Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reading the Recession through the lens of the Depression

On this week's Lincoln Avenue, I'm talking with Daniel Roth and James Ledbetter about the book they just published together. The Great Depression: A Diary was written by Daniel's father, Benjamin Roth, a Youngstown lawyer who had the foresight to understand, back in the early 1930s, that he was living through an important historical period. He started taking notes on what was happening locally as well as nationally, with a strong focus on the economic and especially the investment lessons to be learned from the Depression.

Roth's focus on economic issues and investing is part of what caught James Ledbetter's eye.  He edits an online economic magazine, The Big Money, published by Slate.  He published excerpts from the diary on his website, noting that the diary's "perceptions and experiences have a chilling similarity to our own era, and The Big Money believes that Roth's words—though they are 75 years old—have much to teach us today."  Roth made note, for example, of how people were buying stocks at one point in 1931, believing they had hit bottom, only to find that stock prices dropped even further. 

As Ledbetter notes in our interview, the Depression was different in some important ways from the recession we're experiencing now, Benjamin Roth's ideas about investing -- especially about making cautious choices -- are useful reminders for us today.  Perhaps even more, his diary reminds us of the value of observation.  Roth followed stock prices and investment strategies closely, even though he was not an investor himself. 

Beyond the book itself, what I hope you can hear in this interview is the camaraderie between the two editors.  For Daniel Roth, this project was a way of honoring his father.  For Jim Ledbetter, it represented an engaging way of getting a fresh perspective on the current economic crisis.  But the process itself -- editing the book and now doing interviews and presentations to promote it -- has created a terrific partnership. 

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Urban Education: What Now?

Because I supported Barack Obama in last year’s election, I was hopeful that his administration would take a more progressive approach to public education than we saw under “No Child Left Behind.”  I haven’t found Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s approach especially inspiring.  Indeed, I’m concerned about his emphasis on using standardized test scores to measure the effectiveness of teachers and his enthusiasm for charter schools.  No doubt, some charter schools work well, but in our area they haven’t done much better – and some have done worse – than public schools.

So I invited Professor Randy Hoover in to talk about these issues. In our interview, he argues that the primary thing measured by standardized exams is the students’ socioeconomic status, noting his own research on the topic over the past decade.   He describes the charter school movement as an effort to privatize public education, since most of the nation’s charter schools are organized by for-profit companies.  His ideas are provocative, and his passion for the subject is clear.

I’m left still wondering about how best to address the challenge of improving the education we offer to all students, especially those coming from low-income neighborhoods.  Examples from around the country show that these students can succeed, but most of the models involve a significant investment of resources and a firm commitment from parents.  I’m not sure that can help us solve the problems facing the Youngstown City Schools and similar districts around the U.S.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Growing Soil, Growing Community, Growing Power

The Gray to Green Festival back in September succeeded on many levels, but for me the most exciting part was first listening to and then getting to interview keynote speaker Will Allen. Allen defines charisma, a tall, enthusiastic, dedicated man who clearly has a passion for his work. And his work is amazing: developing urban agriculture in areas where most people have limited access to good food. His organization, Growing Power Inc, runs a large compost operation, a greenhouse that raises both produce and fish, a variety of programs that provide jobs for local teenagers, and a market selling the produce, eggs, meat, and even worms they grow. It's an impressive operation, not only for its complexity but also for its vision: "Inspiring communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time."

As Allen suggests in our conversation, pursuing this vision requires that we think about the environment, the science of food production, the business of managing a complex organization, and the social and political patterns that create hunger, crime, low expectations, and social divisions. As he notes, inequality, especially racism, fosters social problems, and truly grassroots efforts that don't just talk about problems but take concrete actions -- as Growing Power does -- can begin to create change, not just for those who work with the organization but for the community at large.

There's a local version of this: Grow Youngstown. That effort is fairly new, but Allen's model provides important inspiration and guidance. Someday, we may see urban farms in Youngstown helping to reduce hunger, improve the local economy, and build a stronger community right here.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Unusual Music with a Local Twist

This week’s Lincoln Avenue takes us back to last June, for a conversation with electroacoustic musician Lars Brondum.  Lars has local connections, with family in town and two degrees from YSU’s Dana School of Music, but he lives and works in Sweden. 

Lars performed at the Universal CafĂ© at the Unitarian church, and when he came to talk with me, he brought in some samples of his work.  Electroacoustic music combines traditional instruments with unusual sounds, some coming from specialized musical instruments like the theremin as well as ordinary objects.  You can hear him talk about how and why he composes and performs, and you can hear examples of his work, on this week’s show.  This was one of few shows I’ve done with music, and I liked having the chance to move back and forth between conversation and sound. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Doing the Right Thing

Martha Hennessey’s “claim to fame” is that she’s the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement.  Much as I admire Day’s work, it’s a shame that Hennessey doesn’t get more recognition in her own right.  As we discuss in this week’s interview, she’s taken the activist model of the Catholic Worker Movement – the concept of nonviolent resistance – to protest and observation sites around the world.  From the steps of the Supreme Court to the Rafah border crossing in the Gaza Strip, she has stood up for peace and justice.  While many people can’t imagine attending a protest, much less doing so in an uncomfortable and dangerous area or taking the risk of being arrested, Martha sees these as ordinary acts, things that she must do because they are the right thing to do.  Her interview will inspire you.

Speaking of doing the right thing, if you’re listening to Lincoln Avenue or just reading the blog (the show is better!), I hope you’ll do the right thing and help support WYSU.  It’s pledge week, and we need your help to continue offering thoughtful perspectives on local, national, and global events.  Go to now and make your pledge. 

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Feeding People First

This week on Lincoln Avenue, I talked with Joel Berg about hunger, poverty, and – the crux of the matter – wages. As someone who studies working-class life, culture, and politics, I was especially pleased to hear him focus on wages. If more people earned a livable wage, fewer people would go hungry. It’s as simple as that. Unfortunately, even though the minimum wage was raised not long ago, we’re seeing many more people moving into low-wage jobs. Those are some of the fastest-growing job categories in the country.

Meanwhile, growing more and better food for urban, low-income communities is a hot topic, and Berg’s comments help us connect the dots between programs like food banks, living wage campaigns, and urban farms and farmer’s markets. We’re seeing many of these efforts here in the Youngstown area, though other cities are, in many cases, far ahead of us. But I’m encouraged to see people organizing around issues of poverty and access, along with all the efforts to attract new high-tech jobs and strengthen the arts community. We need it all here, of course, but feeding people is probably the right place to begin. And along with growing good food and donating to food banks, one of the best ways to feed people is to ensure that they can afford to feed themselves.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Rebuilding Youngstown, Block by Block

Last week, I talked with Kevin DeOliviera about his new film, Steel Valley: Meltdown.  If you saw the film on Friday night, you know that it focused on how young professionals and new leaders are trying to create a new Youngstown built primarily around high-tech and green energy jobs.  Much as I support the efforts of those who are trying to bring new businesses to the area, I was troubled that the film ignored the very real, concrete problems in the community.  It alluded to but did not fully explore the efforts of a number of local organizations who are doing the hard work of organizing – bringing people together around key issues – to create change here. 

At the heart of these organizing efforts is the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.  MVOC uses old-fashioned strategies of canvassing, building neighborhood coalitions, and seeking financial support for concrete projects that will improve the quality of life for the majority of the citizens of Youngstown.  Their efforts remind us that building a better Youngstown involves not just creating jobs for highly educated young professionals but also empowering long-time poor and working-class residents to work together to rebuild their crumbling neighborhoods.    They remind us that Youngstown is not a white, middle-class city that just needs a few green technology jobs to make everything ok. 

We are a community scarred by old wounds of racism and economic struggle.  Our history gave us a strong work ethic, the determination to survive, and a commitment to this place, but it also left us with strong divisions between city and suburbs, white and black, middle-class and working-class and with persistent poverty, low rates of education, and underemployment.  If we want to rebuild Youngstown, we have to bring people together across those divides, and we have to address our most persistent problems.

Perhaps the most concrete scar left by deindustrialization is vacant property.  Ian Beniston, my guest on Lincoln Avenue this week, is spearheading MVOC’s efforts to address the problem.  Working with dozens of local volunteers, MVOC assessed every plot of land in the city, identifying where we have empty lots and abandoned buildings.  Armed with a map that shows a dramatic pattern of vacant properties on the east and south sides, Ian and his partners, including the residents of some of the most affected neighborhoods, are campaigning for state and federal funds, supporting efforts to create new urban green spaces and farms, and working with Congress to develop new policies to help cities like ours. 

What I appreciate most about the efforts of Ian and his colleagues is that they are focusing on the concrete, day-to-day realities of Youngstown’s poor and working-class residents as well as their middle-class neighbors, and they are approaching the problem from the streets, not just the offices. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

From Scrap to What?

On Friday night, a new locally-made film about Youngstown,Steel Valley: Meltdown, will have its premiere downtown at the DeYor Center.  The film is the brainchild of director Kevin DeOliveira, my guest on Lincoln Avenue this week, in part as an effort to offer a fresh view of the Mahoning Valley.  The film's title, Kevin says, refers to the process of melting down scrap metal so that it can be reformed into something new, a process that he sees happening in the Mahohing Valley. 

No doubt, our community is being transformed, and I'm pleased to see that we are approaching that process without completely dismissing our history but also without feeling the need to define precisely what we will become.  We've identified some key problems to solve, like having too many vacant properties,  and some potential tools for remaking the region, like developing the arts, technology, and green energy manufacturing.  We don't yet know how all of this will play out.  Meanwhile, I sense a building pressure from within and outside.  Our efforts have drawn international attention, and even though everyone knows that these processes take time, both local residents and outside observers are anxious to declare either victory or defeat.

DeOliveira hopes that his film will contribute to changing the image of Youngstown, both locally and nationally.  It will join a growing series of newspaper articles, broadcast and web media stories, and academic studies all focused on how Youngstown, three decades after its defining industry began to fall apart, will finally be remade. 

The premiere is open to the public, free.  7:30, Friday, September 25, in the Ford Recital Hall at the DeYor. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Beyond Traficant: New Politics in the Mahoning Valley

Jim Traficant’s return to the Mahoning Valley has been getting a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks. While his story matters, in all the hoopla, we seem to be forgetting that he’s just one of dozens of local officials who were convicted of some form of political corruption in the late 1990s. So invited political scientist and commentator Bill Binning in to talk about how the local political landscape has changed in the last decade.

Did the FBI sweep and efforts by local groups such as the Citizen’s League and ACTION work? Binning says yes, for the most part. Local politics these days rely less on pay-offs and promises. Some of that is about all of the attention we paid in the 90s, and some of it, Binning suggests, can be credited to the growth of state-sponsored gambling, which took away some of the funding that drove organized crime in the area. The mob just doesn’t have the money to control much anymore.

We also have a lot of new personnel. While a few local politicians have been in one office or another for a couple of decades, many new faces are occupying seats in city, county, and state government, as well as representing us in Washington. Binning applauds the efforts of Congressman Tim Ryan to bring federal money to the Valley as well as simply representing us well. And he says he’s interested to see how recently-elected Mahoning County Democratic Chair David Betras will handle endorsements and other issues.

As always, talking about politics with Bill is entertaining and thought-provoking. And it’s encouraging to hear someone who’s been following local politics for years confirm that, yes, things are really different now.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Development Disabilities: Your Vote Makes a Difference

As I’ve been listening to all the debates about health care over the last six weeks, I’ve been frustrated to hear so much selfishness from so many Americans. Many people say they support universal health care, but they’re screaming and yelling about any change that might cost them an extra dollar or decrease their care the slightest bit. I know the issues go far beyond that, but this aspect of it has troubled me deeply. So talking with Larry Duck and Frank Santisi about the programs offered by the Mahoning County Board of Developmental Disabiities was especially inspiring.

You know this group as MRDD – mental retardation and development disabilities. If you live in Mahoning County, you’ve seen and hopefully voted in support of levies to fund their services on ballots over the years. This fall, the name is changing, dropping the phrase “mental retardation” in part to eliminate language that has overly negative connotations. But the purpose and strategy remains the same: support developmentally disabled individuals and their families through education and services. You can hear all about what they do in our interview.

The Board has also developed a new resource, a guidebook for parents. The booklet offers advice on legal matters, working with local agencies and schools, and long-term planning. To get a copy, contact Paul Iden by e-mail or call the office at 330-797-2825.

Here’s why this gives me hope: not only is it encouraging to talk with a professional like Larry Duck who is devoting his intelligence and skill to addressing the needs of some of the most vulnerable members of our society, and not only is it moving to hear Frank Santisi describe the challenges and accomplishments of his son Frankie, but it’s inspiring to recognize that part of what makes all of this possible is that people who are not directly affected by development disabilities vote for a levy to fund the Board’s work. In a community that has been struggling economically for decades, in a culture that is increasingly anti-tax, Mahoning County voters almost always support MRDD levies.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Dracula Calling

This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with Pat Fagan about the history and the future of the Youngstown Playhouse. I think of the Playhouse, together with the Butler and the Youngstown Symphony, as one of the “foundation stones” of the local arts and culture scene. It’s been around for more than eight decades, and despite some recent struggles, its leaders and volunteers are still committed and excited about its work.

You can hear that excitement when Pat talks about her own experiences there. We often talk about the arts in terms of the entertainment and enrichment they bring to audiences. When we think about the value of helping to make art, we too often focus on children, as in discussions of the importance of arts education. But Pat reminds us that participating in the arts – acting in a play, helping to build sets, singing in a choir, taking photographs – improves adults’ quality of life, too. It isn’t just a matter of high-minded things like expanding one’s cultural perspectives. It’s just plain fun.

I moved to Youngstown 20 years ago, and I’ve always been amazed at the quantity and quality of arts programs in our area. We have at least half a dozen community theaters in the Mahoning Valley, plus multiple museums, and a vivid array of music, visual arts, and creative writing offerings. All of that can be a great asset, helping to draw newcomers to the area and develop strong community networks for those who are already here.

But there’s a challenge, too. As the Valley’s population shrinks, our unemployment rate rises, and the economy struggles, the competition for both audiences and funding gets tighter. From what Pat tells me, we seem to have plenty of talent and interest to keep all of these projects going. What we may not have is the money they need to thrive.

For now, though, the Playhouse is starting a new season. Auditions are going on this week for Dracula, and there’s more to come. Perhaps a production of Dracula is a kind of statement: local theater as the forever undead?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

In Solidarity with the Poor

Many commentators have suggested parallels between the current economic crisis and the Depression of the 1930s. While the economic situation is different in many ways, for all the challenges of this crisis, there are (as I have written elsewhere) some potentially productive parallels. Along with a wave of creative work reflecting the economic and social struggles of the working class, the 1930s generated a number of private and public programs to support those who were most vulnerable. The Catholic Worker Movement was one of these.

The Movement began as a newspaper, created by journalist Dorothy Day, but it soon developed Catholic Worker Houses that provided direct relief and spiritual support for those who were struggling to survive.

Seventyfive years later, the Catholic Worker Movement continues its work with the poor, and now it’s coming to Youngstown. On this week’s Lincoln Avenue – the first of a new season – I’m talking with Sister Ann McMenamin, from the Sisters of the Humility of Mary. Together with colleagues from the Ursuline Sisters and other groups in the community, she is helping to organize a two-day retreat to explore the idea of establishing a Catholic Worker House in our community.

The retreat will be held at the Villa Maria Center, starting at 9 am on Friday, September 4. The program will include presentations by Martha Hennessy, Dorothy Day’s granddaughter and an activism in her own right, organizers from existing Catholic Worker houses, a play about the life of Dorothy Day, and conversations about how a local group can adopt this model here. While the lead organizers are Catholic, the program is open to anyone who is interested, and anyone can become involved in the project. For more information or to register for the retreat, call the Villa Maria Center, 724-964-8920.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Grass Roots: Preserving Community through Art

If you haven’t been to Fellows Riverside Gardens lately, and even if you have, a visiting exhibit there should provide a great reason to make a special trip. Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art tells the history and showcases the artistic beauty of the sweetgrass baskets of the Carolina low country. The exhibit links the artistry of today’s basketmakers with their African origins and the continuing tradition of basketmaking in Africa.

Beyond the aesthetic beauty of the baskets themselves, what I found most intriguing in my conversations with basketmaker Nakia Wigfall and exhibit curator Dale Rosengarten was the way the local community of Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, took control of what might once have been seen as a symbol of enslavement and transformed it into a tool for economic and cultural independence and pride. As Nakia mentions in our interview, her great-grandparents were among the enslaved people who once labored on rice plantations in the area, and for the, the flat, wide fanner baskets they made each year were necessary tools. But as Dale explains, by the early 20th century, the basketmakers of Mt. Pleasant began to sell their work along the roadside near Charleston, ensuring that they could preserve their artistic freedom and protect their economic interests.

At the same time, as Nakia makes clear, basketmaking weaves not only practical, beautiful objects. It also weaves together the family and community. She learned to sew these baskets from her mother, and she has taught her own children. Basketmaking allows families like Nakia’s to strengthen their ties through shared art, but because they can earn a living through this work, it also allows them to remain in their home community – a community with roots dating back to before the Civil War.

Grass Roots also has something to offer our community. The exhibit is part of an effort by Mill Creek Park to expand its outreach, especially to the African-American community. As John Russo and I noted in Steeltown USA, the park has long served as a dividing line between the mostly white West Side and the mostly African-American neighborhoods that border the park along Glenwood Avenue. Decades ago, black people were only allowed into Idora Park one day a week, and the amusement park was later a site of some fights between white and black youth. Racial divisions remain strong in this community, but Mill Creek MetroParks is trying to help change that. I hope this exhibit will draw African-American visitors to Fellows, but I also hope it will give white visitors a different perspective on African-American culture.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Art in Difficult Times

One of Youngstown’s gems, the Butler Institute of American Art, turns 90 this year. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with museum director Lou Zona about what’s happening at the museum this summer. On the top of the list is the anniversary gala. The May 28th event with feature actress Jessica Lange. An exhibit of her photographs will also open that evening.

Late in the summer, the Butler will host its annual Midyear Exhibition, a nationally-recognized, juried show. As Lou explains in our interview, this show is not only exciting to put on, it is viewed by artists and galleries around the country as an important exhibit for emerging artists. The Butler is also extending the Andrew Wyeth exhibit, and it has a new exhibit of small-scale collages from the National Collage Society. With so much high-quality activity, it’s not surprising that the Butler was recently re-accredited. In our interview, Lou explains what that means and why it matters.

But we also talk about the challenges facing museums and other arts organizations in this time of economic crisis. I’ve written elsewhere about how the current situation might connect with the 1930s, but so far I’m not seeing any signs of what I think is one of the most culturally significant aspects of the New Deal – the arts programs sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. Roosevelt’s stimulus plan, unlike Obama’s, funded arts projects as a way of getting artists back to work. In the process, those artists also created some significant new works and reached out to new audiences. In the current recession, we have to take on that responsibility as members of the community. By supporting the arts, we not only help provide jobs for those who make, exhibit, and distribute art. We also support the availability of art that can help us understand the events and issues of the moment and find inspiration to persevere in difficult times.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Growing More Than Good Food

May is garden time. While you’re beginning to plant tomatoes and pansies, this is also a good time to think about the larger social value of growing your own food, supporting local agriculture, and contributing to the greening of our community. On Lincoln Avenue this week, I’m talking with Elsa Higby, director of Grow Youngstown, who’s organizing several projects focused on these issues.

Along with supporting and encouraging urban gardening, Elsa is not only advocating but also helping make it easy for local residents to buy most of their summer produce from local farms. Through community-supported agriculture – also known as CSA – you can buy a share of what’s being grown on one of three area farms. Every week this summer, you can pick up a box of fresh veggies, fruit, and herbs at a convenient site in the city. Grow Youngstown is also offering shares in two local meat producers. Participating gives you lower-cost, higher-quality food as well as the pleasure of knowing that you’re helping support local agriculture and build our community.

As Elsa explains in our interview, all of this is not only about improving the quality of our food, our environment, and our community. It’s part of a global vision about improving the world through social change and organizing. Who knew that what you eat could matter so much?

Grow Youngstown is not the only greening project in the Mahoning Valley these days. As we discuss in the interview, it’s part of an expanding network of projects aimed at planting more trees, building more urban gardens, and helping people who’ve never planted a garden learn how to make things grow. Interested in getting involved? Contact any of the folks below:

Fairgreen Neighborhood Garden
(North Side of Youngstown - plots available)
Contact: Elsa Higby or Hannah Woodroofe

Good Natured Gardening Partners (ages 5 and over)
Competitive/Educational program
Contact: Dave Georig OSU Extension
(330) 533-5538

Jubilee Gardens
(Brier Hill, Youngstown - plots available)
May 21st luncheon and garden kickoff
Contact: Mary
(330) 651-3054

St. Patrick’s Church and 4-H Oakhill Clovers
(South Side of Youngstown - plots available)
Contact: Carla Hlavac
(330) 743-1109

The Urban Community Victory Garden
A project of Concerned Citizens II, OSU Trumbull County Master Gardeners and Horace Mann School
(Warren - 15 x 30 plots available)
Contact: Steve Hudkins
(330) 637-3530

Treez Please
Planting trees and creating urban gardens in Youngstown

They’re hosting a Perennial Plant Exchange on May 16 at 1 pm
Contact: Susie Beiersdorfer
(330) 881-1050

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pornography and Public Policy

Most of the interviews on Lincoln Avenue explore current issues, with a strong focus on the Mahoning Valley. This week, we’re talking about the past, with historian Whitney Strub. But the history he studies is very much part of contemporary life, since debates about pornography, obscenity, and sexuality never seem to die.

As Whitney explains, we can to a great extent track the pendulum swing of that debate according to which political party is in power. When Republicans dominate, concerns about morality shape policy. For Democrats, the concerns are more about balancing free speech with censorship. Across the political spectrum and through much of the past century, however, the primary issue shaping public policy about obscenity has been how it influences children. That encompasses crack-downs on child pornography, worries about children’s viewing of internet porn, and fears about pedophilia. Other key issues have to do with the exploitation of women, negative representations of sexuality, and concerns about how the porn industry operated.

Strub also examines how what gets defined as “obscene” reflects changing social and political mores. In the middle of the 20th century, images of interracial couples could be deemed obscene, even if they were merely holding hands. Similarly, images of homosexuality have often been judged as unacceptable.

Running through all of the history, though, is a sense of futility. Despite various laws and public debates, pornography continues to thrive, and the industry keeps adapting to new technologies and social trends.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Celebrating Mexican Heritage

If you listen to Lincoln Avenue regularly, you may have noticed my ongoing interest in the local Mexican community. As I’ve written before, some of that is because of my own history, growing up in a city with a large Mexican population. But it also comes from my interest in immigration and ethnicity in the Mahoning Valley. You can’t miss the prevalence of Italians or Irish people in this area, but even though Mexicans have been here for about 90 years, they are a smaller and less visible part of the community.

But, as Rachel Flasco explains in this week’s interview, that doesn’t mean that Mexicans aren’t proud of their heritage, or that they don’t enjoy an opportunity to celebrate and share it. Rachel is President of the Sociedad Mutalista Mexicana, the Youngstown Mexican Club. In our conversation, she explains some of the ways the local Mexican community has changed over the years, shares some of her own family’s history, and talks about the activities of the Mexican Club.

You can join in one of those activities, the upcoming “Pre Cinco de Mayo Fiesta,” on Friday, May 1, at the Mastropietro Winery in Berlin Center. The event will feature Mexican food, music, and dancing.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Business of Diversity

When you read the phrase “managing diversity,” you might imagine the kind of sensitivity training workshop that was – rightly – a common object of ridicule in the 1980s and 90s, the kind where everyone is encouraged to appreciate each other’s differences and avoid making racist or sexist comments. In our conversation on Lincoln Avenue, Luke Visconti, one of the founders of DiversityInc, made clear that his approach to creating more diverse workplaces isn’t like that.

DiversityInc publishes a magazine and manages a website that profiles businesses that have succeeded in hiring, keeping, and promoting women, people of color, and gays and lesbians. He told me, as well as the audience at YSU’s annual Diversity Leadership dinner, that the key to creating productively diverse workplaces isn’t about eliminating overt discrimination but about addressing the obstacles that too often keep talented workers from being promoted. Yes, those barriers can be a matter of attitudes, though Visconti insists that he doesn’t think that most employers or colleagues are racists or sexist (though he acknowledges the persistence of homophobia). They simply aren’t aware of how their own habits and assumptions might exclude others. As he explains in tonight’s interview, companies often benefit from recognizing patterns of exclusion and from some basic, often common-sense advice, such as don’t penalize women for taking maternity leave, or simply making your company’s commitment to diversity a strong theme in how you present your business.

Visconti’s positive approach makes sense. We can’t promote real equal opportunity on the basis of guilt; we have to make clear how discrimination harms not only those who are its objects but also those who enact it. And I’m always happy to see discussions of diversity being led by straight, white men – those who, it would seem, have the least to gain from it. In his blog, Ask the White Guy, Visconti encourages people to ask questions that they might not be comfortable either asking within their own companies or to someone who is different from themselves.

All of this seems like a move in a good direction. My diversity skepticism kicked in, though, when Visconti explained his business model, which uses statistical analysis to show companies how well (or poorly) they’re doing and offers consulting services and information to help them do better. That feels a little like a gotcha game. No doubt, companies and organizations need help. Maybe I’m too idealistic, but I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea that promoting diversity has itself become a way to make money. I hope that DiversityInc and other companies like it, with the help of all of my colleagues who teach about diversity in schools and colleges and who organize community-based efforts to fight inequality, will succeed enough that they create their own obsolescence.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Economic Development on the Individual Level

One of the recurring themes of Lincoln Avenue has been economic development. Usually, that has me talking with someone who is developing some kind of local or regional project to create new businesses. This week, I talk with Kelly Elko about a different kind of economic development: preparing women who are living in poverty to join the workforce and improve their families’ economic position.

Kelly directs Potter’s Wheel, which is just one of the programs run by Beatitude House to help women and children escape poverty. Along with providing housing, educational programs, and support for personal growth, Beatitude House helps women who have not been successful in finding and keeping jobs develop the skills they need to achieve economic stability. For some women, getting out of poverty is a matter of changing their attitude – gaining confidence and determination. For some, it means learning that showing up day after day can help you keep a job. For still others, it means learning specific skills that will help them land a job or figuring out how to dress for an interview or simply finding out about job opportunities.

All of which is fine in theory, but what if Beatitude House could provide hands-on work experience for the women it serves? That’s exactly what Kelly and her colleagues are working on as they design a new “green cleaning” business. They’re working with other local non-profits to learn about the concept of “social enterprises,” the idea that non-profits can create for-profit businesses that not only support their efforts financially but also provide important opportunities for their clients. The training program is sponsored by Community Wealth Ventures. By this coming fall, Beatitude House hopes to open a business that will give the women in its programs experience working and, for some, experience managing others.

To succeed in its work, Beatitude House needs your help. You can make a financial donation, but they also need stuff – work clothing, household goods, and more. You’ll find a list of needed items and information about how to donate them in the Beatitude House newsletter.

In a community with high rates of poverty, we not only need new businesses and jobs. We also need to support the development of individuals. That’s what Beatitude House is all about.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Helping Us Age Wisely

The combination of my own creaky joints, spending spring break with my parents, and planning a trip to Memphis to be with my grandmother for her 104th birthday, I’ve been thinking a lot about aging lately. Talking with Daniel Van Dussen, director of the new Gerontology program at YSU, reminded me that I am far from alone.

Aging is something that affects all of us, if we’re lucky, but as Daniel points out, this is not just a personal issue. As the national population gets older – a trend that is even more pronounced here in the Mahoning Valley – we’re seeing changes in social and economic patterns that affect us individually and collectively. People are living longer and remaining active later in their lives, which creates a need for more programs for older adults. That creates demand for more senior housing projects, but it also generates growth in adult education and exercise programs, as well as in health care targeted to issues of aging. At the same time, more middle-aged people find themselves providing some kind of elder care.

The demographic shift is also affecting the economy, in several ways. For the healthiest older adults, worklife is extending far past 65. For some, that’s a matter of economic necessity, but for others it’s a social choice, a way of remaining active and engaged. That shift might tighten the job market for younger adults, though. On the other hand, the needs of an aging population create new jobs in health care and social services. That job growth is part of what the new Gerontology program aims to address.

Beyond all of this, I think one of the values of this growing field is its potential to help all of us learn how to deal more effectively with aging. No one enjoys the physical changes that come with aging, and dealing with aging parents and grandparents can create strains within families. The more we understand the physical, psychological, and social issues related to aging, the better prepared we can be to respond positively. For the Board of Regents, Gerontology might seem like a valuable field because it prepares students for jobs. For the rest of us, it matters because it can help us live better.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Worth Listening To

A few years ago, Brent Cunningham, Managing Editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, suggested that the reason why the media have such difficulty covering stories about working-class people well is that so few journalists come from the working class themselves. As he suggests, most journalists don’t know many working-class people and don’t understand them. Connie Schultz shows us what a difference understanding where people come from can make. Her weekly columns in the Cleveland Plain Dealer often focus on working people, and she helps her readers understand people who are and are not like themselves.

This week on Lincoln Avenue, I talked with Connie about her work, especially about the challenges of writing about real people’s lives. Good writing – and hers is so good that she won a Pulitzer Prize for her columns -- requires honesty. She shows us the struggle and pain of ordinary people, and she does so in ways that emphasize their dignity and strength. In our interview, I asked her to read from a column that I found especially moving, about a man who committed suicide after the plant where he’d worked for 40 years shut down. Stories like that invite empathy, but that’s not the only reason why Connie wants us to hear them. She’s an advocate as well as a storyteller. In a way, she uses other people’s stories to show us injustice but also to point toward change. That’s why she has to write with such care, to be sure that her interests and the interests of her readers don’t trump the concerns of the people she writes about.

She may do this so well in part because she does write about her own life, including her marriage to Senator Sherrod Brown. She has an especially public life; being a politician’s wife opens a woman to more than the usual scrutiny. She’s been on the receiving end of indiscriminate attacks on her character, the way she talks, even seemingly simple and personal things like keeping her own name.

Whatever the subject, whether writing about herself or challenging an audience of local residents to stand up for their own community, as she did when she visited YSU last month, Connie Schultz speaks clearly, humanly, and humanely. She’s worth listening to.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Check Out the Library

Full disclosure: I love libraries. Always have. When I was about 8, the public library was one of the first places I was allowed to go alone, by bicycle. I was one of those kids whose mom had to write a note to the librarian to grant me permission to check out books from the adult section (as in Jane Eyre, not pornography). In college, I spent most evenings at the library, dividing my time between studying and wandering the literature aisles and picking out random books of poetry. I’m a library geek.

So I’m partial to the work that this week’s guest, Anne Liller, is doing. As Director of Urban Libraries for the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, her job is not just to oversee the urban branches in Youngstown, Struthers, and Campbell, but also to promote these urban libraries as community centers. As Anne explains in our conversation, libraries offer much more than books and magazines. Indeed, even in today’s internet age, libraries do more than provide information. They are meeting places, social service agencies, educational outlets, and much more. They provide tools for developing literacy, and Anne hopes that they will become sites for art exhibits, medical information kiosks, and more. Heck, they even sell coffee these days.

The most exciting part of Anne’s job these days is opening new libraries. A new East Branch opened a few weeks ago, and the Newport Library, built in the shell of an old grocery store on Midlothian and Market, are worth a visit just for the pleasure of walking around these airy, bright, welcoming spaces. As someone who is not just a library fan but a fan of old libraries, I was skeptical. But these are cool places. Check them out.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Really Smart Reporting Looks Like

Between January and November last year, John Russo and I were interviewed about the presidential election by more than 40 journalists from around the world. Most wanted to know how white working-class people would vote. Would traditional values keep them from supporting a white woman? Could they set aside their racism to vote for Obama? Would they be lured by Sarah Palin’s small town patriotism and her hunting photos? The questions were predictable, and most reflected reporters’ assumptions that working-class voters are a homogeneous and old-fashioned group.

Jonathan Kaufman, political editor for the Wall Street Journal, was different. While other reporters asked us to help them get in touch with one or two workers or direct us to the local union hall, Jonathan asked us to set up focus groups and invited us to come along for the conversation. While other reporters assumed that the working class today is pretty much the same as it’s always been, Jonathan asked thoughtful questions about how people’s experiences in the workplace might influence their ideas about race, gender, and class in politics. I was impressed from the beginning.

It wasn’t until Kaufman came back to Youngstown last week and we had time to talk about his life and work that I fully understood why he took a different tack. First, he’s just an incredibly smart and well-informed guy. He doesn’t rely on stereotypes or common wisdom for his stories. He analyzes trends, based on his own critical understanding that how people think -- and how they vote -- is shaped by complex social factors. You can hear the complexity and sensitivity of his thinking in our conversation; he takes time to develop an answer, coherently and engagingly, revealing the multiple layers and angles of a topic.

Second, he has a long track record of reporting on issues of race, class, and gender, so he knows the terrain well. Not only does he understand the issues, he also understands what it takes to get people to talk honestly about it. In our interview, he describes his approach – the value of focus groups, the advantages and limitations of his own persona, the importance of having a good editor and colleagues to check his thinking.

Kaufman also understands why some people in Youngstown didn’t like his story, and why he heard comments from so many friends and colleagues from other places who told him that his story gave them a whole new, and much more complex, image of this community.

If you missed the panel discussion where Jonathan Kaufman, Marilyn Geewax, and Connie Schultz discussed how the media has reported about Youngstown, you can view the video on the Vindicator’s website.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Volunteering for a Stronger Community

My mother was a volunteer extraordinaire. She was president of a series of community organizations in Washington, DC and then in Denver. She organized summer camps that brought urban and suburban kids together, across class and race divides, to play games, put on skits, and so on. She led adult education programs, girl scout troups, fundraising drives, and more. She believed in getting involved. My mother would have loved the conversation I had this week with Maureen Drummond about the Hands-On Volunteer Network.

As Maureen explains, volunteering is not just about serving others, though that matters. It’s also about a sense of belonging, of making a difference. And the time we spend working at a food bank, tutoring children, cleaning up the neighborhood, or simply stuffing envelopes helps us develop relationships and skills even as it contributes to improving our neighborhood and the broader community. When people get involved, they gain insight into the problems and assets of their communities, and the relationships and skills they develop create “civic infrastructure.” That’s what the Points of Light institute, the national organization with which the Hands-On Volunteer Network is connected, calls the development of human resources that make stronger communities and social change possible.

I hope that listening to Maureen will inspire you to want to get involved. The Hands-On Volunteer Network’s website can help you get started.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Economic News from the Inside Out

On this week’s Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with Marilyn Geewax, the senior business editor for National Public Radio news. But just as important, a local girl. Marilyn grew up in Campbell, and she was finishing college when the mills started to close down. Coming home from an internship in Dayton to write about the mill closings started her on a career of covering business and industry, and she brings to her work, and to our conversation, both a Youngstown perspective and the experience of years working as a journalist, including reporting on Youngstown.

Equally important, she is both covering and experiencing the struggles of the current economic crisis. As a business editor, she’s working with NPR reporters to identify important stories and examine them thoughtfully, to help the rest of us understand a confusing and frightening time. As an individual, she’s also beginning a new job, in a new part of her industry. She moved from print journalism to radio when she was laid off from the company for which she’d worked for many years – not because she wasn’t doing her job well, but because the company was adjusting to changes in the industry and to the economic situation.

Add to that experience an MA in international economic affairs, and we’re talking about someone who is in a unique and valuable position to understand and comment on the current economy – an issue with which I think many of us are struggling. How should we understand the economic shifts that are creating such havoc? As Geewax suggests in our conversation, we have to see the big picture – past and present, local, national, and international.

The topic is sobering, but her perspective is refreshing. She brings realism and optimism to the conversation, personal experience and an analytical view. It’s too bad that we don’t hear editors’ voices on the radio more often, because what Marilyn Geewax has to say is worth listening to.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Political Reality in Ohio

Last week, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland laid out his plans for balancing the state budget and developing new programs in his 2009 State of the State address. On this week’s Lincoln Avenue, local Representative Bob Hagan weighs in. As Hagan reminds us, while this kind of speech presents the Governor’s plans with great certainty, the reality will be messier.

What I liked best in Strickland’s speech is the idea that K-12 education needs significant change, not minor reforms. While I don’t support all of the strategies he laid out, I do think that extending the school year, more interdisciplinary teaching, project-based learning, and improved training for teachers are all good ideas. But, as educator Bill Mullane explained on Lincoln Avenue last year, making dramatic changes in education is incredibly difficult. From Mullane’s perspective, that’s because of the power of the familiar. Most of us had similar school experiences, and it’s hard for us to imagine organizing education in a different way.

But as Hagan explains, the challenge isn’t just about resistance to change from parents or teachers. It’s about the political process. Strickland presented his ideas as actions that the state will take, but in truth he can’t do much on his own. The state legislature has to approve policies and budgets. The Ohio House and Senate will develop their own plans, which may or may not reflect Strickland’s ideas. The final product will result from negotiation and compromise. In principle, compromise sounds like a great idea. In theory, that would generate policies that take into consideration the needs of different constituencies. In practice, compromise – especially political compromise -- rarely generates true innovation.

We see this with the on-going debates about health care, on both the state and federal levels. Real innovation would involve some sort of single-payer system – a completely different way of approaching health coverage. Compromise leads us to plans that seek to extend the current system to cover more people.

In a tight economy, I think we’re more likely than ever to lean toward compromise. We take the conservative route because we don’t want to risk wasting our limited resources. That’s the challenge that the Ohio legislature now faces: how to design policies for change in an environment of worry.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why Talking about Race Matters

If you listen to Lincoln Avenue regularly, you know that one of my key concerns about our community is racial division. The Youngstown metropolitan area is among the most segregated in the US, and while we’ve made progress in reducing racial barriers we still have a long way to go. This week on the show, I’m talking with two local ministers who are challenging those divisions by creating conversations about race and the effects of racism in our community. Rob Johnson is the pastor at two local Lutheran churches, Bethlehem and Christ. Lew Macklin leads Holy Trinity Missionary Baptist Church. They have worked together, as members of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, on a project called Jacob’s Well, which brings black and white Christians together to talk honestly about race.

I’ve attended the two Jacob’s Well events (and played a very small role in planning them), and even as a non-Christian and therefore an outsider in many ways, I’ve seen the powerful potential for something as simple as conversation. But I also understand, as I discuss with Johnson and Macklin in our interview, how difficult such conversations can be. People need to feel some common ground – in this case a shared religious perspective – and to feel that their experiences and views will be heard and respected. Given the history of contentious debate, shame, anger, guilt, and resentment related to race in this country, creating the conditions for people to come together is not easy. Realistically, only people who already care about fighting racism are likely to participate, which can create a sense of preaching to the proverbial choir. On the other hand, as Johnson and Macklin can attest, even among people who come to the table with goodwill and a shared intention, making personal connections can create change.

Perhaps the best evidence of that is in the local Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance itself. In most cities around the country, that group consists only of African-American ministers, and the group’s primary focus is on addressing the needs of the black community, mostly in urban settings. Given the history of racial divisions in Youngstown, it’s striking that our local IMA is one of very few that has both white and black members. Why? If I understand the history correctly, it’s because white ministers recognized their responsibility to work against racism, and they saw working closely with their African-American counterparts as a way to pursue that goal. At the same time, African-American ministers had to learn to trust people who might otherwise be seen as outsiders, or even as having distinctly different interests. For everyone involved, the key to collaboration is understanding that relationships are the foundation on which social change is built.

In other words, in our highly segregated, divided community, the men and women of the IMA offer a model – not for moving past race but for instead addressing the economic and social inequities associated with racial difference by building interracial relationships. Imagine what might happen if more white people took the position that ministers like Rob Johnson do, that fighting racism is our ethical and moral responsibility and that the first step is to reach out and make personal connections with African-Americans. Imagine what might happen if more black people were willing to follow Lew Macklin’s lead and take the risk of talking honestly with whites and creating relationships from which to work for change.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Economic Crisis: The Local View

We’ve all been hearing daily about the economic crisis in the US. But how is that playing out here in the Mahoning Valley? To help us get a clearer picture of the local situation, I spoke with Larry Ringler, the Business Editor for the Warren Tribune Chronicle. Because he covers stories about all aspects of business and labor in our area, Larry knows what’s going on and has a clear sense of the challenges and prospects.

The Mahoning Valley has been in economic crisis for so long that we almost can’t call it a crisis anymore. High unemployment rates, low home prices, and economic uncertainty are almost normal conditions here. While that gives area residents and the community itself some resilience, we’re also in some ways more vulnerable than others. We have fewer reserve resources to draw upon, not only as individuals but also as a community. It may well be that, as John Russo wrote in the Working-Class Perspectives blog, the rest of the country is learning what Youngstown has learned over the last 30 years, but 30 years of struggle can make you both tough and tired.

Yet, as Larry suggests, we have some reasons to hope, as new technologies develop. The economic stimulus package may also help us develop some of the infrastructure we need – not just nicer roads but also new technological capabilities – to develop new industries.

I was interested in a poll released this past weekend suggesting that Americans are at once deeply pessimistic about the economy and very optimistic about what President Obama can accomplish. For the nation, it seems, this might be a moment of change. Perhaps it can also become a period of change for the Mahoning Valley.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Teaching, Learning, and Connections

Welcome back to Lincoln Avenue. We’re just beginning “spring” semester here at YSU, and so it seems fitting that the first interview of the year focuses on teaching and learning. Chris Bache, a professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, has a new book out, The Living Classroom, which explores the connections between teachers and students.

Chris comes to this work from three decades of research on transpersonal studies and many years in classrooms here at YSU, teaching courses on eastern religion, the psychology of religion, and comparative spirituality. While some of what he discusses might sound strange to listeners who aren’t familiar with scholarly and philosophical ideas about collective consciousness, reincarnation, and spirituality, as Chris explains in the book and in our conversation, these ideas have a strong basis in scientific as well as humanistic research.

But part of what I find inspiring about Chris’s work is that he so clearly brings not only scholarly expertise but personal presence – his own spirituality but also his complete self – to this work. He attributes the intuitive and powerful connections he makes with students in part to his own spiritual practice. The combination of a worldview that embraces the idea that everything is connected and the practice of meditation creates a frame of mind that facilitates what Chris refers to as the “learning field” – the collective consciousness that develops around a particular course. As Parker Palmer, one of my favorite educational philosophers, suggests, we teach from our complete selves, and good teaching draws not only our knowledge of our discipline but also on self-awareness. Chris Bache’s work illustrates this idea.

The other powerful aspect of Chris’s work, and this book, is that it so clearly honors students. While the first half of the book describes Chris’s experiences and positions his analysis and strategies in the context of research in transpersonal studies, the second half consists almost entirely of stories told by YSU students. Some of these stories document the influence of learning new ways of seeing the world, while others show students bringing their own experiences into the classroom, making connections between their lives and the theories and concepts emerging in a course.

Chris provides a detailed and specific explanation for something many teachers have experienced: the sense that when a course is going well, there’s something more happening than just good communication or effective pedagogy. In the best moments of teaching and learning, teachers and students alike are present and connected. When this happens, learning becomes deeply personal, even spiritual, as well as intellectual.