The morning of September 21, 2009 dawned just like any other day in the Capital Region with thick fog and subtle fall colors quietly peeping. For many it was business as usual, off to work or school, caught up in the usual traffic going toward downtown. Still while the subtle suggestion of autumn remained heavy, almost uncertain of complete transformation, there was a buzz and a hope of knowing something special was about to happen. Many eagerly waited along Albany-Shaker Road and later Route 4 for the arrival of President Barrack Obama and his visit to Hudson Valley Community College. His visit not only marks an opportunity for Troy to be in the national spotlight, it also marks the first time a sitting president has visited the Collar city since the Eisenhower administration. Many Trojans would agree much has changed, that we indeed have come full circle.
In its heyday, Troy was a hub of commerce, a beacon of culture and activity due to its pinnacle position along the Hudson River and proximity to the end of the Erie Canal. But hard times have beaten down this pre-industrial beauty. Out of many upstate towns, Troy is one of the oldest and yet due to economic downturn starting 30 years ago, one of the least respected. But I say, many are wrong to underestimate Troy’s potential to rise from the ashes. It is the best-hidden secret in the area. Obama’s visit marks a turning point, a cusp at which the Collar City can shine again, gain the attention such a diverse and historically rich city deserves. I believe Obama’s visit is just the first of many magnificent opportunities for the outside to see what’s going on in upstate New York but mostly in Troy. The Capital Region may be small but we are gaining notoriety and prestige by signaling to the world, this where you want to be if you want to be an active participant for changing and rebuilding America. It can happen one village, one community at a time.
Many have asked me in recent days, ‘why do you think Obama chose Troy or Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC)?’ Is it the proximity to the city and his appearance on Letterman or his expected meeting at the United Nations, or do you think there are other reasons, strategically? Honestly, he chose Troy and specifically HVCC because I believe he sees the work we doing here as an active role model for how he thinks all communities should be working to reinvent themselves. Honestly I believe he chose HVCC because it is an excellent place to receive a top rate education without going into a tremendous amount of debt. I believe he values education as he values health care for every American and he sees community colleges are playing a significant role in re-establishing a value for education in this country. Here in Troy, he introduced his plan that by 2020 America will once again have the highest rate of college graduates and he believes many of those educations will begin at community colleges.
I never went to a community college but I took a different path from the average experience. I went to Mills College in Oakland, CA; it is the oldest woman’s college west of the Rocky Mountains but I can still remember people questioning my choice. But that is the beauty of this country; we have a choice. We have the opportunity to tap into and explore our potential and aptitude toward a skill, a talent, which leads to a mind spring of innovation and creativity. College promotes flexible, critical thinking where ideas can be researched. Places of higher learning like HVCC embody the values needed for such paths to grow because it makes education accessible. Community college gives students more options toward a brighter future and this in turn influences the entire community. I never realized the importance of community college because I had my mind set on an ‘ivy league’ level education but I also received the scholarship money. Not everyone else is in the same position. I never realized how many people would not be where they are today without the benefit of community college education. Personal story: Dr. Lauren Reager, a dermatologist in Santa Monica, CA saved my life when at fifteen years old I was diagnosed with lupus. I am alive because of him. At the time in the late 1980s not only was there not a test for lupus, not many doctors had experience with the disease. I am extremely fortunate he began his studies at a community college because that is where he gained the knowledge and the tools to see past the typical set of classical illnesses. I explore this need for accessible education because of people like him that have broken down barriers and opened doors to education mainly due to their value for research and investigation that began at the community college level.
America faces issues of accessibility where there is a clear disparity, a divide. While it is seen in health care, it creates obstacles everywhere else. Clearly after hearing his speech in Troy, he has a master plan because he knows community colleges hold the key and make futures possible where private institutions remain unattainable for many working class families. The tuition is just too high and the lack of scholarship money is too low because too many families come from the same circumstances. Much like health care, the financial aid system needs repair. Obama discussed ditching the middle man, the bank and suggests government lending directly to the student and that these channels must be reopened again. Current credit markets must improve.
While many have fallen on hard times, others have slacked off and let consumption and material things cloud their judgment. Obama realizes this is true of many lawmakers. There has been a lack of accountability with regard to understanding what is happening at the community level, what is happening in our neighborhoods. He points out that Troy could be in any American region: the South and the Mid-west. It has an any town USA quality where stories are similar and patience is wearing thin with regard to lack of jobs. And not just JOBS but high-paying jobs that can feed families and turn areas once hit by poverty into places of great prosperity. For upstate New York, this visit is a clear turning point because it represents years if not decades of hard work and gambling on innovative ideas and breakthroughs like nanotechnology and green, renewable energy products. There is debate over rather or not investment should have been routed upstate rather than the city and other down state areas. For many years, there has been resentment on the part of upstaters feeling more money should have been invested into improving the area and creating more jobs because such down trodden areas promote poverty, welfare, gangs and drugs.
Still the President could have gone to Troy, MI. He could have gone to any other similar town but instead he chose Troy, NY and HVCC for a valid reason. Upstate is on the cusp of greatness. Obama alluded to the fact that like many cities, Troy does not stand alone in the challenge of rebuilding a better America but also such a mission begins at the roots. Every individual, every block, every community has a voice and participatory role in the reinvention of America. That is the message Obama aimed to present while in Troy but also he wants a return to what Troy used to be. Troy was a leader of industry, a place where creativity and innovation married to bring inventions to every household. Many men today would not have collars on their shirts, if it were not for the city of Troy. It is that simple. Obama seeks to harness that feeling of possibility, the seeking of new and better ways of doing simple things. He thinks this is how inventions are created and new products introduced to the market place and he is right.
There must be the ‘can do’ attitude that so many from Troy’s hey day possessed, the feeling that anything is possible and that we are definitely at a turning point in our evolution as Americans. It is thought that such a focus upon the basics will allow for social advancement where voices are heard and change is not a foreign concept. We will be a culture without fear and this will spawn further invention but also artistic movements and folklore. The message here is bring the value for innovation, research and clear communication back to the people because this will drive the costs of doing business down. Small business should be on the rise and encouraged.
Troy is an accurate role model of how everything that is happening in this country is interconnected but also how change is possible. That breakthroughs taking place in research at HVCC has a direct impact upon the world, but this also drives enthusiasm. It becomes contagious but also drives sustained growth and shared prosperity, which builds American competitive advantage. Continued innovation helps all sectors of industry because it creates an open and free market. Obama suggests in this speech that one action correlates with another or that if we value education, this too will influence how health care is reformed and implemented. This all plays an active role in restoring American back to the status of global leader.
I can just hear the critics now. Many will think it is just too utopian, that it could not possibly work. Conservatives will say you cannot cut out the middleman and that banks are the backbone of commerce but so many forget! It is really just so simple and common sense. Obama’s visit to the Capital Region represents to me that he has not forgotten. He has not forgotten! There is a challenging road ahead but clearly there is something special happening in Troy that also remains non-partisan. The community actively puts into reality Obama’s vision for the future. He wants the world to see the difference between potential of ‘what if we apply this great idea’ to the active participation of actually getting it done. In this way, other cities can also return from the ashes.
Kimberlee Currans-Leto lives and works as a freelance writer in North Troy, NY. Originally born in Texas and raised in Europe and California, she adopted that ‘New York Sate of Mind’ when she moved upstate with her husband. Her professional background varies from working on movie sets in Hollywood to saving people’s homes from foreclosure. She considers herself a ‘foodie’ and finds the best therapy in baking chocolate chip cookies or organizing a huge dinner party. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.