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.