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Reimagine the Rust Belt

Bringing creative solutions to the opiate epidemic and poverty of rural America

Photo of Tracy Brandenburg
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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

The Rust Belt cities and rural poor towns are sorely in need of new economic solutions. The loss of manufacturing or mining has left these communities at a loss as to survive. Yet culture keeps us Appalachians (I'm one too!) together. So we stay. In the "bubble" cities, where I've had the opportunity to work, creative minds make magic every day, and yet these two worlds, in the same country, couldn't be further apart economically or culturally. I have been working to bring these creative minds to the desperate heartland (starting with my hometown, Middletown, OH) to work with members of the local community on how to brainstorm, dream and create what's never been done. At the same time, there are "bubbles" in this poor town as well. Drug addicts are left alone to die and almost every stakeholder I interviewed, from city officials to doctors to first responders feel only one thing towards them: resentment. How can a city prosper when there is so much anger and division within the town itself? How might we create empathy for addicts as well as for those who suffer as a result of their addiction? In search of one thing all stakeholders might agree upon, I believe perhaps we can find an answer in "children." The children of addicts are left wandering, homeless, orphaned and yet in a time of crisis - a mother recently overdosed leaving behind 9 children - the city showed an outpouring of empathy and generosity. The town rallied around these children giving them everything they had: money, toys and clothes. Perhaps there is something we can all agree on - we love children. And with that hope, I aim to build a bridge between the addicts and the community by focusing on how we might be a city that loves and parents its children. But even that may not be enough. Those who aren't drug users and who care about the economy still feel forgotten by the rest of America. And so bridges must be built between poor America and our more economically developed cities.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Our beneficiaries are numerous: The children of the addicted. Their ages range from birth (born addicted to heroin) to age 9. In the words of an ex-addict, "My dealer was 10 years old." Empathy and prevention has to start immediately. The addicted, who suffer not only from the disease but from isolation and rejection. The frustrated members of the town are beneficiaries. They are the doctors, first responders, nurses, city officials and community members who feel their communities have been ruined by addicts, the addicts they stay far away from. The creative minds of our great centers of technology are beneficiaries. They are frustrated by a country they don't understand. They ask me, "Who are these people and what do they want?" Now is their chance to be a part of the change, of history, of a long overdue economic overhaul as well as a drug crisis in need of creative solutions.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

My hometown of Middletown, Ohio caught the attention of the country with the bestselling book, HILLBILLY ELEGY by J.D. Vance. Like the author, I have a foot in both worlds. I'm from an Appalachian family, and our culture is very unique; but I have also worked in some of our country's finest universities. Being part of Appalachian culture is important as outsiders are typically not welcome or trusted. I believe I am a bridge as I have already begun treks to the heartland with talented creatives from NYC and SF. While the memoir was a bestseller, I learned that no one, NO ONE, actually reached out to help this town or any other "Middletown" out there. The idea to actually do something about the economy and drug crisis is in itself a unique initiative. To bridge the coasts, to imagine everything that might exist between manufacturing and tech, and finally, to create empathy for those most loathed, the addicts is perhaps what separates this project from others.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Prototype: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing the idea.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

"Reimagine the Rust Belt" is a team of West Coast, East Coast and small town Appalachian dreamers.

Expertise in sector

  • 1-2 years

Organization Filing Status

  • No, but we plan to register in the future.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

On a recon mission to my hometown to see what assets we had for an economic brainstorm (I found wood, water, abandoned buildings, land and a workforce with trade skills,) I made a "wrong" turn. Literally. And I found myself in a land of zombies. I was face to face with the opiate epidemic. This created a reframe: before we can fix the economy, we have to save our people. And thus began the journey into the biggest drug epidemic our country has ever seen.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

Peace is enormously impacted by the opiate epidemic, which drives a wedge between the addicts and the community who doesn't empathize with them. Peace in the United States is influenced by the vote of the "forgotten America," a land that is physically divided from the rest of the country (the Appalachian mountains) and culturally misunderstood, thus leaving us in a contentious political climate so in need of healing and understanding. Prosperity in the Rust Belt has been impacted by technology that has replaced workers, as well as by a global economy where manufacturing can take place anywhere. Prosperity continues to struggle in Rust Belt cities due to the lack of opportunities for young people who now choose to live elsewhere, thus causing our "brain drain." Prosperity in the Rust Belt is impacted by a lack of new ideas. Small towns struggle to find new solutions for survival.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

The city of Middletown, its Mayor, Chamber of Commerce and City Council have welcomed my ideas and visiting friends. All parties met in the fall where my East/West Coast colleagues and I did a listening tour. Working with Ami Vitori, Middletown revitalization activist, we'll bring together her team and my innovation group this summer, work in a lab space she has offered, brainstorm on 60+ business and community engagement ideas that creatives around the country have contributed. We'll be hosted by the community in terms of housing and work space and we'll begin our work with two bridges to be built: peace (our opiate epidemic and my suggestion that we start with children) as well as building on the business ideas shared from both the town as well as outside advocates. The source of my inspiration is my addict friend who wants to help. We plan to share her voice by creating a podcast of her story with what she calls "life with the needle."

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

Strengths in Middletown: a workforce in their 30s and 40s with trade skills; a 60 mile-long crystal clear aquifer; reclaimed wood from destroyed homes, land where the homes stood; empty warehouses and a city that is willing to dream about what we can do when we put all these things together

Geographic Focus

The Rust Belt, poor South and communities suffering from the opiate epidemic

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

Creating peace in places where empathy is lost and prosperity hasn't existed since the 50s, will take a minimum of 36 months. There are many "Middletowns." They are bankrupt, broken, in despair and dying of drugs. The project plan is to first build a program around children (peace) while simultaneously bringing in fresh ideas to brainstorm and prototype new ideas for the economy (prosperity.) Like a true design thinker, I don't yet know the solution, only the challenge.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No


Join the conversation:

Photo of Amy Baxter

Stories are what move people. Podcasts and stories will generate interest in the prevention part, not just treatment. Kudos!

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