Thursday, December 9, 2010

Improving Our Neighborhoods, One Apartment at a Time

When we met up by the front door to the WYSU studio, Maureen O’Neill commented that she thought that the two of us had a similar philosophy.  I wasn’t quite sure what she meant, though, of course, one of the reasons I’d invited her in is that I think the project she works on – registering and inspecting rental properties in the City of Youngstown – makes a positive difference.  As we talked, though, I think I started to see what she meant.  Maureen believes that Youngstown has potential, despite all its problems.  She believes that improving living conditions in our neighborhoods is an important element in helping us achieve that potential.  She understands that information, such as a database listing rental properties and their owners, can be a useful tool for organizing for change and addressing problems.  And she sees that no one part of the urban puzzle can solve all of the city’s problems; improving the conditions of rental properties is just one part of a larger set of efforts.  You can check out maps related to the program at YSU’s Center for Urban Studies website.

Perhaps most important, Maureen brings to her work an attitude that I admire and wish I could enact more often:  she believes that she can make a difference by talking with those who disagree with what she’s doing.  She brings humor to that task, but she also makes a real effort to understand and address the concerns of property owners and renters. 

As Maureen said in our interview, she needs your help.  If you own rental property, let her know and join the program.  Doing so can help you keep your tenants safe and contribute to the stability of the community, which will help you in the long run.  And Maureen truly is committed to working with you.  If you’re a tenant whose property has not yet been inspected, let her know.  Your property might not be in the database.  And if you know of rental properties that ought to be registered, call her.  You can reach Maureen O’Neill by email or phone, (330) 742-8833. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wrestling with the Economy

I’m surprised to find myself saying this, but I think I could have spent another hour or two talking with economist Ken Beauchemin.  Part of that is about his attitude – imagine an economist answering questions about today’s tough economy with a big smile on his face.  OK.  That’s a little disconcerting.  What can anyone looking at the economy find to be happy about?  But that positive attitude does make asking basic questions less intimidating.  More than that, I appreciate Ken’s willingness to try to explain some key points of the “dismal science” to the rest of us.

But while Beauchemin is a nice and patient guy, I’m still troubled by much of what I hear from economists.  For example, having studied Youngstown’s economic struggles for the last decade, I’m much less optimistic that the increases in productivity that have contributed to the slow recovery will generate significant growth in employment.  So like the jobless recovery of the early part of this decade, indeed, in part because that recovery benefited business and finance but not workers, we are again facing a situation where the rich get richer and workers fall further behind.  I’m troubled, too, by the things Beauchemin said with which I agree, like the point that a new manufacturing economy can only thrive here if we have a better-educated workforce.  I think that’s probably right.  And it’s far from easy to accomplish, especially with major cuts to state funding for education and our national struggle to provide good quality education to everyone.  We have a long way to go. 

The economic picture is dismal indeed, so I suppose we need all the good humor and positive attitudes we can get – as long as they don’t keep us from wrestling with the real problems we face.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Someone's Hungry Tonight

I’ve always been a little skeptical of charity as a model for solving social problems, because donations to community organizations, even those that do incredibly good, important work, treat the effects of social problems but not the causes.

But I think about hunger a little differently. True, hunger is the effect of a more difficult and more significant social problem: poverty. And I do sometimes worry that if we treat hunger but ignore the poverty that causes it, we won’t make a long-term difference. And yet, hunger is such an immediate, basic issue that I can’t turn away from it. I’ve been volunteering at food banks like Second Harvest on and off for more than 20 years, and I donate every year to programs that feed the hungry. I hope you’ll join me in that. You can donate food to any of the dozens of food drives going on in the Mahoning Valley this winter, or donate money by visiting the Second Harvest website. You can also volunteer to help at the warehouse.

Donations matter, but I was also struck by Michael Iberis’s answer to my question about how we might address the causes of hunger. As he suggested, one of the reasons why working people have difficulty feeding their families is that so many of us have not learned how to select and prepare food efficiently. In an age of processed convenience foods, we’ve forgotten the “stone soup” strategies of our grandmothers. Better use of the food we have won’t erase hunger, but I like the idea of a practical, hands-on approach that can at least help. I’m looking forward to seeing what Mike cooks up.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Alternative Transportation: It's All About Your Wallet

Perhaps, like me, you expected a conversation about alternative transportation to focus on why we should all reduce our carbon footprints and improve our health by walking and biking more?  While Paul Kobulnicky, chair of YSU’s Alternative Transportation Advisory Committee acknowledges that there are environmental and health concerns, he’s a practical guy.  As he makes clear in our conversation, the number one reason to consider alternative transportation is cost.  Convenience also matters, but it’s the wallet that provides the real motivation. 

And when people are ready to change their habits, what they need most is information.  If you want to cut your costs, or if looking for a parking space is taking up too much of your time, check out the committee’s website. You’ll find a bike map suggesting the best routes for two-wheel transportation around town, as well as ideas about how YSU could make it easier for people to choose alternatives. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Defending Teacher's Unions

I should admit my bias on teachers’ unions and education from the beginning.  I’m a member of the National Education Association, and – as you can tell from my conversation with Will Bagnola, president of the Youngstown Education Association (representing Youngstown City Schools teachers) – I generally respect teachers and unions alike.  Yes, I know that in enacting their responsibility to protect members, unions (of all kinds) can sometimes find themselves in the position of defending bad behavior.  And there’s no doubt that, as in any workplace, those who manage the operation always want to control how workers do their jobs and more labor for less reward.  Those problems are in the nature of the workplace; they are not caused by unions. 

Beyond my understanding of the nature of unions, I believe – as a teacher – that teachers understand education and should play more central roles in planning and implementing educational reforms.  Over the last few decades, with the growing influence of standardized tests as a measure of performance (of both students and teachers) and the increasing tendency to standardize both what is taught and how it is taught, we have fundamentally changed the nature of teaching.  K-12 teachers are no longer seen as responsible professionals worthy of public respect, and that shift occurred long before the latest wave of public policies and documentaries blaming teachers for America’s educational problems.  Indeed, I think many of the problems we’re facing now exist in part because we have deprofessionalized teaching, making it a less interesting, less rewarding, less creative job. 

I’ve heard good things about Dr. Connie Hathorn, the incoming superintendent of the local schools, including that he believes in treating teachers with respect.  With Will Bagnola, I hope that will help us create a more learning-centered atmosphere in the local schools. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Think, Choose, Vote

Comparing this week’s two guests, Mahoning County Republican Party chair Mark Munroe, to last week’s, his Democratic counterpart David Betras, may not be completely fair.  You might focus on the contrast between Betras’s passion and Munroe’s calm reserve, but that might well reflect the differences between their professions.  Lawyers do well by speaking righteously and passionately on behalf of their clients, while media producers have to speak more moderately. 

They agree on a few things, like the need to end corruption in local politics, though it’s not surprising that they offer very different solutions for that scourge of Mahoning Valley public life.  And both do the job of a party leader:  endorsing their candidates and positions, predicting success for their parties, and promising a better future for the nation.

The more important differences come out in how the parties they represent approach the problems facing our country and our community.  Democrats believe that society, in the form of government, has a responsibility to look after those who have the least power and resources.  While they recognize that the theory doesn’t always translate into practice, they believe that government can provide services more effectively than private organizations because it’s less driven by profit.  They don’t trust business or the wealthy to operate in the best interests of the society at large, and they view the recent economic crisis as evidence of how business is more likely to pursue their own profits than the good of communities or the country.  They value the idea of America as a whole rather than America as a bunch of separate interests.  Republicans take the opposite view: they believe that the free market will do a better job of generating good for all, because they think that people behave best when they act out of self-interest.  They see government as inept and inherently corrupt, and therefore not to be trusted to pursue the common good.  They place their trust in business, the wealthy, and local government.  And they view America as a loose collection of localities rather than as a unified society. 

As Betras suggests, as voters we need to make our choices based on these underlying values and ideas, not on personalities, not on old habits, not even on frustration with the current economy.  Munroe would probably agree on that.

History Face to Face

I was a fan of Jeff Steinberg’s long before I met him.  I appreciate the interactive, experiential way he approaches working with high school students.  His program, Sojourn to the Past, makes clear that we need to understand history just because things that happened in the past are important but also because we can take lessons from them as we try to make good decisions about how to respond to the contemporary world.  As he explains in this week’s interview, Sojourn is transformative, in part because it facilitates conversations between young people and those who lived through and helped shape an important part of our history. 

The best measure of Steinberg’s work might not lie in what he says about the program, but in what students say.  You can read testimonials on the website, but I also had the change a few weeks ago to hear from students who had been on the journey in previous years.  Their sense of commitment and confidence was impressive, and – as Jeff notes in our conversation – they’ve done some impressive things here in the local community

The amazing Penny Wells is organizing another group of students from Youngstown City Schools to participate this April.  If you know someone who wants to attend, she can tell you more about it.  And if you want to help make this journey possible for a local student, Penny is also raising funds.  It’s a cause worth supporting – engaging education that makes a difference for students, their peers, and our community.  You can contact Penny by e-mail or phone, 330-207-4467. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

We're doomed. Now what?

Talking with Chris Hedges can be at once inspiring and very, very depressing.  In his latest book, and one he has coming out later this year, he’s analyzed the underlying problems with contemporary American culture and identified the manifestations of those problems in everyday life and, even more important, in public life.  In Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, he explains how corporate interests contribute to the decline in our ability and willingness to think critically about our society and our selves.  Television and the internet have taught us to be more interested in shallow, immediate thrills than in thoughtful analysis or complex narratives.  Our educational institutions, which we expect to train citizens to solve problems and make intelligent decisions about voting, policies, and everyday choices, focus more on preparing students for the workplace and handing out credentials than on real learning.  And the equal opportunity, social equality, and democracy that we believe are the foundations of American society are myths with little basis in reality. 

We shouldn’t expect much help in responding to these problems from our political process.  In his forthcoming book, The Death of the Liberal Class, Hedges explains that liberal leaders have essentially been bought off by corporations.  You can get a good taste of that argument in our conversation. 

So you can see why all of this is depressing.  Where’s the inspiration?  That lies in hearing someone intelligently connect much of what we see on the surface, so to speak – bad reality TV and what seems to be a persistently, even insistently inept Democractic party – with structural forces and putting all of that into a historical context.  At its best, journalism can be an accessible form of scholarship, often focused on the present moment – something we academics sometimes have difficulty doing well.  Hedges models that kind of journalism, and while I’ve been having nightmares ever since his visit, I nonetheless appreciate both the quality of his work and the uncomfortable insights he wants us all to recognize.

That said, I wish I felt more inspiration toward a course of action.  Having the veil removed, so to speak, is just a first step.  I hope that in future projects, Hedges might look at examples of effective activism and offer some more practical inspiration.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Design for All

If I were ever to build a new home (which I have to admit isn’t likely), I’d want Patrick Manley to design it. He speaks clearly and eloquently about the importance of listening to clients, and his work with universal and sustainable design gives him a perspective that is at once practical and idealistic.  You can hear all of that as he talks about a demonstration home he designed in Columbus. 

Universal design aims to create structures, tools, and processes that can be used easily by anyone, regardless of their age, physical abilities, or size.  Its core principles focus not only on accessibility but also on ease of use and flexibility – qualities that appeal to any user.  For example, one of the principles is “simple and intuitive use,” and a handout prepared for Manley’s presentation for the Youngstown Foundation last month cited the iPhone as an example – not exactly something widely seen as created for “special needs.”  And that’s exactly the point: recognizing that the design qualities that make spaces and objects accessible often make them work well for everyone, and that in turn destigmatizes difference.  When we think about it that way, universal design is not just good physical design. It’s also good social design.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Is Amazon My Friend? Making Sense of Online Marketing

Tyler Clark is optimistic about the benefits of social media and all those (largely) invisible tracking tools that companies use to analyze our interests and buying habits online. Part of his business is helping companies figure out how to use such tools well, so I suppose his attitude isn’t surprising, and he does think critically about all this means. And he approaches his work thoughtfully, attentive to both the technology and the issues facing organizations and their audiences.  He reminds us that what works for the corporations can also work for neighborhood associations and non-profits, so online marketing isn't just about getting us to buy things.

I remain skeptical. I tend to ignore all of the suggestions Amazon and iTunes make about books and music I “might” like. Whenever I can, I skip the “create an account” option when buying products online. The only updates and newsletters I subscribe to come from cooking magazines, though I still get plenty from organizations and companies I never contacted. It’s not that I think all of this online marketing is going to harm me. Yes, I suppose there are security and privacy issues, but I don’t worry too much about that. It’s not malware or viruses I’m concern about, either.

What bothers me is the clutter and intrusion of online marketing. I don’t appreciate friend requests from local businesses or e-mail messages announcing what’s on sale at Giant Eagle this week. I wish all those progressive political groups would leave me alone already, not because I don’t support the cause but because I don’t want to read about it in my email every day. And if someone can figure out how to get Portside to accept my repeated requests to be taken off their daily distribution list, I’d be most grateful. The online world takes up enough of my time every day that I resent intrusions of things I didn’t request. I am quite capable of locating information when I want it, thank you very much.

But, Tyler would tell me, that’s exactly the point. I have the option to filter out most of the things I don’t want. Sometimes, I have to take a few minutes to unsubscribe from something I never asked to join in the first place. At other times, I simply have to look for the box to click to ask not to be sent updates. I only check Facebook about once a week, when I’m really bored. We’re far from having complete control over the information coming at us, but neither are we completely at the mercy of online marketers. Yet.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Working Hard to Help Children

For the past 15 years, YSU's Rich Center for Autism has been providing education and support services for children with autism and their families.  As I talked with Georgia Backus, Director of the Rich Center, I was struck by two things.  First, autism seems to be a growing, changing phenomenon.  That may be due primarily to better diagnosis, and as Georgia acknowledges, even some tendency to over-diagnosis, but it also reflects continuing research and better understanding of the various ways autism might manifest itself.  Second, because children with autism have such a range of needs, and because the Center aims not only to provide services for those affected by autism but also support research, work with area educators and counselors, and improve public understanding of autism, managing this Center is a huge, complex task.  How do you organize individualized education for dozens of children, manage a staff, work with YSU students coming to observe or tutor, consult with scholars on their research, and serve as the public voice for autism in the community?  It's a good thing Georgia has a lot of energy.

And I forgot one more thing:  raising money.  The Rich Center is funded primarily by grants and donations.  If you want to help, visit their website to find out about fundraising events or just make a donation online. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Art(s) of Economic Revitalization

I've always liked Lynn Cardwell's work.  Her pottery is at once useful and beautiful, as you can see if you visit her page on   I've also taken claywork classes from her, and I enjoy her laid-back, supportive teaching style.  This fall she'll be teaching at the Davis Center at Fellows Riverside Gardens and at the Davis branch of the YMCA.

But I have to admit that what I appreciate most about Lynn is the creative work she does helping to build and promote the local arts community.  Together with Marcie Applegate, she founded the Artists of the Mahoning Commons, which will hold its next open house and art show November 20, 21, and 27.  That organization, built around the artists who have studios in the Ward Bakery Building, supports the artists by helping them find audiences -- and customers.  That might sound crass, but if artists don't sell their work, they can't support themselves. 

That said, this group and other local arts organizations do more than support artists.  They contribute to the quality of life of our community.  They help us think creatively about who we are and what this place means.  We need them every bit as much as we need new businesses or jobs. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Serving More than Coffee

Over the past few weeks, I've been spending a lot of time in committee meetings discussing what "student success" might mean for YSU. Part of the committee's definition of "student success" is the unlovely phrase, "productive post-collegiate performance." For many of those we've talked with in focus groups, that has a simple meaning: a job.

Jacob Harver offers a different model. He doesn't just have a job. He's an entrepreneur, founder of the Lemon Grove Cafe downtown. But in my book he counts as a good example of "productive post-collegiate performance" because he's doing business in a way that reflects the things he learned in History, Sociology, and other courses -- lessons that have less to do with how to run a business and more to do with how society works. He's a great reminder of the productive value of a liberal arts degree and of why it matters that so many YSU faculty make understanding Youngstown part of the curriculum.

Talking with Jacob Harver is always fun, in part just because he's so enthusiastic about almost everything he does. He believes in downtown, but even more important, he believes in the power of people, the arts, and organizing. What I admire most about his work in creating The Lemon Grove isn't just that it's a good addition to the downtown entertainment district, but that Jake has such a strong sense of using it as a venue for what we might think of as purposeful entertainment. Lemon Grove events support local artists, both visual and musical, but the cafe also sponsors film screenings, discussions, and meetings. And that happens not only formally, at scheduled events, but also informally. It's become my favorite place for small meetings, and every time I'm there I see other tables where people are not just sharing a meal but also figuring out how to solve a problem.

Jake offers a great answer to the perennial question facing students who major in history or English: what are you going to do with that?  

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Youngstown Goes International

Eric Planey believes in Youngstown. Like many young professionals who've left the area and returned -- some call them boomerangs -- he's studied and worked in other cities and around the world, and he's come back to Youngstown with the specific goal of helping revitalize this community. As Vice President for International Business Attraction at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber, he combines that positive attitude with knowledge of international business and a fair amount of patience as he works to attract international companies to set up shop in the Mahoning Valley and help local companies find global opportunities.

It's Eric's job to focus on the positive, but I appreciate that he was also honest in talking about the gap between potential and accomplishments. He's been on the job just over a year, and economic development is always a slow process. We want fast, concrete, dramatic results, but I think most people understand that creating new jobs involves exploring multiple possibilities, building relationships, and navigating financial and legal mazes. None of that happens quickly. But instead of simply touting how great things are, Eric acknowledges the limited concrete results of his efforts so far. He clearly doesn't feel discouraged; he's just realistic. In a community that has sometimes tended to be either overly negative about the possibility of local growth or idealistic about the latest turn-around, that moderation is refreshing.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Towards the Future at YSU

Two key things stand out when talking with Dr. Cynthia Anderson about what’s happening at YSU.  The first is that for her, students really are the center of everything.  Research and community connections matter, but students are, for her, the University’s most important element, its very reason for being.  No doubt, that’s a carryover from her years as Vice President for Student Affairs, but I find it a refreshing change.  For too long, students mattered primarily as enrollment figures.  For Cindy – and yes, she insists on being called that, not Dr. Anderson or any other formal title – students matter as people, as learners, as members of the University community. 

The second thing that stands out is her ability to be at once incredibly enthusiastic and relatively practical.  That is, she doesn’t pretend that we don’t face real problems, or that addressing those problems will be difficult.   At least so far, though, she addresses the issues with confidence and optimism. 

Take, for example, her insistence that the current Strategic Planning process will generate concrete plans that will guide YSU over the next decade – rather than being the usual type of feel-good (or feel only sort of good) process that gives the illusion of widespread participation and investment.  I’ll admit that I’m skeptical, even though I’m a member of the Strategic Planning committee.  I’ve spent enough time at universities to have seen plenty of fake planning, often well-intentioned but only rarely leading to real change. 

What does it take to make Strategic Planning work?  First, I believe that strategic plans work best when they not only set goals but also identify concrete, appropriate steps toward those goals.  We need not only to identify “indicators,” as the leaders of this process have requested, but also tactics.  Setting priorities and measuring progress don’t yield change.  It’s what you do in pursuit of those priorities that generates measurable progress. 

Second, those who have the power to make decisions have to be committed to pursue the plan – not the plan they think ought to be generated but the one that actually emerges from the process.  That means that those with power must truly listen to what others have to say.  It also means developing a plan that makes clear the rationale for key decisions, including how they will benefit the institution.  Put differently, the plan has to be persuasive both to those with power and those who will be affected.

Finally, that kind of plan can only emerge if people speak up.  Many individuals on campus and in the community will be invited to meetings to discuss one or more of its four “cornerstones.”  I hope most will respond.  As I see it, if I refuse to participate in the process, I give up my right to complain about the outcome.  But you don’t have to be invited to participate.  The Strategic Planning website lists e-mail addresses for committee members, and soon the site will have tools to allow you to offer your thoughts.  It sometimes seems that everyone in the Mahoning Valley has an opinion about what YSU ought to do.  Now’s the chance to speak up.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Standing with the People

As Lucienne Siers explains in our conversation this week, the Partnership for Global Justice believes in not only advocating on behalf of those who don't run governments or corporations but also helping make it possible for them to speak for themselves.  "Standing with," she explains, means listening to, offering moral support, helping organize additional supporters -- being present.  This is the role of NGOs -- non-governmental organizations.  So while she is clearly proud of the work of the United Nations, where her work is based, she also recognizes the importance of representing those who are not usually invited to the tables of power. 

As I spoke with her, I kept thinking about a recent column by New York Times commentator Nicholas D.  Kristof, reminding readers, in the midst of the latest discussions about how churches handled cases of abuse by priests, that there is another Catholic Church: "the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty."  The Partnership for Global Justice clearly represents this version of the church. 

I'm not Catholic, but unlike many of my politically-progressive friends I not only value the progressive work that many religious groups do but also participate actively in a religious community.  I do so without ignoring the limitations and contradictions that are inherent in all institutions and with the intention of pushing my religious community toward more engagement with the world and less concern about rules, boundaries, and control.  So I may be more inclined than some to respect the kind of work Sr. Lucienne Siers and her sister Catholics are doing.  Projects like this remind me that faith can -- as it should -- inspire us to act justly.

By the way, Lucienne mentioned the UN's "Millennium Development Goals" a couple of times in the interview.  You can find them here, and learn more about how they're being pursued.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dial 211

It's as simple as that.  If you need help with anything from paying bills to domestic abuse to your sister's depression, dial 211 and you'll be connected with Help Hotline.  As Cathy Grisinski explained in our conversation this week, if they can't offer help, they can probably direct you to someone who can.

Of course, nothing is that easy.  What struck me most in talking with Cathy is that the problems that lead people to call Help  Hotline are so rarely simple.  Someone who's struggling to pay a mortgage bill might well be unemployed or underemployed, perhaps because of health problems or just the state of the economy, but unemploymentcontributes to emotional struggles -- self-doubt, depression, thoughts of suicide -- and behaviors that create more problems.  Help Hotline staffers know how to respond when the rest of us can't even identify the cause of a problem.

But Help Hotline is much more than, well, a hotline.  They run a community center, organize support groups, and provide education to community groups, school children, and anyone who wants to understand mental health issues.  May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so it's a good time to learn more about one of the most important resources in our community.  Visit the Help Hotline website to learn more -- including about how you can get involved.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Solving the Urban Education Puzzle

I've done several interviews over the last few years about education, including conversations with Wendy Webb and Randy Hoover and this week's chat with Anthony Catale.  I keep hoping that someone will provide some hope -- not just good intentions or even a strong critique, though I've heard plenty of that.  And I know that districts all over the country are wrestling with the same problems we have, so what I'm looking for is, to put it mildly, elusive. 

I'm impressed with Anthony Catale's determination, and he seems to have a good grasp of what's happening in the local district.  But while he can identify a great set of goals, I'm not hearing from him or from anyone a clear sense of how to achieve them.  Catale touts the benefits of "data-driven decision making," which might be the most popular buzz phrase of contemporary education.  The right goals and a ton of data don't necessarily add up to effective strategies. 

I hope the folks on the school board, on the state commission addressing the district's "academic emergency" rating, and in the city schools administration are paying attention to a couple of things:
  • What's going right at Youngstown Early College?  Like some charter schools, YEC may benefit from self-selecting admissions and smaller size, but I can't help but wonder if the rest of the district couldn't borrow some strategies from the only building in the district to earn an excellent rating.
  • What's happening in DC?  Michelle Rhee is creating plenty of tension and attracting lots of attention, and I'm not sure whether her efforts are yielding much.  But they do give us a very visible model of what top-down, data-driven educational management looks like. Is it a good idea?  Education journalist John Merrow has been following the story for over  a year.
As my short list suggests, I have no real answers to offer.  I share the frustration that everyone I talk with expresses about this.  But that frustration also makes me skeptical that a new strategic plan is going to solve our problems.  It's not a bad idea, but we need more. 

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Justifying Ourselves

According to Carol Tavris, we all do it: justify our own behavior and beliefs, even when they don't quite add up.  As she explains, and as her book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), co-authored with Elliot Aronson, shows, we all feel cognitive dissonance when our beliefs, especially things we believe about ourselves, don't quite fit with clear realities.  She cites examples ranging from how some people justify continuing to smoke despite significant evidence that it's unhealthy to the responses of cult members to the failure of the world to end according to their predictions to the way hazing increases members' commitment to their fraternities and sororities.  We can see these phenomena, and no doubt notice our own experiences with it, every day.

I appreciate two things about Tavris's work.  The first is that she talks about the findings of psychological research in very accessible, down-to-earth ways.  Translating scientific research and theory into plain language isn't always easy, much less making the ideas seem both compelling and useful.  Second, I like how research like this invites us to connect our own experiences with psychological patterns that are common to many people and to link science with ethics.  So often, we think of these varied aspects of life as being entirely separate, and this work reminds us that everything is intertwined. 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Can the labor movement be saved?

As my conversation with Bill Padisak, Director of the Mahoning-Trumbull Central Labor Council, makes clear, the labor movement has lost ground over the last few decades.  Membership is down, to a great extent because the industries that once created so many union jobs have shrunk.  We still have United Steelworkers, United Auto Workers, and International Brotherhood of Electrical Worker locals in our community, but a growing proportion of unionized workers these days come from public entities like schools and police forces or from health care. 

That's a national trend, not just a local one.  John Russo writes this week in Working-Class Perspectives about how that's changing the role of organized labor in American politics, and Padisak's comments on why the Employee Free Choice Act hasn't yet been approved by Congress (and why it will likely be watered down when it finally does pass) illustrate Russo's point.  Locally, the labor movement remains active in politics, endorsing candidates and encouraging workers to vote, but the status of unions in the area has clearly declined, not just in terms of political clout but also in how people view them. 

You may be wondering why you should care, especially if you don't belong to a union and don't have the opportunity to join one.  You'll find some answers in an Australian video, "What have the unions ever done for us?"  Some of the terminology might not make sense, but the basic idea is clear:  the labor movement has improved the working conditions, pay, and benefits of workers across the board. 

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Making Science Fun

This week, I'm talking with Suzanne Barbati, director of the Roger and Gloria Jones Children's Center for Science and Technology in downtown Youngstown.  The Center goes by the name "Oh Wow," which Suzanne explains is meant to reflect the way children and their families will respond to the new exhibits and programs they plan to offer.

Oh Wow is a new vision for the children's museum, which operated for several years as a more general site.  The new version reflects the efforts of a number of local leaders to redefine the community around science and technology, all built on the belief that the Valley's economy can be rebuilt by emphasizing these areas.  It also reflects a national anxiety about how well we are preparing children in the "STEM" fields, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. 

I love the idea of a science and technology-oriented children's museum.  My favorite museum as a child was the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  You could walk through a super-size replica of a human heart, look at fetuses of various stages in development, and learn about how the telephone system worked by using a phone system that let you have "conversations" with Disney characters. 

Much as I loved that, I grew up to be an English professor, and as a humanist, I'm naturally skeptical of the claim that science and technology are the key to all future success.  Yes, we need to improve the quality of education in these fields, just as we do in reading and social studies, and yes, there are real and troublesome achievement gaps in STEM training, with relatively few African-Americans or Hispanics excelling in these fields. On the other hand, as studies by the Sloan Foundation and the Rand Corporation suggest, the much-touted shortage in these fields may be an illusion

I'm not saying that we shouldn't support Oh Wow (though the name isn't working for me).  It will make an important contribution to our community's kids.  And speaking of contributions, fundraising is one of the Center's primary concerns these days.  You can help by visiting their "donor blog." 

Monday, March 15, 2010

A nontraditional route to success

Talking with Jeff Magada about Flying High, Inc. made me think about the limitations of traditional forms of education and the value of offering alternatives.  Magada's program fills in for young adults for whom traditional schooling just doesn't work. Flying High offers more personalized attention, a stronger focus on job preparation, and more specific training in both job skills and what some term "employability" skills.

This program, and other non-profit private efforts to help at-risk young people prepare for successful adult lives, seem to be growing in our community, no doubt in response -- at least in part and perhaps indirectly -- to problems with the local schools, as well as persistent unemployment and poverty in the area.  All of that creates conditions that make preparing for employment difficult for young people, in part because they see so few opportunities.  Programs that build leadership skills can help improve participants' economic situations, of course, but they can also build our community.  As Flying High says on its website, their goal is to build "self-sufficiency" and to "mobilize young people to be part of neighborhood revitaization efforts."  In other words, theirs is an alternative path not only in terms of education and job preparation but also in terms of serving others. 

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Diverse Voices

On Lincoln Avenue this week, I'm talking with literary scholar Michele Fazio, who studies multiethnic America literature, much of it also reflecting working-class perspectives.  The interview explains, I think, why such work matters, and I hope Michele will inspire you to get reading.  Here are some of the books Michele mentioned:

Pietro Di Donato, Christ in Concrete
John Fante, Wait Until Spring, Bandini
Carol Maso, Ghost Dance
Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine
Sherman Alexie, Indian Killer

For longer lists of good working-class literature, visit the Working-Class Literature page at YSU's Center for Working-Class Studies.   Wikipedia (of all things) has lists of writers from 9 different ethnic and racial groups on its page for the organization, Multiethnic Literature of the United StatesVoices from the Gaps, a web project at the University of Minnesota, provides information on a variety of women writers and artists of color.   

Happy reading!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Accountability or Responsibility?

Education policy makers keep telling us that the quality of higher education has declined.  Enrollments are up, but those who oversee and fund higher ed tell us that we should be worried about whether colleges are doing their job.  That anxiety translates into calls for accountability.  YSU, like all public institutions in Ohio, has to publish statistics about things like retention and graduation rates as part of a "college portrait" created through the "Voluntary System of Accountability" (which in Ohio isn't voluntary at all).  In order to gain accreditation, we have to demonstrate (among other things) that the University is assessing students' learning.

These efforts raise two questions in my mind.  First, why the push for accountability?  And second, what kinds of information would best communicate the quality of education offered at a university?  My guest on Lincoln Avenue this week, Linda Adler-Kassner, has been examining these questions for several years.  She has worked with the Higher Learning Commission, the organization that provides accreditation to YSU, and as President of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, she has been working with colleagues who direct first-year writing programs on campuses around the country on how they should respond to the claim that colleges aren't doing their jobs. 

As she suggests, calls for accountability are nothing new, and they generally reflect both genuine concern and a belief that college faculty are  not doing our jobs well enough because we don't really understand what students need.  As a professor, I work with students every day -- much more than anyone in the Department of Education or the Ohio Board of Regents or at the Educational Testing Service.  I know both my students and my field well, and that should earn me your trust.  Policy makers disagree, and to be honest, I can understand why.  Too many faculty define their work solely in terms of research, and too many blame any difficulties students encounter on the students themselves.  That's where Adler-Kassner's focus on responsibility comes in.  If I don't want someone else telling me what I should teach and what counts as appropriate learning, then I have to take responsibility for my work as a teacher.  My colleagues at YSU do that, in part, through assessment

That said, I'm troubled by the idea that a bunch of statistics about the University as a whole can possibly reflect the complexity of what happens in our classrooms, and I wonder how useful the information is to prospective students and their parents.  The YSU College Portrait provides data on things like the ACT scores of entering students, and it uses some data from a survey on students' experiences, but if I were going to show you the quality of students' learning here, I'd invite you to QUEST, where students present their research every spring, or have you visit a few classes and listen to students discussing problems and issues and ideas.  I'd show you faculty research on student learning and have you listen in to my colleagues as they advise students on registration and MA thesis work and what to do after graduation.  Most important, I'd sit you down to talk with my students.  Of course, none of that can be captured easily. 

Real education is a messy business.  It can't be reduced to a 5-page report.  That's why it works. 

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Small Press, Big Vision

Talking with Phil Brady about Etruscan Press was a special treat for me, because long, long ago, when I was still an undergraduate, I did some work with small presses.  Our conversation reminded me of the incredibly hopeful, committed vision that inspires this kind of work.

Small presses like Etruscan make new writing available without regard to sales and markets.  In that sense, they provide the practical side of art for its own sake.  As Brady says in our interview, because their support comes from donors and institutions, not sales, they can choose books based on artistic value, not their potential popularity.  With small press books, writers create, editors and publishers provide space for, and readers pay attention to fresh voices and perspectives.  The work itself, not the size of the audience, is what matters most.

While big press books that sell millions of copies may have more immediate, obvious influence, small presses matter for different reasons.  They make it possible for artists to do their work without having to fit their vision into the often narrow confines of existing models.  Put simply, they make true creativity possible.  They protect us -- not just writers but also readers -- from sliding into cultural conformity.

Happily, such work is sometimes rewarded.  Several Etruscan books have been nominated for major awards, and the press's book of writers' responses to 9/11 drew considerable attention. As Brady suggests, that kind of recognition validates the work of the press.  But that's not why he does this work.  It's all about the writing itself, about supporting writers and providing readers with the best quality books.

Doing this can be joyful work.  You can hear that in the way Brady talks about Etruscan.  It's also stubbornly optimistic work.  Small press publishers and authors know that their work will reach small audiences, but they persist, because they believe that what matters is not the size of the audience but the audacity of the creative vision.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Future of Manufacturing, Part II

Scott Paul runs an unusual organization.  The Alliance for American Manufacturing is a joint effort of US steel companies and the United Steelworkers of America.  Such a labor-management partnership may seem like a contradiction in terms, but as he explains in our conversation, both workers and companies have a stake in preserving, or better yet restoring, manufacturing as a cornerstone of the US economy. 

It's not just that workers need jobs, though of course they do -- as anyone in the Mahoning Valley can attest.  It's also that companies need consumers, and in order to afford to buy products, people need jobs.  More than that, they need jobs that pay well.  Too many Americans have accepted a sad and problematic story line about how the demise of American manufacturing is the fault of workers and especially unions.  No doubt, organized labor is far from perfect, and yes, labor costs are higher when companies pay decent wages and provide good benefits.  But jobs like that have a ripple effect in a community, creating additional jobs and spreading prosperity through a community.

We've seen that locally.  Local leaders as well as unions worked hard to persuade GM to assign the Cruze to the Lordstown plant.  Why?  Because 1500 jobs matter, and not just to the 1500 workers who have them.  1500 jobs means thousands of purchases at local businesses, requiring hundreds of hours of labor by clerks and other store personnel.  1500 jobs means thousands of doctor's visits by people with good insurance, requiring hundreds of hours of labor by clerical workers, nurses, accountants, janitors, and others who help keep clinics and hospitals running smoothly.  And 1500 jobs bring thousands of dollars into city, county, and state budgets, providing not just jobs but also increased safety and quality of life for everyone. 

 It might not be pretty, and no doubt many local leaders want us to "get over" our history as an industrial community.  But as Scott Paul reminds us, the future of manufacturing is really the future of our economy.  Maybe you're a lawyer, a technical writer, or an elementary school teacher, doing work that seems far removed from steel mills and auto plants.  Doesn't matter.  Manufacturing matters to you.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Future of Manufacturing

Richard McCormack, editor and publisher of Manufacturing and Technology News, offers a grim view of the state of manufacturing in America, but nothing he says will come as a surprise to listeners in Youngstown.  We know all too well not only that both the amount of stuff that America makes and the number of jobs involved have shrunk over the last 30 years.  And we know, too, how little federal policies are doing to change the trend. 

Equally important, we understand why manufacturing jobs matter.  The economic story of the Mahoning Valley illustrates this all too well.  Even beyond the high levels of unemployment locally, we can see how the shift from manufacturing to service jobs affects families and the community.  Service jobs pay less, often allow people to work fewer hours, and often fewer benefits than manufacturing jobs, and all of that matters not just to those who hold these jobs but to their families and the community at large.  After all, if people earn more, they also spend more, and a single manufacturing job can help support several more jobs in other sectors.  Some economics have suggested that the  U.S. can thrive by sending manufacturing jobs out of the country and focusing on research and design, management, and various forms of creative work.  As McCormick explains, that just doesn't work.  We need manufacturing, not just here in the Mahoning Valley but across the country.

You can hear more of Richard McCormack's analysis by checking out some of the videos from his visit, available now on the Center for Working-Class Studies website. 

Friday, January 29, 2010

Help Wanted: Thousands of Jobs for the Valley

This week on Lincoln Avenue, I'm talking with Chris Litton, head of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber Foundation.  The Foundation's job is to help bring new businesses to the Mahoning Valley and to help existing businesses grow.  They do that by working with local government, the business community, and individual business owners to create the conditions that will entice companies to locate and expand here. 

As I was talking with Chris, I kept thinking about two things.  First, while I think most local leaders understand that the best answer to our community's economic woes is to support the development of many, many small businesses, the idea that a knight-in-shining-armor company will swoop in and rescue us still has power.  The challenge for those like Chris who work on the ground in economic development is to embrace the significance of every job, but without losing sight of the area's persistently-high unemployment and poverty rates.  So, yes, we should celebrate when a new company comes into the Business Incubator and hires 20 people with college degrees, we should keep scouring for companies that might open a small factory that would hire 200 high school graduates. 

That gets us to the second issue: systemic barriers to economic growth.  The Chamber, the YBI, local government, and the University can only do so much to address the economic problems of the area, because creating jobs is only half of the issue.  We also need to address problems of education, transportation, and racism -- issues that create obstacles for many who need jobs the most.  We need people working on both sides of the economic equation. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Faith vs. Knowledge

Stephen Prothero offers an entertaining and troubling analysis of Americans' lack of religious knowledge. He suggests that contemporary political culture demonstrates a troubling contradiction:  while politicians, policy makers, and pundits regularly use religious references in presenting their positions, most Americans don't know religious texts well enough to determine whether these references make sense.  Worse, he says, our lack of religious knowledge undermines our foreign policy and complicates the current "war on terror," because military, intelligence, and policy leaders don't understand the Islamic ideas and divisions involved. 

I find the second point more persuasive than the first, because Prothero's claim about American religious illiteracy is based in part on survey data that reveals people's inability to do things like name the four gospels in the New Testament or the five Old Testament books that make up the Torah.  I'm always skeptical about evaluating people's knowledge on the basis of our ability to name things.  As I tell my literature students, I'm not all that concerned about whether they remember a character's name or the year in which something was published; the key is their ability to analyze the character's function in a play or to discuss the historical context in which something was written and read.  The same is true for religion. 

No doubt, for many Americans, any reference to the Bible serves as evidence that the speaker is "good," regardless of whether the citation works, and I think we should be troubled by any form of knee-jerk religious response.  On the other hand, it's quite possible to understand the underlying ideas in a Biblical story without being able to remember whether it appears in the Old or New Testament.

Prothero's second concern seems, to me, much greater.  We know almost nothing about other religions -- even, in many cases, about other religions that are practiced by many of our neighbors.   This reflects Americans' general lack of knowledge about the rest of the world as well as our fears about teaching religion.  As Prothero suggests, we need to create space in the curriculum, ideally on the secondary level, to teach about world religions. 

As a member of a minority religion, I understand both why this matters and why it can seem scary.  On the one hand, I want more people to understand my religion, and I wish I knew more about other non-dominant religions.  On the other hand, I worry about how such courses would be taught in a society where many are promoting "intelligent design." 

Clearly, religion is at once a driving force in American culture and an ongoing challenge.  In what seems to be an increasingly divided, conflicted, partisan society, how do we pursue the goal of more and better religious understanding?  It may not be easy. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Ground-up Perspective -- at the Washington Post and in Youngstown

Predictably, some folks were unhappy with Anne Hull's recent Washington Post article on how the recession is affecting Youngstown.  They complained that the article never mentioned all the great things going on, all those jobs being created at the Business Incubator or the area's potential for green technology jobs.  They're understandably tired of Youngstown's story being a tale of economic struggle.  And they're right, that it's an old story.

It's also a true story.  And while some reporters write versions of that story without visiting Youngstown, Anne does the real work, journalism from the ground up.  That kind of reporting comes from asking a lot of questions not just of people in official positions but of people on the street, in the parking lot, at the grocery store.  It comes from careful observation, and it comes from understanding how to look at a situation through the perspective of the unofficial -- of the ordinary people whose lives are so often affected by social and economic forces over which they have little control. 

That's the kind of reporting that led Hull to a Pulitzer Prize, for her reporting with Dana Priest, on the conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  In our interview, Anne talks about how she and Priest pursued that story and about her reporting since on the experiences of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. 

That's also the kind of reporting we need to listen to here in Youngstown.  I'm all for drawing attention to our assets and achievements.  There's more to Youngstown's story than our continuing economic struggles.  So, too, is there more to our story than Youngstown 2010, the YBI, and YSU.  If 10,000 people in our community lose their jobs over the course of two years, we need to pay attention.  We need to understand what that's like and how people are surviving.  We may not like what we read in stories like Anne's, but we need to listen to them nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Mayor Jay Williams: Looking Backward, Looking Forward

Lincoln Avenue is back, starting the new year with a conversation with Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams as he begins his second term.  Along with identifying some important accomplishments, like helping to improve the city's image and solid efforts on economic development, Williams acknowledges the city's continuing struggles. 

The economy, both the challenges of the current recession and our long-term struggles to create more jobs, remains an important problem.  And that issue intertwines with two other challenges: education and crime.  Tight city budgets and increased economic need in the community make fighting crime harder than ever.  So far, the city hasn't had to lay anyone off, though several officers have accepted early retirement buyouts.  And crime rates are improving in some areas, such as murder.  On the other hand, crimes that might be influenced by the bad economy, such and robbery and burglary, have increased.  And the city's reputation as a high-crime area creates continuing challenges for economic development.  Figuring out how to keep enough officers on the streets will be difficult as tax revenues continue to decline, and while the growth of local block watches may help fill the gap, alert neighbors can't do as much as an effective police force.

Mayor Williams also notes that education is a major challenge for the city.  Better education would help us attract more businesses, but it's also true that a better economy and the promise of decent jobs would provide incentives for students to succeed in school, so economics and education reinforce each other.  Of course, the mayor doesn't control the local schools, but Williams says he hopes to get more involved in addressing the issues facing the city school district. 

Of course, I couldn't talk with Jay Williams at the start of 2010 without talking about 2010 -- the plan.  As he acknowledges, the plan has succeeded in several unexpected ways, by bringing positive media attention to the city and by inspiring organizing efforts by non-governmental groups like the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.  Indeed, the greatest measure of the success of 2010 might be the grants and significant donations that are helping to fund the new Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation -- a new non-profit that promotes local development and citizen engagement, reflecting the neighborhood-centered community organizing approach that started here with 2010.  On the other hand, as Williams notes, some of the original plan's strategies have proven difficult.  The idea that the city could move residents out of struggling blocks and stop providing services there has proven untenable.  After all, a block that looks "not viable" to an urban planner because it only has 2 occupied structures looks like home to the people who own those houses and have lived there for 30 years or more.  On the other hand, organizations like the MVOC, Grow Youngstown, and Lien Forward are working on strategies to turn vacant properties into productive land, so the green we see in the vacant properties survey map might not be quite as bad as it looks on first glance.

Talking with Williams reminded me of the first interview I did for Lincoln Avenue, with John Slanina, who commented that for people of his generation, Youngstown now is the best it's ever been.  We're far from trouble-free, and Williams is right that education, crime, and economic development are not just continuing challenges but the problems for which we must, in the long run, find solutions.  Still, my experience is much like John's: after 20 years here, and despite a lot of time studying and talking about the problems, I feel more optimistic about Youngstown that ever before.