When the auto industry and General Motors factory in Janesville, Wisc., shut down in 2008, so did most of the city.
As Janesville’s industry and job market collapsed, the election – and subsequent recall election – of governor Scott Walker polarized the state of Wisconsin, nearly tearing it apart. Citizens clung to labor unions to bind them together in a crumbling job market as Walker advocated for the end of collective bargaining.
Brad Lichtenstein’s documentary “As Goes Janesville” is a three-year glimpse into Wisconsin’s struggle. The film will be screened this Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center as part of NET’s Coffee & Conversation series.
The documentary shows Janesville as a city crippled by the auto industry, divisive politics and a bleak economy, but sticks to the universality of its message; it could be “As Goes Lincoln” or anywhere in the United States between 2008 and today.
The film’s tagline reads “As Goes Janesville, So Goes America,” a look into what happens when, despite anyone’s best efforts, the American Dream is shelved.
Nicole Docta, the film’s co-producer, was particularly struck by the story of Cindy Deegan, a GM factory worker who went back to school in hopes of getting her life back on track when the plant closed.
“(Cindy) enrolled in a retraining program immediately after she was laid off from Alcoa,” Docta said. “She got straight As and graduated on time. Then she was unable to find a job and her unemployment ran out. She did everything right and was still struggling to find a job.”
The hardship of this story, Docta noted, is not an uncommon one in the wake of the national recession.
“Janesville is still in the beginning of its recovery and will continue to be, much like the country,” she said. “It takes less time to close factories and fire people than to start a business.”
Beverly Kracher, a professor in business ethics and society at Creighton University and executive director for the Business Ethics Alliance will be conducting the Coffee & Conversation discussion session following the film’s screening on Sunday.
One notion she hopes her conversation with the audience will address is why, when much of the nation has seen immense struggle, Nebraska survived the economic downturn with relative ease. Kracher attributes Nebraska’s relative prosperity to a combination of work ethic, leadership and luck.
“We have big aspirations and big dreams,” she said. “I think we have incredible leadership across Nebraska. Leadership takes vision. Our leaders are also doers. They take vision and implement it with capability and determination.”
Kracher also attributed some of the prosperity in Nebraska to the character of its citizens.
“As a whole, we tend to live within our means,” she said. “We have a strong work ethic. We are persistent, accountable, basically honest and trustworthy. We require independence, but we provide community support.”
Overall, Kracher is hopeful Sunday’s Coffee & Conversation will be just that: a conversation, not a lecture nor a sermon.
“I’m hoping that people show up, sit on the edges of their seats and actively engage each other in stimulating, thought-provoking dialogue,” Kracher said, adding, “(Though) we’ll likely leave with more questions than answers.”
if you go:
“As Goes Janesville” Screening
when: Sunday, 1 p.m.
where: Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center
how much: Free