Author Ryan Bernsten on finding hope for democracy and a home in Kansas City

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Ryan Bernsten at the Savoy. // Courtesy Instagram

In October 2018, Ryan Bernsten packed up his Toyota Prius and left his family home in Rockford, IL, for a 23,257-mile road trip. Over the course of five months, Bernsten would travel to all 50 states and over 150 cities and towns with a central question at the forefront: “Is America as divided as we’re led to believe?”

Exhausted and ready to retire from his nomadic lifestyle, he did not anticipate finding his next home in the 50th and final state. But after one day in Kansas City, he knew he would return soon to put down roots.

Bernsten’s cross-country journey and lessons learned are detailed in his new book, 50 States of Mind: A Journey to Rediscover American Democracy, to be released in hardback format June 20.

The story of how a grad student and former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer ended up on a 50-state road trip can—like many trends these days—be traced back to the 2016 election.

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Courtesy image

After a disappointing presidential loss, Bernsten returned to the harsh reality of constant exposure to a volatile political news feed. He was left feeling defeated and disconnected—a sentiment that persisted when he moved to London for a graduate program at Oxford.

Disillusioned by the political climate and inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville’s travels, Bernsten developed his road trip as his thesis at Oxford. He was determined to find out if Americans are as divided as the news and society seem to suggest.

“I’m such an optimist. I needed to find a little bit of hope,” Bernsten says. “So I went looking to see if there were good things happening on the ground that I wasn’t hearing about. And there are.”

Though he notes social media is the downfall of political discourse in many aspects, Bernsten found it suitable for one thing—he connected with family, friends, and friends of friends and managed to find a local host in every state.

He crashed on people’s couches, guest rooms, their daughter’s old bedroom, or in one case, their garage.

For Bernsten, being invited into these vulnerable spaces was the most impactful aspect of his trip that created the connection he desired.

“[Local hosts] would feed me dinner at their table or take me out. And we would be able to get into things about their community, politics, or current events that really opened my eyes and weren’t scripted,” Bernsten says.

From hearing the stories of these Americans in over 150 cities and communities, Bernsten found that even amid the divisive political climate perpetuated on screens, Americans have much more in common than we’re led to believe.

Bernsten noticed that the first sensitive topics to emerge weren’t usually political debates or taboos but rather shared personal experiences: the loss of a spouse, sick children, or estranged friends stemming from political differences.

“The really human things were the more interesting things that came out of conversations about democracy in America,” Bernsten says.

In nearly every story he encountered, he noticed common threads that seemed to link people together.

“People are really proud of where they live,” Bernsten says. “And I think people really want to feel known and loved and understood. And they want the story of their communities to be understood as well.”

Through his conversations, he arrived at what seemed to be the best antidote to the polarization plaguing America in some aspects: face-to-face conversation, advocacy, and involvement in your local community.

Bernsten saw this firsthand in Indianapolis, in how locals started a nonprofit in their community to keep local artists from leaving for bigger cities. In Wyoming, a woman and her wife catalyzed change by opening a distillery, with one goal being to change the way locals think of LGBTQIA+ people.

Though some may scuff at the seemingly trite “think locally, act globally” approach—it’s a cliche because it’s true. Bernsten noticed that on a smaller, local scale, ordinary people could get more heavily involved in their passions and see their impact firsthand in their own community.

This is one reason why he chose Kansas City to settle down in after living on both the East and West Coast and abroad in London. Bernsten was treated to a classic Kansas City tour led by a North Kansas City family—complete with a trip to Q39 and a three-hour driving tour through locations such as the Plaza and the River Market.

His expectations of the Midwestern city had been defied throughout the tour, but it all culminated in their final stop at the World War I Memorial.

“The moment that I fell in love with Kansas City, it was really emotional looking out over the skyline,” Bernsten says. “It was so unbelievably beautiful and has so much going for it—an amazing restaurant scene, art scene entrepreneurs, and nonprofit leaders making Kansas City a better place.”

In the Paris of the Plains, Bernsten says, he’s been able to get more involved in a tighter-knit community than his previous homes, including New York City.

“There was enough going on that I was passionate about—like the art scene totally sold me on Kansas City,” Bernsten says. “‘I’ve been able to be in a play at the Unicorn Theatre and direct another play. I’ve been able to sit on the board of some of my favorite nonprofits and to study neighborhood leadership with UMKC.”

After putting down roots in Kansas City in 2019, Bernsten is hitting the road again for a book tour where he will visit libraries and bookstores across the U.S. You can catch him at his book event at Bliss Wine and Books in Kansas City on Wednesday, July 5.

Categories: Culture