Millocalists: Their Drive and their Discontents

July 30, 2018

For millennials, “small is beautiful” again. The chance to impact one’s original or adopted community with tangible, visible results, is hugely appealing to a generation that feels denuded of both belonging and heroic opportunity.

A version of this essay was originally published in The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute

It’s common knowledge that millennials long for “community.” What’s less understood is the concrete expression of that longing in cities and suburbs across America, especially now that the older tier of millennials between ages 28 and 34 are buying homes, starting companies, running for office, and throwing around their consumer weight.

The story is a hopeful but tentative one, threaded by a reviving localism at the very time this localism’s future rests on how, exactly, millennials choose to live out their commitments to a place – as much with one another as with the nation at large.

Millennials are an interesting bunch. Analyzed and scrutinized ad infinitum, they defy categorizations at the same time there are patterns one can trace in the impulses and values that are now making themselves felt in the actions and organizations of those in a position to lead.

Starting with the Iraq War, compounded then by a sequence of federal disappointments and the digital revolution, electrified, finally, by the most polarizing election of their lifetime, millennials have stopped believing in large-scale change driven from the top. The most popular movements of the last decade have no figurehead: #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and Occupy Wall Street. These movements are powered instead by a decentralized invitation to see one’s own life story as having all the criteria needed to belong.

The desire to impact a community

“Small is beautiful” again, and however infused with nostalgia the current localist mood is, the chance to impact one’s original or adopted community with tangible, visible results, is hugely appealing to a generation that feels denuded of both belonging and heroic opportunity.

First, some facts. For millennials with choice, the traditional coastal hotspots of Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Francisco still lure the strategic (or those who want a tableau in which to find themselves), but they are no longer the launching panacea they once were. Instead, college-educated millennials are going to where they perceive affordability, growing opportunity, and an invitation to create and contribute, not just consume.

Census data indicates that 10,430 young people moved to Washington, D.C. between 2010 and 2011. Just two years later, between 2013 and 2014, only 2,662 of that same age group moved to the capital.

What’s supplanted the appeal of dense networks and structured career tracks? The tangible dynamism of reviving yet smaller inland cities – places like Raleigh, Madison, San Antonio, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Nashville, and Orlando.

Particularly as millennials are marrying and having children, yet still desire the perks of urban living (e.g. social density, walkable and mixed-use neighborhoods, cultural variety), these second- and third-tier cities offer just the right blend of purpose and promise … at a price tag of $175,000 and $300,000, not the $500,000 to $1.5 million that only trust fund kids can consider.

As millennials have gone from a few concentrated bubbles to a more textured diaspora, a “back to the roots” movement has gained steam, with many young people choosing to return to their hometowns – or at least the metropolitan areas where family (and support for their children) is nearby. It could be the natural progression of age and need, or it could be something more trendy, but the topline of millennial aspirations has changed, and in fairly rapid fashion.

Where in 2008 we millennials were known for our “save the world” idealism, we now channel that desire for impact toward local causes we can see and touch. It’s a kind of primordial return to the fundamental meaning-makers of life: family, community, responsibility, even a kind of symbolic return to “the land,” however distant from agrarian lifestyle most of these millennials’ experiences are.

“Everyone’s searching for meaning and purpose,” says Thierry Tchenko, a 23-year old from Houston, currently finishing up a master’s degree at Georgetown, planning to return to serve his city in August. The son of Cameroonian immigrants who divorced when he was a kid, Tchenko spent his teenage years shuttling between his dad’s middle class neighborhood and his mom’s poorer apartment complex, the latter located just west of Sharpstown in one of the most ethnically diverse pockets of Texas as well as the country.

“Four years ago, I didn’t see much energy around going back home,” Tchenko says about his peers who also have had an opportunity to pursue education out of state. “Now, there’s an energy about social change, of us wanting to have an impact back toward the faces you grew up with. There’s dissatisfaction with the national political process, and with what west and east coasts are prescribing. Home may be the best place to have some sort of impact…being able to have those small wins on the local level with people you grew up with is deeply satisfying.”

As more millennials fulfill this leave-and-return motif, it’s not all hunky dory. For those coming back in a spirit of service, many of them carry a fill-the-void impulse – returning to one’s home to redeem the places of pain in their own lives so others don’t have to go through the same thing alone: divorce, abuse, poverty, lack of supportive authority figures, living in fear as an undocumented immigrant.

And, of course, one’s native status should and often does grant a leg up in establishing trust as the returner seeks to re-integrate and serve from an expanded worldview. But it can also open up chasms inside a particular community, contributing to feelings of personal alienation at the same time so many of these returning millennials are seeking to address this very problem on a macro level.

Reknitting the social fabric

This ode to care across difference, and to reknit a social fabric that millennials acutely feel has been torn for them and their progeny, motivates all sorts of localist initiatives.

The Commons Coffee Bar is a coin laundry and coffee shop in the midst of one of the roughest neighborhoods in Detroit. Its founder, Mack Avenue Community Church, wanted to create a space where the habits of two distinct demographic groups – the laptop latte routine of white millennials versus those who need to use public washing machines – would play off each other and intermingle.

The idea is a creative one, even if the reality isn’t yet gelling. Buy coffee at Commons, and you see well-heeled hipsters typing in isolation, their African-American peers cracking jokes while folding clothes.

There’s a space & design renaissance powered largely by millennials right now, but leadership still matters. How to people places, in a way that feels natural, yet sets a more definitive tone so people don’t just slip into their default habits and distrusts?

Intentional is a big word with us,” says Tchenko. “I’m seeing lots of friends being super intentional about choosing the teaching profession, for instance. They want to get into the system and get in there early. Others are starting non-profits – helping kids. If we lacked a father, or if we experienced some sort of trauma, we want to begin our adult lives by connecting with those in similar circumstance.” A kind of immigrant echo of crafting better futures for your progeny, but in this case, the progeny is the next generation of wounded healers.

Sarah Hemminger is leading one of the most impressive social capital repair efforts in the country, called Thread. It serves the city of Baltimore by creating a reliable social network around students who score in the lowest quartile, re-defining “family” in the process.

Hemminger herself grew up in a thick religious community outside Indianapolis, and as a teenager experienced a dramatic church shunning when her family wouldn’t bend with the congregation’s acquiescence to an embezzling pastor. That excruciatingly isolating experience gave her a call that now propels Thread, and she wears a necklace whose pendant contours Baltimore’s city limits. Many other cities have asked her to bring Thread to them, but she’s thus far declined. She loves her adopted city, and wants to go all-in.

Millennial-led examples of this kind of social fabric repair and whole person concern are endless – mostly in the non-profit sector, but starting to percolate in the for-profit world, too. Trevor Hightower in Houston has founded WorkFlourish,  an innovative residential and co-working experiment that seeks to foster a flourishing community of entrepreneurs committed to excellent work and neighboring.

Hightower has intentionally created an environment that not only encourages creativity and cross-pollination, but also provides cues for members to nourish their physical, mental, and spiritual health. Video monitors display inspiring quotes. TED Talks are featured on subjects like creating, thriving, leading, failing. There are daily practices available, one of which is a morning visioning session were members clarify the top three things that need to be done that day while focusing on their three reasons for gratitude.

Choosing the local

These are just a few examples among thousands, highlighting a generational spirit almost more than the infrastructure we can predict unfurling on a large scale. Insofar as millennials are a generation defined more by the institutions they’ve left than those they’ve shaped, there remains a subtle yet defiant institutional impulse showing up in their desire to serve and reconnect with the faces they grew up with, to address needs that will help future generations. And so much of this impulse is at once admirable and promising: There’s a wisdom in localism, not only for a recovery of health in our democracy, but for the health of citizens.

At a fundamental human level, millennials are showing that they’ve had enough with abstract goods. They want a sense of wholeness in their lives, wholeness built from healthy relationships, responsibility, belonging, an identifiable role. There’s an inherent personalism involved in choosing the local – it demands real conversations in real-time, real meals around real tables, and real problem-solving and sacrifice, less hash-tagging and virtue signaling.

But it remains to be seen how this localist enthusiasm will develop and mature. No one can ignore the internet, its alternate reality as tempting to our ideals as anything in our immediate environment. We millennials may get dangerously good at functioning with split personalities: embodying online everything we claim to hate, and finding relief only in one’s local realities. This won’t be sustainable, neither psychologically nor democratically.

“To be honest, going local may not be attractive to some people,” says Thierry Tchenko. Sometimes “localism” seems to obscure the fact that many young people simply feel stuck, unable to get out and unable to make their own place better. “White folks love giving money to improve a place,” one young African-American man in Detroit told me, “but most of them still have trouble sharing power.”

Millennials are more aware of this problem than their elders, but there’s still a moral battle ahead. No one can be spared the choices involved.

“The key question is,” says Tchenko, “how are we now training those younger than us to serve theirpeers? How do we train their desires to go beyond simply attaining success and a pleasant life, which are part of the American Dream but not its lifeblood. We must train those after us to serve and lead.”

Only time will tell, but it is worth noting that since the 2016 election, there’s an intriguing spirit rising up from millennials in cities and towns across the country. Some of it is angry – people are fed up with politics and government’s inability to address injustice effectively. Some of it is pained – both personally and historically – but in this pain there is a purifying clarity and empowered hope being born about the possibility – no, the necessity – of civic action. Each citizen is being called to his and her own renewing path. Some of it, subtly yet pervasively, is faith-driven.

There’s a new yet ancient vocabulary rooted in a theological imagination bubbling up as millennials talk about our yearnings for our lives and our society. This vocabulary invokes mercy and justice, forgiveness and reconciliation, memory and truth, poetry and breaking bread together, all of which is more inclusive and pluralist than the churchy language of yesteryear, but is nonetheless rooted in a transcendent set of reference points. Much of it oriented toward how we might live together in common…of how we might bring both Old and New America together. And in this, there is something perennially American being activated and repurposed.

This essay originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.

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