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Heroes, scandals impact area’s self image

By John Patrick Gatta | Metro Monthly Staff Writer
Our scandals run deeper, our victories are sweeter. Or so we think.

When incidents like the Ohio Attorney General’s scandal erupt in the community, many Mahoning Valley residents will put on the cloak of shame for talk radio and in their daily conversations. There’s talk of such incidents being “a black eye” for the area. But when champions like Youngstown middleweight boxer Kelly Pavlik emerge victorious, many local citizens take note and will hoist the victor on their collective shoulders.

Residents of the Mahoning Valley have learned to become adept at taking on the highs and lows that are specific to individual citizens. In the past, such lows dealt with organized crime and a high murder rate. Recently, such over-sensitivity reared up following seamy disclosures involving the Ohio Attorney General’s office. Prior to former Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann’s resignation and staff firings that preceded it, those who call this area “home” filled the positions. Yet despite such scandals being the actions of a few, many take it to a personal level and let out the usual statement of persecution – “It makes us look bad.”

One local psychologist thinks such behavior is directly related the community’s loss of identity after the collapse of the local steel industry in the late 1970s.

Albert M. Pondillo, psychologist and executive director of Oakwood Counseling Center in Warren, views such reactions through the prism of a broken-hearted community.

“It’s an interesting phenomenon. The concept of psychology, it’s called an affiliation. We all need to be part of an affiliative group. Our immediate affiliated group is our family. Then, we have other affiliated groups that split off of that. I might belong to a club or an organization.

“If you look at the big picture, if you think about John F. Kennedy’s speech, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ (“I am a citizen of Berlin.”). That’s an example of this affiliation that people had as a nation. Everybody cheered. But nobody wants to say, ‘Ich bin ein Youngstowner’ right now because there’s a black mark against us.”

In an online article, “Overview of Social Psychology Concepts,” Eric Loveday writes, “Affiliation is the desire to be part of a group or groups of people in a way that furthers our self-esteem and self-concept. We affiliate with others to make friends, to gain power and status, to pass time, and to fulfill our social needs.”

At one point the Mahoning Valley’s identity corresponded with having a prosperous steel industry whose materials helped build infrastructures around the world. With the closing of the mills in 1977, a community nervous breakdown of sorts occurred and some say that the area still has not healed properly.

“At least we had something to hang our hats on,” said Pondillo. “We had some type of dignity because we were working and we were contributing and doing something positive.

“When they took that away from us, we had a group of individuals that had nothing left to hang their hats on. Our identity, as the Mahoning Valley, was the producers of the steel, the winners of World War II because we produced steel that won the war and things like that. We don’t have that anymore. We’re just another small Rust Belt town that . . . We get this message on a regular basis, that we’re expendable, we’re not important because there’s anybody that can do what we do. And that’s a horrible feeling.”

Pondillo admitted that he couldn’t recall a time when the area did not have a woeful attitude following the public indiscretions of others. He cited as earlier examples references to Youngstown as “Crimetown USA” or “Little Chicago.”

“People here in Youngstown, there was a time it had a very negative tone. Then, it improved a little bit. This thing that happened with Marc Dann is just another black eye. It makes us ashamed of our affiliation of being Mahoning Valley-ers or Youngstown-ers or the area in general. And we can’t afford to have that right now, especially because the community we live in is so depressed.”

While affiliation can cause people to feel an extreme sense of shame when bad things happen, it can also have the opposite effect when there is cause for celebration. Middleweight boxer Kelly Pavlik wins a championship bout, for example, and the entire area rejoices as if they put in all the days of training, took the body blows in the ring, and had their arm raised in triumph by the referee. The same feelings of pride and triumph were elicited during Youngstown State University’s run of successful football seasons that included four division championships.

“It may sound trivial and trite,” said Pondillo, “but when YSU had a run of championships in the ‘90s, all of a sudden we’ve got our self-esteem back. Little things to hang our hats on because we lost our identity.”

But they become blips on the radar screen of life when the roar of the crowd fades and the incessant news broadcasts report on negative findings take their place. But what would Pondillo say if he had the Mahoning Valley on the couch?

Years of one-to-one sessions have prepared Pondillo for working with an individual on how to overcome such a dismal view of life. “I would say to them that your thinking is irrational. You are not an irrational person. But your thinking is, and that’s what’s causing this depression, a belief that has no basis in fact. That ‘I’m a bad person’ is an irrational belief, and we have to turn that irrational belief around. Look at a more realistic belief.

“Now, I can do that with an individual, but with a community it is difficult. That’s basically what PR guys do. They’ll start selling Youngstown as a good place to live and a good community and good moral values, low cost of living, whatever they’re going to do to begin to demonstrate the irrational thinking. But it’s not easy. These negative things keep popping up.”

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