Pacific Standard: The 50 States Project (2018)


With our nation at a turning point, and so much at stake for the economically and politically disenfranchised, and with grave threats posed to our climate and natural resources, and deeply ingrained patterns of racism and sexism beginning to be turned on their heads, the editors of Pacific Standard set out to document the state of our union.

We contacted writers and public figures in each of the 50 states—plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories—and asked them to write about something that has captured the attention of their community in this time of great divisiveness and unrest.

What kinds of openings has a polarized America presented, we wondered, and what are the different ways that people are stepping into them and reshaping what it means to be American? Are there glimmers of unity, or of unified purpose? What is the shape of the resistance, and where is it getting some traction in restoring justice and fairness to our institutions and our democracy? The result is a state-by-state accounting of some of the best and worst things happening in our country at this moment in time.

In the dispatches that follow, you will read about local issues, and about national issues as seen through the lens of different locales. There are communities divided, and communities coming together to right a wrong. There are stories of wonder, and stories of hardship; stories not just from the big coastal cities but from all over, even the small, out-of-the-way places that tend to get ignored.

The new American narrative isn't one single story. It is a multitude of stories playing out in diverse and far-flung places. Here are 52 of them. Together, they provide a mosaic view of our country and our moment. We hope you enjoy them. And perhaps, in here somewhere, you'll find a sense of who we are as a country, and what truly makes us great.

Full Project Available at

Matthew Teague, Colleen E. Swan, Alberto Ríos, Jeff Winkler, Susan Straight, Camille T. Dungy, Hanif Abdurraqib, Dave Weigel, Erin Belieu, Amanda Mull, Dana Naone Hall, Anne Helen Petersen, Luis Alberto Urrea, Terese Marie Mailhot, Dean Bakopoulos, Sarah Smarsh, Erik Reece, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Roxanne Quimby, John Lingan, Charles C. Mann, Benjamin Busch, Patrick Nathan, W. Ralph Eubanks, Jason Kander, Molly Priddy, Carson Vaughan, Michael P. Branch, Alexander Chee, Tom Colicchio, Alex Heard, Lisa Lucas, Bronwen Dickey, Debra Marquart, Connie Schultz, Rilla Askew, Garrett Hongo, Jason Fagone, Elizabeth Rush, J. Drew Lanham, Tasiyagnunpa Barondeau, TJ Jarrett, Roger Hodge, Terry Tempest Williams, Bill McKibben, Amy Woolard, Brooke Jarvis, Brent Cunningham, Randy Bryce, Nina McConigley, Ralph Nader, Tiphanie Yanique.

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Select Entries
District of Columbia - Ralph Nader
The nearly 700,000 residents of the District of Columbia know that "democracy delayed is democracy denied." D.C. has been a colony with no real voting power in Congress, which knows little of local needs yet remains the District's ultimate ruler. Congress must approve the District's budget, and can override any actions of the city government. Members of Congress have prevented the District from taxing income earned by large numbers of commuting residents of Virginia and Maryland. Congress has, with impunity, often overturned the judgment of local elected officials and popular referenda on public health, tax, budget, and school issues.

Over 78 percent of the people in the District favor statehood. Poverty is rife. As is income and wealth inequality. District residents—maybe 500 of them—have engaged in protests and demonstrations, which have involved mayors, "shadow senators" like Jesse Jackson, a hunger strike, and celebrities from outside D.C. Alas, to no avail. A statehood convocation in cavernous Constitution Hall only drew about 300 people in September of 2016. Well-to-do D.C. residents appear to not be bothered by their not having a voting representative and two senators, or they would fund a sustained movement for statehood.

D.C. citizens pay about $3.9 billion a year in federal income taxes—more than each of several states—and they have served and died in the armed forces. This prominent shame on America's "democracy" should be met by ending the shame of those many passive D.C. residents and most of their corporate and political leaders who accept their disenfranchisement. It is time for Columbia, our 51st state.

Washington - Brooke Jarvis
Never mind that, geographically, you're far closer to the state's western edge than its eastern border. Once you've crossed the peaks of the Cascade mountains, leaving Seattle and the Puget Sound and the mossy forests behind you, colloquially speaking you're in eastern Washington. Other divides, more on our minds, prevail.

If ever there was a tale of two states, this is it, and not just because one side of the mountains has firs and orcas and the other has ponderosa pines and endless grasslands. One has a lot of billionaires and the fastest-growing city in the nation and an exploding tech economy that other cities are currently begging to share (not to mention its shadow: sprawl and skyrocketing housing costs and a humanitarian crisis of homelessness). The other has wheat fields and agricultural workers, open spaces and tight-knit, struggling towns, a quarter the population in double the space. One side mostly voted Trump; the other has vowed to be his chief adversary. We call each other racist and ungrateful or condescending and foolish. People on both sides of the mountains speak, sometimes, about a dream of seceding from the other, each suspecting we could do better, be less tied down, become more ourselves, by striking out on our own.

The easy ways to describe a place are never either false or true. They're both; they're also exhausting. We see the obvious boundaries and reinforce them in our minds, but miss the gaping holes in them—the diversity of the east side, the hypocrisy of the west, the inevitability of our shared future—and the swirl of complication and confusion that makes a place real.

In the mountains this year, the snow is heavy. Our fractious, divided, shared government is sending plows up and down the roads that connect us, keeping them open.

South Dakota - Tasiyagnunpa Barondeau
As corporate destruction threatens South Dakota and the Oceti Sakowin Oyate (Great Sioux Nation), a pipeline might hold the answer.

In Lakota legend, the Wakinyan saved the people from an enemy that gobbled up everything in its path. The Wakinyan, arriving as growling thunder and flashing lightning, can be destructive, the perfect match against such an enemy, and, indeed, they killed it. So how can a pipeline be both destructive and life saving?

When it's filled with water.

For more than a decade, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, whose land spans almost all of two South Dakota counties, has faced a housing crisis caused by a moratorium on new water users, the result of an aging system that served an area the size of Connecticut.

When, on April 24th, 2014, in partnership with the tribe, Mni Was'te Water Company broke ground on the new water pipeline, shovels gleaming in the bright sun, two tribal councilmen started singing, while one struck a hand drum.

As the wind picked up and joined in, the elder of the two began to pray. In Lakota, he asked our non-human relatives to recognize the people's need. We asked, but didn't beg, confident our relatives understood. We could trust Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) and the plant nations to make space for such crucial resources.

Imagine what could happen in the rest of South Dakota, and the United States of America, if we prudently planned for our true needs and petitioned the Earth itself as an involved partner.

Massachusetts - Charles C. Mann
For about 30 years, I've lived in the university town of Amherst. Statistically, it's an odd place. A middle-class blue bubble in a well-off blue state, it has better-than-usual public schools and lower-than-usual rates of unemployment, divorce, and crime. But in one depressing way our town is just like the rest of the nation: We're having trouble with this whole democracy thing.

Our government is a descendant of the storied New England town meeting, in which the colonists gathered en masse to pool their expertise, weighing tradeoffs as they created a new way of life in a new place. Now expertise and compromise seem increasingly beside the point, and way too much of our town meeting is spent fighting to reclaim a vision of the past.

Amherst is growing rapidly—over 13 percent since 2000. But the town has been stubbornly preoccupied with preserving its long-ago rural character, mostly by acquiring open space and fighting development. My wife, an architect, briefly volunteered for the town's planning committee. Having experience with the construction industry, she pointed out that the nigh inevitable result of locking up land would be artificial inflation of the price of housing, which in turn would make our town unaffordable for working people and people on fixed incomes. She was accused of being a "tool of the developers." Today about a third of the town is open space—and rents are amazingly high.

Like every modern U.S. town, Amherst must navigate through a horribly complex legal, regulatory, and technological landscape. Hardly anyone has more than a fraction of the required expertise. As a result, people at town meeting make choices based on gut feelings about right and wrong, regardless of whether those impulses are conflicting. I still love living here, but I worry that we are becoming ungovernable.