For the second consecutive year, Roosevelt University hosted the American Dream Reconsidered Conference, an event that examined the state of our national ethos during one of the country’s most dynamic and challenging eras in its history.
More than 5,000 people attended the four-day conference, held Sept. 11–14, which featured star-studded guest speakers, touched on hot-button issues and sizzled with news.
“This was a momentous event for our community,” said Roosevelt University President Ali Malekzadeh, who first introduced the annual conference in 2016. “Not only was it an occasion to take in differing viewpoints and learn about important issues of the day; this was an exceptional event that gave the University a high degree of visibility.”
Highlights of the American Dream Conference included discussions featuring luminaries such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; political commentators David Axelrod and Bill Kristol; MacArthur Fellow and author Danielle Allen; noted economist Tyler Cowen; and Roosevelt’s own economics alumni, who discussed economic justice and the American Dream.
Immigration, health care, the presidency of Donald Trump, the failure of America’s penal system, and Americans’ growing complacency were just a few of the topics discussed at the conference.
Like last year, the conference also offered an opportunity for members of the Roosevelt community to volunteer at both the Chicago and Schaumburg campuses for the American Dream Service Day, Sept. 14. Feeding hungry children; rooftop garden beautification; campus clean-up; and cause advocacy, addressing issues of global poverty, health, education and development, were among the service activities performed by close to 300 volunteers.
Coming to America: Immigration in the New World
The American Dream Reconsidered Conference kicked off its panel series with Coming to America: Immigration in a New World. Held in Roosevelt’s Rudolph Ganz Memorial Hall, moderator Bethany Barratt, professor of political science at Roosevelt, was accompanied by panel experts María Blanco and Aziz Huq.
Blanco, executive director of the University of California’s Immigrant Legal Services Center, and Huq, the Frank and Bernice J. Greenberg law professor at University of Chicago, provided insight on the similarities between past and present U.S. immigration policies. According to Huq, “U.S. law didn’t have the concept of a removable alien until the early 20th century. It’s only in the 1930s … that people actually started to see a substantial amount of deportations.”
A former advisor for President Barack Obama’s 2008 transition team, Blanco spoke candidly about the former president’s role in what she describes as the largest deportation operation in American history. “There were a lot of different thoughts about wanting to look tough on enforcement, [which] was a bargaining chip for comprehensive immigration reform in Congress,” Blanco said. “But, it was pretty clear at some point that wasn’t going to happen.”
“Every year, everybody’s tempted to pull out a new report [that] is going to convince people that immigrants are contributing to the economy, that they don’t get welfare, and that they contribute to social security — even though they can’t [receive social security benefits].”– María Blanco, Executive Director of the Immigrant Legal Services Center, University of California
She continued, “Every year, everybody’s tempted to pull out a new report [that] is going to convince people that immigrants are contributing to the economy, that they don’t get welfare, and that they contribute to social security — even though they can’t [receive social security benefits].”
While recent attempts by the Trump administration to rescind the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — and enact a travel ban against nationals from Muslim-majority countries — have generated waves of concern and unrest, Huq remains hopeful due to the actions taken by institutions and individuals.
“I don’t think that the trajectory of the travel ban would’ve been the same had it not been for people being present,” Huq said. “[I’m] talking to ACLU lawyers who expect upwards of 60 or 70 media briefs on their side from Fortune 500 companies, Biotech, Silicon Valley, [and] every major American university. I think that kind of action by people who are not directly affected by these measures is tremendously consequential.”
A Conversation With Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
We all have an American Dream, no matter our lot in life. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is no exception, following her lifelong service to her community, country, its people, family and friends.
“How do you want to be remembered?” asked Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ann Claire Williams, who joined Ginsburg for their two-hour conversation on the opening night of Roosevelt’s American Dream Reconsidered Conference at the Auditorium Theatre.
“I would like to be remembered as someone who tried her best, with whatever talent God gave her, to move things in a better direction, to make things better,” Ginsburg said as thousands in the theatre cheered her on.
That inspirational exchange, along with many others, captivated thousands in attendance for the wide-ranging conversation on Sept. 11, which headlined Roosevelt’s four-day conference.
Covering everything from her humble beginnings growing up in Brooklyn, New York to her working relationship with the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Ginsburg shared a life story steeped in social justice activism.
An advocate for women’s rights throughout her life, Ginsburg told the crowd, “I think there has not been a better time to be a woman in the legal profession because no doors are closed.
“I won’t say there’s no discrimination. That would be a stretch,” said Ginsburg, who overcame incredible odds with her determination to become a lawyer and then a judge at a time when the field of law was dominated by men.
“There will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine,” said the outspoken justice, who made news around the nation with that statement and many others.
“I would like to be remembered as someone who tried her best, with whatever talent God gave her, to move things in a better direction, to make things better.”– Ruth Bader GinsburgU.S. Supreme Court Justice
The Supreme Court justice has also been a figure of mainstream notoriety, especially after a law student, upset by a 2013 decision striking down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, referred to Ginsburg in an online posting as the “Notorious RBG,” a sly comparison to the late rapper Notorious B.I.G.
Ginsburg joked while on stage that her similarities to the rap star were obvious. “We both were born and bred in Brooklyn, New York,” she said.
Ginsburg answered a number of questions during the event posed by Roosevelt University students. While she stayed away from discussing politics during her appearance, Ginsburg made it clear on where she stands regarding working with her colleagues on the nation’s highest court. “We revere the institution for which we work,” she said. “It just won’t work if you don’t respect your colleagues.” At one point, she described Scalia as “a funny man,” “a good grammarian” and “a friend.”
Of the divide in Congress over Supreme Court nominations, Ginsburg said, “My hope — and I hope I will live to see it in this lifetime — is that our Congress will get over this nonsense.”
Nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993, she was only the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court. Ginsburg called for a return to the “bipartisan spirit” that prevailed back in that period.
Despite the challenging times and a lifetime of experiences — “Over the long haul, I’ve had it all” — Ginsburg made clear she’s not ready to give up on the dream.
“There’s work to be done,” she said as the audience cheered. “I will remain to do it as long as I can, full steam.”
Economic Justice and the American Dream
Alumni from Roosevelt’s graduate economics program took to the stage at Ganz Hall to present personal perspectives on the meaning of economic justice and the American Dream. Accomplished researchers and practitioners, graduates Samuel Barbour, Hans Zigmund, Calvin Trapp, Jessica Akey and Justin Shea emphasized the importance of creating a world in which social and economic justice prevails, where all people have adequate standards of living, and where all have the ability to freely develop full human potentials and capabilities. The panel discussion was moderated by economics program director and professor Gary Langer.
The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois Panel: Who Knew it Could Be So Complicated? A Conversation About Health Care in America.
The BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois panel featured James L. Madara, CEO and executive vice president of the American Medical Association; Maurice Smith, president of BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois; and Eric Zimmerman, partner at McDermott, Will & Emery, and president of the American Health Lawyers Association. Melissa Hogan, dean of Roosevelt’s College of Pharmacy, moderated the panel, which focused on how health care access impacts the American Dream.
Madara spoke at length about how the health care system is fragmented, because providers are not able to access data swiftly, and that a primary focus for the AMA is to help providers think about connective technology. That better access to data will help with disease prevention.
Smith emphasized that major health care corporations’ roles are to serve as advocates for the consumer and organizers of the health care system. He strongly encouraged those in the audience to get involved and become advocates for health care, and to work with congressional leaders.
When speaking to the partisan divide that exists in the health care debate today, Zimmerman said the Affordable Care Act has quickly become a government entitlement program similar to social security and Medicare. One of the great tragedies of the Affordable Care Act, according to Zimmerman, is the current political environment in which it finds itself, and that its infrastructure could work if Congress decides to work together toward a common goal.
When asked about the winners and losers of universal coverage, Zimmerman said Medicare has by-and-large been viewed as a successful system that maintains a free market service, seen as government organized but not government run. He emphasized the systems in place that would allow customers 100 percent coverage.
Hogan ended the panel discussion with a question of how to make health care more affordable. Without data transparency, Madara said, costs are hard to assess. Zimmerman cited cost as a problem of misaligned incentives, and that the Affordable Care Act fell short on cost-control measures. Madara closed by stating that incentives are important, but the current system has it all wrong — and needs reform.
Cuz: The Untimely End of an American’s Dream: A Conversation about Race, Justice, Incarceration and the Loss of a Generation
Anger, grief and loss were among the emotions that surfaced when Harvard University professor and MacArthur Fellow Danielle Allen took the stage to discuss her new book during her talk, Cuz: The Untimely End of an American’s Dream.
“The American Dream is broken,” said Allen, who discussed the loss of her younger cousin and the role the American penal system played in his downfall.
She told audience members that she wrote Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A., published this fall, in order to understand why her cousin, who had much potential for future success, ended up in prison and subsequently dead after a first conviction for carjacking at age 15.
“We leave it to our government to secure our rights — and they don’t.”– Danielle Allen, Harvard University Professor and MacArthur Fellow
“I wanted to understand ‘Why was he dead? Why was he in prison for so long? Why did he end up at 15 with so much anger and trying to carjack a vehicle? What happened?’” said Allen, who is one of today’s leading American scholars.
“I hope this book also is a lesson into some of the bigger things we’ve done in this country with our criminal justice system.”
Allen, who comes from a close-knit and well educated family, said it came as a surprise to all when her cousin, Michael, committed a carjacking as a teen. Angry and upset, family members had a difficult time navigating the criminal justice system that kept Michael behind bars for 11 years. During his time in a California prison, Michael wrote essays that are featured in the book and also fell in love with a fellow inmate, who returned to kill Michael shortly after he was released from prison at 26 years of age.
On her journey to understand the story, Allen said she discovered that Michael had grown up in an abusive household and changed schools on five occasions, including a move to Los Angeles where he got involved with gangs.
More troubling, however, was what she learned about the criminal justice system, which she blames for not protecting her cousin, as well as millions of other young African American males who have been locked behind bars, largely due to drug convictions.
Allen told audience members that the Declaration of Independence makes it clear the government is supposed to ensure one’s right to pursue happiness.
“Our war on drugs is hindering our pursuit of happiness,” she said. “We leave it to our government to secure our rights — and they don’t.”
The Jack Miller Center Conversation on the American Dream
We live in self-satisfactory, comfortable times; we as Americans are content to try new things but are not interested in creating change. There is a real danger that accompanies avoiding the new and different, in favor of standing still.
This is the argument Tyler Cowen makes in his most recent book, The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, which he presented at The Jack Miller Center Conversation on The American Dream on Sept. 13. Cowen is a renowned economist and Holbert C. Harris chair of the economics department at George Mason University, and presented his perspectives on the country at large during this engaging discussion. Political commentator Bill Kristol moderated the talk.
“When I talk about complacency, I mean this notion that we have lost the ability to imagine a future fundamentally different and better from the present we live in.”– Tyler Cowen, Economist; Holbert C. Harris Chair of Economics, George Mason University
“When I talk about complacency, I mean this notion that we have lost the ability to imagine a future fundamentally different and better from the present we live in,” Cowen said. “[It] to me seems almost entirely vanished. We obsess over keeping our kids safe, medicating ourselves, digging in, not moving so often … the internet has made staying at home a lot more fun, much more than it’s made us more productive or dynamic.”
From the pure extremes of political bipartisanship to the isolationism of social media interaction, the discussion by Cowen and Kristol covered a wide swath of dynamics in American culture that has created a more insular people.
The conversation ended on a question: “Do people believe strongly in some kind of future they imagine very clearly in their minds?” To Cowen, recent trends may not hold much optimism.
It Did Happen Here: Reflections on the 2016 Presidential Election and its Aftermath
A spirited discussion on the 2016 election and Trump presidency by leading political commentators David Axelrod and Bill Kristol engaged a capacity crowd on the third day of the American Dream Reconsidered Conference in Ganz Hall. Roosevelt University associate professor of political science David Faris moderated the discussion.
Though Axelrod, former Obama senior advisor, and Kristol, founder of the conservative-leaning Weekly Standard, are on opposing sides of the political spectrum, both had serious misgivings about Trump’s performance.
Axelrod criticized the president for “having no idea whatsoever of what he’s doing,” and suggested Democrats will need a candidate in 2020 who is nothing like Trump. “We’ll need someone who can make the argument on values we share including economic opportunity and equality,” he said.
While Kristol called Trump “a con man” who “has done damage to the country,” the political commentator also argued that some Americans, in the end, will remember good things about the unusual presidency.
“The big story to me after his eight months in office is that reluctant Trump voters remain Trump voters,” Kristol said. “He may not be doing well with them, but he’s doing well enough to hold most of them.”
One of the best things to emerge from the election and presidency, according to Axelrod, is the strength of American democracy.
“One of the things that has most impressed me is the resilience of our institutions,” said Axelrod, who credited the media for inspiring aggressive American citizens to become more active, and Congress for listening to its constituents.
“One of the things that has most impressed me is the resilience of our institutions.”– David Axelrod, Political Commentator
Kristol believes it will be interesting to watch how Trump will fare in the event of an economic downturn. “When will reluctant Trump supporters turn against the president?” Kristol asked. “I think a big economic downturn could do that.”
Both men said they were worried about where the Trump presidency will take the country going forward.
“What worries me is how the story will end,” said Axelrod, who believes talk of impeachment should take a back burner, essentially denying Trump the opportunity to further rile up and ignite his base.
Citing “a fundamental divide in the Republican Party,” Kristol said, “None of us has seen this movie before. We’re really in a new environment. Things are very fluid … there are so many variables at play,” which he believes means taking a wait-and-see approach.
American Dream Service Day
Nearly 300 members of the Roosevelt community took part in the second annual American Dream Service Day at the Chicago and Schaumburg campuses. Volunteers packed food for the hungry, beautified the Wabash rooftop gardens, wrote letters to politicians in support of a U.S. International Affairs budget in Chicago, took part in campus cleanup, and assembled hygiene kits for homeless veterans and youths in Schaumburg.
Nowhere People: Photographs from Greg Constantine
The second American Dream Reconsidered Conference ended with the opening of Nowhere People: The Children, a photo exhibit featuring stateless people around the world, and refugees and migrants without citizenship.