Why Dex Torricke-Barton is putting Silicon Valley on hold for the Rust Belt

The veteran of Google, Facebook, and SpaceX is launching Onwards, a group that will work to build bridges with economically disaffected communities in the age of President Trump.

Center: Dex Torricke-Barton
Center: Dex Torricke-Barton

Dex Torricke-Barton has worked for a handful of visionaries as a speechwriter for Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckerberg and, more recently, as communications chief for SpaceX.

Yet following the rise of President-elect Donald Trump, Torricke-Barton is putting that career on hold. He’s registering and launching Onwards, a group that aims to bridge gaps between communities and generate economic opportunity. The nonprofit is launching with a listening tour in Rust Belt regions disaffected by the political process that became key battlegrounds during the presidential election.

PRWeek chatted with Torricke-Barton about his plans for the group. (The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity).

What made you start Onwards? What are its goals?
In my career, I’ve been focused on achieving social impact. The organizations where I worked are focused on being mission-driven and serving the common prosperity and well-being of communities all over the world. But over the last couple of years, I’ve seen this trend of the world moving toward a less open, less compassionate society. I’m from the U.K. originally. I was an immigrant to the U.S. about nine years ago. For folks in the U.K., Brexit was our Trump moment. This recent election in the U.S. was the second night in a year where I had this moment, a warning-bell signal in the night that the world we take for granted is increasingly under threat. I want to do something about it.

These are lofty and noble causes, but what are Onwards’ concrete goals? And how will you measure success?
Like all PR pros, that’s a question we’ll have to grapple with, and certainly the industry has different measures of success. For me, it will be how we can begin to change the conversation at the grassroots level in communities in the U.S. that have been the most divided and have felt the sharp effects of globalization. I want to shift the conversations from the more divisive rhetoric around immigration, race, and other demographics and focus more on solutions.

Job creation will be the second key pillar, bringing back growth. Unless we address the root economic activities in places such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, this is all just fine talk and lofty goals, as you put it. These are communities that have seen the decline in traditional industries and manufacturing driven by technology and globalization. These are substantial problems we can’t just change through messaging. We need to create jobs and get people back to work. That is where I plan on drawing on my contacts and resources within the tech industry and beyond for programs to help people find jobs easier, get skills to get employed for jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree, and get training to build businesses and create the next wave of growth.

This could put you on a collision course with other nonprofits. How can you win the war of ideas?
There are many different valuable paths toward achieving the same goal. Different organizations have different focuses. We will work closely with a broad range of partners to do things that are unique and won’t be duplicating existing efforts.

How will you specifically use technology to, in your words, "connect communities, uncover perspectives, and find new solutions?"
Let’s focus on Facebook for a moment. Facebook has become a lightning rod in the aftermath of the election, with attention focused unfairly on the notion that fake news played an impactful role. The flipside of that is everyday communities like Facebook are playing a powerful role in connecting us with people beyond our own communities. One of the big challenges identified in the last week, in this frenzy of post-election analysis, has been the divide between coastal elites and people in the Rust Belt and the heartland of the U.S. Using old platforms and potentially developing new ones, we can bring folks together.

For job training and the more "peace-building" elements, we will rely on a combination of offline and online tools to make sure training and resources are as widely accessible and broadly disseminated as possible.

How will Onwards combat the rising tide of nationalistic rhetoric, specifically coming from an emboldened alt-right?
Onwards will be a nonpartisan effort. I work with Democrats, Republicans, and independents. The focus will be on how we can address economic and social divisions that are major contributing factors to the rise of this divisive and increasingly astride nationalism in this country and around the world.

How can you make sure the organization won’t be hijacked by a movement from the left or the right?
I think it’s more that the moment you begin assuming the label of a political party or partisan movement, you begin to turn off the very people you want to reach. In issues around race and immigration and the kind of divisive social issues that were increasingly focused on during this campaign, these are conversations we want to have candidly with people we disagree with and actually begin to build a greater sense of common understanding and common solutions out of that. These are conversations best facilitated when you approach people as equals and not by attempting to change their mind about a specific political candidate in future electoral cycle. The campaign is over. Now is the time to come together.

A place where people come together to solve problems is the purpose of government. Do you think government is incapable of finding solutions?
I think government and democracy have always relied on strong input and engagement from civil society. One of the greatest things about America at the grassroots level is that there are always organizations looking to drive constructive policies. In a way, one of the key issues that will be entirely up to sociologists and academics to work out in the coming years will be how civil society has been eroded over the last few decades, and what role the decline of those grassroots organizations played in this rising tide of nationalism. Government should and must play an important part addressing these issues at the state and national level.

One thing missing from the political discourse is a baseline of facts. What role do you think Facebook and other social media platforms should play?
Going back to the fake news topic, some people will say, ‘There are clearly a lot of spam and satirical stories, a lot of things malicious in nature; Facebook is eroding understanding." If you look at the comments of those stories, you get loads of people debunking them. If you post that type of story, your friends will say, ‘That’s fake, don’t share it." When people are connected, they are able to call out these things and build common understanding. It’s not a one-way stream for misinformation. It’s a two-way street of understanding in many cases. That’s something really valuable.

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