to the restroom in a public place and not worry about getting assaulted, which is actually something that has happened to me before. I never really thought that would be me. The other things are how people look at me in my relationships with other people. I find that the American dream, when you’re in a community like the LGBTQ community, can be really really small things as well as really really big things.
Miller: There’s a lot of echoes there of what Aaliyah was saying. The word dream implies huge aspirations and stuff, you know, “It would be so amazing if we could get that, let’s push towards it.” You’re talking about not being assaulted based on a bathroom that you’re going into. That’s a lot lower in terms of aspirations, it’s such a basic aspect of life. It’s a very different conception of what a dream is, in other words. So that is your answer to the question if you’re thinking about this from being a member of the LGBTQ community. What about as a Latina?
Santiago: I find that the Latino community I think has sort of moved up the ladder in terms of how people perceive us. But I think that for me personally, I have the privilege of looking white. I don’t have to deal with all of the social grievances that happen with people that are Latino but don’t look white. But I think, as a community, as a whole, that the American dream looks like having equal opportunity to other people, whether that be socially, or economically, in our education, those kinds of things.
Miller: I’m curious, from all the folks in the audience, because both Cameron and Aaliyah mentioned this idea of, “Well, I can’t answer your question about the American dream until I tell you which community that I’m talking about, talking from.” Do any of you have the same thought process when you think about this question? Sort of multiple identities and it sort of depends which identity you’re thinking about? Anybody want to take that on?
What’s your name?
Karen: My name is Karen, I’m from Saint Mary’s Academy.
So, my family is Salvadorian, and I think when I think of the American dream, the first thing that comes to my mind, kind of agreeing from the folks up in the front, is education, just the opportunity and the ability to go to school in general. That’s just what comes to mind first is, as a Latino student is, I have to be successful because I am Latino, and I’m kind of standing up for those who come from the same place I come from.
Miller: You feel like you owe it to members of the community, you have to do well for them?
Karen: Yeah, I do.
Miller: That seems like a lot on your shoulders. It’s not just you, people you don’t even know.
Karen: Yeah, I think… I feel like we’re the new... I don’t know how to explain it to you. I think that we’re, at this point, expected to be successful and to be educated because we have the opportunity. And often I see a lot of students who just kind of throw their education down the road, like out the window, and it makes me sad because there’s a lot of people from my country that would love to have an education. So, I think education is the first thing on my mind when I think of the American dream.
Miller: We heard Aaliyah’s plan, it’s a very thought-out plan. What’s your plan?
Karen: Well, I am going to study something in the medical field, and then hopefully go back to El Salvador and work in some sort of hospital over there, and change it a little bit.
Miller: And change it there.
Miller: You want to use your American education to make things better somehow in El Salvador?
Karen: Yes, I think so.
Miller: There are some other hands up, but I want to go turn first back to something that Cameron said just a few minutes ago about the privilege of looking white. Anybody here in the audience who looks white, who wants to talk about this question of privilege, throw your hand up… What’s your name?
Chase Crow: My name is Chase Crow, I go to De La Salle. I look white, and I am super white.
Miller: Do you think about this question of privilege?
Crow: Yes, yeah.
Miller: I should say that you’re also a guy. I should say I am a white guy too, so I don’t mean to single you out. But do you think about this question of privilege?
Crow: Yeah, I do. I think about it a lot. I think as a white guy, especially here in Portland and in the United States, I can’t really not think about it at this point. It’s like something that if I didn’t consider it every day, I feel like I would start to lose contact with everything.
Miller: You have to know though that there are plenty of people in this country, in your position, white men, straight white men, many of them. You say, you can’t not think about this every day. There are thousands, maybe millions of men who say I don’t need to think about this every day, that all this stuff is overblown.
Crow: And I know the people who say that because some of them are in my family.
Miller: What are those conversations like?
Crow: Pfft, man... Yeah, it’s difficult to talk to somebody who bases their opinions not necessarily in fact and experience but in what they’ve heard and what they get from the media. You can’t really convince them of what you’re thinking, and they don’t really want to listen because they aren’t in a place where they’re well informed and they actually know a lot about what they’re thinking. I’m not trying to say people who disagree with me are misinformed. But, a lot of the time, people in my family who are thinking are more on the other side of the spectrum, they just don’t have a lot of information.
Miller: Have there been times when you know you’ve benefited from being at the top of the historical/cultural/political/fiscal world of American history being a white guy?
Crow: Yeah, every day I think about that.
Miller: But are there specific times when you say like “I got this or someone treated me this way because I’m white?”
Crow: Yeah, I feel like I experienced that. Honestly, I feel like, even in a school that’s predominantly minority, I still feel like sometimes I get singled out in a good way because I’m maybe the only white guy in the room and so I don’t get called on as much and I can get away with a little bit more. It’s not like the teachers are doing it on purpose, it’s kind of subconscious. And it also makes you feel like “I gotta get out there in the world and do something. I can’t know this and not do something, being who I am with all this privilege, and being a straight white guy, I have the power to help so many people and it’s something that, yeah, I definitely think about a lot.
Miller: Thank you. Thank you for sharing that.
Juma Sei, I want to go back to you. Before we did this show, I heard that you once had an assignment where you had to answer the question “When did you feel most American?” Can you tell us about the way you dealt with that?
Sei: I was actually thinking about that. I turned that in like two weeks ago. The question was about American identity and what it means to you to be American. I interpreted that to say when have I felt most American? And I really thought back, and I didn’t think of necessarily the most prosperous occasions where I’m like “Wow, like I’m in America, yay for me.” I thought at a time when I felt like most connected to the country, this country, and the history of this country, I thought about the first time I was called a n*****. I would say I was in fourth grade at the time, and I’m not gonna digress into the entire story, but an older white boy who was in fifth grade kinda pushed me down off the monkey bars, and he like looked at me and just said “You dirty n*****.”
Obviously, I wasn’t thinking these things at the time, but when I heard that the first thing I was thinking, I felt very connected to America and to the history of America. I can’t speak for the rest of you, but being an African person, having lived in Africa at that point, I wanted to be very disconnected from America, and be as African as possible. But at the same time, I knew that living in America, I was going to be connected to American Blacks at some point in life, and this was that time.
Obviously it hurt me, and I cried. But thinking back to it now, I just wonder what made him say that word. I interacted with this kid every day for the year and a half I spent at that school, and he had been mad at me before, he called me other things, but he never used that word,
up until that point. I don’t know why he used it. He’s in fifth grade. I don’t know how old fifth graders are, like 11? You can’t really understand the magnitude of the word n***** at fifth grade. But he saw the melanin in my skin, and knew he wanted to hurt me, and he said it. And I feel like that’s the time that I felt most connected to the slavery in America, the oppression of the Black people in America, and that’s the time I felt most truly American, and not instead an African living in this country.
Christina Spires: I’m Christina Spires and I’m a freshman at the University of Portland. And what I wanted to talk about briefly is something that resonated with me, what Juma was talking about, when he was called the n-word in elementary school. It seems really absurd because you’re in elementary school, but the same thing happened to me. And I don’t want to outdo Juma here when I say this, but that happened to me in third grade, from someone who I thought was a really close friend of mine and we just had one little argument on the monkey bars. Same situation, which is incredible. I think I got in his way, and so when I came down he got really upset and then called me that. And I didn’t understand. And to this day, like years later I still don’t understand. I’m 18 years old and 10 years later I still don’t know why.
I know people are a product of their society in most cases, if they don’t do anything to change themselves. But I still don’t understand, what are you learning at home for you to be able to do that at that age? And I just thought that was incredible.
Miller: Do you feel the same sort of twinge of Americanness from that story that you had? One of the most extraordinary things about Juma’s story is that it was that moment where he said, “Oh yeah, I’m an American. I’m tied to this long history of racism and oppression.” Does that ring true to you as well, that it’s something like that which sadly makes you feel American?
Spires: Not in the same sense. And I actually, when I was a junior I wrote that same paper, but I come from a multicultural background. My mom’s Micronesian, my dad’s African American. And so that’s what I mostly wrote about and talked about, how I didn’t have to identify with either of those. Not to say that the United States is like a melting pot of things, it’s more of a salad where there are different aspects that makes it what it is, and kind of great. So that’s what I talked about.
Miller: So your essay was more positive. It was about sort of the ideal of America, that people from different cultures, different points of view, different religions, or no religion can come together and somehow coexist.
Spires: Yeah, exactly.
Miller: And do you believe that?
Spires: Actually two years, three years later, I don’t really know anymore. Like I still do have a positive outlook, but there’s a lot of things that happen. Like the shootings of African American men or African Americans in general in society, that makes me lose hope. But I am still hopeful. It just hurts.
Sometimes I need to take a mental break. I took a day off a class when some of those things happened, because it really hurts. And there was another event that happened over the summer. I had the privilege of working with George at The Center, and we discussed that, and it just really hurt my heart, and I just felt like I wasn’t all the way there because those things are happening. The stuff that I thought made America so great for me is now not so amazing anymore.
Miller: George is the man who helps run this center, and we’re very grateful for him for letting us take over this place for a few hours.
Tyler White is another one of the big reasons that we’re here. He basically got our entire audience here. Only 16 years old, junior at De La Salle North, but a force of nature. Tyler, you’ve spent a few years having conversations about gentrification, about race, about place, about identity. Was there one political awakening that made you say I want to do this? I want to have conversations like this?
Tyler White: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think, just to start, because I didn’t get a chance to do this, “The Center” that everybody keeps mentioning is a coalition-based hub, that is run by De La Salle North Catholic, Catlin Gabel School, KairosPDX, which is a small charter school. We also have the Urban League of Portland, Black United Fund of Oregon, and iUrbanTeen all working out of here. And I think this space signifies and also symbolizes so much of what makes this place great.
But I would say one moment that I think really made me want to start this work is that I went to Beverly Cleary Middle School, which is over on NE 33rd and Hancock, and it’s really close to Grant High School. And the school was extremely predominantly white, and I was one of the only Black students in my class. And I had had the pleasure of having a really strong group of friends, after a while of going through some of the same instances that both Christina and Juma had talked about. But I thought that I created a community for myself among my three friends. And then once they had gone to Grant and I went to De La Salle, it was really interesting because I had stopped hearing from them. And then I saw on the news that there was this incident where there was a group of freshmen boys who had a group chat, and were spray painting all different kinds of extremely derogatory symbols and language, everything from swastikas to taking pictures of Black students and saying let’s go hang this n*****. And they had a whole group chat of that kind of language, and that was their platform to bring people down rather than to lift them up.
So I think at that point, having spent time with those students and been in their homes and had talked to them and knew their parents, that really forced me to think critically about who I am and the place that I’m in and the people around me. I think once I got the chance to do the I Love This Place blog, I wanted to use that as a platform to do the opposite of what they did.
Miller: What’s your definition of the American dream?
White: That’s a great question.
Miler: You had to know I was gonna ask you that.
White: Yeah, I did.
Miller: It’s not that great a question.
White: I would say the American dream is the ideology and ideal of having the access and the opportunity to better your circumstances. And I think why I say access is that there are so many people throughout the United States and around the world who may have this idea. But you almost have to be in some place of peril and coming from a bad, disenfranchised community to have the American dream. Because if you’re already someone who comes from a place of where you’re comfortable in social and political arenas, then you don’t really have to think about the American dream, because you already have it. You kinda have to have access to some kind of a bad circumstance to really have this idea of wanting to better yourself.
Miller: So what about you? I mean, do you have a bad circumstance? Is your lot in life bad enough that you have the American dream?
White: No. I think I’ve always been kind of confused, because I am a Black male, and the history of Black people in this country is one that is very horrific in many rights, but also very strong and hopeful and resilient. And yet, I have two parents who are married. We live in a home that my parents own. Both of my parents work and have pretty nice jobs. So I’ve always been the exact opposite of what black males are supposed to be in America, and what a black family looks like. So I think I’ve always been confused in that right because I don’t really have to go through a lot of the things the other students and other people who look like me have to go through. But at the same time, as a black male, I kind of represent that history. I don’t really directly come from that place, but indirectly I do. So therefore, I feel, like what Karen said, I need to have the backs of all those people who came before me, and also the people who look like me now, to create a future that is accessible for people who look like me, for everybody.
Miller: Grace Wong is here, a 17-year-old senior at Catlin Gabel, you were nodding a lot as Tyler was talking. What’s your family story and how does it play into your idea of the American dream?
Wong: I am the child of refugees and immigrants. My parents came over in the Vietnam War, and I think the ability of the American dream for me has very much been put in that perspective. My father’s parents both died on the way on the boat from Vietnam to America, and so he came with very little support system. We’ve driven by this house, it’s this house on Killingsworth, and all 15 of my dad’s closest family all lived in this two-bedroom house for so many years, and tried to get their roots down in Portland. Somehow, by some miracle, my father got himself through college and he has a really great job and he’s been able to put me through 13 years of private school at Catlin Gabel. I think one big moment for our family was that my father didn’t have parents to pay for his college. He washed dishes in high school. And I’m now a senior and I’m applying to college and we got to press the button that says “No, I will not be asking for any financial aid.” I will be able to pay the entire four years of $50,000 plus tuition. I think that was a big moment for my family. So I think we definitely believe in the American dream and those opportunities of access and people believing in us.
Miller: Your story that you just outlined is as close to the cliche of picking yourself up with your own bootstraps- a phrase that people use all the time. It’s literally a physical impossibility, but nevertheless, or maybe because that it’s become, this part of American language. But what you just described is about as close as you could come to that. Arriving in this country with nothing, making a better life for yourself and your family, and then making it possible that your children won’t need financial aid to go to college. If your parents were here, how would they describe the American dream, and what it takes to actually make it a reality, do you think?
Wong: I think my parents had a lot of opportunities, and I think a lot of people believed in them. Like, oh you came from- Tyler was saying- such a bad situation. Yes, they were really poor. My grandparents from my mom’s side, they worked two or three jobs. My mom raised her two brothers. She called herself a latchkey kid. A lot of people saw them as like “They don’t have any money. No, they don’t have any opportunities. They’re worse off than us, let’s help them.” And this sort of altruistic spirit helped keep my family afloat and helped them rise up. Now, in a position of power and privilege in my perspective, I see that as, I really need to give back and engage with my community because they did so much for me.
Miller: You’re talking about privilege there. Obviously we heard a little bit about that in the first half. How do you think about privilege in your own life?
Wong: Well, going to Catlin Gable I think has certain undertones. When you meet people, they’re like, ‘oh, you go to Catlin Gabel, you have this really great education, but you don’t live in the real world.’ I think a lot of my peers outside of-
Miller: Do you think they’re right when they say that?
Wong: Sometimes I think they’re right. I think when you hear conversations in the hallways about how people, especially socioeconomic status, I think the way people think about money and discuss money in our community is something that we need to continue to address. We are a community of diversity, but sometimes we don’t speak and act like we are one.
Miller: We have another guy up here. Angel Rodriguez, a 17-year-old junior at De La Salle North. Good to have you up here.
Rodriguez: Thank you.
Miller: Your grandparents emigrated here from Mexico. How do you think they would describe the American Dream?
Rodriguez: My grandparents weren’t very educated. I think my grandma had 7th-grade education and my grandpa only had 5th-grade education. They came over here, they moved to California, and then my grandpa did some type of electricity. He got involved in some type of business in electricity. Then they moved over here to Oregon, and then they established a business out on Alberta. But they’re American. What they probably would think is the American dream is pretty much work hard, and even if you don’t have the education doesn’t mean that you don’t have the ability to succeed in life, especially here in the US.
Miller: Did it work out for them? I mean did working hard help them succeed?
Rodriguez: I think for a short period of time, especially for owning a business for so long in Alberta and then eventually having to move out or whatever.
Miller: What was their business?
Rodriguez: They owned a restaurant and a taqueria, like a butcher shop and a store.
Miller: You’re talking in the past tense.
Rodriguez: Yeah they did. They just previously closed down their whole thing, their whole business down this previous summer.
Miller: Do you believe in the American dream?
Rodriguez: I believe that it exists, but it all depends on the perspective of where you come from. Your socioeconomic background and the situations and environment that you’re in. I think that it exists to a certain degree. But to me, it exists if it means getting an education and going to school and getting a job. I pretty much take what the stereotypical American dream is, so get to go to school, get your education, buy a home, get a good job, get married, you know? But then again, I can’t really have those things because I’m Latino, or I don’t have the economical background to support that.
Miller: Everything you just said could be- get burdened with massive student loans that you can barely pay off and you also can’t get the kind of job that you thought you’d get after you graduate, then I can’t get enough money to get married, I can’t support kids. For each one of the things you just outlined, somebody might say that’s not at all possible for me. We’ve just come out of a massive recession, the worst economy since the Great Depression that hit people pretty hard, and I think in a lot of ways changed people’s ideas of being able to, say, get the house with a white picket fence. Did seeing all that change your idea of what’s possible for your own life?
Rodriguez: What do you mean, the recession?
Miller: The recession and the very slow recovery since then.
Rodriguez: Well the recession happened, what like 2008-09?
Miller: So you were young, fair enough.
Rodriguez: I didn’t really understand it as much but now that I kind of have a little more background, a little history about it and kind of did my own research on it.
Miller: What about the loss of your grandparents taqueria and restaurant and store?
Rodriguez: It does affect it to the point that, yeah, there’s bad people out there or there’s certain different aspects that sometimes don’t work out in life, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t work out for me or it won’t work out for the people around me. It just depends on how hard I’m willing to work and how hard I’m willing to maintain my lifestyle.
Miller: I’m curious because, I think for a lot of people historically the idea of the American dream has really boiled down in a lot of ways to very physical things. I mean the kind of things that Angel just said: getting education, getting a job, getting married if that’s what you want, having a family, if that’s what you want ‚and owning a house. Home ownership has often been talked about as a huge part of the American dream. How many of you want all of those things? Almost everybody has your hand up. Including homeownership? Almost all the hands. I take Angel’s point, that if you’re all 15, 16, 17, then what happened in 2008 and 2009 seems like a very long time ago. But you’ve all sort of come of age at a time when homeownership has- I assume you’re aware that it’s more difficult than it was once talked about. Has that changed your idea of, of what’s possible for your own lives? Anybody want to talk about just sort of those economic realities? What’s your name, what school do you go to?
Javin Dana: I’m Javin Dana. I go to Catlin, like Grace. My experience has been kind of similar to what Grace was describing, especially in terms of college and also homeownership, where
I’m in a pretty financially stable place right now because my grandfather in his eyes “attained the American dream” back when he was younger. I have to think a lot about the fact that I almost don’t have to think about worries about homeownership and that kind of thing nowadays, especially because of my position in a socio-economic sense.
Miller: Got another?
Blu Midyet: My name is Blu Midyet. I go to Grant High School. I’m 17, I am a senior this year. Going off what you were saying, at our age, we’re not really focusing on homeownership I don’t think. The reality is completely changed for us when you talk about college and trying to get an education. The one thing I think about, I did a paper recently about the wealth gap, and we talk about the recession and how it’s affected this community and youth. I just think about the statistics about how white families really have, they took a hit, but have really not went down in their income at all. Black families and Latino families have continued to decrease in their income, and the wealth gap has gotten bigger since the recession. I think it’s that people who were already in places of power, in places of privilege kind of recovered, and those that were in a place of poverty and not into that place of privilege really did not have the ability to recover. Now that homeownership got difficult and college is getting even more expensive, I just think it’s affecting people that are not in that place of privilege even more than it ever has.
Miller (in the studio): That was Blu Midyet. He was one of the three dozen young people we spoke to at The Center in North Portland on Tuesday night. As I promised, we did talk about the presidential election as well. Many of the young people said they were angry and even hurt when they talked about Donald Trump’s positions on immigration and his proposed ban on Muslims coming into the country. But on the issue of whether they thought their own votes would count once they turned 18 that is, we found a lot of skepticism. Many of them said either that they didn’t think their votes would be counted, or more philosophically that they didn’t think their votes would matter. We’ll end today with two contrasting views from that part of the conversation. First is Aaliyah Joseph from De La Salle North.
Aaliyah Joseph: I do not believe my vote counts because at the end of the day, especially in America, the people who hold the power are the people with money. At the end of the day, people who have money and who have the abilities and the education to have to want something and to want to do something can do it, and do it completely discreetly. I do think it’s possible. And I don’t think just because we don’t see something, it’s not there. We don’t see oxygen, but we know its there.
Miller: We’ve got another here, what’s your name?
Kamariah Watson: My name is Kamariah, and I go to Roosevelt. I was gonna say, I find it really hard to believe that my vote doesn’t matter. I come from a multicultural background, but about half my family almost comes from the Deep South, and they were all slaves and they went through the Civil Rights Movement. Just thinking back to like SNCC’s [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] values, and how everything was about your voting rights and trying to become equal in that sense. And then my mom, she is of European descent, but her family, they’re immigrants from Germany and they came during the Holocaust. So their voting rights matter too, because they were immigrants at the time, they weren’t accepted in American society.
So I feel like having the power to vote, it’s more impactful on a local level than it is a nationwide one. But at the end of the day, your vote does have some sort of sway, even if it is little, and I wouldn’t want to give up my little bit of sway over the chance that there might be some sort of rig going on. Because if enough of American society does vote one way, they are going to have to pay attention to it.