Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell say it. Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama say it too: In these polarized times, Americans should think not about what divides us, but what unites us.
Kyle Mendelson is actually doing something about it.
The 2010 Staples High School graduate is not a politician. He’s not a pundit, or a preacher. He’s just an ordinary guy, wanting to make a difference one day at a time.
Okay, maybe not so ordinary.
At Staples he was known for lacrosse. He played a year of D-I at Manhattan College, then transferred to Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. He studied political science and social urban policy, focusing on the social causes and psychology of urban gangs. Each summer, he worked as a Compo Beach lifeguard.
In 2014 Kyle moved to New York City. He got involved in education reform and after-school programs, through New York Cares and the New York Urban Debate League. He’s now completing a post-bacc year, researching education policy.
Recently, on a run, he heard an interview with Maya Angelou. Her words inspired him to “help, understand and fall in love with the humans who make up this country again.”
He’d already been thinking about ways to become more socially active — without being overly political.
“Ever since this past election cycle began, I think — regardless of political preference — there was a trend to abandon our humanity and citizenry, and separate ourselves into categories.
“It seems like our culture has decided to tick boxes on what applies to them — socioeconomic standing, gender, ethnicity, religion, level of education, etc.”
Kyle hopes to find a way to address Americans as humans, not “divided individuals.”
Which is why this May, he’ll drive across the country. His route will take him through many red states. Along the way — stopping in Phoenix, El Paso, Austin, Houston, New Orleans, Montgomer, Atlanta, Charlotte, Washington, Baltimore and New York, ending in Bridgeport — he’ll meet with religious leaders, elected officials, non-profit executives and community organizers.
More importantly, Kyle will devote a full day in each city to volunteer work. That way, he says, he can “better understand and work, as an American, to help each community improve where it most needs.”
This won’t be his first cross country trip. In fact, driving across America is one of his passions.
He believes that seeing the nation by car allows each person to “truly understand the complexity of this country. It’s not often displayed in the media or pop culture,” which is dominated by urban hubs of social influence.
It’s one thing to see the broad expanse of America first hand. It’s another to “sit down, speak, meet and work with the human beings in each community to realize we’re all the same — just with different stories.”
He hopes to realize that “we all have our struggles, concerns and stresses. But we are all far more similar than dissimilar. And at the core of our division right now, we are all (for the most part) trying to do what is right and decent for us and our loved ones.”
Unfortunately, Kyle says, “we often forget that we’re part of something greater.” He hopes to help people realize that we can come together by “just loving, and helping one another through empathy.”
As he drives across the land, Kyle will carry some of Westport with him. Growing up here “110% shaped me into the person I am,” he says.
However, moving here from L.A. the summer before 7th grade was a shock. As his parents drove him around his new town, he looked for homeless people. He was shocked to realize he would not continue to see poverty.
As he got older, Kyle says, “I gained such an appreciation for the fact that I was from a place that was so highly educated and well read, and had a group of people who had powerful influence on the world around us.”
Seeing the economic and social dichotomy between Westport and Bridgeport sparked his interest in political science. Research in his major led him to education policy. Kyle says that “education is the all-powerful tool by which we can empower a community, and help it to reform from the inside out.”
Half of his cross country trip is selfless. The other half is “totally selfish.”
Personally, he hopes to “walk away with a renewed sense of patriotism and love for humans, who just want to love and be loved.”
He also wants to inspire each person he speaks or volunteers with to go and help others, talk to someone with a different background, or better understand that “our divisions don’t make us any less human.”
Even inspiring just one person to do that, he says, may create a ripple effect that “makes the world just a teeny tiny bit better.”
(Want to help Kyle Mendelson help others? He’s raising money for expenses; click here to help. Excess funds will be donated to organizations he partners with along the way. To suggest a community organization or leader for Kyle to partner with — or to join him for a leg — email BeKindDoGood.KTM@gmail.com)