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.