“Mainstream, USA”

In this lesson, students will see how statistical data can tell a larger story, understand numbers in various contexts and explore different points of view in relation to data. They will also consider how—as future voters—they will help determine how the political process can serve everybody.
Grade Level

America by the Numbers with Maria Hinojosa—a PBS documentary series—tells the story of the changing demographics of the United States through character-driven portraits and in-depth conversations. Host Maria Hinojosa, an award-winning news anchor and reporter, visits communities from Clarkston, Georgia, to Long Beach, California, to examine the impact of demographic changes on local residents.

The episode, “Mainstream, USA,” welcomes viewers to Clarkston, Georgia—one of the most diverse square miles in the United States. Designated as a refugee resettlement site in the 1980s, Clarkston is home to people from over 40 different countries. Once a hub for the Ku Klux Klan, the city has gone from being 90 percent white to 82 percent non-white in just 30 years. The episode examines how Clarkston’s daily realities reflect wider demographic trends and explores the collaborations and collisions that are occurring between the old and new South. “Mainstream, USA” also takes a look at how new residents of the United States long to be part of the political process

In this two-part lesson, students will see how statistical data can tell a larger story, understand numbers in various contexts and explore different points of view in relation to data. They will also consider how—as future voters—they will help determine how the political process can serve everybody.


Part One

Enduring Understandings

  • Statistical data can tell a larger story.
  • Points of view affect our reactions to data.

Essential Questions 

  • What role do statistics have in forming a narrative?
  • How does context allow us to understand the importance of numbers?
  • How do points of view change our reactions to data?



Students will:

  • Understand the role of statistics in telling a larger story
  • Respond in writing to sets of data
  • Understand numbers in various contexts
  • Listen to and share information
  • Explore various points of view


Guided-Viewing Questions

As students watch “Mainstream, USA,” ask them to consider and take notes on the following questions. (Note: These questions are included on the accompanying handout.)

  1. According to trend tracker Guy Garcia, what are some of the identifying factors of a “new mainstream”?
  2. Where in the United States are demographic changes taking place?
  3. Over the last decade, which region has seen the largest multicultural growth?
  4. How does the response to the most recent demographic changes in Clarkston, Georgia, mirror its history?
  5. What is the demographic makeup of Clarkston’s leadership? What percent of the population voted it into office?
  6. How have residents such as Bill and Karen Mehlinger and Graham Thomas responded to their changing community?
  7. How does the film characterize the political views of the Dhakal family?
  8. How might the changing U.S. demographics affect upcoming elections? 


Data in Context

  1. Write the following data statements on chart paper in a visible location in the classroom:
    • 1 in 3 U.S. residents is multicultural.
    • From 2000 to 2012, 8,893,657—8 percent of voting age population—immigrants became naturalized U.S. citizens.

  2. Instruct each student to respond to each data statement on a sticky note independently at his or her seat.

  3. After responding to each statement, allow students time to add their response sticky notes to the chart paper. Provide time for students to reflect on other responses before moving on to the next data statement.

  4. Ask students to work as a class to study all responses to the data statements. Discuss as a class. Note: Help students to recognize whether their responses include:
    • comparison with other numbers
    • prior historical knowledge
    • prior geographic knowledge
    • personal experiences
    • quotes from other people
    • suggestions for action

Students should find that they have put numbers in context to make them more meaningful. This is the basis of telling a story using numbers. It also is how the producers of America by the Numbers made demographic data more interesting and relevant to viewers.


Point of View

  1. In “Mainstream, USA,” the residents of Clarkston, Georgia, communicate various points of view on the demographics that now partly define their small town. Have students review these data in pairs or small groups:
    • In 1980, Clarkston’s residents were 97 percent American-born.
    • In 2010, the town was less than 14 percent white.
    • Currently, refugees and immigrants own 85 percent of the town’s businesses.
    • In 1980, 5.6 percent of the town’s residents lived below the poverty line (12.4 percent nationally).
    • In 2012, 37.6 percent of the town’s residents lived below the poverty line (15 percent nationally).

  2. Now have students choose one of the following quotes from the video. Within each group, students should discuss each character’s relationship with Clarkston and their understanding of its present and their hopes for its future. (Note: Provide students with the handout that includes these quotes.) 

“I’m probably a racist or redneck or something. … I just see [change] destroying what we had planned to happen here. … You wonder sometimes if I’ve got any buddies anymore … that think the way I do.”

Graham Thomas, Longtime Claskston Resident

“Half of the citizens that used to be here have moved out of Clarkston. Our refugee community is the majority now, and how are you going to survive without them?"

Emanuel Ranson, Former Mayor of Clarkston


“[My Vietnamese cashier and I] went to different little Asian stores. She helped me decide what would sell, what her mama bought at the other stores, what her grandma bought. Eventually we were finding the products they wanted and business started to climb.”

Bill Mehlinger Thriftown Grocery Owner


“The people who are in the political power, they just believe the immigrants are here to take, [to] drain the resources of the county. They’re not looking [at] the other side—that we work hard, we are buying foreclosed homes, we are revitalizing the economy of this county.”

Omar Shekhey, Leader in Clasrkston's Somali Community


“People in America think democracy is given to them: ‘Oh, I don’t need to vote.’ But for us, it’s so important because we are doing it [for] the first time. … That’s the time that I will feel that I belong to a nation, that I’m helping the development of a nation.”

Birendra Dhakal, A Refugee from Bhutan


3. Ask students to share their reflections on these points of view. Is each viewpoint understandable? How do these people differ in their responses to Clarkston’s potential opportunity? What do you predict for Clarkston’s future?

4. Finally, discuss how these personal statements add to the statistical data the documentary provides about Clarkston. How do the statistics flesh out the story of Clarkston?


Part Two

Students will research U.S. Census Bureau data and interview local residents to complete an ethnography of their own communities. They will then consider local needs and priorities, along with demographics, to make a prediction for how residents might exercise their right to vote.


Students will:

  • Understand the role of an ethnographer
  • Know how to research and analyze census data
  • Prepare for and conduct an interview
  • Collect various forms of information into one project
  • Share information with a wider audience


Essential Questions

  • What are the advantages and trade-offs of a changing community?
  • How might demographic changes affect local and state politics?
  • How might local demographic changes affect the national electoral map?


Discussion Questions

  • What is an ethnography? What does it include?
  • What do we know about our community’s citizens?
  • How might we find that information?
  • What form do we want our research to take?
  • How can we use research to make predictions about elections?


Exploring Census Data

  1. Tell students that much of the film’s demographic data for Clarkston likely came from the U.S. Census Bureau. In addition to counting the United States’ residents every 10 years, this government agency also gathers data that tell a story about its economy and its people. Data about each community can be found at the Explore Census Data section of the bureau’s website. In small groups, have students locate data for Clarkston—age, sex, household relationships, housing, race and ethnic groups, language, employment, income and earnings, poverty and population change.
    Ask students:
    • Which data confirm what you saw in “Mainstream, USA”?
    • What additional data do you find?

  2. Next have students create an ethnography of the community they live in using the same category researched for Clarkston—age, sex, household relationships, households and housing, race and ethnic groups, language, employment, income and earnings, poverty and population change. Within each group, students should use the U.S. Census Bureau website to research their community, define terms and narrow search results for the assigned topic. After compiling and studying the findings, have students download the tables or record the data to share.

  3. Share findings as a class. Have one student record them on a whiteboard or chart paper for discussion. Use the following questions to guide the discussion:
    • Do any of these statistics surprise you? If so, which ones? Why are they surprising?
    • Which statistics are reflected in your neighborhood? Your school?
    • What kind of data would you still like to find? How would you find it?

  4. Ask students to return to small groups and use census data to find the same categories of statistics for the year 2000. Have students share their findings with the class. Use the following to guide the discussion:
    • What changes do you discover between 2000 and 2010?
    • Do they surprise you?
    • How have these changes been reflected in the community?
    • Record these statistical changes as part of your ethnography.


The Voices of the Community

In “Mainstream, USA,” we heard from both old and new residents of Clarkston: the former mayor, who grew up as a disenfranchised member of the town; a longtime resident who longs to return to the Clarkston of earlier years; business owners who are adjusting to the changing population; and refugees anxious to participate in the economic growth and political voice of the community. All of these people’s voices help relate to the demographic data and give us a fuller picture of Clarkston, its history and its potential future.

  1. Ask students to brainstorm whose voices might provide both historical and present-day descriptions of their own community’s demographics. Ask them to consider people who could provide various points of view. Some ideas: The mayor or city council chairperson, a city librarian, a bus driver, a mail-delivery worker, a longtime business owner or chamber of commerce member, the curator of a city museum, a factory worker, a person studying to become a U.S. citizen, a teenager, a retiree, a restaurant worker, a local college professor of sociology.

  2. Narrow down the class list, then divide students into small groups, having each group choose a person from the list to interview. Have each group write a letter or email to the person chosen. In their correspondence, students should describe the ethnography project, its purpose, explain how the potential interviewee fits into the project and organize a date for the interview. Offer to explain further or answer any questions students might have about this assignment.

  3. Before students conduct interviews, plan and write a series of questions to choose from. Questions may jump off from the demographic data already collected. Students also will want to ask for comparisons between past and present, anecdotes that help flesh out the data and the subject’s own personal stories. Here are some ideas:
    • How long have you lived here?
    • What was the community was like when you arrived?
    • Is it different now? If so, how?
    • How are you the same as other residents? How are you different?
    • What is your profession? Have your customers changed over time? How?
    • How have you changed the way you do business for your customers?
    • What do you think are the most important issues for our community?
    • What do you think are the most important issues for our nation?

  4. Students conduct the interview. If the subject is willing, record the interview with a video camera. Supplement the recording with written notes and a still photo.

  5. Then plan for students to share what they’ve gathered and discuss the interviews as a class. Use the following questions to aid the discussion:
    • Do interviewees’ responses back up the statistical data found?
    • What new information did your subjects provide?

  6. Plan for students to share the ethnography with a wider audience. Some ideas include: a story for the school newspaper, sharing the information at a family night and reporting at a city council meeting.


Check out other America by the Numbers episodes and their accompanying lessons.