Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in awhile. It gives a cultural context to this group of Americans. It is written by one of their own.

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It’s about the Scotch-Irish people who came to the Americas and dominated Appalachia’s gritty coal mines until coal fell out of favor; the risks of coal dust finally proven not just for miners, but for everyone else as well.

The decline of mining drove the ambitious among them to the industrial cities of the north: Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, etc., where they populated the automobile and other factories then fueling the world economy.

J.D. Vance describes his people as “feuding” folk – citing his own ancestral connection to the legendary Hatfield-McCoy feud that apparently went on for generations. He asserts that this fighting nature is so ingrained in the culture that the only ones who escape it are those who marry outside it.

He describes his abiding love for the men in his mother’s family, set against his dawning understanding of how appallingly violent they were. The violence was pervasive, within families and in the community at large. He describes its destructiveness. The damage it did to people. Yet, these men and this culture still live at the heart of his identity. This I understand.

He, who grew up with an unstable mother, describes a fearful childhood. With his mother he bounced from house to house, and from stepfather to stepfather; his grandma the only constant in his life. This would be the grandmother who saved him, though she suffered through a great deal herself. She managed to give him a foundation that eventually led him to Yale Law rather than becoming a reflection of all he saw around him.

In the very last chapter he brings in science – or sociology (Amazon categorizes this as a sociology book) – referencing a Kaiser Permanente joint study with the Centers for Disease Control that started in the 1990s. It measures how adverse childhood experiences – ACEs – influence health outcomes throughout a person’s entire life.

The study asserts that the more ACEs a person has been subjected to, the greater the risk they’ll have big, intractable problems as adults: be obese, have heart disease or high blood pressure, be an alcoholic or addict, etc. The ACEs in the study are:

Welfare, substance abuse, domestic violence – all the things that poverty generates – Vance unflinchingly lays bare in this book. There is no discernable self-pity; just an accounting of what was.

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Vance recalls that academic excellence was not discouraged, but neither was it encouraged. If you made the cut, your people were happy for you. If you didn’t, well… There was no imperative to excel. As a friend of mine likes to say, the people had “made peace with mediocrity.”

A trajectory here: one thing I have long wondered is why in the world of stand-up comedy it is still acceptable to make fun of “rednecks.” We’ve slowly moved away from derogatory jokes about Blacks, Jews, Poles – really every other ethnic or religious group. Un-PC (politically correct), we now agree. But then there’s this one group that it’s still ok to ridicule. Why? I still don’t get it. (That may be another blog post.)

Reading Hillbilly Elegy opened my eyes to a world I will never be invited into, but that I now have a way to understand. Thank you, J.D. Vance.

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Women’s History Month 2018: A Tribute to Women Change-Makers

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Women’s History Month, like all the other months designated for special cultural observances, always provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the ideals that are most important to us.

In 2015 the United States Treasury announced that the portrait of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, on the $10 bill would be replaced by the image of an American woman – starting in 2020. There were online votes in which interested parties were asked to select from among a list of top contenders. However, the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” renewed appreciation for Mr. Hamilton, and it was decided to let the $10 bill alone. The woman’s portrait would instead go on the $20 bill.

We have learned that the woman will be Harriet Tubman.

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We affectionately call Harriet Tubman “Black Moses” because her bravery in various capacities – surprising for a woman – rescued hundreds of enslaved people. Many supporters are pleased about this because Tubman’s image will replace that of America’s 7th President, Andrew Jackson, who got rich as a slave owner and was instrumental in robbing various Native American tribes of their land.

MY interest in Women’s History Month has always been very broad-based. Yay for Harriet Tubman, but I love the way the National Women’s History Project singles out new women each year for recognition and acknowledgement.

Like Blacks, women have contributed mightily to this planet, in ways that have frequently gone unrecognized (think “Hidden Figures“). I believe mine is the first American generation to imagine that women could actually gain equality with men – and I’ve watched that struggle progress for the 50 years since I was old enough to start paying attention.

I’ve chosen to highlight the women shown in the photo at the top of this post as my own personal icons for this year: the astonishing author and Pulitzer Prize Winner Toni Morrison, Africa’s first female president – former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Susan Burton, a former prison convict who now helps others re-enter society.

Toni Morrison has long been my favorite American author, since The Bluest Eye and Tar Baby – and, of course, Beloved, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer. She stands out for her richly lyrical style, her interweaving of the spiritual with the realistic, her characters’ authentic voices in the narrative (what we West Indians call “nation language”), and her truly epic stories – most of which place women squarely at the center.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took on an amazingly difficult task of bringing Liberia out of a long and unproductive civil war, and then of keeping the peace. She also stepped down at the end of her term – providing for an orderly transition of government – a move most African leaders can’t seem to get right!!! While she’s taken a lot of criticism – heck, she’s a woman so we’re used to that – there is no denying what she has accomplished. And, notably, it was the direct, broad-based political activism of Liberia’s women who put her there!

Susan Burton, founder of “A New Way of Life,” a California-based nonprofit which helps women and men re-enter society after incarceration, is among the 2018 National Women’s History Project honorees – and is on my personal list of women to appreciate this year. As Black Americans turn our focus toward criminal justice reform as a key political issue – mass incarceration IS the new Jim Crow – this kind of work is needed to save people’s lives and move us forward together.

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I can’t resist this mention of Hidden Figures – the beautiful 2016 book by Margot Lee Shetterly about the women mathematicians who helped America win the space race; a book which makes the entire case for Women’s History Month. It’s a must-read, even if you’ve seen the movie!

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What The Kirby Company’s Brand Can Teach You About Your Own

I want to make a point about brand integrity and the inherent difficulties of doing business – and why you have to be aggressive about managing your brand online. I will do it by way of this little story:

The guy who sold me this Kirby Heritage II vacuum cleaner in 1988 struck gold that day! Full price, back then – what was it? $1300 in monthly payments, so probably twice that amount in the end. I was too young to know how to bargain. I’ll wager that my sale alone sent that young salesman and his family to Hawaii.

But here’s the thing: it’s 30 years later, and I’m not mad about it.

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I did second-guess myself for quite awhile, I remember. Every time I looked at the massive Kirby vacuum, I threatened it, muttering under my breath: ‘You’d better last the rest of my freakin’ life, buddy!’

But behind the sale, which the salesman had no way of knowing, was the fact that my parents still had the Kirby vacuum cleaner that I grew up with. (In fact, they have it  to this day, in 2018.)

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If mine hiccupped – which in these 30 years has been exactly twice – it got taken to the doctor – and believe it or not those still exist. You can still get parts directly from the company, which is what my folks do – having them shipped speedily to another country where they and their Kirby vacuum cleaner now live. Now that’s the era I was brought up in.

But here’s my point at last: if you look up the Kirby company on the internet, what appears at the top of the feed are complaints. Sales tactics, mostly. Managing that legion of independent salespersons (let’s face it, sales MEN back then) was somebody’s massive headache, and much litigation ensued.

The day I bought mine, I had a baby on my hip and the salesman’s pitch hypnotized me. This machine was going to do everything for me but the dishes! By the time he was done, I was done too – stick a fork in ‘er. Yet if my young husband had come home and gotten sticker shock, we would have been one of those families with buyer’s remorse, calling the company and angrily demanding a refund.

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Yeah, it was a lot of money. But the damn products are aMAzing. They exemplify everything that “American-made” used to stand for. That’s value. That’s absolute brand integrity.

Yet they, too, have their detractors. And that’s what’s live on the web.

How do you manage that? You work hard to deliver great work and serve your customers faithfully. Yet your online presence can be like an undertow, with one bad review that presents new prospects with a bad first impression! That simply will not do!

Reviews and any form of third-party endorsement of your work are critical cues for people making buy decisions for almost all products and services today. Younger shoppers are the most cautious. If you don’t have fans, or any authentic interaction with people, new customers simply will not take a chance on you!

google-76522_960_720At The Allyson Group we can do a quick brand audit and help you build, refine, or control your online presence. You can – in fact, you must! – create your company’s online footprint yourself – and do so in a way that serves clients and prospective customers as well as your brand. Let us show you how.