As It Stands: Redefining the American Dream

The American Dream Project Crew

As the Mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, John Fetterman stands at a height of 6 feet 8 inches. He’s a Harvard graduate, and his intelligence and compassion both stand as tall as he does. We first met in Episode 1 of The American Dream Project, a documentary series I created over a 5,000 mile journey across the country to explore the American Dream.

Braddock was once an industrial pillar of America, supplying huge amounts of steel to the rest of the country. When the steel industry collapsed in the 1970's, the town became a haven for crime and drugs. Now that one solitary, working mill remains, the town had to adapt and start building a new future and community. Fetterman became that future when he won his Mayoral election in 2005 by a single vote.

Sure, Fetterman doesn’t have your typical American Dream. It’s not about the white picket fence, or the two kids and a dog. Instead, Fetterman’s dream was to use his professional career to positively affect the community. He has since made it possible for others in the town to start dreaming again, too.

The people I met and the stories they told along my cross-country road trip revealed something very different than what I thought when I first pulled onto the road. My initial inclinations about this enigma included all the typical notions about a general sense of upward mobility. My gut told me there was so much more to it though. Yes, the white picket fence is an American Dream, but I doubted it was everyone’s.

If we only measure the American Dream financially, we choose not to see the full picture. John Fetterman is someone who proves this every day.

James and Todd in the midst of an interview for The American Dream Project.

Mike Reynolds of Taos, New Mexico is another, though his dream is different. Reynolds works as an environmental architect designing and building homes called “Earth Ships” made from materials thrown into landfills: tires, bottles, cans, you name it. We met him in Episode 7. In return for a night in one of Mike’s Earth Ships, my friend Todd and I helped with the construction of one of his new buildings. The process of building an Earth Ship from the ground up was fascinating. Packing old tires with dirt and rocks to form solid walls, using discarded packaging materials for insulation, then building the outer wall with glass bottles, aluminum cans and adobe mud — all things you would normally discard.

His dream was to “Build homes that encounter the Earth and the natural phenomena of the planet: Wind, Sun, and Rain… to provide sustenance for its inhabitants.” It has taken decades, but against all odds, he’s educating and inspiring other architects and building sustainable homes for people all over the world.

Each of the individuals I met during this project prove that the American Dream is something that comes from within. Some aim for financial success, others for artistic fulfillment, others simply pursue what makes them happy. Whatever their dream is, every single one of these people not only decided on a dream then took action to make it real, but they actively pass their dream onto others. They’re teaching people that the moment you feel like you can’t go any further, you have to stop, think, and evaluate your options. If you really want it, you have to dive in and go for it.

The American Dream is absolutely alive, and it’s up to each and every one of us to define it for ourselves to keep the momentum going.

James Marshall is a global adventurer and the founder of Happy Marshall Productions. For The American Dream Project, James partnered with Cole Haan to discover what had happened to the American Dream and create a documentary series about his findings. Cole Haan, an iconic American lifestyle brand, sponsored the telling of this story.

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