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.