Project Heartland: Going back to the start

I was raised in a Midwestern lake town. Well, technically I lived in the township, which is really just the outskirts of a small town. Our house was in a neighborhood near the lake, about three miles outside of town. We rode the bus to school each morning and afternoon (until it became uncool), a ride that took around 45 minutes each way. In the summers, our parents would go off to work, and we’d leave the house to explore the neighborhood with friends, getting into all sorts of shenanigans, and not returning until we were desperately hungry for dinner and a bath. Even amid the news stories of child abductions in the 1990s, we never felt unsafe or the least bit concerned. We were in our tiny, insular bubble of comfort, away from all the noise and fear of the city. If we needed something, we’d go into “town.” My family referred to the grocery store as simply “the store” because it was our only real option for essentials (until the late ‘90s). We didn’t have a Target back then or a Walmart or a Gap. If you wanted something from a store like that, you had to drive to “The Cities,” which was about 40 minutes away. We knew all our neighbors by name. In fact, we knew almost the entire block by name, and they knew us. If someone got sick or died or had a baby, we all knew. If someone got arrested, got divorced or lost their business, the whole town knew.

I couldn’t wait to leave.

My whole life, despite knowing nothing else, I had always felt like I didn’t belong there, like I was supposed to be in a city doing cooler things and this early chapter of my life was an experiment. As far back as I can remember, I had a plan to get out. I was going to go to college and move to a city, where I belonged. And so I did. What baffled me was how many of my friends decided to stay behind. Either never leaving or going off to college and coming back. What could they possibly see in this small town that I don’t? Don’t they want more? Aren’t they bored out of their minds? I thought I was smarter than them, more sophisticated and enlightened. I judged them. Like a jerk.

Fast-forward 20 years, and I’m now working in an advertising agency in the eclectic yet gritty city that is Minneapolis. I’m working on an agricultural account, trying to understand people from communities all too similar to the one where I grew up. Our country has just elected a president that I didn’t vote for, and in the aftermath, I couldn’t understand how it happened. As a person who prides herself on “getting people,” I did not get these people. As I looked at the events that led up to this divide in our country’s attitudes and beliefs, I realized how ignorant I had been. I dismissed an entire segment of our country’s population because I thought I had “been there, done that.” Thus was born Project Heartland — a quest to understand middle Americans.

As an experienced traveler, even on the open roads of the U.S., I thought I knew what I would find on this journey, but once again, I was wrong. I underestimated the things I would learn and the perspective I would gain. Our findings aren’t stats or bullet points but rather deeper, qualitative insights that explain the whys behind the whats that we’ve all been wondering about. I hope you experience our story and come away with at least a sliver of what we took away — that the people of the Heartland are not ignorant or evil or hate-filled. In fact, many of them are wonderfully interesting, kind-hearted and genuine people who are simply trying to preserve a beautiful life that they’ve worked so hard to build. My bubble has been burst, and I hope yours will be too.

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Melissa Clark

Strategic Planning Director

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