Taking the Pulse of the American Dream
By Jacob Baynham
Here’s a challenge. How do you document a subject of national importance that people see all over the news, but rarely ever think about? It’s a question Kat Ryder and her student interns are answering with the Permanent American Dream Video Archive, a project of the Center for the Study of the American Dream. The archive supplements the Center’s aggregate surveys and research by offering a glimpse of how individuals perceive the American Dream.
“We wanted to take a different view,” Ryder says. “We wanted to talk to people from all walks of life about how they see the American Dream.” The project began last August, and Ryder already sees it fulfilling its objective: to be “a memorial for lives lived and an inspiration for the next generation’s American Dream.”
The routine is simple and student-driven. Ryder’s student interns identify individuals who embody the American Dream in some way. Then they contact that person, explain the project and, if they’re willing, schedule an interview.
The students record the interviews, edit them and finally post the finished product on the project’s website. So far the students have interviewed CEOs, journalists, immigrants, entrepreneurs, musicians and more. The interviews have taken place on campus, around Cincinnati, in New York City and Las Vegas—and over Skype.
The result is an intimate series of portraits of America’s trademark concept.
[Watch the videos]
“Having a video archive, you get to see the person,” Ryder says. “You get to feel the energy. It’s much more engaging than a written-out interview.” It also helps personalize what can be an abstract idea.
“The media talks about the American Dream every day,” Ryder says. “And I know. I get Google Alerts about it.” But people rarely consider how the concept relates to them. “You don’t really think about it,” she says. “You think it’s a corny subject that’s just in books. But when you realize that people here have the opportunity and freedom to go after their dreams, their passions, you start to really believe in the American Dream.”
The students are trying to document a broad range of individuals. Recent subjects have included the CEO of dunnhumbyUSA, a homeless woman who went to Harvard, the life coach at Zappos and a French business owner who found in America the keys to his success. Ryder says the goal of the archive is to gather as many voices as possible in what she hopes will become a searchable database.
“We want to know what real Americans think,” she says.
One of the archive’s interns is Kevin Tighe, a senior English major. His first interview was with an active-duty Marine named Brian Giera who was adopted from Korea as a baby. When Tighe talked to him, Giera had already served a tour in Afghanistan and was on his way to Europe.
Tighe chose him as a subject because he wanted to know how someone thought about the American Dream who is currently fighting for it. Tighe reached Giera via Skype at his base in Hawaii, shortly before he deployed to Europe. Tighe was impressed by the sense of duty in Giera’s perception of the American Dream.
“He kept emphasizing it’s what he is called to do, because he was given so much,” Tighe says.
Tighe has received positive responses from other interview subjects as well.
“People want to talk to students,” he says. “That’s why I really enjoy this project.”
And Tighe isn’t shy of asking high-profile people for interviews—people like Bob McDonald, the CEO of Procter and Gamble—even though he knows they are more often than not going to decline the request.
“If I get a no, it’s a no, that’s the worst they can say. So why not? I’m really a shoot-for-the-moon, land-in-the-stars type of guy.”
If he could interview anyone in America though, it would be Bruce Springsteen.
“He’s like the embodiment of America,” he says. “I’d, like, faint if I found out I’d be talking to the Boss.”
Short of that, Tighe is happy to keep asking everyday Americans about their personal American Dream.
“Everyone knows someone that has a good American Dream story,” he says. “Even the smallest person can have the biggest dreams, and achieve them.”
That’s the idea this country was built upon.