Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Faith vs. Science

What role should religion have in government and policy? What about science? For Toni Van Pelt and her colleagues at the Center for Inquiry, the answer is simple: public policies should be based on scientific evidence, not on faith. As we discuss on this week’s Lincoln Avenue, one of the primary goals of the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy – and Van Pelt’s primary role there – is to encourage Congress to base laws on objective evidence and to ensure that religion remains truly separate from the state.

In our conversation, Van Pelt mentions a variety of issues, from legislation that allows religious organizations to receive federal funding to provide social services to whether creationism should be part of the school curriculum. Underlying all of this are two core assumptions. One is that faith is suspect. Neither the Center for Inquiry nor Van Pelt herself overtly emphasizes atheism. Instead, they use terms like “naturalism” and “rational ethics.” Yet, as their website suggests, they don’t believe that spirituality and science can fully co-exist. One must either base one’s life on “reason and experience,” or rely on “occult explanations.” To my mind, this creates a false dichotomy. While bringing both faith and reason to the table can be challenging, I see reasonable people doing it every day. I come from a religious tradition that emphasizes critical thinking, argument, and the intention to act in Godly ways. My faith is based on reason and experience, not superstition. In addition, my religious tradition generally refrains from trying to impose our views on others. We don’t think it’s our business to help others see the errors of their ways or to guide them to find the “one true light.” Perhaps because of that, my hackles are always raised when someone tries to tell me that my beliefs are wrong or that theirs is the only truth. And that applies to both believers and skeptics.

That said, the second core assumption of the Center for Inquiry strikes me as essential in a diverse democracy: that public policy should be based on the best evidence and analysis of problems, not on religious faith. Further, I believe that it’s possible and reasonable to advocate for the separation of church and state without denigrating or even excluding religion. The constitution is not anti-religion. Instead, it supports religious choice and diversity, including the choice to reject religion, and the right not to have religion forced upon us. We cannot, I expect, keep people from proposing policies or lobbying on the basis of their beliefs, nor can we keep lawmakers from being influenced by theirs. We can ask that decisions about how our government acts be based on full critical debate about what will work best, and we can insist that such debate consider all of the available evidence. So while I may not fully agree with the Center for Inquiry’s views about the dichotomy between science and faith, I like knowing that Toni Van Pelt is working for public policies based on critical analysis rather than assumptions.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Inspiration for the Continuing Struggle

Minnijean Brown Trickey was one of nine black teenagers who walked through angry crowds to enter all-white Little Rock Central High School in 1957. That experienced led her into a lifetime of activism and teaching about social justice and nonviolence. In October, she visited Youngstown, to give a public presentation and meet with students in the Youngstown City Schools. I was honored to get to talk with her during that visit.

What struck me most as I listened to her talk with students, and then during our interview, is how well she illustrates the power of story. The Little Rock Nine helped change America in the 1950s, but when Minnijean tells her stories about what it was like to be assaulted physically and verbally by students, teachers, and protesters and to walk through the halls of a school where she was not welcome, her experience offers lessons and inspiration for young people decades later. Stories make history concrete and personal. They help us understand not only what happened but why it happened and what it was like.

Much as I believe in stories, I’m also intrigued by the program she helps to lead that takes young people to visit the places where history happened. Sojourn to the Past connects school-based study of the civil rights movement with visits to key sites and conversations with people who were part of the struggle. As Minnijean explains in our interview, those interactions move both the students and the adults. The program does more than just connect students with history, though. It teaches them about the principles of nonviolence, a challenging but positive way of thinking about human interactions and conflict. A number of students from Youngstown City Schools have participated in the program.

Minnijean’s work is inspiring, and for many, this year’s presidential election seems like evidence that the struggles of the civil rights movement have been redeemed. And yet. Racial segregation is once again common in the U.S., and the achievement gap between white and black students remains a persistent challenge. Tomorrow night, the Ohio Commission on African American Males is holding a hearing as part of a statewide effort to identify and address the problems facing black men. There’s more work to be done. We need Minnijean’s inspiration as much as ever.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Helping the YWCA Help Women

The economic crisis seems to get worse every day. While we hear a lot about the challenges facing the auto industry and investment banks, we also know that many individuals and families are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet. Sadly, as anyone in this area knows all too well, for some the current crisis just worsens an already tough situation. Many local agencies try to help, and this week I’m talking with a representative of one that you might not have thought about: the YWCA.

As Leah Brooks, development director of the Youngstown YWCA explains in this week’s conversation, her organization devotes most of its energy to two primary causes: fighting racism and helping women and families improve their economic and social position. As Brooks explains, the two are interconnected, since racism is at once a source of economic difficulty for many women and an obstacle to self-improvement. The YWCA pursues these goals through education programs, including helping women find available opportunities for formal education as well as informal programs to help them develop financial literacy. The Y also offers subsidized child care and housing, both of which help women move toward financial independence by giving them a more stable environment and making it possible for them to go to work. On top of these projects aimed at developing economic independence for women, the Y also offers health education, arts programs, and more.

In these tough times, the programs offered by the YWCA are even more important than usual. Meanwhile, the Y’s facilities are in bad need of updating. The building is almost 100 years old, and its heating and electrical systems are out of date, but equally important, the organization now needs different kinds of space than it did in 1911. With help from tax credits and other grants, as well as donations, the YWCA hopes to transform its structure, adding apartments for disabled and low-income women, an updated child care facility, and improving the space for offices and meeting areas. At the same time, the renovation will emphasize green construction and create jobs in the local economy.

As this suggests, Leah Brooks’s visit to Lincoln Avenue is in part about fundraising, but I’m generally quite happy to support a worthy cause, especially one that supports people who are working hard to be able to support themselves. You can make a donation or get involved in the YWCA’s programs by visiting the YWCA’s website.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Organizing Youngstown

By now, I imagine, everyone knows that the Youngstown 2010 plan calls for ongoing neighborhood-based planning and organizing. About 18 months ago, the Raymond John Wean Foundation revised its mission to include a focus on neighborhood-level projects and organizing. To help both of those visions become reality, the Mahoning Valley Organizers Collaborative has hired a group of professional community organizers to work with local groups and individuals who want to make things happen in their neighborhoods and in the city at large. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with one of those organizers, DaMareo Cooper, who’s working primarily in my neighborhood, the North Side.

Community organizing got a lot of attention in the recent election. ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, sponsored voter registration drives that were criticized as fraudulent by conservatives. Barack Obama worked as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, trying to help a neighborhood recover from the loss of steel mill jobs. Sound familiar?

Community organizing is a model for bringing people together and helping them claim power and create change. Its roots lie in the Industrial Areas Foundation created by Saul Alinsky in the 1940s, but it has been practiced in cities around the country. Community groups have organized for better housing, expanded transportation, raising the minimum wage, improving schools, and much more. At the heart of the community organizing process are conversations, called “one-on-ones,” in which organizers listen to ordinary people talk about what they care most about. From there, it’s all about networking, facilitating, and supporting local people as they become their own leaders. As DaMareo explains, community organizers don’t push their own agendas. They bring people together to pursue their own concerns.

Youngstown has no shortage of community groups and individuals who want to make things better. We also have a reputation as a community in which it’s hard to create change. Groups hold tight to their power, positions, and connections, and some are unwilling to share credit or ideas. Distrust and a sense that groups must compete for scarce resources create barriers that keep us all working separately. For the MVOC, the challenge will be to create coalitions that can break down those historic boundaries and reach across long-standing divisions. DaMareo Cooper brings a positive attitude to that effort, as well as a deep understanding of the organizing model. I hope they will serve him and his colleagues well. We need them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Race and Politics in Youngstown

Last week’s election was important on many levels, but this week on Lincoln Avenue, we’re focusing on the local. My guest, Mike Morley, has been active in Mahoning Valley politics for more than two decades. In our conversation, he reflects on what the presidential and local elections tell us about the issues and changes in our community.

Race was a central topic of conversation leading up to the election, and as Morley explains, it almost certainly played a role in the local area. As Morley notes, Tom Letson and Bob Hagan were almost certainly on target when they pointed out that racism might well keep some whites from voting for Barack Obama. On the other hand, a higher percentage of whites voted for Obama in this election than voted for Kerry in 2004. More African-Americans voted, period, probably more than have voted in any prior election. So did more younger voters and more first-time voters. Indeed, while voter turnout in Ohio was less than predicted, it was still incredibly high. 70% of registered voters went to the polls in Mahoning County. It’s likely that the increased turn out, including the presence of more black voters, helped pass the WRTA and Youngstown City Schools levies.

At the same time, as Morley points out, racial divisions continue to shape local politics and impede our efforts to create change in this community. We may not be able to change that by challenging racism. Too often, as the Letson and Hagan story suggests, that just generates resistance and self-righteousness. Instead, we may need to focus on building leadership from within groups that have been left out of local politics. That means helping African-Americans to prepare to run for local offices, but it also means helping younger people do the same.

Indeed, what I appreciated most in Morley’s comments in our interview was his closing call to action, reminding us that anyone can get involved. Influencing local politics begins by just showing up, as so many voters did last week.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Workers Matter

As exit polls from yesterday’s election show, the economy is a big issue these days. But while much of our focus has been on the financial markets, ordinary people have been struggling economically for a long time. That’s the focus of New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse’s recent book, The Big Squeeze. This week on Lincoln Avenue, Alyssa Lenhoff, director of the Journalism Program and an affiliate of the Center for Working-Class Studies here at YSU, talks with Greenhouse about the book.

John Russo, the co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies and Coordinator of YSU’s Labor Studies program, reviewed Greenhouse’s book for the journal New Labor Forum. Here’s how Russo describes the book:

The Big Squeeze chronicles what has happened to American workers and workplaces in the last half century. Greenhouse begins by outlining the capital/labor accord, which has more recently become known as the postwar social contract. The basic tenets involved the corporate and government recognition of labor unions, sharing of productivity gains, and labor’s acceptance of two party politics. For a quarter century ending in 1974, the social contract resulted in regular improvements in wages, working conditions, and healthcare and retirement benefits. While unionized workers benefited the most, the rising tide lifted the boats of non-union workers, especially a large cohort of minority and female workers that began entering the workforce in the 1960s. But the social contract was broken by corporations and the government starting in the 1970s, and for the last thirty years, workers and unions have been under attack under the guise of neoliberal economic policy. The results include a decline of real earnings, benefits, and working conditions; a shift in power relations between labor and management; and growing inequality and insecurity for the working class.

Specifically, Greenhouse describes how outsourcing, immigration, globalization, shifting power relations, overwork, and disruptions in family life have together undermined the American Dream for working families. While this analysis will not be news to the readers of New Labor Forum, Greenhouse tells the story in an especially powerful manner. His rage and indignation are measured not in ideology but in the marshalling of facts, the accessible use of various metrics, and through individual stories and case studies. As such, Greenhouse marries the statistical rigor of the Economic Policy Institute with the sensitivity and passion of Studs Terkel. The result is a compelling narrative of the degradation of workplaces and the struggles involved in working-class life today.

So what does Greenhouse think can be done? Most importantly, he argues that the public conversation about the economy must include workers and not simply focus on takeovers, trade deals, and other business concerns. We’ve seen some of this already in recent public discourse about the mortgage crisis and its impact on poor and working families. But Greenhouse argues that political and economic debates about many more issues -- universal healthcare, stagflation, wage theft, retirement security, labor law and trade reform -- have to be more worker-centered.

While this year’s political speeches talked a lot about “Joe the Plumber,” and health care and the economy were central concerns, we still didn’t hear much about most of these issues. Let’s hope that a new administration and more Democratic Congress are listening to Steve Greenhouse.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The diversity of "the Hispanics"

In most contemporary discussions about American culture, immigration, and politics, “the Hispanic community” serves as convenient shorthand for a large and diverse group of people. On this week’s Lincoln Avenue, Alvaro Ramirez explains how different histories, cultural roots, and places create differences and even divisions among people of Hispanic descent.

Ramirez comes to the topic via an interesting path. He immigrated to the US as a child and grew up here in Youngstown. But his journey has taken him back to Mexico and to California, for part of his education and as a college professor. While he teaches courses on Spanish language and Latino Studies, his research focuses on the great Spanish writer, Cervantes, whose masterwork Don Quixote influenced much of Western literature, including the novel as a literary genre. As Ramirez explains, this 16th century tour de force is still relevant in today’s world, as we debate the relationships between the individual and society, tensions around cultural identity, and social change.

As I commented in my blog after interviewing Armando Labra in September, I think many people in the Mahoning Valley think, mistakenly, that Mexicans are all new arrivals here. Part of that is because of all the public discussion about illegal immigration, which encourages us to assume that anyone of Mexican descent is in the U.S. illegally, and part of it may be that for most of us, Mexicans are visible locally through the several Mexican restaurants that have opened in just the last decade. But, as both Labra and Ramirez remind us, Mexican workers started coming to the Mahoning Valley in the 1920s and 30s, to work in the steel mills, just as many Italians, Slovaks, and other European immigrants did.

We also assume that all Hispanics are the same, but Hispanic culture simply doesn’t exist in the singular. Puerto Ricans have a very different history, not only in their country of origin but here in the U.S., than do Cubans, Salvadorans, Peruvians, and Mexicans. For each, national history, culture, even language vary, as do their experiences coming to this country. Even within these national groups, experiences differ. As Ramirez notes, being Mexican in Youngstown is different from being Mexican in Los Angeles. So, too, have the experiences of Mexican immigrants differed. In the 1940s, the U.S. government encouraged Mexican immigration, so those who came to El Norte then may well have different perspectives. Context matters.

So when you hear political pundits talk about “the Hispanic vote,” pay attention. Which Hispanics are we talking about? When you hear about Hispanic culture, consider which one, at which moment, and in which location.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Vote yes on Issue 8

Among the many issues on the November 4 ballot is a levy for the Western Reserve Transit Authority, Issue 8 for Mahoning County voters. In this week’s Lincoln Avenue, sociologist Denise Narcisse provides an overview of national research on the value of public transportation, but she also shares stories from the local context. You’ll find links to some of the data Denise cites in her August 25 blog on Working-Class Perspectives. As she suggests in our interview and in our blog, substantial evidence suggests that support for public transportation pays off in economic growth and improved quality of life.

Public discussions of this issue have largely reflected the long-standing divisions between the suburbs and the city and, sadly, between those with resources and those who are struggling. I stand with all of those who argue that supporting this levy is both the right thing to do in terms of social justice and the smart thing to do for the future of the Valley. But don’t listen to me. Here’s what some other area bloggers have to say:

Election day is coming soon. Vote early. Vote yes on Issue 8.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Health care jobs, the good and the not-so-good

Health care is one of the largest employment sectors in the Mahoning Valley, second only to manufacturing. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with someone who understands the role of health care in the local economy, especially the job market – Molly Seals, Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Learning for Humility of Mary Health Partners.

As Seals points out, health care jobs are satisfying, relatively stable, and more diverse than you might think. Caring for others brings emotional rewards as well as financial ones. While employment in other industries has declined, and some kinds of jobs are hard to get, employment in health care has grown significantly over the last decade, both locally and nationally. As Seals discusses in our interview, the health sector employs not just doctors and nurses but a wide range of technicians, customer service workers, and maintenance people. Many health care jobs require college education, but some do not, and many require 2-year degrees.

On the other hand, as Seals acknowledges, health care jobs are not easy. They can be stressful and physically demanding. And while demand for health care workers is growing, problems do exist. As Ohio Policy Matters reported in July, while employment is growing and fairly secure, wages have declined and working conditions create challenges. Some fields have seen growth in both wages and jobs, but some of the fastest growing job categories, such as home health aides, have seen the sharpest wage declines.

For the Mahoning Valley, the growth in health care employment means more stable jobs of many different kinds, many of which pay well and all of which contribute to the local economy. At the same time, we should advocate for safe working conditions and good wages for those who take care of us when we’re ill.

Seals also spoke briefly about a topic I hope to pursue in more depth in a later interview: a community-wide plan to provide access to health care for the thousands of Mahoning Valley residents who don’t have insurance. The Mahoning Valley Access to Care Network met earlier this fall, bringing together local government leaders, non-profit organizations, and health care providers to discuss strategies for addressing the health care crisis.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Your time is worth more than money

What is your time worth? Tony Budak wants to recognize the value of your time and labor – not your paid job but the kinds of tasks you know how to do that could help others in the community. In this week’s interview on Lincoln Avenue, I talk with Tony about the concept of time banking, a system for tracking and using the value of volunteer labor.

The basic idea behind time banking is to encourage people to share their skills with each other and to build a stronger sense of community by strengthening connections among people. In very simple terms, a time bank keeps track of the hours you spend doing things for others. Maybe you’re helping an neighbor repair his lawnmower or volunteering at a local school. That time can be recorded in the time bank, and you can exchange it for services provided by others who participate. So when you want help with holiday baking or need a ride to the airport, you ask for help through the time bank. Every hour you put in is worth an hour of someone else’s time.

Because I write and teach about work, I find this concept especially interesting for the way it seeks to value work that doesn’t usually receive either recognition or compensation. So often, we think of work only as what we have to do to earn a living, instead of viewing it as part of how we contribute to the well-being of others. We also rarely think of work as labor we choose to do, much less labor that we control. Time banking seeks to redefine work with a focus on how it contributes to improving people’s lives and our community. We may not be able to accomplish that with all kinds of work, but valuing the work we do for each other is a good first step.

Here in the Mahoning Valley, where the local economy has been tight for a very long time, time banking seems like an idea that might help people get things done while also building stronger community connections. You can sign up to participate and learn more about the Timebank of the Mahoning Valley Watershed online.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Beyond Aid: Strategies for Fighting Poverty

In part because of the presidential election, we’ve been hearing more lately about why race matters in American culture, and here in Youngstown. And people have been talking nonstop in the last few weeks about the economy. On this week’s Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking about both, with Brian Corbin, Executive Director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Youngstown.

Most of the recent talk about the economy has focused on Wall Street, with some attention to Main Street but almost no recognition of those who live close to the street – those who struggle to get by every day. As part of its effort to move from providing aid to the poor to helping people get out of poverty, Catholic Charities USA has produced a very readable and very powerful overview of the relationship between poverty and racism, arguing that we cannot end poverty unless we address the underlying structural inequalities of American society, inequalities that are reinforced by racism. The booklet describes poverty and racism as “overlapping threats,” and it challenges white people, even those who are themselves struggling economically, to face and resist the ways that white privilege creates opportunities for them while putting up obstacles for people of color. The booklet reminds us that even if we don’t discriminate against others or hold prejudicial attitudes, we benefit from and are therefore complicit in the institutional racism that runs deep in American culture. Institutional racism gives us an unequal educational system, unequal access to credit and employment, and more.

Too often, when I talk with people about poverty and inequality, they blame those who are poor for not working hard enough. The hard truth is this: just as Vicki Escarra told us last week, most of those who are in poverty have jobs. Many work very hard, sometimes at more than one job. Some are trying to get an education to qualify for a better job. They just don’t earn enough to pay for housing, feed their families, cover health emergencies (because they rarely have health insurance), or respond effectively to other crises.

That’s part of what Catholic Charities of Youngstown found when they talked with the people they serve. When asked why it’s so hard to get out of poverty, people cited seemingly simple things: lack of access to, which can make it difficult to get to a jobs, to get their kids to school, to get to a grocery store with reasonable prices. Poor people also have limited access to banks, so when they need extra money, they can’t use credit or take out a loan, except from a business that charges high rates for short-term loans. In other words, people are poor not because they won’t work but because the system works against them.

In part because of what they learned from talking with those in need, Catholic Charities supported the bill in the Ohio legislature that placed limits on so-called “payday” lending, and they’re working on projects to create community credit unions. Other projects aim to provide better health care to the uninsured, as I’ll discuss with Molly Seals from Humility of Mary Health Partners later this fall. You can learn more about how we can fight the causes of poverty in a report by the Ohio Anti-Poverty Task Force. Among other recommendations, they suggest strategies to ease access to services like food stamps, job training, and health care.

Given what’s happening on Wall Street these days, we’re likely to see even more people falling into poverty. The efforts of Catholic Charities, the Governor’s task force, and others can help us think clearly about how to respond.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Take Action on Hunger

September is Hunger Action Month. In 2006, more than 37 million people, more than 12 percent of all Americans, were living in poverty. Most of those struggled to find enough food each month. Two years later, after major disasters, with employment rates falling, the cost of living rising, and the country embroiled in a frightening economic crisis, the numbers must be even higher, and they will probably continue to rise. Feeding America, a national organization devoted to fighting hunger, is working hard to address the problem. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with Vicki Escarra, President and CEO of Feeding America.

Long known as Second Harvest, Feeding America provides surplus food and raises money to purchase additional supplies and transport them around the country. They run food banks, like the Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley, but they also manage programs to feed children in schools and supply food for people in areas that have been hit by natural disasters.

The largest group served by Feeding America is children – about 9 million of them last year. The elderly and disabled also rely on food assistance programs. But what may surprise you is this: many of those who need help getting enough food every month are working adults. Especially as the cost of living goes up, many working people struggle to pay the rent and utilities, put enough gas in their cars to get to work, pay for health care, and still feed themselves and their families.

Unfortunately, the same forces that create increased demand for food assistance also make providing food to the hungry more expensive. Food and fuel both cost more these days. Meanwhile, almost everyone is a little worried about their personal economy, and some may be wary about giving.

The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur is coming up in a couple of weeks. On that day, Jews traditionally fast, from sundown to sundown. In my household, it’s a tradition to donate to a hunger program in honor of the holiday. For me, that transforms the fast from something that can feel like a penance to something that reflects and reinforces my commitment to social justice. You may not be Jewish, and you may never fast, but I hope Vicki Escarra will inspire you to join me in making a donation to Feeding America or some other program that helps to feed the hungry.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Mexican Take on Immigration

So much of the talk about Mexican immigration over the past few years has focused on U.S. government policy. Congress keeps debating immigration policy, and both the media and community leaders keep offering advice and arguments. Yet we almost never hear about how the issue looks to Mexicans. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with Armando Labra, who represents northeastern Ohio in the Consejo Consultivo – the consulting council – of the Instituto de los Mexicanos en el Exterior, a Mexican government organization that provides services for and maintains connections with Mexicans who are living outside of their home country.

Mexicans have been living in the Mahoning Valley for generations, but they are not one of the groups that comes to mind when we think about the ethnic history of this area. In the past decade, the local Mexican population has become more visible, largely through the restaurant industry, but Mexicans first came to this area for the same reasons almost everyone else did – to work in the steel mills.

It’s in part because of the closing of the steel mills, and the long economic decline our region has struggled through ever since, that local attitudes about Mexican immigrants are often very negative. Anyone who comes here looking for work is seen as competition, even when they are doing work that others don’t want. Add to that the national media coverage of the rise of illegal immigration, raids on workplaces, legal battles about immigrants’ rights, and the kind of fear-mongering anti-immigrant discourse heard from commentators like Lou Dobbs – and the result is a culture of discrimination and hatred aimed at hard-working people who endure incredible hardship in order to provide for their families. It’s true that many (but not all) of the Mexicans living and working in the U.S. are breaking the law, but they are also human beings doing whatever it takes to survive.

Sadly, opposition to illegal immigration generates discrimination against Latinos in general, regardless of their legal status. I grew up in Colorado, which had a large and primarily legal Mexican population whose families had lived in the state for generations, and Mexicans were discriminated against even in that setting. In recent years, as Latinos are becoming a larger portion of the U.S. population, anti-Hispanic prejudice and discrimination have gotten worse.

What may surprise many Americans is that, as Labra explains in our interview, many Mexicans would like to see an end to illegal immigration. They don’t want to have to travel thousands of miles away from their families, risking injury, arrest, and exploitation, for the sake of economic survival. But, as he explains, the answer may lie less with the U.S. government than with the Mexican government. It would be best for Mexico if those who have left would return home. It makes sense, really. Mexico loses out when its citizens go elsewhere. Families and communities lose important members, making them weaker and less able to cope with struggles, and neither the local nor the national economy grow when so many people are leaving. The problems is that the Mexican economy is in bad shape, and the Mexican government does not seem to have an effective plan for improving it. With the rest of the global economy struggling these days, economic recovery for Mexico seems unlikely.

So, it seems, we’re stuck. Many Americans (but not all) don’t want Mexicans here, and many Mexicans don’t really want to be here. Economics keeps us together. Americans want cheap labor, and Mexicans need jobs. The only policy that will resolve the problem is a policy of economic growth.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What Congress Can Do About the Economy

No doubt, the economy is the most troubling and important issue in American politics this year. As we listen to the speeches at the two conventions, we heard many expressions of concern and lots of promises to make things better. The real question is, what can government do about the economy? Of the three branches of the federal government, Congress seems to have the best chance of taking action to make a difference, because they design legislation that regulates how business and government services operate and because they oversee both taxes and federal spending. The President can recommend, promote, and decide whether to approve the policies that Congress develops, but in practical terms, it’s legislation that matters.

The difficulty is determining and successfully passing the right kind of legislation. In my conversation this week with Representative Charlie Wilson, he touted the effectiveness of the stimulus program that put a few hundred dollars extra in many of our pockets earlier this year – extra money that was quickly swallowed up by higher prices at the gas pump and catching up on bills. While I’m skeptical about whether this program made much difference, the idea that the federal government could help the economy through programs to stimulate spending makes some sense. Unfortunately, giving someone $300, or even $600, is more like giving someone a fish than teaching him or her to fish. A jobs program to strengthen our infrastructure – something more like the 1930s WPA – might make a bigger difference. It would also cost more.

Wilson also suggested that the mortgage bill passed in July and lifting the ban on the off-shore drilling, which is still under discussion, will address the problems of housing and oil prices. In both cases, we’re seeing an interesting tension between helping consumers and supporting business. It’s not in anyone’s interest, of course, for major businesses to fail, and consumers need direct assistance, as well. Still, both of these issues reflect much larger economic patterns – ways of thinking about investing and finance that emphasize profit over sustainability, our excessive appetite for fuel and other petroleum products, and the gap between our concern about sustainability and how we live day to day. But creating that kind of change in how we think may be beyond Congress. What Wilson and his colleagues can do, what they are trying to do, is develop concrete strategies for addressing specific concerns.

On this week’s show, both Wilson and Representative Tim Ryan discuss specific projects they’re working on to bring new industries and jobs to the region. Most involve hi-tech and energy industries, areas that are predicted to grow nationally and internationally over the next decade. Securing those jobs will require continued investment in education, as well as opportunities for funding new plants, new research, and collaboration across the region.

Will it work? As you look at what’s happening in the region, what do you see as the greatest signs of hope? What obstacles are we facing? Not surprisingly, our congressional representatives are optimistic, promising a better future. I wonder what everyone else thinks.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Race, Class, and Politics

This week’s conversation with Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams covers a lot of territory, including the challenges of regional development and the presidential election. I asked Williams to explain why he believes that Joint Economic Development Districts – JEDDS – will benefit both the city and surrounding communities. While local leaders in Liberty, Austintown, and Boardman seem to view JEDDs as a form of civic blackmail that offers them no benefit, Williams argues that the experiences of other communities, especially Akron, suggest that this model of regional cooperation will bring economic growth to the whole metropolitan area. As Williams points out, Akron’s mayor pushed for JEDDs 15 years ago, and the same suburban leaders who resisted then are now strong supporters of the program, because they see tangible and significant benefits in their communities.

It’s a hard sell in the Youngstown area, mostly because many in the suburbs view the city as a problem rather than a resource. I’ve had too many conversations with suburban leaders who argue that the Valley should simply give up on the city. “Tear it all down and make it one big park,” one suggested. As Williams points out in our interview, the idea that the suburbs of Youngstown could exist without the city is absurd. Erasing the various government, education, business services, and health care jobs in the heart of Youngstown would be as economically-devastating to this area as closing steel mills was 30 years ago. And imagine getting rid of the city’s incredible cultural resources – the Butler, the two historical museums, Mill Creek Park, or all the arts organizations that bring us music and theater.

But that this isn’t just about economics. It’s about race and class. The suburbs of Youngstown grew dramatically in the 1950s and 60s for two reasons: upward mobility and white flight. Economic growth and strong unions allowed industrial workers to afford suburban homes and to send their children to college, creating a growing middle class in what had long been a working-class community. That same economic growth allowed more African Americans to buy homes in the city, which scared away many white families. That pattern isn’t unique to Youngstown, but its effects remain especially strong here. And it has created persistent divisions, fear, and even resentment. That division becomes political when the city wrangles with suburban communities over water, jobs, and taxes for parks and public transportation.

Youngstown’s struggles have long been national news. Just in the past year, we’ve been recognized by the Wall Street Journal for the 2010 plan and criticized by Forbes as one of America’s “fastest-dying” cities. We’ve seen important changes in productive directions in recent years, but we have a long way to go. To get there, we need forceful leadership and effective strategies for economic growth, but we also need to build stronger partnerships with surrounding communities and to move past the divisions that make regional efforts almost impossible.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Lincoln Avenue Returns!

New interviews begin this Wednesday, August 27, when I talk with Representative Charlie Wilson about how Congress is addressing the economy. That's 7:30 Wednesday night, on WYSU, 88.5 fm.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

It's Rerun Season

If you listen to Lincoln Avenue on WYSU, then you know that we're rerunning some of the best shows from the past year. We'll be rerunning programs on education and economic development in our area as well as interviews with guest speakers who visited YSU last year. You can find the blog entries for these shows in the archive (there's a link on the left side of this page), and you're still welcome to leave comments.

New shows will begin airing in August. In the meantime, enjoy the summer!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Defending Youngstown from the Ground Up

If you’ve followed the national press stories about Youngstown over the past year, then you’ve already heard some of what this week’s guest has to say. Phil Kidd has become a sort of unofficial spokesperson for the city, talking about Youngstown 2010, the revitalization of downtown, the changing image of this community. On Lincoln Avenue this week, he talks about Defend Youngstown, the Wick Park Revitalization Project, and his plans for his new job as Director of Downtown Events for the City of Youngstown.

One of the things that has impressed me about Phil is his ability to turn ideas into action. I’m excited about all the thoughtful conversation that has developed out of the “thinkers and drinkers” gatherings, but I’m also always a little skeptical about the value of talk. And yet I know from my own experience how easy it is to comment on issues and how much harder it is to go out and do something. But Phil has a philosophy about how to make things happen. He believes that getting people involved means creating opportunities for them to speak and act, and those who have the resources and power to make things happen need to listen to what others want, not just forge ahead on their own. He understands, too, that community engagement is not only a good way to get things done but also a way to transform the community by building relationships and changing attitudes. He also knows how to organize a project, a skill he says he learned in the military.

Phil Kidd is in an interesting and challenging position at this point: he has begun to put his ideas into action, and over the next few years, we will all get to see the results unfold. He’s taking on very public projects, and because he’s advocated a different approach to running a city office and organizing a community project, people are watching. I’m looking forward to seeing him succeed.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Tracing YSU's History

This week, Lincoln Avenue runs the second of its YSU Centennial interviews. In February, I talked with Maag Library Director Paul Kobulnicky about the new University Archives. This week, I’m talking with Dr. Martha Pallante, chair of YSU’s History Department and co-author of Youngstown State University: From YoCo to YSU, written with her colleague Dr. Donna DeBlasio.

Pallante and DeBlasio spent many hours with the materials in the University archive, tracing the history of the university and locating a wide range of photographs to provide a well-illustrated, informative, and entertaining overview of YSU’s formation and mutations over the years. The first image in the book is an almost idyllic photo of Wick Avenue from 1890, almost two decades before the YMCA decided to create the adult education program that would eventually become YSU. In between, you can read about and see photos of everything from early auto mechanics courses to the 1995 national champion football visiting Bill Clinton at the White House. In the interview, Martha tells the true story of how Pete the Penguin became YSU’s mascot, who attended Youngstown College in the early years, and the big picture of -how the university grew and changed.

But the interview just gives you a taste of what the book provides. I’ve always loved all the old photos hanging in Kilcawley Center, and Pallante and DeBlasio’s book publishes many more. If you’re into local history or if you ever attended YSU, you should get a copy of Youngstown State University: From YoCo to YSU.

The photo above, showing a display made by home economics students in 1958, comes from the University Archives. You can view more historical photos of YSU by visiting Maag Library's Digital Collections.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Telling Difficult Stories in Interesting Ways

This week’s Lincoln Avenue is a little unusual, because I don’t often get to talk with writers about their work, and my conversation with Serbian author David Albahari was especially interesting. Albahari was invited to YSU as a guest of the Judaic and Holocaust Studies Center, largely because of his Holocaust novel, Götz and Meyer. The novel’s narrator is exploring his own family’s history, including some who were killed by two SS soldiers, Götz and Meyer, who drove a specially-fitted truck that would be filled with Jews from a Serbian labor camp, who were then murdered by carbon dioxide piped into the back of the truck as the two soldiers drove around Belgrade. The story is horrifying, and well worth reading simply as a window into the experience of those who survived the Holocaust and, at least imaginatively, those who contributed to the death toll.

But Albahari’s writing is equally interesting for its literary style. Both Götz and Meyer and Bait, another of his novels, are written as monologues, and each book comprises a single, albeit very long paragraph. In contrast, other books by Albahari use a very fragmented style, with multiple stories emerging through a series of short flashes. These stylistic experiments reflect the writer’s interest in postmodernism, with all the questions it raises about the nature of narrative and truth. To invite such questions about an event like the Holocaust is incredibly powerful. In Götz and Meyer, the narrator keeps trying to imagine how the two soldiers lived, how they thought about their work, their relationships with their families, and so on, but the long meditation also reflects on the narrator’s family history and his students’ responses to his historical research. These musings invite the reader to think about the human natures of both the killers and those who were killed.

Albahari’s comments on the subject and style of his work are interesting, and he also talks about what it was like to be Jewish in Belgrade before and after the dismantling of Yugoslavia.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

How we say it, how we sing it

This week, I’m talking with ethnomusicologist Aaron Fox, who directs the Center for Ethnomusicology at Columbia University, about his work on the language and sound of country music. His book, Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture, like our conversation, is both concrete and theoretical, getting at how people talk and sing and why it matters.

Aaron Fox has a good gig. For his book, he spent several years observing, interviewing, and even playing music in a honky-tonk bar outside of Austin, TX. These days, he’s spending time in Barrow, Alaska, working with the native Inupiat people, young and old, to return a collection of interviews, song performances, and documents that have been in the Columbia University archive. While that work involves very long flights from New York to Alaska, it’s also hands-on ethnomusicology, and that’s what seems to inspire Fox.

What I like best about Fox’s work is the idea that popular music matters. We listen to certain music, in certain ways, because of what it does for us. Music can express who we are, and it can shape our relationships with others. It can comment on everyday life or on politics, or both. I also appreciate how Fox links music with conversation, viewing both as ways that we use voice. He reminds us that it’s not just what we say that matters, but how we say it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

English Festival Celebrates 30 Years

From Wednesday to Friday this week, the YSU campus will become a busier place, as thousands of middle and high school students, their teachers, some parents, and visiting scholars and writers participate in the annual English Festival. This year, the Festival is especially exciting, because we are celebrating its 30th year. To mark the occasion, I talked with Gary Salvner, co-chair of the English Festival and chair of YSU’s English department, about the program’s history, how it works, and what’s planned for this celebration year. You can visit the Festival, in Kilcawley Center. Several sessions are open to the public, including the talks by writers at 9:25, 10:35, and 2:20 each day. Stop by the information table outside of the Chestnut Room for more details.

Our interview can’t fully convey the behind-the-scenes story of the Festival, but as a member of the English department, I see it all the time. Planning goes on all year. The committee, which includes both YSU faculty and area teachers, meets regularly to select books, identify guest speakers, organize the distribution of materials, plan the Festival schedule, recruit volunteers, and judge contests. While a dozen or so people do all the planning, another cadre of volunteers steps in during Festival week to lead discussions, staff information tables, and run workshops. It’s a time-consuming project, and the organizers commit incredible amounts of time and energy.

Why do all that work, year after year? Because the English Festival makes a difference for so many students in our community. By promoting the value of reading for pleasure as well as for study, by engaging students in creative writing and production of several kinds (essays, songs, videos, and more), and by recognizing the power of young adult literature, the English Festival helps to foster literacy and an appreciation for education among young people in our Valley. It also reminds students that reading and talking about literature can be fun. It all sounds very serious, but playing language games, debating aspects of the Festival books, and listening to visiting writers talk about their work is also a good time.

I bet a lot of WYSU listeners attended the English Festival sometime in the past 30 years. What do you remember about it? Did it make a difference for you?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Support Public Radio

Because it’s pledge week on WYSU, we’re not running Lincoln Avenue this week. If you miss it, show your support by making a pledge and tell the person who answers your call how much you like Lincoln Avenue!

Here’s why I believe in supporting public radio: it’s the closest thing we have to a truly free press in the U.S. Most other widely accessible, professional media outlets are business enterprises, so their fundamental purpose is to make money for the corporations that own them and the investors in those corporations. Even with the best of journalistic intentions, reporters, editors, commentators, and staff will be influenced and sometimes directly guided by the business interests of their owners. That might not mean giving a specific slant on a particular story, but it does affect the mix of stories available, because it’s all about numbers. To operate, the media relies on ads, and to sell ads, they need to attract viewers, so at least some of their editorial decisions will be focused on how to get more people to watch.

Now public radio also has to worry about numbers, but we do it without a profit motive. While NPR and WYSU locally rely on contributions and underwriting from business, a significant portion of our funding comes directly from the people who listen. In some ways, that increases the pressure to serve and engage the public. On the other hand, that gives us the freedom to tell stories and cover issues that might not be popular.

I’ve tried to do that on Lincoln Avenue – to bring in a variety of guests and perspectives, to question some of the conventional wisdom in the local community, to make people think. Thanks for supporting this program, and I hope you’ll extend your support to WYSU.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Solidarity with Chinese Workers?

This week’s Lincoln Avenue interview might be a bit tough for listeners in the Mahoning Valley, because it focuses on the problems faced by Chinese workers – the very people who are doing some jobs that used to be done here. So the first thing I asked my guest, Katie Quan, is why Americans should care about the situation of Chinese workers.

The answer isn’t revolutionary, but it does matter: it’s not just about human rights but of fair economic competition and the broader interests of workers around the world. Chinese labor is cheap because it’s so exploitative. Workers are regularly not paid; have almost no rights to object to their hours (she describes how some people work 17 hours days, 7 days a week), working conditions, or treatment; and don’t have the knowledge or skills to organize to stand up for themselves. Quan argues that the American labor movement can help Chinese workers fight for better conditions and better pay, largely through outreach that brings workers together across global divides. Chinese workers, she says, need to know that Americans care about their rights, not just buying cheap clothes. Quan has been working with American labor leaders to create a dialogue with Chinese workers. Last year, the Change to Win coalition of labor unions sent a delegation to China to explore strategies for building global solidarity.

Paradoxically, Quan also notes that the terrible situation she describes applies only to the lower class of Chinese workers. Labor laws protect most workers in China, but the largely migrant factory workers are especially vulnerable. Some have even been killed for trying to fight for their rights.

The point, I think, is that Americans who have lost jobs to Chinese workers should not blame the workers. We should look to the system and recognize that improving conditions for Chinese workers might help level the economic playing field a bit. And even if it doesn’t, we should not accept when any worker is poorly treated, underpaid (or not paid at all), and forced to work in unsafe conditions.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The costs of incarceration: how putting more people in prisons hurts the rest of us

This week’s interview was, for me, among the most thought-provoking conversations I’ve had recently. Heather Thompson is a historian who’s writing a book about the Attica prison uprising in 1971, but her research suggests some new ways of thinking about what’s happening with prisons in America today. She argues that what happened at Attica contributed to changes in U.S. laws that have increased the prison population by more than 2 million. Thompson suggests that this increase is having a detrimental affect on the American economy and our society.

I’ve heard lots of discussion about prisons that focus on the poor conditions in which prisoners live. But Thompson takes a different approach; her focus is on how the growing prison system hurts the rest of us. Setting aside entirely the cost of keeping so many people in prison, large-scale incarceration has other social and economic costs. It breaks up families and communities, creates economic incentives for business and communities to maintain or even increase crime rates, and reduces the number and quality of jobs available to those who are not in prison.

The first point seems somewhat obvious: when a parent or spouse is in prison, the family suffers, and when people who might otherwise contribute to community life are in prison, the community suffers. No doubt, some of those who are in prison were not model parents or citizens, but in prison, whatever ties prisoners, their families, and their communities may have had get broken. This happens in part because the private prison system often sends criminals to prisons far from their families, making it impossible for them to maintain relationships that might help them return more successfully to the community when their sentences end. Add to that the loss of any income they might have contributed to the family, taxes they might have paid locally, and prison conditions that encourage mental illness and asocial behavior, and we have a system that seems to be designed not to rehabilitate prisoners but rather to ensure that they will return to prison soon after they are released.

And that’s just one way the current prison system ensures that crime will not be decreased. As the private prison system grows, with publicly-owned companies that have stockholders demanding ever-increasing profits, the prison industry has an incentive to incarcerate more and more people. They need crime to go up in order to prosper as a business. So do local governments, which often view prisons as a source of economic growth. It’s strange enough, I think, to view prisons as economic opportunities, but it’s even worse to realize that this means that it’s in our interests to have more crime, not less. Now that’s twisted.

Finally, Thompson points out that prisoners are increasingly working for private firms, earning much less than minimum wage (try 21 cents an hour), doing jobs that might otherwise go to people who have not committed crimes. Prisoners make clothing, auto parts, and other goods. They stock shelves at major retailers and take telephone orders in call centers. Of course, free people can’t compete for these jobs, not only because the contracting process excludes them, but also because they can’t work for $2 an hour. Indeed, the Federal Prison Industry program admits that non-prison employment has declined in some of the sectors that use prison labor. So again, business has an incentive to see crime rates maintained or increased, and giving jobs to prisoners takes jobs away from others. Companies make larger profits, but ordinary people miss the opportunity to work for a decent wage.

The whole thing seems wildly contradictory to me. We changed the laws to put more people in prison in order to make America safer. But in the process, we’ve created a system in which business benefits from increased crime, that almost ensures that once someone has gone to prison they will return, and that undermines economic opportunities for people who are not in prison. All of this seems like way too good an example of the law of unintended consequences. Is this really the best way to fight crime and improve our society?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On the streets and by the river: The Mahoning River Education Project

In order for a community to function well, its citizens must not only have a sense of connection with each other and the place they live. They must also understand their history, good and bad, so that they can build on strengths and address problems in planning for the future. One way to foster that sense of community is to engage people when they’re young. Holly Burnett-Hanley, my guest on Lincoln Avenue this week, has developed a multi-year, multi-disciplinary, hands-on program for elementary and middle-school students that fosters that kind of citizenship.

The Mahoning River Education Project started 7 years ago, and it’s grown to include thousands of children in Youngstown and other area schools. Combining science, math, language arts, local history, ideas about neighborhood and community, and the arts, the program engages students in learning about the place they live in new and exciting ways. I’ve been a fan of this project since I first heard about it. That’s partially because of Holly’s enthusiasm, but it’s also because value this approach to education. I think it works on many levels – engagement, improved comprehension and motivation, generating awareness of how different school subjects and varied aspects of daily life all fit together.

Beyond the goal of helping students understand and feel connected to their community, the project achieves two other outcomes which are, some might say, a bit subversive. The first is that it helps them move from understanding to action. In our interview, Holly tells a story about a class that developed a research project on small parks in Youngstown and ultimately wrote a proposal to city council. Ideally, the kind of engagement this project generates will lead many students to not only want to get involved in local issues but also have the skills and understanding to do so effectively.

A second somewhat subversive aspect of this project is that it models a very different and effective way of thinking about teaching and learning. The Mahoning River Education Project integrates different subject areas, connects hands-on experiences with the information and concepts in the state education standards (and on the Ohio Achievement Test that we use to measure school success), and links students with the world around them. This kind of teaching works, and I hope that Holly’s example will inspire teachers and district leaders to develop more projects like this.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Changes at YSU: Still Up in the Air

Change, it seems, is a constant in higher education, and YSU seems almost always to be just about to make some kind of big change. This week, I’m talking with YSU Board of Trustees member Harry Meshel, about how YSU and the local community might be affected by a report from the Northeast Ohio Universities Collaboration & Innovation Study Commission, which includes, among other things, a call to “explore the creation of a Mahoning Valley community college.” Because of Meshel’s long history with the University and with state and local politics, I asked him to comment on the Commission’s recommendations and the future of YSU in general.

Meshel brings a unique perspective, in part based on his own memories of attending YSU full time while also working in the open hearth in a local steel mill. He also taught at YSU, on and off for about 20 years. He worries that higher education has gotten a bit soft, that students aren’t struggling enough, and that we focus too much attention on frills, like the wellness center. No doubt, I see more students today who have the privilege of not working while they go to school, I also work with many who are working every bit as hard as Meshel did when he was a student. Of course, those students are usually not the ones using the wellness center. I worry that balancing work, family life, and school too often means that education is the thing that’s easiest to let slide. Given the choice between taking care of a sick child or responding to a boss’s request that you work an extra shift, it’s hard to put school work first. But that always comes at a cost.

Meshel sees two promising things emerging from the Commission report. The first is the recommendation not to change the structure of the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine (NEOUCOM). As Meshel explains, not only does the current program work, but expanding it meets current economic needs. There are jobs for health care workers in this area and elsewhere.

Meshel also likes the report’s call for a community college. People at YSU have been talking about this for more than two years, and the commission report brings us no closer to real strategies. It simply recommends exploring the idea; it does not yet suggest how to turn the idea into reality. Nonetheless, Meshel thinks that a community college might be able to serve the training needs of area businesses more efficiently and effectively than the University can. Some of that has to do with accreditation: a community college might be able to have students focus more of their time on specific workplace skills and rely more on part-time faculty or instructors who don’t have Ph.D.s.

In part because the community college is still more an idea than a concrete plan, we don’t yet know what it will accomplish. For me, the idea raises several questions:

  • What role will YSU’s faculty, administrators, staff, and students play in creating the new college?
  • How will a community college, which plans suggest could set tuition much lower than YSU, affect enrollment and academic programs at YSU?
  • How will a community college achieve that lower tuition rate?
  • Would the option of a local community college increase the number of people pursuing higher education in our region? Or would it encourage them to settle for a 2-year degree instead of getting a bachelors? And how would that affect long-term economic opportunities in the area?

I don’t necessarily oppose the idea. I’ve been an advocate of better education for first-generation and working-class students for well over a decade. But I am frustrated that at this point in the discussion, we still know so little. I keep hearing conversations on campus about how the community college will change things, but this is a change that seems to be permanently in the wind, not yet reaching the ground.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Educational reform is not for sissies

Anyone who’s paid any attention to discussions about education knows that we have no shortage of problems and no shortage of ideas about how to address them. The real challenge is creating change. This week, I’m talking with Bill Mullane, a local educator who’s spent years working for change in local schools and districts. He served as principal at Warren Harding High School for a number of years, and he now serves as supervisor of School Improvement and Community Relations for the Ashtabula County Educational Service Center in Ohio. He’s been both an observer and an active participant in K-12 education in our community.

In our interview, Mullane talks about two aspects of the efforts to improve education. First, he notes that we’ve undergone a major change in what we expect from students and from schools. In the past, schooling was organized around rules and requirements. Students were viewed as having met expectations if they completed the requirements, and those requirements were often different depending on the student’s future plans. That system was built around the assumption that students have different needs and abilities and that education was about having the right set of experiences. Today, education is organized around competency, defined almost entirely by tests, and all students must meet the same standards. Mullane doesn’t reject the idea of testing, though he does question the ways that test results are used. He points out that changing the model creates changes in how we manage schools and how we think about education.

Mullane also notes the difficulty of changing the educational system. After all, most Americans experienced public education first-hand, and despite our critiques of the system, we are also attached to it. It feels natural and therefore unchangeable. So many people – teachers, parents, community members, school board members – object to ideas that would change the basic structure of the school or the pattern of the school day. Changes do occur, gradually, but as Mullane suggests, any serious overhaul of our educational system will always be met with resistance, simply because it’s different.

I’m working with a group of YSU honors students this semester, all of whom are writing research papers that address, in a variety of ways, the question of how YSU could do a better job of helping students from urban districts succeed in college. We had an interesting but frustrating discussion last week about how difficult it is even to know where to begin to improve education, because what happens in school is influenced by so many factors. The conversation made me think of one of my favorite lines from the Jewish Talmud: “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We may never find the complete solution to the problems of education, but neither should we ever stop trying to make it work better.