April 25, 2019

James and Deborah Fallows Discuss Their Book "Our Towns"

Authors James and Deborah Fallows (center and right, respectively) discussed their findings at MIT Sloan on April 22nd. Barbara Dyer, Executive Director of the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan (left) moderated the discussion. 

Initially, authors James and Deborah Fallows thought their journey to understand what was going on in American towns might last just a few months.

They were mistaken.

Instead, the couple spent more than four years taking trips across the United States in a single-engine prop plane. They visited more than 40 communities from Maine to California that are not normally in the national news –- communities ranging from remote small desert towns to mid-sized cities. Meeting with civic leaders, librarians, artists, educators, students, business owners and other residents, James and Deborah Fallows wanted to take the pulse of these communities. What they learned was surprising, as they recounted during a visit to the MIT Sloan School of Management on April 22.

“While most of the national conversation starts out with ‘we are a divided nation and we can’t make anything happen,’ the story we found was that people in communities were not waiting around for the country to reunite itself and come up with solutions for them to move forward,” Deborah Fallows said.

“What gave us momentum as the months and years went on was the difference between what we were seeing city by city and what the national-level news narrative was,” said James Fallows. “For all the problems that exist any place in the U.S., [people in these places] were getting some traction and figuring out some possibilities.”  

The Fallowses chronicled their expedition in a 2018 book, "Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America," which they discussed at MIT Sloan on April 22. Barbara Dyer, Executive Director of MIT Sloan’s Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative, moderated the discussion.

The evening event, which was open to the public, was hosted by MIT’s Mens et Manus America Initiative; the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan; the MIT Sloan Student Life Office; the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; and the MIT Press Bookstore. Earlier in the day, the Fallowses also met with students in MIT Sloan’s USA Lab class, who are working on projects with community groups in small towns and rural regions in the U.S.

During the evening discussion, Deborah Fallows shared an example of one town’s reinvention rooted in the arts: Ajo, Arizona. Tucked away in the southern part of that state, Ajo prospered when copper was mined in its nearby hills, but the mine closed several decades ago. However, a group of people in the community decided they were not “going to let this town go to nothing,” she said.

Ajo had a strong arts community, fueled by the ‘snowbirds’ who frequented the town in winter. Community leaders sought grants and foundation support and restored a former school into a conference center and affordable housing for artists. Its artists-in-residence program draws tourists while the project has generated a new sense of pride among local residents.

From their visits to disparate communities, the Fallowses identified some common patterns that they describe in their book in a list of “10 ½ signs of civic success.” One such sign is public schools that show “institutional inventiveness” in K-12 education, according to James Fallows. As an example, he described a county high school near Saint Marys, Georgia, a small town just north of the Florida border. At the high school, students can receive not only a traditional high school education but also training in “tangible skills” such as auto maintenance, welding, or law enforcement.

Another of the authors’ “10 ½” signs that a community is headed in a good direction is openness to outsiders. “Most of the places we went were heavily affected by immigration,” said James Fallows. “In the great majority of these places, the idea…is that this is our future, and we need to find a way to make this work -- as opposed to the quite distinct national-level discourse we hear now. Indeed, the only places we saw that seemed concerned about the 'immigrant menace' is where immigrants had not arrived.”

He illustrated this observation with the example of Dodge City, Kansas, where the meat-packing industry has drawn so many Latinos that they now make up the majority of its population. The existing political and business establishment, James Fallows said, had made a “conscious decision” to create a welcoming environment for the new residents, including responding to statewide cuts in public school funding by passing a local levy to increase funding for Dodge City’s majority-Latino public school system.

And if you’re wondering about the civic success indicator that earned itself the final “1/2” spot on the Fallowses’ list, it’s the presence of a craft brewery. Craft breweries, James Fallows explained, “are an important industry, but they’re an even more important marker of local identity.”

--Maria Iacobo

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