After living in China for nearly four years, authors Deborah and James Fallows were feeling out of touch with their home country. To reintroduce themselves to the United States, they decided to do what they had done in China – go out to towns and cities off the beaten path to get a better understanding of everyday people and places. Their journey took them to towns and cities that had experienced shocks – from factory closures to demographic shifts – and gave them a first-hand look at how people address issues in their communities. The result of that journey is Our Towns: A 100,000-mile Journey into the Heart of America, a national bestseller that serves as both an American travelogue and a deep dive into the creative ways that communities are working toward resilience. We caught up with Deborah Fallows to learn more about this experience.
Deborah Fallows: Not surprisingly, many towns were looking at ways to improve their schools. People saw them as underfunded, or not adequately serving the varied population of their students, or overlooking some natural assets of their towns that might help their schools.
We saw a vast array of creative efforts in response. For example, in Greenville, S.C., we saw public-private partnerships where some of the big companies located there, such as GE, Michelin and BMW, collaborated on creating extensive STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) programs to educate the population of Greenville’s students to be skills-ready for the jobs and careers that awaited them. Volunteers from the companies helped with STEM curriculum and volunteered to teach in the classrooms, from kindergarten on up. The school system built a brand new elementary school in one of the neediest parts of town; it was named the A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering. Engineering!
DF: We spent time in the public libraries in nearly every town we visited. I would describe the engagement of libraries in three ways: education, technology, and civic and social life. That translated into creating new children’s spaces, filling them with the enticements and tools to prepare kids for school. They carried that effort through homework-help programs and summer programs for older kids and technological training of many sorts. They offered and staffed with volunteers the extremely popular adult literacy programs. As for technology, libraries answered to lower-end needs, like providing computers and free WiFi for public use (and leaving that WiFi on after hours for the public to access outside the building). Librarians told me one of the most frequent requests they received was for computer help with job searches. On the higher end, libraries offered a quiet space for millennials launching their start-ups, or a creative place to learn in makerspaces how to use everything from 3D printers to computer-aided design programs.
Finally, we saw one library after another becoming the go-to place for their communities. Do you need help with tax preparation? Counseling on how to meet your mortgage? Help researching a medical issue? A place to spend the day if you are homeless? ESL or citizenship classes? Go to the library. Do you want to learn about environmental issues in your town, like forest fires? Or a place to do yoga? Or grab a latte? Or just be quiet and read? The words carved in the granite over the main entrance of the main library in Columbus, Ohio, summed it up for me: Open to all.
DF: When I first began going into libraries around the U.S., I was expecting to find the libraries I knew from growing up. Those were cool havens on hot summer afternoons, where my friends and I would search for a corner to read the adventures of Nancy Drew or biographies of Amelia Earhart or Clara Barton. And where the stern librarians would shush us up if they heard us giggle. No more! I found librarians who were modern, young (or young at heart), inviting, generous, knowledgeable, creative, and problem-solving. They were librarians who embraced their mission to serve the public, to advise discreetly, to be one step ahead of their towns in providing a place to help with serious, or fun, or useful information and activities. One bittersweet comment I heard more than once from librarians: “We are the best kept secret in town, and we don’t want to be.”
DF: While there is no denying the polarization of Americans when it comes to national issues, we saw a very different kind of behavior and very different attitudes when it comes to local issues. About local issues – schools, recreation, libraries, town improvements, the arts, food, health care and clinics, Main Street, development – all the stuff of everyday life – we saw people working with each other to address their challenges, rather than working against each other. The default was not to stand along political party lines, raising angry voices. Rather, even when there were disagreements – and there are always many – the default was to begin with the starting point of living together as neighbors—and acting with civility and cooperation to get things done, for the good of their community. We also witnessed that people were not waiting around for someone to swoop in and fix things. Instead, they were acting with agency, generously, creatively, in experimental ways, town by town, to tackle problems. The efforts are real, and the trends feel upward. I think that is the most positive message we have to report about the traditional and resilient American spirit. ■
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