Today, we’re going to speak with a couple that has traveled over 100,000 miles into the heart of America over discover what those stories would be. Jim and Deb Fallows are the writers and researchers behind the Our Towns book, documentary, and series for The Atlantic. We’ll also be joined by Bridget Jancarz, chief of staff at StriveTogether.
Together, we’ll unpack some of those stories and the lessons that can be learned for changemakers across the country.
Hi, I’m Christian Motley, from StriveTogether, your host for today’s episode of Together for Change. Here we share expert perspective on what’s possible in communities, and how we can work together to build to last. Lately I’ve been reflecting on the phrase “if these walls could talk.” The sentiment has made its way to pop culture from Halsey’s infamous song to Loretta Lynn’s take on it with This Old House. Well, if the walls of an old house could be filled with riveting stories, think about what it would be like if an entire town could talk. What would the story of your town be? Who would be the characters? Will there be secrets to uncover? What lessons can be shared with others across the country? Today, we’re going to speak with a couple that has traveled over 100,000 miles into the heart of America to discover what those stories would be. Jim and Deb Fallows are the writers and researchers behind the Our Towns book, the documentary, and the series for The Atlantic. We’ll also be joined by Bridget Jancarz, Chief of Staff at StriveTogether. Together, we’ll unpack some of those stories and lessons that can be learned for changemakers across the country. Let’s get started. Jim and Deb, I wonder, for our listeners, if you could start with just telling us about the origins of, you know, the spirit behind Our Towns, this great project that you’ve taken on.
Christian, thanks so much. And thanks for having us on the program with you and Bridget and your whole community. So the background is, for a very long time, for 40 plus years, I personally have worked as a writer for The Atlantic and Deb has been writing books and for the Atlantic in that time. And we lived all over the world, we were in China for a number of years from 2006 through, most of time, till 2011. We came back to the US. We thought that we wanted to try to apply in our own country, one of the approaches we had done inside China, which is trying to get out of the big cities, trying to get to places where people live day by day and ask them what was happening in their towns. We did that in China, you know, in the rural interior, very different from Beijing and Shanghai. So starting back in 2013, we began doing that in the US. I’m a longtime small plane, propeller plane pilot. So we use a little propeller plane to go to places from South Dakota to northern Mississippi to, you know, inland Pennsylvania, whatever. And we began having sort of a cumulative narrative of the parts of American life that weren’t usually captured in the headlines, in the cable news shows.
So when we started this journey, we had no idea what we were going to find. We just thought we would go around to some small towns that had a kind of interesting story to tell. Perhaps Jim had put a message on his blog saying that we were undertaking this adventure and we wanted to go visit some towns, preferably ones that had had some kind of challenge in their past. Maybe the mining factory closed. Maybe there was a tornado. Maybe there was a big demographic shift that affected the towns. And we asked people to write into us and and tell us about their towns, if they thought we should come visit there. And to our surprise, within about a week, we got 1000 messages back from people and it wasn’t just come to my town. It was here’s the story of my town. Here’s why my town is important. Here’s why we’d like to talk to you about our town. So we just kind of threw a pin in the map and decided to go to Holland, Michigan, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, because we we knew a few people in each of those towns. And we thought, okay, well try to have a soft landing here. They kind of know what we’re up to, and could help lead us into the town to find the right people or the wrong people to talk to for an introduction to what was going on in their towns. So that was the practical beginnings of things. And after that, if you’d like more. We were surprised again, we were surprised at how easy it was to open these conversations with people in towns, if we’d say so tell us what’s going on in your town and what’s important to you in your town. It was like opening a floodgate. People just, they love to talk about their hometowns. And I think that they were interested that someone was interested and we weren’t going to a diner to talk politics or to the county fair in advance of the primary season or the caucuses. We were just kind of drifting in to see what we would find. We thought we might do it for a couple weeks, we ended up going on from there kind of spreading to the northeast. And then we thought, this is so compelling. This is so interesting that, well, we ended up traveling around for nearly five years talking with people in their towns and tried to get around the country, covered the geography of the country, cover the small towns, bigger towns, cover the towns that were maybe in the desert, or near the sea that just had different kinds of culture, cultures to talk about. And we could hardly stop, except that we thought, okay, we really should stop, we could do this forever. Or we could try to make some sense of it. We had been blogging along the way, writing along the way from town to town. But then we decided it was time to think a little deeper, and to try to connect the stories and find the trends and see, see what we can learn about the country. And that was what they came our book called Our Towns.
And when you published in, I believe it was 2018, you know we found an article in Slate called The State of Our Union is Strong. And if you think about that year, it was marked by government shutdowns, mass shootings, including Parkland, and one of the most contentious Supreme Court nomination battles that we’ve seen in history. And so it’s this moment where I think Americans could feel so much despair. But you all were relentlessly optimistic. And so I wonder what the source of that optimism, what the source of that hope is, in the midst of, you know, so much that’s happened, even now.
So thanks for asking that. And I’ll have one linguistic issue, and then an actual answer. And the linguistic issue is there’s a certain kind of optimism that we think that we are expressing, which is not sort of naive or automatic optimism that things are going to get better. It’s something that I think people have called conditional optimism, the idea that things could get better, you know, if the effort that’s been part of American history since the beginning continues. And if people struggle for fairer societies and more sustainable life at the community and national level, and all the other things that have been the brighter part of the American saga over the hundreds of years. If that our optimism is that things could get better, and then they can get better. We saw lots of places are going on. The other, I guess, direct answer to you is that, you know, this has been for the reasons you mentioned, and many others, it’s been a really challenging, to put it mildly, time in national politics for United States. There’s been, over the last, you know, number of years a sense of kind of resentment driven national politics, and people’s sort of zero sum, I want to succeed by hurting you. And what we saw was a contrast between that which is a reality of our time, and a very different part of the American fabric that was going on, in many, not all, but many communities, many regions, many states. And so I think it was some conveying a sense of that balance that we wanted to do. That we all are aware of, and we should be aware of, of the global level and the national level challenges in the US and they are real, but we felt as if most of the places we were writing about and as you all know, from your projects, only got national attention when there was a shooting, or when there was a drought, or when there was some other emergency as opposed to the day by day and year by year sense of engagement, and reckoning and practicality. And I’ll give you just one other brief illustration. We went sort of back to back between two cities that are seen as opposites in national politics. One is Burlington, Vermont, one of the most left wing cities in the US on the national perspective. The other is Greenville, South Carolina, one of the most right wing cities on the national map. But one of the things that struck us is if you didn’t know that, and you didn’t ask people their national politics, you would think they were the same place. They had the same kind of strong Mayor government. The same relationship with universities and same kind of partnership with some of the corporations there. And so there was that sense of that there is some possibility in American life that is worth recognizing, and if possible, strengthening and connecting.
Yeah, what I hear you saying is that there’s a different story that’s either being told or that we’re hearing that’s distinct from the national level when you get into these regions and actually in local communities. I mean, Deb, why do you think that is?
Well, when we were in China, we learned, we would say to each other, how can these contradictory things be simultaneously true? And that seemed to be a phrase that applied in the US as well. We all know that there are, that nationally, things are just fraught. People are divided, people are argumentative, they’re feeling like they’re in trouble. But on the local level, side by side with that, there’s a much different perspective of, okay, we’re all in this together. If we’ve got some problems that we have to solve, or want to solve, or issues that we want to take on, it’s up to us. People aren’t coming here to save us. People aren’t coming here to tell us what to do. We need to go into our communities and work together to sort through these things and listen to each other. And on the local level, the reason this attitude or karma or sensibility seemed true, and to work better, was that in a national place, what can you do, you know, you can vote, you can wait to the next election to try to vote your people out or vote your people in. But on the local level, you have much more agency to act in it with a smaller group of people to be respectful to those people because you know, you’re going to see them the next day at the PTA meeting or taking out the trash or in the grocery store. And it’s much more a collective interest, to be able to collaborate and cooperate and listen to each other and come to some kind of agreement on what to do. That sense of agency. Well, that sense that it’s up to us, and that we have the agency to work and make changes, I think is, is what kind of signifies the difference between how people can have these split personalities of this is my national sensibility, and this is my local sensibility.
I love that quote. How can two contradictory things be simultaneously true? That’s, I had to make note of that. Bridget, I want to get you in the conversation. We spoke with the StriveTogether CEO, Jennifer Blatz and StriveTogether founder Jeff Edmondson, about the founding years at our organization, and we learned, you know, how the country was in a state of recovery, even then, and yet so much good was taking place in the midst of that struggle. Bridget, in our network, it’s so much about place. And I just wonder, you know, what have you been seeing across the country in our place based partnerships and how they’re meeting the moment today?
Prior to the pandemic, I traveled all over to our network communities and multiple places a year. When you’ve traveled 100,000 miles, just being with different folks across the country and how excited and honored they are to showcase their town, their community, their place, what’s good, what’s happening. I love that you talk about Greenville, Spartanburg is one of our leading edge network members. And I’ve flown into the Greenville airport numerous times. And as I was reading Our Towns and getting to unpack some of this, I got really excited about what an opportunity to connect with you all could look like for our network members. So one of the things that was really powerful for me in the midst of the pandemic was my connection to my own community. So I live in Cincinnati. StriveTogether is housed here. I feel like I am more a citizen of the airports and other communities than actually here. Stay at home order and quarantine kind of forced me to think about what is my own community? What does it look like to actually be in a place. And so I always take two weeks off at the holidays and grab four books and Our Towns was one of the books I read over the holidays this past year. And I was so struck by what place based narratives can be and what stories we choose to tell places. Like you said, Jim, we love to bring the news cameras and the journalists there when something awful happens, but what are we celebrating? And so for me, there’s this huge piece that we don’t lean into nearly enough around telling the stories of place and really shifting narratives. So at StriveTogether, our work is all about transforming systems and doing that in a place based hyper local way. I was reading Heather McGee’s book, The Sum of Us, last week and one of the things she noted is that to change outcomes, we have to change beliefs. And what is the way, what is a critically vital way to change beliefs? It’s by telling stories. It’s by lifting up those stories. And I’m excited to talk more about what we can do as a society. And what journalists can do what media can do, to tell stories differently, to tell stories that empower communities that lift up thematic elements of what true place based change looks like. Christian, you actually had a question for me that I think was, you know, what are we seeing across the country as folks are meeting the moment today? And I think what we’re seeing is that communities are meeting the moment. As I was preparing for this, I was thinking about, you know, what, what would be some examples, and Milwaukee succeeds. And Milwaukee, Wisconsin came up for me, they were so ready when the pandemic first hit, to have a civic response, because their local civic infrastructure was strong. And so they were focused on mental health, physical health, child care, food, shelter, schools, and education. And they were equipped to do something better, because they knew they needed to. And so they were able to leverage Cares Act dollars, through advocacy, through connections to sectors all over the community to get childcare providers the dollars they need. Christian, you can probably tell even more of that story, because I know you work with them on that a lot. But they were able to make small grants and leverage response funds to more than 140 child care providers. Some in home, some in daycare centers, but they were able to stabilize a sector. Childcare is a foundational element of our communities, right? The children and families that make up place, they are the lifeblood. And so as I think about how communities can meet the moment, I think so many are able to do that. I think my question then is, how do we do more of that? So it doesn’t take horrific international pandemic. It doesn’t take a global climate crisis, but it changes the way we’re sort of doing business about how we tell these stories.
Bridget, we are so grateful for all the things you’re saying and doing we do feel a sort of separated, separated at birth, kinship with all of you and StriveTogether because what we really feel, I’ll say something about stories and something about the connections among these efforts around the country and being ready for this moment. You are really right, that people at every level are guided by stories, you know. We individually are the stories of our lives, and our families, our communities, our nation, the story of America with its crises, and its successes and all the rest. And I think as you very well know as StriveTogether illustrates, stories doesn’t mean sugarcoated stories. It doesn’t mean ignoring the things that are wrong and left behind and covered up and all the rest of the stories of who we are we in all the dimensions of that. And if we’re only with that story, can you sort of say okay, let’s let’s build on what is best within our potential, and deal with the things that are worst within our, with our history. And I think those kinds of stories are really important. And like, you know, that Deb will say too, we really feel as if there’s such a moment in history, to connect people around the country who are doing the kinds of things you’re talking about and making them feel they’re not alone. That there is a movement, even of people trying to innovate and renew and heal the local level.
So one of the things that we actually were kind of glad to be home during the pandemic, because we had been on the road for so many years. And it felt novel and it felt comfortable to us. We were here for a long time, just like everybody else. Sixteen, eighteen months without budging. It was hard, just like for everybody else. And it was hard to kind of leave all the towns and all the people we had met along the way. So we decided to do a few things. We tried very hard, different ways to keep in touch with people we had met in different towns to find out. How are you doing? What are you doing? And we heard some stories, for example, in Eastport, Maine, where they have a federally qualified health center to take care of the 1500 people in the town 10s of miles from hospitals, you know, an hour’s drive to the nearest emergency care and so forth and things like that. But the health care center, like what you were saying, Bridget, they were ready. They told us that they had a pandemic plan that was part of being a qualified health center that they had to do. So when things happen, they immediately knew how they were going to pivot. And they had this reservoir of trust in the community because everybody, that’s where you went when you were in trouble. And they knew that they could quickly pivot to the difficult things like if anybody got sick, which didn’t happen for a very long time, they were prepared with all the PPE. They knew how they were going to shift their rooms around in their small clinic to take care of people who were really sick. And they knew how to reach out into the community, into the police force, the volunteer force, contacting the elderly, they knew where they lived, and how to find them. So they were really able to connect in those ways and to lean on places like the library, or the local tech experts, to help the people who, who didn’t know what to do, or didn’t have access to any kind of internet and so forth. So there were those small local stories. I had primarily a very interesting experience with the state of South Dakota. We had been friends with a group called Dakota Resources, which gets different towns together and helps them connect with each other, talk with each other, solve similar kinds of problems, like, what do we do because all the young people are moving out of our little town? Or how do we help build up main street. Or our kids in school need more, how can we bring in people from the outside, when these kids, the farthest place they’ve gone may have been Sioux Falls, and they’ve never gotten out of this state? So that Dakota Resources really pivoted during the pandemic, to having a couple phone calls every week with their whole membership, which was basically small towns around the state to talk about how do we talk to each other. Let’s share what our problems are. And let’s try to figure out, on a regional level, what we can learn from each other and what the solutions are. So I, you know you said, Bridget, that you learned about your own community. We felt like we learned about the whole state of South Dakota by being inside their communities for these zoom calls for an entire year, weekly. And it was a very reassuring thing to see how you could expand this local place based sense to a regional place based sense. I’m in South Dakota, as we know, we all know about South Dakota. What it’s like politically and what it’s like kind of geographically and demographically. But to hear all of those people come together to talk about, okay, we are losing our small businesses, how do we what do we do? What are you doing over there in Lemmon, South Dakota? Or what are you doing out there in Hartford, South Dakota? Help us with your answer so we can try to put some things together with each other. And these quote, coffee, coffee breaks every Wednesday morning, would just be a kind of free for all for people to bring up what their issues are and other people to say, yeah, we have that going on, too. And we all have those similarities. And let’s talk about it. And let’s figure out how we can move forward.
Deb and Bridget, you brought this up a bit as well. I love these stories of collaboration. And, you know, in the StriveTogether network, I mean, it’s essential. We find it to be essential to the work of building civic infrastructure. And in many places, you know, the beginning of the work when we are supporting network members, you know, the beginning of that work is often asking the question, what is the shared community vision for this place? So I just love these stories around collaboration, because I think, I mean, it becomes a central element. And, Deb, as you share these stories, I’m wondering, you know, is there an example of maybe uncommon partners, or I don’t know, just a story that where the collaboration was a real surprise to you?
We’ve just returned from a small town in Maine. This is like the first time or second time we’ve been out since we’ve been able to go out. We went in our little plane, which, again, which was very safe, and what a luxury to be able to do that without fighting with commercial airlines. We spent several days in a tiny town of about 5,000 people called Bucksport, Maine. And they had gone through this. They had a real shock to their town in 2014, when the paper mill which had been the main staple of that town for 90 years, suddenly closed. They lost a lot of jobs. I mean, a huge number of jobs. They lost 40% of their tax revenue base. The place closed down and unlike in some other places, they knew it wasn’t coming back. They started to dismantle that paper mill immediately. So the people in the town got together and thought, okay, we can either become small, kind of make ourselves smaller, live on less, have a smaller vision, or we can do something else and they decided we will do something else. And maybe it’s part of being Mainers, you know, who are really tough folk. So they went to a group called Community, Heart and Soul. It’s a process started by the Orton Family Foundation in Vermont. And it has very prescriptive steps to take to get people together and sort through what are we the question of how do we start? What are we going to do? Tell us how to do this? The really interesting thing of that is that it all started with stories. People, they had, they went to people and said, tell us what you think is important with it in this town. And people spoke to the real values that they thought built their town like education, or recreation or caring for children. And they came up with, they had 250 stories that they kind of filtered through and identified a certain number of values that were really critical to them. And then very specific steps they could take for improvement to feed those, to serve those values. Okay, recreation is important to us. We’re not going to get help from the paper mill anymore, to build on to the Riverwalk that they were able to help with in this infrastructure. So what do we do? Let’s bring in the important players in this town, the Garden Club. They can help us beautify that Riverwalk. The YMCA, they can tell us about what the kids need to stay active in recreation. They brought in the, I don’t know if they were called the AARP, but the elderly community in town who said, we really like to walk, let us help each other form a walking group, because that’s how we’ll stay fit and have recreation. So the collaboration is in those town where it was like De Tocqueville. You know, you want to build a sense of community, you want to start an organization, bring a bunch of organizations together, the YMCA can work with the library can work with the Chamber of Commerce, can work with the schools, and that broadsided collaboration was I think what something that impressed us most because we’d seen examples of these one by one in different towns. But to see it all working together was just inspirational.
Thank you, Deb. It feels, I don’t know, if you look back, you know, a year ago, a year and change ago, I remember Bridget, being in Austin, somewhere early March, when Jennifer, our CEO, spread the messenge out to our staff saying, don’t travel anywhere. Because the pandemic has gotten serious. I’m now sitting in the hotel lobby, like oh, whoops. But you know, I think looking back at 2020, I’m reminded that we were looking at twin pandemics. So both this health crisis, this pandemic, of the Covid 19 virus that was going around, but then also this national reckoning that was happening around around race. I live in Kentucky, where in Louisville, Breonna Taylor was killed in her apartment and George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, so many names that we could call out. Jim, you’ve recently talked about how small towns are addressing these crises being debated at the national level, including the issue of police violence, and I wonder if you could share a bit more about how these communities are responding? And if you’re seeing any of the approaches being replicated in other areas?
Yes. So I’ll answer indirectly briefly, and then come to the, to the heart of your question. I was thinking of collaboration across unexpected lines. There’s one that’s in our HBO movie called Our Towns which is based in Charleston, West Virginia, and Charleston, you know, is sort of a poster child for Appalachian area struggles. They’ve lost half their population compared to 60 years ago, etc. And a lot of, sort of, the west side of Charleston has become very rundown. And they have an extraordinary partnership there among some, mainly black religious groups, and so mainly black police officers, mainly white political leadership in Charleston, and some financial institutions where they’re essentially they are hiring inmate felons, most of whom in West Virginia are white. So they have a mainly white felon work crew, restoring rundown houses in a plan that was largely black initiated and run by black police officers and religious leaders with white partners and finding ways to rehabilitate these houses which they let either public safety officers or school teachers live in practically for free, as long as they all live there and be part of the neighborhood. And so it really is an extraordinary partnership in a state that is called West Invest. I believe it really is something that can be, I think, studied elsewhere. And I think that the places we’ve seen where there’s been closest to a reckoning, not simply on the police violence issues that have been highlighted in the last year and a half and of course, are chronic in American life, but long term racial justice issues have been those where there is this built in face to face encounter. And people can say, we recognize we’ve been living as separate communities. We recognize the ways in which we need to, to interact. We also, in our film, we highlight Columbus, Mississippi, and the school called Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science, which has had for a number of years now, that’s a mixed race school for public school students from across the state of Mississippi. And they’ve been dramatizing every year on Emancipation Day, the Reconstruction and Post Reconstruction Era history of Mississippi and you know, just sort of saying, this is our community. This is where we were, in the, before the Civil War, after the Civil War, trying to come through in the 1960s. So I think the places that have the greatest chance of reckoning is, are where people have to live together and it’s not law enforcement from 50 miles away and then you know, just from outside the community so, you know, this is a, the endless struggle of America, but I think that the more intimate the connection and the more direct the reckoning. We won’t go to the whole story of Duluth, Minnesota, but they also have been been dealing with this.
Yeah, actually, I’d like to talk about Duluth, Minnesota because it’s such a far cry from Columbus, Mississippi. You know, it’s a mostly white town. There was a so you think, okay, why do they need a reckoning? Why would they have a reckoning? Here’s what happened that made them have a reckoning. About 100 years ago, like in Tulsa, there was well, not like, just before…
It was just before Tulsa.
There was a lynching in Duluth, Minnesota, of three black men who came to town with the circus, who were wrongly accused of raping a couple white women in the town. And you know, before you could turn around, they were in jail, dragged out of jail and lynched from a lamppost. Right off, two blocks off the main drag in Duluth, Minnesota. So fast forward…
It’s the northern most lynching in US history. 1920.
So fast forward, 90 years or so, the story had been kind of forgotten, got away, mentioned a few times. And then it came up in the newspaper somehow or in a book that somebody wrote. And it was a moment when a few people in town thought, okay, this happened here. This was a really terrible thing that happened in our town, probably one of the worst that has ever happened. And we’ve never talked about it, we’ve never acknowledged it.
We the white people…
We the white people have never acknowledged this or come or even tried to come to terms with that. So they did try to come to terms with that. And they got a group together. And they built a memorial kitty corner from where the lynching was. Have this beautiful little, what was kind of abandoned park area now made into, you know, a granite and copper memorial park where people can just sit and talk and see the words that were written about what happened in this place. And then they start this scholarship fund, and then they actually made headstones for the three lynching victims, and in the cemetery were there, they had been unmarked, until that point.
And they have in the park, they have larger than life size statues of these three men telling who they were and their stories. And so it was something.
Yeah, it was dramatic, because who would have known about this happening in Duluth? It was buried for a long time, and it only has now come to light. And interestingly, we are starting to hear a couple other similar stories of previously deeply hidden atrocities that happened in towns that will come to light, not in this dramatic way as Tulsa, but for the places where they are equal drama.
What I hear from you, I just I just think it’s so important, I hear both this kind of being together in a space perhaps connecting across difference, but then also telling that story and this, I’m always struck, you know, in these conversations, because I think of the stories that are being told, but they’re told in sort of those quiet places, often referenced the TV show that was on HBO, Lovecraft Country, and they highlighted sundown towns. I was a child who grew up in Alabama and among my family, and you know, plenty of cousins. We knew we got a couple of towns that we may not need to visit. And I remember when that show came out, there are many, many folks, many of my friends who are asking, like, what is this? I live in Kentucky now. We’re still in the south, where a lot of this history is just around us all the time. And we don’t know, we don’t know about that place. I’m thinking, I’ve visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery for the first time. And I just think of that quote, from Clint Smith, that researcher, Clint Smith said, you know, how different our country would be, if we all knew what really happened here. So I’m just, to your point, I just think it’s so powerful for the idea of us being able to connect across difference and be able to put those stories at the forefront. And Bridget, you are about to get in there. I apologize.
I appreciate you mentioning Clint. I know he’s a colleague as well. And we actually did a blog, I was able to write one on the power of storytelling a few months ago, and a piece Clint had written about whose stories we’re telling, and how we’re telling this story is just really, really struck me. But, you know, Jim and Deb, as you both were talking, I was thinking about this frame of conditional optimism, or the notion that we can be better if, and so many folks who are listening to this are thinking about how to change things at a systems level. Not as big as the federal system, but local systems, which are complex and rooted in a lot of history. And Jim, you reminded us at the beginning that stories aren’t just about the great things that are happening. Stories have to lay bare who we really are. And one of the things that I hope folks who are listening to this and processing this are contemplating is how can we tell more of those stories about who we are, where we’ve come from, to be able to think about where we can go. I think there’s a lot of great ideas that surface in communities that in, you know, a systems thinking way, or only above the surface level of the water for thinking about systems as an iceberg, right? The biggest part of any system is that thing that’s really hard to see, we can’t always see it, we can’t always feel it, we can’t always hear it. And Christian, not to step on your toes as host, but I’m curious how we can do more or particularly as journalists and storytellers, what’s the role in this moment right now to tell those stories of who we are in place? And what does that mean for us if we can actually do that more effectively?
So I will take a stab at this answer at first, I really appreciate your mentioning Clint Smith, who’s whose recent book, which was so popular and effective, was all about different stories told around the country and around the world, mainly about race. You know, the plantation in Louisiana, that is now set up to commemorate everybody who suffered and died there and contrast say to others that in Charlottesville, or Monticello, or wherever else, and so I think I’ll give you two answers. One is we all struggle, I think, every minute and every day of the million things that should be done. What’s the thing to do next, you know? How can we do something because you could register people to vote, you could go clean up your neighborhood, you could do 16 different things. And I think it is valuable, something that that’s been interesting is organizations, including yours, including StriveTogether that found ways to kind of create frameworks. Here’s something you can do tomorrow, if you’d like to do. I’ll give you one example from my home state of California. There’s a guy named Josh Friday, whom you may have come across who’s sort of the secretary of volunteerism in California in their state government. And they have all kinds of ambitious volunteer programs there. But it’s on a tiered level. If you can spend two years you can join something like the old CCC that’s run by California and get college benefits. If you can spend two hours a week we have things you can do locally. If there’s something you can do in 10 minutes, here’s a way we think you can have a more sustainable approach. I think things that have have frameworks and sort of give answer people what they can do next or important, the other on the storytelling. I think our, in a way, our shared business of journalism and public information has a lot to answer for and a lot to do here. Because to a disproportionate degree, the stories that mainstream journalists want to tell are about strife and division and the game of politics and political personalities. And what’s happened with, you know, you name your politician, what’s happening with this person, those things are important. But to the extent we can tell more of these three dimensional stories of what people can do, you know, what they’re, what they’re struggling with, where they’re where they’re succeeding. And I think that that’s something that Deb and I are trying to consciously bend our attention towards. We know that StriveTogether is featuring this. And I think that storytellers can affect the supply of what people have available to know about their world. And so that’s something we, you all are doing, and we’re trying to do.
Yes, well, I agree with all that you’ve just said that the importance and power of journalism to do this. Another thing that we certainly have witnessed is that everyone can be a storyteller. And the stories don’t have to be conventional stories where you have a microphone, and somebody tells the story, or where you sit down and write a story. But they can serve us in other ways. We saw so many places where the role of the arts in communities, the role of public art, was a form of storytelling by people who may not be good with words, but they were sure good with visual images, to paint murals on the side of a building, or to make sculptures out of the local stones that were there, or to tell the story of something that happened in the past through old photographs, and make those collected in park like the Duluth Park, that stories can come out in in ways that are not just written stories by journalists, but that are our visual stories, and they give everybody a chance to participate, or many people a chance to participate in other ways, whether it’s through the arts or through music, and they help a lot of people just acknowledge and articulate what is the story of their town. And what is important in this town. Just the same way writing about what’s going on in a town is important, this kind of a diversion from what we were talking about. But I really am a strong believer in that the storytelling can be expanded beyond words, into arts, into music, into prodding the little kids in school, to start to tell their own stories through experiences that they have. And I’ll just tell one brief one, which is in Jim’s hometown of Redlands, California, for every fourth grader in the town, the library in the school system, set up this program where they would load the kids onto a bus, drive them around the town and tell them the stories of the places they would see. This is where the founders of this town came from. And here’s who they were, this is what the house looks like. Now, this is the Orange Grove, which was so important to the economy of this town building. And here’s the processing plant for the oranges that are still here. And I bet you buy those oranges on the street corner from everybody who has orange groves in their backyard. And then the kids would go home to their parents, we heard it time and again and say, guess what we learned about in school today, and they talk about the stories of their town. And when they were, you know, driving around with their families, they could spot the different places in their towns that were important, and start telling the stories of their town. So I think that there are both different avenues to tell stories and different ways to start to help these stories come out and train the youngest people to start appreciating the value of the stories.
A few moments ago, I mentioned these twin pandemics and I want to ask the question before we leave this idea of that you’ve all been talking about that’s the story that we tell. And you know, we’re in the midst, I think, still of these twin pandemics. You know, you all have talked about how communities are starting to, you know, advocate for the kind of changes necessary to shift the communities and shift the narrative. I wonder, and this is for all three of you really, Bridget, Jim, Deb, you know, what is the story? Do you have a hope for the kind of stories that can be told post pandemic about how we work together? Or what we had to do to advance our communities? I don’t know. Do you have a hope for the kind of stories that we tell when all of this is over?
I will lead off to give my my two colleagues a chance to think of an appropriate answer. So I’ll give an inappropriate answer. The history of the US is marked by these decades or periods of extreme stress and tragedy and hardship and dislocation. My parents were little kids in the Depression. My mom had a really hard time in the Depression. There have been other times when people have been been through been through hardships. And I hope that the story we will tell is that the economic shock, the public health disaster, and the racial awareness or the racial reemergence of this time, gave people a chance to do something better on all three fronts. To imagine an economy that was fairer and more sustainable. To think of public health in terms of us, as opposed to, you know, just us and them. And of course, to recognize the ongoing just struggle of America to live up to its E Pluribus Unum ideal. So if there’s a way that we can look on the hardships of these early 2020s, public health, economic and racial as a way where things improved on all those three fronts, then this will be a time we can look back on with pride as opposed to that it’ll be a the bottom of a curve leading up rather than one step on a descending curve. That would be my hope.
Bridget, I don’t want to follow Jim.
Put me in the hot seat. So Christian, I appreciate you, centering us in hope, right? There’s so much right now that is challenging. And it’s not just those twin pandemics. I mean we, in the most recent news cycle, right, we’re hearing about what’s going on in Afghanistan. We’re hearing about what’s going on in Haiti. And there are a lot of, there are a lot of things that are hard. And you know Jim named it, those are the things that often sell, I was going to say sell newspapers. I don’t think that happens anymore. But they’re the things that get the subscriptions, the things that get the clicks. And so my hope for storytelling, is that we tell stories, and this isn’t vastly different from what Jim was saying, but of how we’re better together. What I’ve been hearing in the media, on my social media news feeds, is a lack of collectivity. And I think we’re in a moment right now, where we’re seeing a real grappling with the story of the individual or individualism, or the story of collective and in public health. I mean, this is where we’re where we need to lean into the collective. And so one of the things that I found so powerful about one of the insights Jim and Deb made in their book was that regardless of federal political affiliation, or how folks voted in federal or national elections, there were a kind of contradictory elections that happen about, you know, increasing taxes, or the things that go against the national narrative that we’re led to believe. And I think, if we can tell more stories of the collective of communities of those unexpected partners coming together, will have a completely different story to tell in the next 50 years. And I don’t think that’s just the story of where things are going well, but where are the things we really need to reconcile because until we name those, we won’t address those. And so my hope is that, you know, we say the for real for real, but we recognize that we are all truly better when we’re together.
So now I have to difficult people to follow. Alright, I’m gonna bring it down to a more micro level of my hope starts with the, I think, fact that everybody has had a hard time in the last year and a half, for any number of reasons. People are just feeling bad. They’re feeling upset. They are turning, trying to turn to where they can do something to make things better. I hope that this sense of, I hope that after having gone through the rough times of the pandemic, and the reckonings and all the awful things that are happening, I think I’ve got we’ve got four or five that we have to worry about big time every single day now that people will have a strong sense of empathy, a better sense of empathy for each other. And they’ll find ways that they can use that empathy to participate or help somebody or answer. There was what in our town which we’ve certainly gotten to know better I, like a lot of people, I think I just lurk at the nextdoor.com to find out what’s going on in my neighborhood. And I was really usually it’s about lost cat, lost dog, you know, where do I get my chairs fixed or something? But yeah, this morning, there was the most popular post was by a person who was clearly just having some kind of breakdown, nervous breakdown. And all these people rushed in to, I don’t know, I mean, you can imagine what it must have taken in the isolation and loneliness that this young person wrote on the next door website to people she didn’t know, a cry for help. And there were like, 132 messages of people reaching out, within three hours of, here are numbers you can call, where do you live, I’ll bring you pizza, you know, let’s talk, I went through the same kind of thing, that there are many small, small ways that people can participate in making things better. And I think people are being really creative or responsive to in an empathetic way to other people’s troubles.
Thank you. We at the end of the day, I think we belong to each other. And my hope is, I hope as you do that, these are the stories that are told on the other side of this. I do want to step back and just say thank you all for your participation. This has been such a wonderful conversation. Thank you, Jim and Deb, and thank you, Bridget, my colleague. For folks who want to learn more about Jim and Deb’s work, you can explore the series through the Atlantic. You can watch the Our Town’s documentary on HBO Max or purchase Our Towns wherever books are sold. Thank you again for joining us today. Stay connected with us by visiting strivetogether.org where you can find transcripts of our Together for Change podcast series. Again, thanks everybody.