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!