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In a library, a search for solutions

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BEACHWOOD, Ohio__Just hours before President Donald Trump gave his first State of the Union address Tuesday, a small group of 15 people gathered in a library auditorium in northeastern Ohio to talk about how the U.S. system is broken.

The discussion centered around the book “Evicted” and is part of a series the Cleveland area is hosting in an effort to get communities talking about pressing problems — like access to housing.

“We’re using this book as a way to open up the conversation around economics, poverty, housing, homelessness. All these important issues that intersect with one another,” one of the county library staff told me.

A professor of history from nearby Case Western University summed up the book by saying, “We haven’t appreciated the role of housing in creating poverty.” Then he asked a provocative question: “Why even have a private housing market in the first place?”

An older woman with snowflake-white hair said with all the problems the people described in the book were facing she couldn’t fathom where they would begin finding solutions.

“How about stable housing?” chimed in Justine, a young woman studying sociology at Case Western. “What that can do for you in terms of applying for a library card … applying for a job,” she said. “Stable housing fixes a lot of problems.”

Most of the people in attendance were white and older. Some of the women described youths growing up in rented apartments in New York and Chicago. They now lived in a suburb outside Cleveland that a woman named Linda described as diverse since it bordered an inner-ring suburb with significant black and Hispanic populations. A black women talked about privilege and how her work colleagues saw her as such. 

The conversation involved a lot of “us” and “them,” a distinction between the people represented in “Evicted” and those sitting in on the night’s discussion. Everyone acknowledged that they saw bits they could relate to in those stories. But this community was different from the communities facing eviction.

And it was that division I reflected on as I drove the 150 miles home, beneath a beaming full moon, and listened to President Trump speak.

As expected, he started his speech with economic highlights — wage growth, record-low unemployment, a booming stock market. He kept the focus of his 120 minute address (the second-longest on record) on immigration, culture — bringing up the flag and standing for the national anthem. He described a war on energy and unveiled a $1.5 billion infrastructure investment package. He did not talk about poverty or affordable housing. 

He called for unity, in an effort at bipartisanship. But Democrats and others didn’t seem to buy the platitude. And while he moved away from the American carnage speech of his inauguration, favoring “a new American moment,” the rhetoric remained dark, noted one commentator. 

The paradox that is Trump, a president who, Axois’ Jonathan Swan writes, “calls for creating paid family leave, keeping Gitmo open, making the nuclear arsenal stronger, making prescription drugs less expensive, cracking down on drug dealers, and helping convicted felons get “a second chance”,” continues to confound America.

So maybe it’s time we went to our libraries and out into communities. Bridging the divide would mean listening — and learning to feel “uncomfortable,” said a young man sitting with Justine at the book discussion. A woman in front of him agreed: “We can’t just always be talking.”