Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Persistence of Racism

Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness explains how the war on drugs has not only targeted young black men, putting more African-Americans in jail today than were enslaved in the 1850s, and demonstrates how going to prison is just the first step in what then becomes a lifelong pattern of absolutely legal discrimination.  Her arguments and evidence are compelling and thorough, and I hope her analysis will contribute to the development of exactly the kind of mass social movement against inequities in the criminal justice system and our obsession with an inaccurate understanding of drug-related crime.

But what I find most compelling about the book is its clear portrait of the persistence of racism despite decades of efforts to educate and persuade Americans to reject their deeply-held prejudices.  As Alexander suggests, we've all learned that we're not supposed to be racist, and few of us would acknowledge that we treat others differently if they look different from us.  She cites studies that show clear patterns of racial bias, even in people who are sure they're colorblind.  (You can try the tests for yourself online.) As Alexander rightly points out, no one is really colorblind, nor should we aim to be.  Difference matters, and overcoming our habit of making assumptions based on race is incredibly difficult.  Doing so on the level of a whole culture is even more challenging. 

As someone who's been teaching college courses on multicultural literature for more than 20 years, and who has long believed that doing so would make some kind of difference, I found this book at once validating (yes, discrimination is real and significant) and depressing (if racism has simply gone into hiding behind seemingly neutral concepts like the war on drugs).  More than anything, I think it's important.  At a time when many Americans are entering discussions about inequality, the ideas Alexander lays out need to be part of the conversation.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Why Stories Matter

I believe in stories.  That's hardly surprising -- I'm an English professor, after all.  But my faith in stories, and in the act of storytelling, isn't just about Literature with a capital L.  Whether in research, spiritual life, relationships, or simply sorting out my own experiences, stories are rich, complex material.  We use stories to give meaning to what happens to us.  By translating experience into story, we connect individual lives with context and ideas.

So I was interested in the work Lee and Johanna Slivinske have done with stories as a tool in therapy with children.  In a way, the value of stories in therapy (with anyone, not just kids) seems obvious.  What's most interesting about the Slivinske's book, Storytelling and Other Activities for Children in Therapy (Wiley, 2011) is the variety of techniques and examples it offers.  They provide an explanation for why stories are useful and how they can be incorporated into therapy, but then they have pages and pages of examples, geared to a wide range of issues. 

Even for those of us who don't work as therapists, this concept seems useful.  Storytelling happens more or less naturally in most of our lives, but I wonder how often we use it deliberately, as a tool?  I tell stories in the classroom all the time, though I can't say that I've been especially thoughtful or intentional about it.  How does storytelling fit into your work?  Into your life?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Religion: The Ties that Bind?

The argument that David Campbell and his co-author Robert Putnam make in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us seems contradictory.  On the one hand, they tell us, we see a sharp split between those for whom religion is a central and often politicized issue and those who have abandoned organized religion entirely, largely because they see it as too closely tied to conservative politics.  That part of the argument fits what seems to be a broader pattern of strong and in many ways uncrossable divides in American culture today.  We see a similar attitude toward politics, I think, as many younger people reject electoral politics because they see it as dysfunctional. On the other hand, they argue that religion unites us -- not because we agree about it.  Rather, they say, even those who remain committed to organized religion interact regularly, often intimately, with people from other religious backgrounds. 

In this sense, religion may parallel what has happened with race.  Racial divisions remain strong, and racism remains deeply embedded in American law and other social institutions (for more on that, come hear Michelle Alexander speak about "the new Jim Crow" on Tuesday evening).  Yet interracial marriage has become widely accepted, increasing numbers of Americans define themselves as mixed race, and many of us live and work in racially integrated communities.  As with race, the continuing significance and diversity of religion has become -- some would say it has always been -- a defining element of American culture. 

I'm not as optimistic as they are about what our interpersonal relationships will mean for religious tolerance in America.  For too many, the certainty that their beliefs are the only right and true way -- and that their views should determine American law and public policy -- remains far too powerful.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Rethinking Art and Architecture

Vito Acconci is -- at least for the moment -- an architect.  Over time, he's been a writer, a visual artist, a conceptual artist, and a designer, as well.  What I found most interesting about talking with him is the sense that he is always challenging himself and his colleagues to think in new ways about their work.  Part of what has inspired his changing artistic identity is his desire to crate work that engages with audiences and communities.  One example would be the project he described in our interview.  He talked in some depth about  the process and strategy involved in imagining the Mur Island project in Graz, Austria.  You can tour the site in this video and get a sense of how he works with space and structures.  And sort of like talking with him, the video takes you to a new and different landscape.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Human AND Economic Development

I've been reading about Jim Sutman's work for a long time.  As his company, Iron and String Life Enhancement (ISLE)keeps growing, I've been intrigued by the way he is combining a business model with a social services model. After talking with him on Lincoln Avenue, I'm even more impressed -- not just that he's found a way to provide an array of services for adults with disabilities, but also with the way he's based most of his efforts in downtown Youngstown.  Sutman has thought carefully about what people with disabilities need: engaging activities, opportunities for work, support for their families.  He's also found creative ways to provide those things.  How many programs for disables adults include the opportunity to work at a radio station?  Sutman has also rooted his work in what he's learned from the adults served by his programs.  As you can hear in the interview, he sees them as partners in this enterprise, not just clients.

He's also doing much of this work downtown.  You may have seen the recent Vindy piece about his plan to buy the Kress Building.  He already owns one building downtown, which houses the ISLE offices and the Touch the Moon Candy Saloon.  While others define downtown redevelopment in terms of attracting "the creative class," as Richard Florida has termed it, Sutman sees downtown as a place for everyone. 

Perhaps the most impressive thing in all this is the way Sutman puts the focus on the people he works with, not on himself.  He's accomplished so much with ISLE, but somehow, the story never seems to be about him. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Inside and Beyond Autism

Autism can be mysterious to anyone who hasn't experienced it.  In a recent 60 Minutes report about how children with autism were learning to communicate using iPad apps, several parents commented with wonder about how these tools were letting them understand some of what was going on inside the minds and perceptions of their autistic children.  Without such tools for communication, we simply don't know what it's like to experience autism from the inside.

That's part of what makes Sean Barron's unusual work so important.  After experiencing autism as a child and working hard in his early adulthood to train himself to move beyond the disorder's limits, Barron co-authored two books that give us a glimpse inside.  Together with his mother, he wrote There's a Boy in Here: Emerging from the Bonds of Autism, a book that gives readers insight into what autism meant for both Sean and his family.  More recently, he collaborated with Temple Grandin on Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, a guide to 10 key elements of interpersonal communication.   As Barron explains, the rules reflect things he had to learn in order to move beyond his autism to function well in interactions with others.  He puts those lessons to use every day in his work as a journalist, and in the process, he's walking proof that at least some of those with autism can recover. 

While it's subtitled Understanding and Managing Social Challenges for Those with Asperger's or Autism,and while most people probably abide by these unwritten rules without thinking about it, the book would probably be useful to anyone who wants to be mindful and intentional about how they interact with others.  Who wouldn't benefit from being reminded that "everyone makes mistakes" and their errors "don't have to ruin your day"?  And I bet we can all think of people who need to be reminded of the value of being polite or that we are responsible for our own behavior? 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tosca in Youngstown

I wish listeners could see David Vosburgh as he talks about Opera Western Reserve.  He describes the incredible amount of work involved in putting on each fall's opera, but instead of looking like he's stressed or anxious, he looks at once determined and like he's having an incredibly good time.  As our interview makes clear, David is responsible for so many aspects of each production, from working with Music Director Susan Davenny Wyner and the Board to select which operas to stage to recruiting singers to designing sets and costumes.  He's all too conscious that he can't keep doing it all forever, but for now, he does an impressive job.  The performances seem to get better each year, and the audiences keep growing. That reflects many things, but at the heart of it all is David Vosburgh's creativity and passion.

This fall's production, Tosca, is coming up in just a couple of weeks.  You can read a synopsis of the opera online, but that doesn't do justice to what it's like to be there.  Opera is excessive --intentionally so.  That's part of the pleasure of it.  Get your tickets now and support one of the most ambitious creative enterprises in Youngstown.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Caring for Those Who Can't Pay

We all know that access to health care is far from guaranteed in this country.  While emergency rooms won't usually turn away an uninsured person with an immediate need, our health care systems could save a lot of money AND people would be healthier if they didn't have to wait for an emergency to get medical care.  At the same time, the number of Americans who have health insurance continues to fall, in part because so many employers are choosing not to offer health insurance as part of employee benefits.  Even those who have insurance often struggle to meet deductibles and put off getting medical attention for fear of racking up significant out-of-pocket costs.

Meanwhile, the economics of providing medical care become increasingly complex, and doctors are having to make tough choices about what kind of care to provide to which patients. Programs that fund care for the poor and elderly are placing tighter limits and controls on what they reimburse, and requirements for malpractice insurance and new technologies create new expenses for medical practices.  It sometimes seems like the only ones benefiting from the system are the insurance companies.

Despite all that, a number of local doctors are doing something remarkable here in Youngstown: they're providing free care to people who need it.  Through the Midlothian Free Health Clinic, Dr. Thomas Albani and his colleagues are providing both basic and specialized care, much of it made possible entirely because medical professionals donate their time.  You can hear all about in this week's interview, and you can help ensure that the clinic continues to operate.  Call the clinic at 330.788.3330 to find out about how to donate and how to participate in their next fundraiser.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Making Sense of Food Policy

"Food policy" was a new phrase to me when I joined the Grow Youngstown board a couple of years ago, and I have to admit that I'm still not entirely clear on the full range of what it might cover.  As MVOC organizer Tammy Thomas and Grow Youngstown director Elsa Higby explain on this week's show, the idea behind the new Mahoning Valley Food Policy Council is to identify existing regulations that get in the way of the production and distribution of locally-grown and healthy food and advocate for new policies that will make it easier for growers, distributors, and consumers to improve the quality of food available in our area.  That might involve everything from zoning to allow urban farms or backyard chicken coops to regulations governing the sales of small-scale locally-produced packaged foods.

You can find out more about this model by visiting the website of the North American Food Policy Council. Along with explaining how such councils work, it has a list of the more than 100 that exist around the US.  You can also read the charter of the Ohio Food Policy Advisory Council, created by Governor Ted Strickland in 2007.

Want to get involved?  Check out the MVOC's Health Equity campaign information or visit the Grow Youngstown website.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Art Beyond the Museum, the Museum Beyond Art

One of the things I appreciate about this week's guest, Leslie Brothers, director of YSU's McDonough Museum of Art, is that her vision of art itself -- not just the role of a campus art museum, but of the very idea/act/artifact of art -- is so deeply connected with social change and community engagement.  This fall's Dreaming Awake: The Town Hall Project is a good example.  It involves some elements that seem to fit neatly into what most people think of as art -- most notably the project animations from the Vito Acconci Studio.  But it also redefines the museum itself, the place we think of as the location for art, as a place for community gatherings of all kinds, and that, in turn, invites us to think about how such gatherings might be not merely enhanced by art but could be, in themselves, forms of art.  To my mind, thinking in these terms transforms both how I think about art and how I think about community. 

Links within the McDonough's website will take you to a description of the Town Hall project and to a schedule of events.  One of the highlights of this fall's schedule is the Skeggs Lecture by Vito Acconci.  

In our conversation, Leslie mentioned the inspiration of a statement on art and social change by Laurie Anderson.  Here's a link to that piece, definitely worth a look.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

More than a Free Meal

I had two expectations when I sat down to talk with Jim Echement about the Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley, and both turned out to be wrong.  First, I thought I’d hear that the economic crisis of the last three years has caused a significant increase in poverty and homelessness.  While that may be true in terms of national statistics, and while the Rescue Mission has seen some increase in traffic, Echement doesn’t see economics as the primary problem.  Rather, he suggests that for most people, homelessness and persistent economic struggle are not matters of economic conditions so much as of personal trauma.   That may reflect his organization’s mission to help people overcome significant personal obstacles, to in effect change themselves, in order to move toward a more economically stable life. 

But that leads to my second misconception.  I had assumed that the Rescue Mission would have a goal of providing life-changing assistance to anyone who is homeless and in need.  In some ways, that’s true.  They provide meals to anyone who walks in the door, every day.  But when it comes to helping people get off the streets permanently, Echement suggests, they focus on those who are ready to make a change.   To qualify for their “Second Chance” program, which provides long-term housing, training, and support, participants must agree to abide by some clear and rather strict rules.  That helps to instill discipline, and that, in turn, helps people discover that they have more control over their own circumstances than they might have thought. 

From my perspective, both parts of the Rescue Mission’s work matter – providing food and shelter for those in immediate need, regardless of their circumstances, and helping people transform their lives.  Those are challenging goals at any time, and all the more so these days.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Challenging the Myth of a Divided City

There’s an old, too-often told myth about Youngstown’s history: that we haven’t been able to solve the community’s problems because we’ve been too divided.  When I call this a myth, I mean that it’s necessarily false.  Rather, I’m thinking of this as a myth in the sense that this story at once influences and explains the way things are.  We do squabble among municipalities, between the cities and the suburbs, between whites and blacks, and between multiple organizations all trying to make a difference, and some of those divisions do hamper our efforts.  But the myth itself also encourages us to believe that we can’t achieve anything as long as we’re divided, and that, in turn, leads us to blame each other for local problems.  If only that other group would stop trying to do what my group is doing, we say, everything would be fine. 

It’s useful to keep this myth in mind when we talk about the work of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation.  On the one hand, the YNDC is an example of creating a new organization to take on work that some others were already doing, albeit in different and sometimes smaller ways.  When YNDC began, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative and ACTION had both been working to address the needs of urban neighborhoods.  Commonwealth, Catholic Charities, Habitat for Humanity, and some others had long been involved in renovating old housing and developing new properties to help lower-income families become homeowners or stable renters.  Jubilee Gardens, Goodness Grows, Villa Maria, and Grow Youngstown were all involved in various ways in creating urban gardens and promoting local agriculture.  

Despite that, YNDC is a welcome addition to the community development landscape, for two key reasons.  One is a matter of scale, which is made possible in part by significant funding – more than most of those other projects.  That has allowed YNDC to hire strong staff members and invest in meaningful ways in a few targeted areas.  Funding also allows YNDC to do something that the myth about Youngstown tells us never happens: to foster collaboration with other organizations.  As YNDC Executive Director Presley Gillespie explained when we talked, YNDC doesn’t want to compete with or eliminate those other groups, nor is it in anyone’s interest for every project or person to be part of a single organization.  Rather, YNDC can fulfill one of the visions of the Wean Foundation (one of its sponsors): to increase the community’s capacity for development by increasing our ability to work together – not by making everyone part of one big operation but by fostering productive partnerships. 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Opera for the Family

As this week's interview makes clear, Joseph Rubin loves comic opera.  As he describes it, comic opera is sort of the generation in between traditional opera and musical theater.  While everyone may not find the operettas performed by the Canton Comic Opera Company as hilarious as he does, this form of musical theater can be great fun -- especially if you're into the history of popular culture, as I am.  Just look at the images Rubin's group uses to promote their shows -- old sheet music covers.

Like the album covers from my childhood, these images promoted popular music, offering not only a chance to hear the songs (before recorded music, if you wanted to enjoy a popular song at home, you played it on your own piano while your sister sang) but also to see the performers and get a sense of the feel of the show and the early decades of twentieth-century history when it was first produced. 

That kind of enjoyable, even silly way of looking at history is probably worth a drive to Canton.  This year's season begins June 9, with Little Johnny Jones

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Experienced Advice for Small Business Owners

Terry Diederick is enthusiastic about small business and its potential here in the Mahoning Valley.  He works as a mentor with SCORE, an organization that connects small business people with experienced advisors, many of whom are themselves former small business people.  Not only does he enjoy the work and appreciate his colleagues, he believes that this community offers many opportunities for small businesses to thrive.

While I'm less sure than Terry is that transportation and warehousing are going to grow here, I do share his view that small businesses may hold the key to this area's economic stability.  On the same day we recorded our interview, I spoke with a first-year class at YSU, who asked me one of the questions I get asked most often:  what will it take for Youngstown to once again become the thriving community it once was?  I always start by saying that it will never again be what it was.  That is, we will never have a single industry that creates not only  prosperity but also community cohesion.  We still make and form metals, and we still make cars, but neither industry will ever again be as large as it once was, nor does any contemporary industry work that way.  Youngstown's future relies on smaller-scale business, and to make that work, we need to tap into the expertise of people like Terry and his colleagues at SCORE. 

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tax Breaks and Economic Development: Where Are the Good Jobs?

I’m still puzzling over what I heard from Greg LeRoy, Executive Director of Good Jobs First.  The bottom line: all those tax breaks we’re giving to corporations aren’t really creating that many jobs, nor are they making a big difference in the success of American businesses.  As he points out, even though tax savings may sound big in dollars, taxes make up a very small share of a company’s finances.  Even worse, many of those tax deals, which significantly reduce state and local budgets, undermine the other elements that contribute to a good business environment.  Ohio has a revenue crisis these days, in part because we’ve cut taxes and deals to attract new businesses, but that in turn reduces funding for education.  And a well-educated workforce is one of the most important keys to attracting new business. 

So if it doesn’t really, work, why do states and localities keep doing it?  Two reasons, as far as I can figure out.  First, businesses have the leverage to cut these deals, because they can make large contributions to politicians and parties and because they control the most precious commodity in today’s economy: jobs. State and local governments are thus easily persuaded to do whatever it takes, including bankrupting themselves, in pursuit of that one-two punch – contributions and jobs. 

Second, making deals to attract new businesses sounds so good, and it’s a quick fix, or at least it’s a quick action that looks like a fix.  In order to be re-elected, politicians need to show that they are taking action.  Bringing a new company to town is a great-looking action – it creates nice photo ops and it sounds so promising.  And as LeRoy points out in our interview, the politicians may be long gone, often on to higher positions, by the time anyone can figure out whether the deal yielded solid results.  Investing in education and infrastructure just aren’t as sexy, and such moves take even longer to show results than tax abatements for new businesses do.   

So our leaders aren’t likely to fully embrace the more economically-just, progressive strategies LeRoy advocates (flip through the powerpoint on the Center for Working-Class Studies website for a list of these).  LeRoy offers two primary solutions to this problem.  One is education.  Good Jobs First provides information and tools to help you track  the results of subsidies to businesses across America.  If citizens demand accountability, we might be able to persuade our leaders to use public money to attract good jobs.  The other solution is organizing.  When citizens band together, we gain power.  One way to begin is to join the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative and community groups from across the state next week in Columbus, for the April 5 Day of Action “to show they do not support balancing the budget through cuts, but instead through serious, long-term solutions including reforming Ohio's tax structure and generating revenue by balancing corporate and personal tax contributions.” 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Sustainable Agriculture is Good Business

Several of the people I’ve interviewed on Lincoln Avenue over the last couple of years have talked about the value of locally-produced sustainable agriculture.  They’ve discussed how it can not only help us eat better but also improve the environment, contribute to economic justice, and even help us fight back against the corporate take-over of American politics. All of that is coming from people like Eric Schlosser and Chris Hedges, who study social problems, and from folks who work on issues of hunger and urban development. 
This week, I finally talked with someone working on, or better yet with, the ground of sustainable agriculture, Floyd Davis of Red Basket Farm.  While the political and social aspects of this movement can get us thinking, Floyd’s discussion of his work makes a few other points clear.  One is that small-scale agriculture can be good business.  For Floyd, this work is at once satisfying and, if not hugely profitable then at least economically sustainable. It also demands a very different way of thinking about the work of farming and about the value of a business degree.  So much of what makes Red Basket work well is not about how Floyd treats the soil and the plants but about how he handles marketing.  His operation seems to be a terrific example of what it takes to run a small business these days: creative outreach and business models that adapt to the needs of diverse customers.  And when small-scale farmers understand that part of the business, they can make sustainable agriculture into sustainable business.

 Second, this movement is present, right here in the Mahoning Valley, and, in fact, the many relatively small farms in our area make this a good place to do this kind of farming.  While many small farms in our area don’t focus on sustainable practices, I’ve always appreciated the availability of so much locally-grown produce and the opportunity to buy from these small operations.  

Third, Floyd reminds us that we play a part in sustainable agriculture.  In fact, you can buy a share of Red Basket Farm this summer, through the Grow Youngstown Community Supported Agriculture project.  You could also visit the Red Basket website and find out how to go visit the farm.