The public library system in Brownsville, Texas, has a long history of inventing and then reinventing itself to be of, by, and for the people. The library story began modestly at the end of the 19th century, with the personal collection of Irish-born U.S. Army Captain William Kelly, who had settled in Brownsville and become a renowned businessman, proponent of Brownsville’s first public schools, and a civic activist. His daughter Geraldine recollected later in the Brownsville Herald, “He had a very fine library, which he used continually and loved.”
In 1912, a group of Brownsville’s intellectual and high-minded women calling themselves the Learners Club started the town’s first subscription library. (Other women’s clubs have been promoters of early libraries: In 1905, the women’s club of Dodge City, Kansas, inspired some of its prominent citizens to ask Andrew Carnegie if he would support building one of his libraries in Dodge City. He did.)
A decade and a half later, the Learners Club and the city teamed up to transform the Brownsville subscription library into a public library in a larger space. It moved a few more times over the next decades, before partnering with Texas Southmost College and locating the public library on its campus. There they stayed until 1991.
Then, with the city’s support, the Brownsville public library pivoted toward its modern era.
Jerry Hedgecock, who has been with Brownsville libraries since 1993 and is now the director of the Public Information Services Department in Brownsville, described to me how the library was able to start back in the 1990s, in effect from scratch, with the driving mission to make the library a go-to destination for the residents of Brownsville. They erected a new building and ushered in new ideas and new programs.
After some early years, which Hedgecock described as, “to be honest, very boring,” they prepared to change emphasis so as to offer more services. It was all about being relevant to the community, he said: “What do the people want? What do we want?”
Library plans were farsighted; they were creative and intended to reflect the culture of the town and region; and they were executed efficiently and also patiently, adding projects piecemeal, year by year. With a line item in the municipal budget supporting them ($4.8 million in 2019), a library foundation that contributes to capital projects, and the still vital Learners Club and a Friends group pitching in, the library evolved.
One year, old wallpaper was removed. Another year, end panels with blown-up photos of important images of the region were affixed to the rows of bookshelves. To be both efficient and personalized, the library created a graphics department to make their own artwork, with double wins of being less expensive and more Brownsville-personal than what was available from generic catalogs.
The library currently owns and makes available to users 259 computers, as online access is critical to this community. But the library’s leaders expect that as more people become able to afford their own computers, the need will ratchet down, and the library will switch some of the computer space to suit different needs.
As with every other library I visited, use of space was a top concern. (This is despite the common impression that libraries must have lots of extra space, as some reduce their holdings of physical books.) Even in Texas, where the size and scale of everything from ranches to libraries feels vast, Hedgecock says that space in the library is tight, and they pay close attention to how they use every nook and cranny.
The “maker space” holds eight 3D printers, and there are plans for laser cutters and more.
Maybe they’ll build a tool bank, suggested Hedgecock, an area that would be stocked with devices and equipment to meet the expanding skill sets of their population. Being nimble and responsive to the population and their changing needs is critical. “Without new services,” Hedgecock said, “we won’t be relevant to the community. We can’t be complacent.”
The library took over the local-government access television channel, whose studio is housed inside the building. The public was delighted, but became distracted enough by its presence that the station is now out of sight behind unmarked closed doors. There are plans to relocate the station to a newly created municipal department. I found this recording from the station of a live event presented by Texas Monthly in Brownsville this July. This magazine, where my husband, Jim, worked in its founding days in the 1970s, when we were living in Austin while I did my graduate studies at the University of Texas, takes its show on the road around Texas for live 90-minute performances of music, video, reading, and storytelling, curated by the editors. You’ll do yourself a favor to watch this one, where writer Wes Ferguson reads about his return to Brownsville.
I visited the library on an early voting day for the city election, and the place was buzzing. People were wandering in and out, having lunch at the library’s cafeteria, checking books in and out, sitting at tables reading newspapers or at computers working.
What surprised me most in the Brownsville library was the teen space. It’s called Space 14s. You get it. We’ve all heard about the children’s areas—the reading readiness, the story hours and preschool activities. From what I’ve seen, most public libraries are sophisticated with the preschoolers by now, and for many libraries, making themselves relevant to teenagers is the next step.
Brownsville is ahead of the curve on this one. Several librarians around the country told me that teens are the hardest group to attract to the library. Brownsville took this challenge head-on and worked with the Library Interiors of Texas to design its two-story teen space in the library. The themes of outer space, diversity, and technology dominate wall murals everywhere you look. Colorful, comfortable seating around workstations, at tables, and in big chairs invites hanging around. The spotlighting and the upper-level overlook struck me as opening space to easily scope out everyone and everything happening, which is how I think of preferred teenage behavior.
Hedgecock described the public opening of the new teen space, Space 14s. The crowd gathered. A curtain was drawn in front of the space and lights were down. The curtain opened; lights were brought up. As Hedgecock relives the moment when people first laid eyes on the new teen space, “It was the first time I’ve heard an audible gasp from the public at a library.”
I asked about the Brownsville library as a “second responder,” as I had heard about other libraries that had stepped up to serve their people after the riots in Ferguson, or Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey, or the shootings in Orlando. Brownsville had its own story: During the recession, one family where both parents lost jobs and couldn’t afford to run their air conditioning (which is a big deal during the summers in Brownsville), came to the library and asked if they could spend their days inside. “Of course,” was the answer. After the father got another job, and the family was able to run their air conditioners again, they sent a thank you note to the library for helping them when it mattered.
I heard another second-responder story when I visited the second, smaller, neighborhood library in Brownsville, the Southmost Library. Librarians there told me about the kids who are bused in from the nearby migrant-detention center to watch movies, eat popcorn, and drink lemonade. Jim and I were not able to go inside a detention center, but it takes no leap of imagination to guess how the kids value this field trip to the public library.
We learned about the waves of refugees and immigrants, and their children who made up nearly 10 percent of the school system and spoke more than 60 languages. We learned about the John Morrell packing plant, where Muslim women slaughtered pigs all day, keeping the plant in business and establishing an economic beachhead for their families. And the USGS-EROS site, which captured, downloaded, and stored the entire country’s satellite imagery every 90 minutes, day in and day out, over the decades. And Raven Industries, which developed and manufactured precision-agriculture equipment and made balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.
We met nurses who had moved to Sioux Falls from all over the region to study and practice, and with their “Midwest nice” treated us to a beer at the Granite City brewery when they learned it was our anniversary. We rode bikes on the path that circled the city, passing again the airport, the state penitentiary, and downtown area and falls and many fields where the New Americans played soccer.
Our initial gee whiz reaction to Sioux Falls sprang from the multitude of the town’s endeavors and the loftiness of its citizens’ dreams. How could so much be going on in one town that we had barely heard of before? Little did we know that after visiting 10 or 30 or 50 more towns around the country, we would come to expect similar ventures, or more accurately, local versions of them, as we grew to admire the creative energy that so many Americans poured into their hometowns across the country.
More than five years and 100,000 miles later, Sioux Falls became the first city we wrote about in our book, Our Towns. We returned again a few weeks ago with an HBO film crew, for a documentary scheduled to come out next year. With them we wanted to see and document how the town had changed, to revisit some of our favorite places, and to discover new ones.
Once again in Sioux Falls, we found a more mature, nuanced town. Some early initiatives had come to fruition, like the expanded sculpture walk and the capstone of sculpture, the gallant Arc of Dreams, which soars across the Big Sioux River. Or the additional blocks and blocks of new restaurants, bars, shops, and hip lofts stretching down the main street. Others remained a work in progress. Some problems, opioid addictions above all, were much more front of mind, proof that Sioux Falls was in sync with the rest of America.
After our first visit in 2013, I made a word cloud of words and phrases that I heard around Sioux Falls that struck me as reflecting the spirit of the city. After our latest visit a few weeks ago, I made another. You can compare and contrast, as college teachers of my generation used to say. Here is the first one:
And here is the one I’ve made just now, after our latest visit:
What are my takeaways of Sioux Falls now? These are the main themes I heard so often that they made their way into my word cloud.
Heart of the country: When the residents of Sioux Falls describe this sentiment about their city, they are describing its spirit even more than its geography. Many people offered some version of this comment in an uncynical, unabashed way. Sioux Falls is the perfect place to live. Others took it even a step further: “There is nowhere else in the world I would live,” a transplant from Winnipeg told us. (We understand all the reasons why people might differ. I’m just reporting what we heard while on-scene.)
What are the attributes of this sentiment? Just the right size is one description we heard frequently. Curiously, many other people across the country describe their hometowns the same way, whether they lived in towns of 1,250 or 25,000 or like Sioux Falls, just shy of 200,000. Behind the idea of justthe right size is “big enough that there is a lot going on, and small enough that I can have some impact here.”
Sioux Falls, adults frequently say, is a great place to raise a family, and those who moved there or returned say that the quality of life for families played a big role in their settling in Sioux Falls.
Low unemployment: The current unemployment rate, almost always lower than the national average and now around 2 percent, is a big attraction of Sioux Falls, although that is complicated by the very low average wage. (How can both these things be true—demand for labor going up, but wages staying down? We asked everyone we met, and the answers were variations on “it’s complicated.” I will let Jim discuss this further in another post.) The John Morrell plant, as it is still called, was purchased by Smithfield in the 1990s, and subsequently by the large Chinese firm Shuanghui in 2013. It has remained a steady fixture for reliable jobs, particularly for the immigrant population. We saw again Muslim women who had been working in the plant, shaving fat from the slabs of pork, for over a dozen years by now. They have moved with their families to suburban-feel streets, with bigger houses and spacious lawns.
Don’t lock my door: Several people bragged on this measure for houses and cars, in what was a proxy for a safe place, and that wetake care of each other.
Going around town on a hot summer day shows off the sports, recreation, and the good lifestyle of Sioux Falls: gaggles of kids in team-colored T-shirts at golf camp or riding their bikes to the neighborhood pools. I swam in the 50-meter pool at the new Midco Aquatic Center. I visited libraries where summer tutoring programs were keeping kids on track or bringing them up to speed in reading skills. The 20-mile circuit around the river was busy with bikers, joggers, and walkers.
Weather: South Dakotans are a tough breed, but this past winter, with many dozens of days that didn’t break zero degrees Fahrenheit, challenged even these hardy folks. Most brought up the long, endless winter, followed by the rains that flooded farmers’ fields, halting planting or at least slowing crops. We saw fields that never got a chance, and fields of corn that were yet to show tassels. A violent hailstorm finally broke the wilting upper-90s heat during mid-July, insulting further by flattening some waist-high cornfields entirely. This year at least, it seemed that the farmers just couldn’t win. One farmer told us that normally the July rains would be considered a miracle, but this year, they only brought more heartache.
Floods roared down the Big Sioux River, ripping concrete caps off the riverwalk walls and buckling roads, which demanded weeks of road repairs.
Community: I found the references to community most complicated. Sioux Falls reflected its German and Scandinavian heritage with the tall, light haired population that settled this territory after displacement of the Native American tribes, who now fight hard to preserve their cultures and languages on the reservations. Tall, blond people are everywhere. But so are immigrants, refugees, and Native Americans. Refugees have been welcomed to Sioux Falls through Lutheran Services resettlement programs since the 1970s. (The numbers have been dropping. In 2015, about 500 refugees were settled in South Dakota; in 2017, with cuts in refugee resettlement by the Trump administration, those numbers dropped to about 300; in 2018 to about 200.) In addition to primary resettlement, many of the self-described New Americans now arrive in a wave of secondary migration; word has gotten around to friends and relatives around the country that Sioux Falls is a pretty nice place to be, with opportunity to build a good life—despite its weather.
One of the worst realities of Sioux Falls, and for nearly all of the U.S. that we have seen, is opioids. That word was new to the voice of Sioux Falls. We stepped around the muddy construction lot of the new residential addiction-care center at Avera Health, which is about to open with 32 private rooms. (We also saw flashing billboards of the Farm and Rural Stress Hotline, also manned by Avera Health, which is another of Sioux Falls’s answers trying for traction against spillover of the farmers’ woes.)
Up and coming + the arts: When we first visited Sioux Falls in 2013, we heard buzz about “the arts” in many conversations. On this visit, some 6 years later, we have seen and appreciated the results. Each year now, residents of Sioux Falls vote for their favorite sculpture among the many lining downtown Phillips Street for the city’s Sculpture Walk. The city purchases the winning entry, and the rest move along, making way for next year’s rotation of new installations.
Sioux Falls has a distinct democratic bent, heard in the term People’s Choice. That’s how the city’s annual sculpture for purchase was selected, and the name for the new Thomas Jefferson High School, and the name for the Oak View public library, and the design for the new city flag, which Mayor Paul TenHaken showed us with great enthusiasm. “Democracy runs deep in the Midwest,” one resident explained to me.
The town was chattering about the free outdoor summer concerts at the Levitt shell downtown. The Siouxland public library sponsored a Reading Invasion, and people showed up an hour before the concert to stake out their spots on the grass, and—wait for it—to read to themselves or their children. Jazz Fest was in full swing. The numerous brewpubs were full. We joined the Pork Crawl put on by the South Dakota Pork Producers Council. The Washington Pavilion was showing off its combination of the arts and science museum, housed in the renovated, stately former Sioux Falls (then renamed Washington) High School. New art exhibits were being assembled, and I would say that the science museum for kids is the best that I’ve seen.
The Falls, of course, are nature’s contribution. Its surrounding park hosts one of the most diverse collections of Sioux Falls citizens as anywhere in town. Latino families picnic nearby. Young Somali men move elegantly from boulder to boulder. Just upstream, South Dakota artist and sculptor, Dale Lamphere, whom we met at the base of his new installation, the Arc of Dreams, explained that its soaring arch represents the dreams of the people of Sioux Falls, and its 18-inch gap at the center where the two sides of the arch would meet—but don’t—represent the leap of faith that must finally be made by the dreamers who settle and live there.
Here is another look at the far-southern-Virginia town of Danville: once a thriving tobacco-and-textile center, now trying to figure out what to do after all the mills have shut down.
In keeping with the previously announced intention to keep drawing connections, parallel themes, and lessons from the communities we visit, here are three aspects of Danville’s story worth noticing elsewhere, as boiled down as I can make them. A summary:
First, Danville’s civic renewal shows the importance of a relatively new form of philanthropy.
Second, it shows the importance of creative use of a onetime historical event—in this case, the “tobacco settlement,” which directed billions of dollars from the tobacco industry to local institutions. (This naturally leads to questions about whether a comparable “opioid settlement” might have similar transformative effects.)
Third, it shows the importance of public investment in infrastructure, specifically in broadband capacity.
1) The role of foundations—and foundations of a particular sort: Institutions called “community foundations” are well known, active, long-established, and important across the country. Each year, they give a total of more than $5 billion to civic and charitable efforts in their areas.
The evolution of Danville and its surroundings has been very heavily influenced over the past 15 years by a similar-sounding but structurally different sort of charitable organization, the “health conversion foundation.”
In Danville, the relevant organization is called the Danville Regional Foundation, or DRF. The DRF’s effects in this part of Virginia and North Carolina are too broad and deep to cover in any detail here. For more of the specifics, I direct you to the DRF’s informative site, or articles like this in The State of the South or this in Perspectives on History. Almost everything under way in the vicinity—from the revival of Danville’s downtown to the launching of regional initiatives connecting smaller towns that have lost tobacco, textile, or furniture industries—bears the mark of the DRF. Its area of responsibility includes the city of Danville itself, neighboring Pittsylvania County in Virginia, and the larger Dan River area extending into Caswell County in rural North Carolina.
Why is this worth mentioning? Because of the foundation’s origin story. It’s one of a group of health conversion foundations across the country that have played a surprisingly large civic role over the past generation. Or at least surprising to me, since I hadn’t know about this specific form of modern philanthropy until our first trip to Danville last fall.
You can read extensive details about health conversion foundations from Health Affairs, but in brief: These are charities set up when a nonprofit hospital or similar facility is sold to a private company. Hundreds of them operate around the country, with total assets in the tens of billions. Some examples are the Rapides Foundation, of Louisiana, founded with $140 million in hospital-sale proceeds in 1994; the Cameron Foundation, of Petersburg, Virginia, founded in 2003 with hospital-sale proceeds valued at about $90 million in 2008; and the Harvest Foundation, of Martinsville, Virginia, which was also founded with the proceeds from the sale of a hospital, in 2002, with assets valued at about $200 million in 2008. Many more examples are listed in the Rural Health Initiative newsletter, here.
In Danville’s case, the foundation was formed after the sale of the local Danville Regional Hospital Center to a private company, LifePoint Hospitals, in 2005 for about $200 million. The DRF has given out some $116 million in grants since then; and through the magic of investments and the market, its endowment is now larger than when it began.
Could the sale of a nonprofit health center to a for-profit firm conceivably be a net benefit for a community? As opposed to one more step toward an over-marketized, winner-take-all society?
I started out skeptical, and I still assume that the outcomes must vary case by case, depending on how the new foundation’s money is put to use, and how the new for-profit system runs. But an initial look at think-tank and academic papers suggests that many of the foundations have tried to address public-health and community-improvement goals in their areas.
“I won’t say that every one of these foundations has fulfilled its potential,” Karl Stauber, who is stepping down this summer after a dozen years as the head of the Danville Regional Foundation, told me. “But my estimation is that two in 10 have had an oversized impact on the revitalization of the areas that they serve.”
Maybe everyone else reporting on rural and smaller-town development already knew about health conversion foundations. I hadn’t understood the importance of this recent part of the philanthropic landscape until we were introduced to it in Danville. (Now, of course, I see signs of it everywhere.)
2) The role of the tobacco settlement: One of our favorite places is Danville is a complex known as the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research. It’s a set of modern buildings on a hill near the Danville airport, east of downtown. The title of the institute may seem overly ambitious, but the existence of this research center represents a serious effort to correct a regional weakness, and to apply unusual resources to that end.
The weakness is Danville’s distance from established, big research universities. Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, is two-plus hours away by car, and so is the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. Those in North Carolina are far enough away not to have Danville within their force field for attracting students and faculty, or fostering spin-off research companies. We heard time and again that the lack of higher-ed centers reflected the wishes of mill leadership during Danville’s long run as a textile-and-tobacco town. In those days, it was more convenient for the mills if the locals lacked choices in schooling and occupation.
The institute (as I’ll call it from here on) represents a conscious attempt to bring to the region much of what a university would provide—apart, of course, from the thousands of on-scene students. It has evolved to offer many of the spin-off functions you’d associate with a serious state university: research projects, start-up spaces, training partnerships with companies, alliances with local schools and NGOs, development centers for advanced manufacturing, and a general sense of involvement with the economic future of the community. You can read in detail about its five main divisions here. It is an impressive operation.
When I talked with the institute’s director, Mark Gignac, at the headquarters, he described projects similar to those we’d seen be successful elsewhere—and also one that was unique, the Industrial Hemp Summit. Industrial hemp uses have almost nothing to do with the liberalized marijuana laws in many states and a lot to do with potential commercial and scientific uses of hemp and its components. This is a subject that companies, universities, and governments around the world are taking very seriously because of its industrial- and health-care-related possibilities. And it is one in which some of the same areas of the country that have been economically battered by tobacco’s collapse enjoy natural advantages.
“Two hundred years ago, Virginia was the leading exporter of hemp in the world,” Gignac told me. The same sort of soil that favors tobacco is also good for hemp, which was traditionally used for rope and similar applications, especially in the sailing industry. “People get it confused with marijuana, but we’re talking about something different,” he said—the different versions involving fiber, CBD oil, and other hemp products. “It is important for people to understand that hemp is not just another agricultural product. Hemp is about improving human health.”
“It’s an agricultural crop that is super profitable, I mean super,” he said. “In the good old days, people used to say you could make $4,000 per acre growing tobacco. You can’t do that any more. But in hemp—we’re just getting started, but today you can make between $10,000 and $20,000 per acre, depending on the grade. So you don’t need a lot of acres. And the region here is perfect for this kind of crop.” For more details, you can join the queue to attend the next summit.
Now the larger point about why the institute exists in the first place. This organization that is helping figure out Virginia’s post-tobacco future was set up partly through proceeds from the tobacco industry, through the historic “tobacco settlement.”
Starting with Mississippi’s lawsuit in the mid-1990s, one state government after another began suing Big Tobacco companies because of smoking’s toll on public health. In 1998, as part of a sweeping “master settlement,” the major tobacco companies agreed to pay out a total of more than $200 billion (yes, billion) to more than 40 state governments over the following 25 years.
In most states that never had cigarette or tobacco industries, the money has mainly gone toward public-health efforts or anti-smoking campaigns. But in states like Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia, some of the money went toward compensating communities where tobacco growing or cigarette making had been pillars of the economy.
Danville originally grew on the tobacco business. Thus, it received extra payments—some of which went toward creating the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research.
In short: The Danville region’s transition to a new economy got a significant boost from shrewd reuse of after-effects of the old economy.
It makes you wonder what a “master opioid settlement” might do for the parts of the country that have suffered most grievously from this scourge.
3) Investment in broadband: To a degree that is hard to imagine from New York or San Francisco, smaller-town and inland-America communities suffer from too-slow, too-costly internet connections. Here’s a snooty coastal way to make the point: Running a web-based business in many parts of the U.S. is like trying to do the same thing via an airline’s in-flight Wi-Fi.
Danville is an exception. A dozen years ago, it began building a municipally owned high-speed fiber-optic network, which now offers lower-cost, higher-speed connections to existing and start-up businesses than in most communities of its location and size. That network is called nDanville, and you can read about its history and effects here.
A feature in Broadband Communities, called “Danville Transforms Its Economy With Fiber,” gives the overview, including the importance of Danville’s long history with city-owned (rather than privately run) utilities. That article, by Andrew Michael Cohill, said:
Danville’s ownership of its electric utility (it has been in the electric service business since 1876) gave it a significant advantage in deploying fiber. It is the largest of 15 municipalities in Virginia that own electric power distribution services … As in other fiber communities that own electric utilities, city ownership of utility poles eliminates negotiation of pole attachment fees and minimizes the impact of make-ready costs …
As with conventional transportation roadways, the city builds and maintains Danville’s digital roads, but private businesses use the system to deliver broadband services …
The nDanville high-performance fiber network has brought other jobs and businesses to Danville and has helped drive down the cost of Internet access, telephone service and TV service in the city.
“What’s unique is that we don’t sell services direct to the customer,” Jason Gray, the director of Danville Utilities, told me. “We provide the infrastructure, and private companies can compete.” The result, he said (and outsiders confirmed), was that households, start-ups, and established businesses in the community had faster, cheaper internet connections than in most other rural towns.
“It’s an attraction [for] economic development,” Gray told the Community Broadbandpodcast in 2015. “It’s one less thing we can check off our list—that we do have broadband, and we have scalable broadband that we can offer many different tiers of services, and whatever, basically, the company needs.” This is obviously not in itself the full answer to rural development, but it’s one more step.
Health conversion foundations offer one more tool for community development.
The “master settlement” for tobacco was the basis for one community’s equivalent of many of the advantages of a local university.
Investment in high-speed internet gives smaller, distant towns a better chance to compete for modern, high-value jobs.
A year ago, America’s Favorite Actor™, Tom Hanks, triggered a series of reports on TV and in the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He did so with one little tweet saying that he’d read about the town in a new book—as it happens, the book wasOur Towns, by Deb Fallows and me—and that he was eager to see the city himself, and might even move there.
The most optimistic stories, about America! Non-fiction, personal May move to Sioux Falls, at least visit. Rapid City, too. Others! Hanx pic.twitter.com/TgHS18UwK2
Now Deb and I are back in Sioux Falls, working with our colleagues from HBO on our upcoming film.
The town still has the exceptionally low unemployment rate we talked about early on.
It still has its agricultural economy that we discussed, though buffeted by trade tensions and extreme weather, plus the region’s rapidly growing health-care and high-tech sectors.
It now has a dramatically spiffed-up and revitalized downtown, compared with our last visit several years ago—offsetting the malls and sprawl-growth around its periphery that we discussed here. The downtown has new hotels and restaurants and stores and pubs; many more residential condos and lofts; a much richer array of outdoor public art in its ambitious SculptureWalk; and generally a sense of more active street life.
In its “Washington Pavilion,” a mammoth former public high school whose rescue and conversion into an arts-and-museum space starting 20 years ago was the turning point toward the city’s downtown recovery, we saw two signs that the city is seriously ready for Tom Hanks’s visit.
One was backstage at the elegant 1,800-seat main performance hall, with a wall of signatures from guest artists. These ranged from Yo-Yo Ma to B. B. King, Joan Baez to Blue Man Group, Garth Brooks to the Paul Taylor Dance Company, with countless others in between. I saw a space that looked as if it were waiting for Tom Hanks’s name.
The other sign—could this be a coincidence?!—was in the wonderful, interactive children’s-science museum within the same Washington Pavilion. On the upper floor there is an oversize piano keyboard, playable with your feet and labeled “Big,” that could have been taken straight from a memorable scene from Tom Hanks’s early filmography.
Yes, I am talking about his famous piano-dancing duet with Robert Loggia more than 30 years ago, in Big. This was a Hanks from long before Forrest Gump or ALeague of Their Own, before Cast Away or Saving Private Ryan, before Philadelphia or Sleepless in Seattle or Apollo 13—and it is worth watching now, with awareness of all those other films to come.
And it’s another reason for him to make his visit. The town’s all ready for you, Mr. Hanks!
As a reminder: The main point of the previous piece was that trying to analyze why Donald Trump does the things he does is like trying to analyze the motives of a cat. Each of them acts. Now, more comments.
1) What you’re overlooking. A reader at a tech company writes:
I completely agree with this piece, except for one thing.
You and the reader you quote describe the part we see and the part that gets reported. Absolutely a reality show.
All of the journalistic analysis is far beyond ridiculous.
The other half (below the surface) that is so grossly under-reported is the very Republican direction of decisions made in every agency in the government and by every cabinet member. These are not made for TV because they are boring to read about. But they are consistent in how they continue the transfer of wealth to the one percent and the one percent of the one percent.
Several other readers return to this theme: that too much of the press is too wrapped up in the impossible mission of “understanding” Trump, and too few are spending too little time unveiling the what of this era’s policies.
2) What if this theory is correct? Also on the predicament of the press, from another reader:
Just read the piece about the reader who says, "the people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions...are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump."
I believe he’s right and wrong—right in the sense that we have “a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years,” but wrong, or not quite right, in his explanation of this.
Specifically, in my view, the problem isn't a lack of understanding about Trump. Rather it’s what they [analysts and the press] actually do understand, or at least strongly suspect on some deeper or sub-conscious level, but struggle to accept, because of the problematic implications of accepting this.
For example, suppose the reader is right that Trump is actually governing as if he were doing a reality TV show. How would journalists convey this, without creating the impression that they're irrational and biased against Trump?
I believe the reader's theory is credible, but the idea also makes me very uncomfortable. Were I to tell someone else that I took this notion seriously I would be hyper-aware of how irrational this sounds. Indeed, I hold my tongue with friends and family at times for this reason. I would guess most journalists would experience a similar level of discomfort.
And suppose some of them could overcome this—how do they convey this without discrediting themselves in the process? I think there might be ways to do this, but there's no certainty it would work. Because of that I have some sympathy for journalists and political analysts. At the same time, I'm also extremely frustrated. In my view, alarm bells should be ringing, or at least ringing much louder and clearer. I think we need an equivalent to shouting “the Emperor has no clothes!,” but in a way that doesn't make the messenger seem like he lost his marbles.
3) Actually, there is a strategy. From another reader:
He does want to get reelected. His strategy with Kim Jong Un is to serve that purpose and that one alone.
He's gonna say "Vote for me or Kim is gonna nuke us if the Democrats win the White House" and he alone has cultivated a relationship with the deranged dictator and he and he alone can prevent war. That's why he walked into N. Korea without asking for anything from Kim. He plans on scaring the voters by nuclear holocaust if he isn't reelected.
I'm as obsessed with this surreal nightmare of a presidency as anyone else and am surprised to not have seen this take anywhere.
4) Looking deeper. This last note of the day begins with a point that members of the press have discussed at great length, ever since Donald Trump got in the race. That is whether there is any point in “medicalizing” a discussion of his traits. The reader’s message:
Your reader in “There is No Understanding Donald Trump” is right. It’s a show for shows sake. But there’s more. And it runs deeper.
When our president was elected, I contacted the smartest person I know (novelist) to explain the man. Easy, he said: go to the DSM (the volume that describes mental illnesses) and look up narcissist.
I did. And everything since has made absolute sense - a sense that runs deeper than the reality show metaphor, which could be construed as simply self-aggrandizing. We're in a lot worse shape than that.
The thing that puzzles and infuriates me is how the press continues to cover things in their commonsensical way (as your reader suggests). It drives me crazy to see dozens and dozens of reporters covering this administration. Why? What on earth for? As your reader has suggested, that just plays to The Show.
Given that the record is, in fact, important, I've suggested to friends in the media that one pool camera should follow this man around, and everyone just share the feed. Those who are thus liberated from covering The Show can now investigate his taxes, finances, relationships with Russia, etc. much better use of resources.
But please, stop asking intelligent questions. They have no relevance to someone who is so deeply mentally ill.
On the opening theme of this note, about mental status, let me give the two-point summary of the very long discussion nearly every member of the press has gone through in the Trump era.
Point one: It’s perilous, and in any case pointless, to attempt “diagnosis at a distance,” and attempt to give medical names and conditions to traits the public can observe. It’s perilous for obvious reasons, and it’s pointless because it wouldn’t change anyone’s mind. Supporter or critic, everyone knows what Donald Trump is like.
And point two: As a description of widely observed behaviors, it’s fair to note how closely what Trump does matches the standard checklists of narcissist traits. (One such list, from the Mayo Clinic, is here. Its first marker is that narcissists “Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance; Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration.”) But, again, observing this pattern gets us only so far, since nothing Trump does should surprise anyone any more.
The action-point, in the end of this reader’s note, is worth serious consideration by the press—and is related to note Number One. That is, the press should spend less time on the daily spectacle of Trump himself, and more on the actions and effects of the administration as a whole.
5) Update: In Trump’s Defense. Yesterday’s item has apparently circulated among Trump-supporting groups, as I have received a large number of messages like the one I am quoting below.
I explicitly don’t intend to host an online equivalent of a cable-TV panel show, with one person saying “Trump is terrible!” and then someone else snapping back, “No, he’s great! You’re the one who’s terrible.”
But as a one-time-for-now sample of the opposing line of reasoning, I quote parts of the message below. The sender identifies herself as a PhD. I assume she is sending this from a phone, and I’m quoting it as-is (rather than going through to spell out what she obviously meant as abbreviations) not to undermine its credibility but just for labor-saving on my end, and because the sender’s intentions are clear.
Here are selections from what she sent in, representing views I am hearing from many others:
It is so true tht persons do not ‘get’ T
Even psychologists, the greatly left leaning bastion these days, has its collective hair standg straight up as it gasps w exasperatn
Then there is the pathetic psychiatrist who pursues the idea tht T’s mentl hlth is an issue
Poor souls to hav nevr known a person to b so bold, pragmatic, & steadfast in wht he wants to do
T is a very modern character, a person for the times: totally atuned to digital media, totally comfortable & brazen, CANDID, in the limelight, speakg extemporaneously to any of the persons who besiege him to talk – AND – greatly abl to tolerate the humongous slop & ill treatmt he receivs as is proven in his non-stop pursuit of gettg thgs done in his job – a job tht he sees as the ultimate test for a ‘stabl genius’
He uses his mktg & TV experience, speakg hx, etc to totally great effect & he has truly remarkabl energy
Wait: T is breakg all the rules of how thing shud b done! Stop it, stop it
T is clear, concise, & keeps his eye on the ball.
How lame r ‘reportrs’ when they cry tht T has not made Kim giv up nukes, eg, –
Oh yeah, - magic – he meets Kim, K givs up nukes & the NK prob is ‘solvd’
But T is playg the long(er) game & his events w Kim happn to b huge steps in somethg requirg ever so many many steps, tests, time & ea step helps
As T himself has statd, he has common sense.
T is flexibl to the extent tht he will not hold a doctrinaire point of view & will change course as events, info, perceptn, dictate
T knows his mind & wht he wants to achiev & he keeps his eye on the ball, many balls, which we wud all c if the press wud report all the thgs he is doing every day
He wants ppl to lov, respect & admire him precisely thru showg them wht he can do for them & the country
The press is so-o-o mean in its grievous underreportg, misreportg, & UNreportg of the many things he is doing everyday & it is reponsibl for fomentg & magnifyg citizen animosity…
Hey, tht’s wht T is: remarkabl
Contrary to the writr whose words u relay, T IS a thinkg person - & a deep person (he prefers to no ‘go there’ in all likelihd as he does not wear his private sentimt (abt thgs like livg, dyig, meang, etc) on his sleeve
Brownsville is the southernmost U.S. border town with Mexico, down at the very tip of the map of Texas. Across the Rio Grande is Matamoros. Some 20 miles to the east is the Gulf of Mexico. If you drive 60 miles to the north and west along the Old Military Highway to McAllen, you’ll see stretches of border wall, irregular in their size and design. It was very hot when we were in Brownsville last month. It reminded me of Nanjing, one of the so-called furnaces of China, where the soles of your sneakers sink into the soft tarmac of the roads.
Elon Musk has built his SpaceX site on the road from Brownsville to the coast. It is an assembly site for now, in a clearing that looks like half moonscape, half desert, with giant, surreal, bright-silvery sections of rocket being welded together. The plan is for rockets to launch from here one day. Just beyond SpaceX, the Boca Chica road fades to sandy coastal beach. It feels like the edge of the Earth.
Border Patrol agents cruise the highways and roads around Brownsville. One afternoon, as I was driving the highway north from downtown, a silent ambulance cruised by, with a Border Patrol SUV, caked with dust and dried mud, right on its tail. I realized that I didn’t have a clue of all that was really going on in Brownsville.
Some things about Brownsville are easy to see. The buildings of the downtown—many tattered now, featuring discount goods for the cross-border shopping market in Matamoros—still have great bones, as the architects say, and are waiting for their second chance. Brownsville was too poor to raze those buildings when businesses went dark, an obvious advantage now. (As we have seen elsewhere.)
A hip pizza and wine bar called Dodici opened recently in the old Fernandez building downtown. One of the owners is Trey Mendez, a lawyer who was just elected mayor in a runoff contest while we were visiting. The Market Square area is newly renovated, as part of a downtown-revival program under the mayor for the previous eight years, Tony Martinez. Brownsville has an outsize number of museums, including the Historic Brownsville Museum, which is a real gem. The Mitte Cultural District boasts “something for everyone,” with its zoo, pool, pavilions, playhouse, and much more. RJ Mitte (who played Walter White’s son in Breaking Bad) is of that Mitte family, and is carrying on the family philanthropic efforts of his grandfather. Other buildings are works in progress. More are still pipe dreams.
Of course, you cannot miss the border wall. The wall near downtown’s Gateway International Bridge has been there for about 10 years, long enough that the landscaping and vegetation along its river pathway and the Alice Wilson Hope Park on the U.S. side have grown in to looking normal.
On our first evening in Brownsville, when the heat of the day had subsided a little, Jim and I decided to walk across the International Bridge into Matamoros. How could we not? We had no chance of entering the detention centers that have become so notorious in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere along the border. We wanted to have at least a look at the routine daily flow north and south.
Our crossing was entirely simple and uneventful, of course, just like it is for residents of both Brownsville and Matamoros who cross the bridge daily for school, jobs, shopping, dinners out, or visiting friends and family. (Brownsville’s population is roughly 95 percent Hispanic, and many people have long-standing ties across the border. The interconnectedness of the two cities’ lives is the central theme of an acclaimed recent novel set in Brownsville: Where We Come From, by Oscar Cásares. When we were in town, then-Mayor Martinez gave us a copy of the book.) Along with a small handful of people also making the trip on foot, we deposited four quarters in the turnstile and pushed our way through to Mexico.
I looked up and down the river, assessing it with my swimmer’s eye, thinking how surprisingly narrow and benign it seemed, maybe 50 yards wide. The river was dark and muddy, not in the least inviting, even in the heat. The Rio Grande appeared to have no current. But of course we all know that surface appearances can deceive, as they most certainly did in the horrific episode when Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez of El Salvador and his 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, drowned trying to cross it not far from this spot, a few days after we were there.
Brownsville residents, who have lived all their life as part of a binational community extended on both sides of the river, have a different sense of the border from those for whom it’s an abstraction. “We don’t think of it as a border,” we heard from so many people that we stopped counting. “We think of it as a river.” I realized that it was just the way those of us who live on the border between Washington, D.C., and Virginia think of the Potomac.
Beyond these impressions of Brownsville, there are data points that are more quantifiable. This is where the public-health issues come to the forefront, and they are stark. (My thanks to The Atlantic’s Faith Hill for help collecting these data.)
Some 51 percent of the adult population in the area are obese; an additional 34 percent are overweight.
Of children 8 to 17 years old, 54 percent are obese, compared with about 33 percent nationally. Joseph McCormick, until just recently the dean of the Brownsville campus of the UTHealth School of Public Health, wrote in an email: “These children have higher BMI, higher waist to hip ratios, higher systolic and diastolic blood pressures, higher triglycerides and LDL (bad cholesterol), lower HDL (good cholesterol); They had higher insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes), and elevated liver enzymes suggestive of fatty liver disease, a very common problem in our population in adults.”
Some 27 percent of adults have diabetes, about three times the national level. About one-third of those with diabetes didn’t know they had it before being tested.
Only 42 percent of Brownsville’s population have some kind of health-care insurance.
For more positive comparative news, life expectancy in Cameron County, which includes Brownsville, is about 80 years, four years longer than the national average.
And Texas has one of the country’s lowest rates of death from opioid-involved drug overdoses: 5.1 for every 100,000 people, compared with the national average of 14.6.
Brownsville is a poor town; nearly 31 percent of the residents live in poverty, 38 percent of children. The median income is $35,000. Some 87 percent of schoolchildren in Cameron County qualify for free or reduced lunch.
I had lunch one day to talk about these statistics with Rose Zavaletta Gowen, a medical doctor who grew up in Brownsville, trained in Dallas, and returned to practice medicine. She soon turned to public-health advocacy and added a new role as an elected city commissioner. Gowen framed her thinking, advocacy, passion, and action plans for her hometown this way: “We traditionally think we need economic development and education, and we’ll get to health later or afterwards.” She added, “But later may be too late, and putting it off hinders progress in economic development and education as well.”
Gowen is part of Brownsville’s Community Advisory Board (CAB), a network of more than 200 Brownsville residents and individuals from health-care, education, business, and community groups, and the UTHealth campus, which, with its newly appointed dean of the campus, Belinda Reininger, has been key in the founding and support of CAB. All together, they are pushing toward building a healthier population and lifestyle, in a very Brownsville-specific way.
Every community we have visited for our American Futures project and our subsequent book, Our Towns, has focused on the “local” as its guide and frame for plans and actions. In Brownsville, that eye on local seemed to us as compelling and powerful as in any other community we have seen, and maybe even more so. Sometimes “local” means a focus on physical assets, or geography, or demographics, or industry. In Brownsville, as we listened to citizens talk, “local” seemed to be mainly about culture.
The culture of Brownsville was the backdrop to their master plan for health and wellness—and many other town issues. “We are fighters. We stand by our family. We are proud. We may be poor, but we do not think of ourselves as just poor. We think of ourselves as blessed to have our families, customs, and region surrounding us.” And Gowen added in talking about outsiders’ impressions of Brownsville, “You don’t hear that on the news.”
Those traits translated into action. Brownsville is not looking or waiting for top-down solutions and proclamations. Members of its community decided to: make local-government regulations that support their goals. Get smart about seeking funding, from the government, foundations, and nonprofits. Not let rebuffs from big funding stop them; take it step by step; and find corners to improve. Educate the public and brand the message “Health and wellness.” Become a model for success.
Through its many initiatives, the Brownsville Wellness Coalition is all about healthy food and healthy bodies.The Community Gardens program teaches gardening classes and distributes free transplants and compost. Five gardens hold nearly 200 beds.
People can buy produce from the weekly farmers’ market with cash or with vouchers from federally subsidized programs such as SNAP, WIC, and the Farm Fresh Voucher program, especially important in this low-income town. Plans are under way through a coalition of funders to renovate an old town cannery, the Gutierrez Warehouse, into a permanent home for the farmers’ market. When finished, the Quonset hut plans also call for accommodating a food bank and a “kitchen incubator” with a commercial kitchen for small food businesses. And for those who can’t get to the farmers’ market, the Fresco Mobile Market food trucks may come to them.
And for the bodies, the Wellness Coalition sponsors a walking-group program, the Walking Club, with motivational support and progress tracking.
An annual challenge program organized by the city and the UTHealth School of Public Health, and drawing help from local gyms, nutritionists, trainers, and other experts, encourages not only weight loss, but also sustainable lifestyle changes toward better health. Nearly 7,500 people participated in the three-month program this year.
The monthly CycloBia closes some Brownsville streets to cars and opens them to the 10,000 participating residents to walk, bike, skateboard, skate, and run.
And for the timid, who may be the most reluctant to begin, the UTHealth School of Public Health has prepared online resources, Tu Salud Si Cuenta, where people can tiptoe into exercise and healthy eating and weight loss privately and solo. I found the stories poignant, and brave, and ended up rooting for them.
Brownsville is also part of a multiuse-trail program (bikes! paddling! hiking!) throughout the lower Rio Grande Valley that will link several towns, beaches, preserves, waterways, and cultural sites over 400-plus miles, incorporating as well a dream of tourism potential.
Is any of this working? According to McCormick, the rates of obesity and diabetes have dropped about 3 to 4 percent in Brownsville in about the past five years.
Trails through downtown Brownsville already give lots of folks options for daily commutes to school or work or, as in our case, a visit to 1848 BBQ, a slow-cook barbecue named for the year Brownsville was founded. As one who spent about five years living in Austin and got my graduate degree from the University of Texas, I feel that my Texas bona fides and palate entitle me to shout out Abraham Avila, the chef of 1848. Yeah, lots of calories, but sitting right on a hike-and-bike trail, you can worry about working it off later. It’s worth it.
It’s been barely two weeks since Donald Trump became the first American president to step onto North Korean soil, with all attendant theorizing about what the move meant, or didn’t. Was it the “biggest moment of the Trump presidency so far” and “already a political win,” as some media figures claimed? Was it, on the contrary, another sign of Trump’s “dictator envy” and “authoritarian buffoonery”? Was it a move toward peace—or war, or both, or neither, or simply more uncertainty? Who was outwitting whom?
Although it was just two weeks in the past, that moment feels like two centuries ago, given the nonstop series of crises and “Breaking news!” emergencies since then. For instance: the census showdown; the Jeffrey Epstein/Alexander Acosta disasters; the leaked British ambassador cables; more rumblings about Iran and China; the horrors of migrant-detention-camp conditions; and the long-threatened kickoff this weekend of ICE roundup raids.
Today I got a reminder note from a reader who had written in just after that “historic” encounter at the Korean DMZ. He argues that the uninterrupted torrent of (usually Trump-generated) emergencies since then reinforces the point he originally made.
His point involved a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years. That is: The people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions—journalists, historians, political veterans, people who pride themselves on figuring out what is “really” going on—are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump.
This is obviously not a brand-new insight. But the reader states the case trenchantly enough that I think it’s worth sharing. Two weeks ago, after the Korean episode, the reader wrote:
I had an epiphany sometime around the midterms, after about 2 years of watching and reading heavy duty analysis by so many serious folks who, because it’s their job I suppose, tend to *project* seriousness, intent, thought, strategy, forethought, planning, and other such things, each time Trump does something. No matter how loose the cannon gets, most serious journalists default to a polite interpretation that suggests, say, Trump had something in mind when he just did that ridiculous thing.
Put another way, they’re suggesting he’s crazy like a Fox, not just an idiot.
At some point I found myself trying to explain to a friend why Trump did something kooky. As I considered everything I concluded what he was doing was strictly for the attention. It was for one news cycle. No strategy, no planning, no idea about implications. And no intention of following up even a day later.
That’s when it hit me: he’s running a reality tv show out of the Whitehouse. Every day is a new episode, and every single move is designed to get better Nielsen ratings, improve the brand, or whatever it is that drives that peculiar form of celebrity. Mostly he’s feeding the monster that is 24/7 cable news.
Think about it this way: you’ve spent your life as a journalist, traveling, flying, writing, running, thinking about how sausages and laws are made. You view the world, your daily routine, even your own self … through that lens. If by some glitch in the matrix you found yourself Commander in Chief then that is the lens by which you’d view your new job. Everything you’ve done before would impact your schedule, your routine, and how you view the world.
More importantly, your serious effort over many years to think long and hard, to write out your thoughts, to bring wisdom and facts to the observations you share, even the reasons you share, how you pick what is a priority for the next issue … all those things would have an impact on the way in which you’d present your public face, your presidential face. In turn, people covering your administration would figure out the above almost immediately and do what they do accordingly.
Trump is a guy who has known only a very narrow slice of the world (NY real estate), has never been curious, or thoughtful, and certainly never cared about the ideals of good government, nor the welfare of others. For decades he has mixed his person with his public persona to the point of reaching some warped public media brand that eventually landed him on a fake tv show about how he runs the fake parts of his mostly fake company. And then one day, through a glitch in the matrix, he woke up the President of these United States.
So he put on a show. Some people liked it. He’s worked every day to get those ratings up. He blows his top when they have a bad day—not because a little kid dies in a camp, not because something doesn’t get out of a committee, not because of anything substantive being analyzed by reporters—no, he’s mad because of the bad optics, because someone upstaged him in an interview, because someone coughed while he was talking.
America has elected a carnival barker with absolutely no clue about history, government, the machinations of global finance, nor even GOP politics. There is no plan, there is no strategy, there is no underlying wisdom or thought with each step. There’s today’s show, a manic struggle to find new content, cliff hangers, figuring out who gets killed off next. Our economy, foreign policy, place on the world stage, is based on tv production values, or some formula.
Once you see it you can’t unsee it and suddenly everything makes sense.
PS have you ever seen the riff by John Mulaney making the case that Trump is like a horse loose in a hospital? This is so good (jump to 7:20).
Today the reader followed up:
Since I sent my email it feels as though this theme has really taken off. Maybe it’s like shopping for a car and *suddenly* you see the same make and model everywhere you look!
This may be political journalism’s version of quantum uncertainty: The greatest challenge in understanding “What’s going on?” may be recognizing that no understanding is possible. And that’s a cue for me to end with a mention of George W. S. Trow’s memorable and prescient “Within the Context of No-Context,” published when Ronald Reagan was elected president. Thanks to the reader for weighing in.
This dispatch is in the form of a newsletter update, on reactions from readers and significant developments around the country on the local-renewal fronts. It follows this Fourth of July post, about Eric Liu’s argument for a revival of “civic religion,” and this post by Deb Fallows, on our increasing effort to connect, compare, combine, and in other ways “biggify” the multiple, dispersed examples of local renewal around the country.
Four entries in that direction:
1) “Does America need a ‘civic religion’?”: Eric Liu has long argued yes. Mike Lofgren, a longtime veteran of congressional operations, writes in to say that he begs to differ:
Does America need a civic religion?
This subject, like the thesis that “Democrats need to talk about their faith” (I thought the Constitution banned religious tests for office), is a favorite chew-toy of centrist and left-of-center public intellectuals who fear the Republicans have stolen their clothes with all the flag-worship and similar ritualized razzmatazz. Apart from the tactical issue that the subject plays on the Right’s turf, there are fundamental objections.
Religion and modern democratic civil government do vastly different things. It is true that governing entities arose amid all manner of ritual, but they were hierarchical, and religion and state were the same thing.
Enforced ritual is essential to maintaining monarchies, class-based societies, and militaries. The Founders tried to dispense with a lot of the typical ritual of European monarchies for the new republic, such as addressing the president as Your Excellency; and Washington conspicuously wore no medals on his uniform coat.
There are more reasons, but I wanted to keep this brief.
Although this has nothing to do with the central merits of Foster’s stance, it is worth mentioning that Campbell is openly gay and is married to a woman named Courtenay. Together they are raising two young children in Jackson.
Their home in Jackson is the reason I mention this development. Last year, for Architectural Digest, Larrison Campbell wrote a very nice essay on her decision to move from Los Angeles, where she had spent nearly two decades developing a successful media career, to Mississippi, where she grew up.
Her story is, of course, unique in its particulars, but familiar in its general themes to what Deb and I have heard in many places. Campbell’s whole article is here. Some samples:
Sometimes you can be blinded by love or infatuation; friends probably thought we were [to go back to Mississippi]. But in L.A., no one’s direct enough to tell you you’re acting like a fool. Instead, half a dozen friends showed up at our going-away party with large bottles of vodka and bourbon “to help with the move.” Subtext: Adventures aren’t often easy …
Of course, Jackson has its faults. As I write this, we’re entering week two of a boil-water alert. But that doesn’t keep Jackson from being an intoxicatingly charming town. While other southern cities race to Brooklynize their downtowns with artisanal cheese shops and bespoke kitchenware stores, Jackson has remained resolutely Jackson. Yes, new places pop up, but Jackson’s best restaurants have been its best restaurants for decades …
There are signs that Jackson is recognizing its complex history. In December, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opened downtown. As the first state-sponsored civil rights museum in the country, the museum is unflinching in its presentation of history. It’s an immersive, often unsettling, experience, and one that alone is worth the trip to Jackson.
Mississippi is … the seat of Christian conservatism but also the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. It’s a state with a low graduation rate that continues to produce a record-breaking number of writers …
It’s also a place that in 2016 passed “one of the most restrictive antigay laws in the country”—the same month it welcomed my family with more warmth and generosity than any city has ever offered …
And … in 2017 the city elected—with 92 percent of the vote—a 34-year-old mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, on a platform of making Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.”
To spell out what I found so resonant here (apart from the essay’s connection to the news of the day): One of the themes Deb and I continually rediscover is the powerful, enduring sense of from-ness in today’s America—the clear imprint of place, even in a country as mobile and homogeneous-seeming as modern America. People retain an awareness of where they grew up, as Larrison Campbell clearly did during her decades in L.A.— and as I have long done, as a person “from” small-town Inland Empire-California, despite decades based elsewhere. Some people actually return to those remembered places; many others at least think about it. This sensibility affects the way the country works, and how talent deploys itself city by city and state by state.
Another of those central themes, which this article clearly brings out: how much more varied and locally vivid “interior America” is than you would ever guess from the latest predictable political dispatch from “red-state America.”
3) Local journalism watch: Nothing matters more for the civic future of America than discovering a viable economic model for local journalism. Recently I mentioned one step in that direction, the new, fast-growing Report for America program.
Here is another small step: the announcement, reported by Sara Fischer in Axios, of support for a local news operation in Virginia, called The Dogwood. The $1 million investment is coming from Acronym, a nonpartisan but politically progressive nonprofit group. In a statement about the investment, the CEO of Acronym, Tara McGowan, said:
The steady decline of local news around the country, paired with the rise of misinformation being spread online has been alarming. It is our hope that digital newspapers like The Dogwood that deliver factual information and stories to people where they get their news can help fill that void and counter misinformation reaching them online.
A $1 million investment obviously won’t fill the multibillion-dollar hole left by the collapse of local print- and broadcast-advertising budgets. Similarly: One more tree that is planted, or habitat area that is preserved, won’t address the full range of global sustainability crises. But you have to start somewhere, and it’s worth paying attention to those who are starting.
4) Local arts watch: Another $1 million investment, another start. A group called Souls Grown Deep, which is based in Atlanta and whose mission is “promoting the work of African American artists from the South,” is committing the bulk of its $1 million endowment to local arts-related development and opportunity efforts in communities where those artists lived and worked. The project is in partnership with Upstart Co-Lab, a network of artists and social entrepreneurs. You can read the details of the project in this report by David Bank in Impact Alpha.
Next up, another report from the road. For now, congrats to all involved in these place-by-place efforts across the country.
The longer and farther that Jim and I have traveled with our earlier American Futures reporting in The Atlantic, and then with Our Towns the book, and now for this new Our Towns project, the more frequently people have asked some version of these questions:
We admire how Greenville has rebuilt its downtown and Main Street from seedy to spectacular, but how do we do that? Or, Fresno had some creative ideas that had a big impact on its schools, but how can that scale? Or, Ajo, Arizona, came up with a master plan of reinvention that worked for a tiny desert town, but how do we come up with a version that would work for us in the Plains, or on the water, or in Appalachia?
We’ve been thinking about comments and questions like these for quite a while now. And we’ve added some of our own. How can one town learn from another, very different town? Are there best practices for reimagining libraries or downtowns or health clinics? Is there a way to broadcast the successful messages with a bigger megaphone? How can we connect the people we have met, and how can we amplify their messages? In essence, how can we “biggify” this entire endeavor?
In early July, we had the chance to try out one answer. We went small for starters, to “just get the puck onto the ice,” as one of our new friends said. We were at Chautauqua for one of the institution’s week-long summer sessions, this one on the theme of community. Right up our alley.
Thanks to the department of religion at the Chautauqua Institution, we had the chance to bring together people, in the august setting of the Hall of Philosophy, from two of our favorite places—Ajo, Arizona, and Columbus, Mississippi—along with our friends from Erie, Pennsylvania, just down the road from Chautauqua. We wanted them to meet one another, to share their stories with the appreciative Chautauqua audience, and to see what might happen as a result.
Emily and Stuart Siegel first set their eyes on the tiny, former copper-mining town of Ajo, 40 miles north of the Mexican border, in the Sonoran Desert, on the same day that we first happened into Ajo. Emily and Stuart were on a classic road trip that had begun in Boston, and we were on our aerial version of a similar trip.
Nearly five years later, Emily and Stuart—now married, with 2-year-old Jonah, a little sibling arriving soon, and a house of their own—have stayed in Ajo and now run the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center. They are helping move the town out of its post-mining-era decline into a new era built on tourism, the arts, skilled and artisan training of its population, and the multiculturalism of the three nations (the Mexicans, the Tohono O’odham Nation, and the Anglos) that have lived there together for a long, long time. The Ajo story brings together the architectural assets of the mine owners’ vision, the genius of procuring grants and funds to start many balls rolling, the open-mindedness to listen to the citizenry and to engage its skills and spirit, and plenty of patience and diplomacy. This is the story they told.
Chuck Yarborough, a high-school history teacher from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS), in Columbus, brought two of his newly graduated students to present their dramatic reenactments of everyday life and issues during the Civil War era, based on original research and writing that his students did by following the lives of people buried in the cemeteries of Columbus. They present their performances in the cemetery to the town residents each year, in their effort to bring some understanding of the lives and racial issues that are the history of Columbus.
To give you a sense of the quality of this effort, Yarborough is the recipient of this year’s Organization of American Historians award for national Teacher of the Year. Erin Williams came from Hattiesburg to attend MSMS, which is a competitive public residential school, and is moving on to college in Louisiana to study computer science. And Dairian Bowles, who came to MSMS from Byhalia, Mississippi, will be going to college in California to study screenwriting. You would be wise to remember that name, Dairian Bowles, because the entire audience would guarantee that you’ll be hearing and seeing more from him.
Ferki Ferati and Ben Speggen drove in from Erie, a town with a 20 percent New Americans (the preferred name for immigrants and refugees) population. Erie’s story is an ongoing turnaround effort in a mainly post–General Electric era, with several starring initiatives: the downtown renovation and city business plans, the purposeful grooming of new young leaders, the participation and clout of its several universities, the philanthropic generosity of the homegrown Fortune 500 company Erie Insurance, the intellectual heft and plucky ambition of its Brookings-like Jefferson Educational Society, and its many new craft breweries.
Ferati is a New American from Kosovo, who arrived in Erie about 20 years ago as a young teenager with most of his family, and who now directs the Jefferson Society. He and Speggen have a fearless approach to proffering the Jefferson’s invitations to first-tier national figures: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Laura Bush, Michael Steele, Donna Brazile, et al. People accept the invitations and brave the often daunting Erie winter weather to go there to meet the residents of Erie, who have come to expect them.
* * *
After giving the stage to our friends, our secondary mission was to introduce them to one another. What would happen, we wondered, when Ajo met Erie met Mississippi?
Well, when people from a desert mining town, an immigrant-heavy Rust Belt town, and a southern Civil War hospital town—all of whom primarily believe in and practice community—come together, it turns out that they think they have a lot in common and can learn from one another.
They compared successes: when a young leadership group in training asks for another year together; when their inn is full, at least sometimes; when people stop you in the grocery store and ask if the students are working on this year’s performance.
They compared struggles: how you grow an audience in a biracial town for the most sensitive topic of all, race; how you build tourism in a place that is hundreds of miles away from everywhere; how you find common ground among those who say “Why change?” and those who say “We must change.”
They swapped stories: about elusive javelinas that dart through the dark nights; about how conversations start or stop when you say, simply, “We’re from Mississippi”; what it’s like to live in a town about which people from elsewhere have strong preconceptions.
Best of all, plans are already laid. Erie will visit Arizona, preferably next winter. And so will plenty of folks from the audience. Mississippi will try to accept invitations from teachers and towns with similar educational ambitions. Jim and I feel that this first try at connecting people and amplifying their messages worked, and we will look for other opportunities.
Our two great American holidays are, of course, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.
They’re particularly American: Independence Day, for obvious reasons. Thanksgiving, because no one else observes it (other than Canadians, who have their own version on their own timetable), or can keep track of when it is. For Americans overseas it’s a particularly wonderful gathering day, on what the Brits or Koreans or French people around you assume is just another Thursday.
They have their rituals: In November, when it’s cold, we have the family gatherings, the pie and turkey, the stuporous sessions watching football or parades on TV. In July, when it’s hot, we have the picnics, the parades, the hot dogs, and the fireworks.
And they’re hard to screw up: For Thanksgiving, the perils are the slog of jammed travel, and the likelihood of cranky relatives, or a turkey or pie that doesn’t turn out right. For the Fourth of July, it’s mainly the chance of rain, or mishaps with firecrackers (which, yes, genuinely scare dogs and cats), or children who become cranky by the time it’s dark enough for fireworks.
It’s hard to screw up the Fourth of July—but it’s not impossible, as residents of Washington, D.C., are witnessing today. Over the decades, this holiday has been one of the least politicized, most intentionally inclusive points on the city’s calendar. I lived in Washington for a year as a toddler, when my dad, then a Navy doctor, was stationed at the Bethesda Naval Hospital during the Korean War. Long ago I saw the old, now-lost home-movie clip from the 1950s, of me and my little sister running around on the National Mall on the Fourth of July, waiting for the fireworks. When we raised our own children in D.C., we loved every summer going to the Palisades neighborhood parade along MacArthur Boulevard, which grew longer every year with groups that reflect ever-broadening aspects of D.C. life.
Local politicians would march in the parade—candidates for mayor or City Council or Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Every Scout troop and local band or hobbyist group would send in a contingent. But national politicians kept far away, the president furthest of all. The Fourth of July was for celebrating America in its flawed-but-aspirational idealism, and in its campy, jokey, small-d democratic inclusiveness. The silly neighborhood parades are parts of the rituals that let us celebrate why we love the country, for all its failures, and what it can become.
This year that ritual, at least in Washington, is disrupted, in what we hope is an aberrational display. Apart from going to neighborhood events today, and the evening celebrations, what is another way for Americans to reclaim, and renew, the rituals that reflect what Independence Day has long stood for?
I have a reading suggestion for today, or the long weekend. It’s a short book, Become America, by my longtime friend Eric Liu, who is a co-founder of Citizen University in Seattle.
Liu, who was born to immigrant Chinese parents in Poughkeepsie, New York, was trained as a lawyer and worked as a White House policy analyst and speechwriter. Through programs, events, and writings at Citizen University, he has over the past decade-plus advanced a theory and practice of modern citizenship, which is directly addressed against the despair and cynicism that are such natural reactions to today’s cruelties and crises.
The conceptually most important part of Liu’s new book is its forthright argument that active citizenship should be a civic religion. The book consists of 19 “sermons” that Liu has delivered at the institutions he calls “Civic Saturdays.” The big idea behind the sermons, and the religious-format gathering, is Liu’s call to a level of belief and commitment similar to that of a great religion—but where the underlying faith is in the process of democracy itself.
A section from his preface lays out the concept clearly:
Throughout 2016, Jená Cane and I kicked around ideas for a new civic ritual that would have the moral pull and communal feel of a faith gathering. We’re the cofounders of a nonprofit called Citizen University, whose mission is to foster a culture of powerful citizenship in the United States. (We’re also spouses!)
[After the 2016 election] we put together the first ever Civic Saturday … Civic Saturday has the arc of a faith gathering: we sing together, we turn to the strangers next to us and talk about a common question, we hear poetry and readings, there is a sermon that ties those texts to the issues and ethical choices of the times, and then we sing together again and reflect on what actions we commit to taking.
But this gathering is not about church or temple or mosque religion. It is about American civic religion: the creed of ideals stated at our nation’s founding and restated at junctures of crisis (like today), and the deeds by which we and those before us live up to the creed.
Why the analogy to faith gatherings? In part because over the millennia the major faiths have figured out something about how to help people find meaning and belonging, how to interpret texts and to reckon with the gap between our ideals and our reality, how to sustain hope and heart in a sea of cynicism and hate. And in part because we truly believe that democracy in America is an act of faith. Not faith in the divine but in the people with whom we hold the fate of this fragile experiment …
The idea that a religion is only as good as its effects can apply to American civic religion as well … [William] James at one point observes that war can summon in a people common purpose and self-sacrifice and ingenuity and he says a society needs the “moral equivalent of war.”
I say we need the moral equivalent of religion, and that is what civic religion is.
The other significant theme connecting Liu’s essays is their emphasis on practicalities, rituals, doing rather than wishing. As he says in one of his sermons:
Democracy, when it’s working, is a game of infinite repeat play. It never ends! We believe that it’s necessary in the face of such unending uncertainty to provide a ritual structure for belief in the possibility of democracy.
Why do we deliberately echo the elements of a faith gathering? Because that language, those forms, these rituals and habits all resonate on a deep level …
In these darkest of days, in a time when politics is so fiercely polarized, when traditional religion fuels so much fundamentalist fanaticism, we want to appreciate anew the simple miracle of democratic citizenship …
This stuff matters not simply because it answers a universal and timeless yearning for shared purpose. It matters here because it locates us atomized, amnesiac Americans in the broad scheme of history and in a larger weave of morality. It matters because the norms and institutions of democracy are being corroded from within and without.
Many of the sermons address specifics of how to convert a hazy concern about civic engagement to feasible to-do goals for the next day or week or year.
Go to your local parades. Have some hot dogs, or your food of choice. If of age, enjoy a beer. Be careful with the fireworks.
And as you reflect on whether a country observing its 243rd birthday can become a better, freer, fairer, finer version of itself, consider Eric Liu’s arguments in Become America.
The Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, a branch of the New York Public Library system, is in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. It looks like another storefront, opening onto a sidewalk with overhead construction scaffolding, like so many buildings in New York City these days.
I have visited many, many public libraries around the U.S., but I had never visited a braille library. So when Jim, my husband, and I happened to be in New York City in early June, I grabbed the chance and took Jim with me. We saw sighted and blind people entering—moms pushing strollers, younger people who looked like students, older people coming to bide their time. And we learned about yet another way in which modern libraries are serving their communities.
When you take the elevator to the second floor, you quickly see that this library has something very special. For starters, the library holds what is among the largest physical, browsable collections of braille books in the country, about 14,000 titles. Front and center, as is the case at most every other library I’ve visited, there is a children’s section. Braille books for children look just like the counterparts for sighted children, except the text is reproduced in braille, and sometimes the books include tactile features, like the furry fluff we all know from Pat the Bunny.
There are other ways to access books besides browsing and borrowing from the shelves at Heiskell. Through its membership in the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), this library and its eligible users have access to additional physical braille books, downloadable digital braille books, books to listen to, plus subscriptions to many, many magazines from The Atlantic to Playboy. The NLS was established by an act of Congress in 1931, and operates under the Library of Congress.
As for physical braille books, the Heiskell currently mails them, with free returns via a mailing card that reads “free matter for the blind,” to over 10,000 patrons who live in the five boroughs of New York City plus Long Island. For its most voracious readers who would like a constant supply of books at the ready, there’s an easy answer. Readers can identify personal preferences—like thrillers, or books set in Italy, or historical fiction, and the library will send out huge stacks, as many as 40 books, whenever they are available.
And then there are books for listening. Talking Books is a program of the NLS, which records and distributes their collection of about 200,000 recorded books—also for free—to people with certified visual impairment. This includes not only blind people, but those visually impaired who find it hard to read; people with other disabilities, like Parkinson’s or MS, who have difficulty holding and manipulating books; or those with reading disorders like dyslexia.
Listeners can download the talking books through an app onto mobile devices or computers, or use a memory card that plugs into a special talking book player, which the Heiskell library also lends. The listening technology has come a long way in the last 90 years—starting with the 33 1/3 RPM records of the 1930s, followed by cassette tapes, then flash memory devices, and then apps to download content.
Altogether, the Heiskell circulates about 500,000 titles as braille books, Talking Books, and digital downloads annually.
The Heiskell, along with the NYPL system, is pushing beyond today’s opportunities—and limits—to develop new assistive technology and programming for the blind. Chancey Fleet, who is blind, coordinates the assistive technology program at the library. She talked to us with a combination of passion and reflection about her self-described role as catalyst, and as connector and amplifier. “I could go through life accepting the limits that inaccessible technologies create, but I’d rather go through life trying to help create solutions,” she told us when we visited with her; Jill Rothstein, the chief librarian of the Heiskell; and Bobby Sherwood, who works for the NYPL.
Chancey said she is using the privileges of her past (meaning mentors, training, and support in college and work) and the advantages of her current position (meaning accessibility to those with skills, expertise, creativity, and authority to make things happen) to help create and put new and useful technology into the hands of as many people as possible. And the goal of it all? What she said struck me as both the soaring and grounded purpose of the human experience: to offer people opportunity to express themselves and to explore the world.
Chancey demonstrated some of the technology for us. To convert text from a computer monitor to braille, she uses a small digital display unit, which has tiny pins that pop up and down to create the braille characters on the one-line, refreshable display. The unit can either read from a memory card, downloading books for example, or it can connect directly to a computer, smart phone, or tablet to enable real-time actions, like using email. She creates braille on the unit’s keyboard. The library has just announced a pilot program to loan similar “Braille Me” units to its patrons. Chancey also listens to talking books, often speeding up the delivery to 500 or 600 words per minute, compared with the normal talking speed on podcasts of about 150 or 160 words per minute.
As for programming, the ambitions of Chancey and her collaborators started small with their community of visually-impaired people, offering workshops to familiarize them with screen-reading tools and various apps. Then they went bigger by helping them to more easily access the visually-oriented world of coding. Then even bigger toward using tools to make spatial and tactile learning more accessible. The Dimensions project at the Heiskell offers training to use the hardware and software to design and create tactile maps, images, graphs, diagrams, actual objects, and other spatial information. Everything is free, and it is available to both visually-impaired and sighted people.
These technologies bring a perspective and experience to the blind that may be difficult for sighted people to appreciate. An embosser can print out a map of the five boroughs of the New York area, for example, where many Heiskell patrons live, showing in raised form the shapes of the boroughs and their relation to each other and the waterways around them. A 3D printer can replicate an object, maybe a dinosaur, that is scaled down to a size that makes sense when you can newly feel the entire object at once.
On the lower-tech end, there are many additional programs and experiences provided by the library: origami, a knitting club, tech coaching for Spanish speakers, video games, art classes, movie discussion groups with narrated descriptions, and workshops for high schoolers for prep for college tests and college class work. When their annual fair on community, culture, and technology outgrew the space at the Heiskell, they moved uptown to the bigger, grander main flagship library. At the fair they also publicize activities like beep ball (baseball with a beeping ball), ice climbing, and boulder climbing.
While much of what I learned about the Heiskell library is extraordinary, other aspects are exactly the same as at every other library. Everywhere, library users approach librarians with their important or sensitive questions. They trust librarians and the information they will impart. Those questions can tell a lot about a community. In Bend, Oregon, a few years ago, librarians told me that the most frequent questions from users were about how to meet house payments or their rent. In Charleston, West Virginia, people would frequently consider librarians as proxies for doctors, asking, for example, about suspicious moles. At the Heiskell library, different and sometimes poignant questions are posed: “Where can I buy a white cane?” and “How can I learn to type again?”
Because I’m not a politician, I don’t have to wear an American-flag lapel pin. (I’ve never seen a photo of, say, Dwight Eisenhower, or FDR, or JFK, wearing a flag pin. Richard Nixon did it occasionally, in the Vietnam War era. It became de rigueur for public figures some time after the 9/11 attacks of 2001.)
But this is the story of a pin I’ve started wearing recently. The pin says Report for America, as you can see below. You could read those three words as an imperative-mood reminder of what people in the journalism business are supposed to do (at least the Americans). They also represent a promising movement, in discouraging times.
The fate of local news looms very large in the fate of smaller-town America:
Cities and regions need to hold their business and public leaders accountable. National news is not going to do that for them.
They need to understand what Deb Fallows and I have called “the civic story”: what makes this town different from others, what challenges it’s gone through and what opportunities it might seize, and where it stands on an arc that might lead to a more promising future. Only their local publications will help them refine and share those stories.
They need simply to have a forum for connection: What businesses are opening (or closing) in the town, what people are moving in and out, what opportunities there are for children, older people, those interested in music or sports or history or gardening.
Independent local publications are of such tangible importance that (according to a much-noted academic study last year), bond ratings go down, and the cost of issuing bonds goes up, for cities or counties that don’t have viable local newspapers.
Yet nearly every place we’ve gone, we’ve heard about the economic pressures on local newspapers, websites, and other publications as being even worse than those weighing down the press as a whole.
Which brings us to: Report for America. Earlier this month, in Houston, Deb and I met the 60-plus young men and women whose photos you see at the top of this item. They’re part of the second “corps” of Report for America members headed to newspapers, broadcast stations, or other news sites mainly in rural or small-town America, where they will add coverage on issues that will shape those communities’ futures.
Last year, for its first corps, Report for America sent out a total of 13 reporters. This year, more than 60. Next year it’s aiming for 250, toward a goal of 1,000.
The Report for America project is part Peace Corps, part Teach for America, part something entirely new. No one innovation or source will in itself be the answer to local journalism’s crisis. But a lot of experimental approaches might add up to an overall answer—and Report for America has the potential to be an important part of that solution. (For the record: Deb and I have no connection with RFA except being given the lapel pin and some RFA-branded reporter notebooks when we spoke at the training session in Houston, plus having known its co-founder, Steven Waldman, for many years.)
What’s the Report for America concept? It is—from my perspective—a shrewd combination of short- and long-term incentives and ideas.
The Report for America story began roughly three years ago. Before then, a former Boston Globe reporter and editor named Charles Sennott had set up The GroundTruth Project, which was designed to foster a new generation of innovative reporters in the United States and around the world. Sennott had also worked for the New York Daily News and PBS, and had founded an international reporting site called GlobalPost.
Not long after the 2016 election, Sennott approached a writer and entrepreneur named Steven Waldman about a possible collaboration. Waldman had been a Newsweek correspondent, and was national editor of U.S. News & World Report while I was the editor there. He also had written a wonderful short book called The Bill, about the tangled legislative history of creating AmeriCorps in the 1990s; had founded an influential faith-based site called Beliefnet; and during the Obama administration had written a report for the FCC about the impending crisis in local-news coverage.
After the FCC work, Waldman had begun thinking about new ways of supporting local journalists and journalism. In the summer of 2015, he published a paper in Medum called “Report for America.” The subhead was, “A new model for saving local journalism, borrowing from national and community service programs.” He also discussed this idea in an article for the Columbia Journalism Review.
Sennott had heard about these ideas and knew of Waldman through mutual friends. After the 20216 elections, he called Waldman to discuss the possibility of developing Report for America as part of the GroundTruth organization. They began raising money, initially from (among other sources) the Galloway Family Foundation and from Google’s News Lab, and last year they selected and trained a corps of 13 reporters, destined for local news rooms.
What’s distinctive about the Report for America approach? First, its funding model. The total investment for each RFA corps member—being sent to West Virginia, to Wyoming, to the Central Valley of California, wherever—averages about $40,000 a year. Philanthropists: If you’re thinking about how your money can really have impact, reflect upon that number.
RFA provides about half that money itself. Of the remaining share, half is supposed to come from the news organization that the reporter will be working for, and half from local philanthropic sources in that community.
Waldman told me this week that the multi-source funding model drew from the experience he had when working for a year at the fledgling AmeriCorps, under its then-director Harris Wofford.
“AmeriCorps had a matching system, where local nonprofit programs were supposed to put in money, in addition to the money the national program was sending them,” he told me. “For RFA, this struck me as an important way to hit our ultimate goal of a thousand reporters, and also to make the program sustainable.”
A bad result for RFA, he said, would be if “we created a great program for someone [the young reporter] for two years—and then they go away, and everything goes back to the way it was before. I thought that if we wanted to transform local media ecologies, we had to lure out local philanthropic money. And of course we also had to ask for the local-newsroom share, to ensure quality. The surefire way of making the quality of the experience horrible would be to give newsrooms ‘free’ reporters.”
Also worth noting: the Report for America mission. Despite the naming-similarity to Teach for America, RFA struck me as being a fundamentally different operation. TFA took people mainly right out of college, and hoped to interest them in the world of teaching. Most of the RFA corps members have already spent a few years as reporters—so they are older, and better prepared for the newsrooms they’re headed toward. And, according to Waldman, Report for America has a more explicit goal of shaping the environments of the cities where its corps members work.
“We view this as a ‘helping communities’ program, more than a ‘helping journalists’ program,” he told me. “Sure, we want to do everything to make it the best possible experience for the journalists. But helping them is a means to an end. The end is that local communities can hold authorities accountable, improve their schools, have clean drinking water. And if there are secondary benefits to the reporter—as with the Peace Corps, the excitement of being part of something bigger—then that is great as well.”
There was, though, a significant point of similarity with Teach for America, Waldman said. “One thing they did well was creating this sense that being a teacher was a noble and worthwhile goal,” he said. “We hope to do the same thing with the nobility and worth of being a local reporter, with the emphasis on local. And we’d like to revive this spirit that being a journalist is a public-service job.”
You can read the stories of the 2019 RFA corps members we met in Houston here. They are headed all over the country: Several to tribal areas. Several to Puerto Rico. Several each to Appalachia and Mississippi and the Central Valley of California. Others to smaller cities on the East Coast. Most are women. Well over one-third are nonwhite.
We spoke with them and, while hearing their questions, were impressed by their combination of passion and realism. How would they arrange time off from their newsroom jobs for the several hours a week of local public-service activities that were part of their contracted obligation? How should they take part in local civic and religious organizations? When would they feel they knew “enough” about a new setting to begin expressing any judgments about it? What would it be like, living in this new little town?
Their RFA mentors gave them advice. The corps members understood that things would look different when they were actually on the job. Some concerns they were worried about ahead-of-time would melt away. Others they hadn’t thought of yet would emerge.
“Community journalism won’t survive if the community doesn’t support it,” Steven Waldman told me this week. “We hope to build a broader definition of what that means. And the best way to restore ‘trust in journalism’ would be for people to see lots of reporters on the ground—at the local school-board meeting, writing about dirty water, being part of the community.”
To the 61 members of the latest Report for America corps, and to all supporting the effort, I say: Godspeed. I’m wearing my pin.
A spacecraft has finally gotten close enough to the sun to gather clues about some lingering questions.
For a little NASA spacecraft, the weather outside is frightful.
The Parker Solar Probe is on a mission toward the sun. The spacecraft has been exposed to scorching temperatures and intense sunlight as it draws closer with every loop around. Eventually, Parker will glide through the star’s outer atmosphere and feel the toastiness of nearly 2 million degrees Fahrenheit (more than 1 million degrees Celsius).
Parker is dressed appropriately for the journey. It wears a thick, custom-made shield to protect its scientific instruments and systems, and tubes with flowing water to cool itself down. Inside, it is a cozy 78 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius). Since it set out last summer, Parker has made three sweltering passes of the sun, with many more still to come in the next five years. And its findings are already surprising scientists back home.
A conversation with the evangelical pastor and theologian
Shortly after I met my wife, Cindy, in 1989—she was living in New York City at the time, while I was living in Northern Virginia—she told me about a new church she was attending in Manhattan: Redeemer Presbyterian. The young minister, she told me, was “the best pastor in America.”
His name was Timothy J. Keller.
Since that time Keller, 69, has become one of the most consequential figures in American Christianity. When he founded Redeemer in the fall of 1989, fewer than 100 people attended; in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, Keller was preaching in multiple services in three different venues each Sunday to about 5,000 people—mostly young, single, professionally and ethnically diverse. He has written about two dozen books, several of them best sellers. And unlike that of many popular ministers, his reach extends farbeyond the Christian subculture.
The fancy bike brand tried to depict a wellness journey. It didn’t go as planned.
The internet has some feedback on Peloton’s holiday ad campaign. The fitness-tech company, famous for its $2,400, Wi-Fi-enabled stationary bikes that let riders stream spin classes, debuted a new television commercial in mid-November, but it didn’t become infamous until earlier this week, when Twitter got ahold of it.
In the ad, a young mom gains confidence in the year after her husband buys her a Peloton for Christmas—or, at least, that’s what the ad seems to be aiming for. The commercial documents the woman (who is also documenting herself, via her phone’s front-facing camera) while she gets up early day after day to exercise or jumps on the bike after work. At the end, she presents the video of her exercise journey to her husband. “A year ago, I didn’t realize how much this would change me,” she tells him. “Thank you.”
The House Judiciary Committee needs a clearer plan for mobilizing public opinion in support of impeachment.
What on Earth was the point of the first day of the House Judiciary Committee hearings on impeachment?
The House Intelligence Committee hearings in November told a coherent story. Public-spirited career personnel and a Purple Heart Army officer were aligned on one side; venal and untruthful political operatives aligned on the other. Each witness was called for a reason.
A televised hearing in a high-stakes political contest is not a classroom seminar. It is not convened for the benefit of the already well informed. It is a show: a show that succeeds or fails according to whether it catalyzes the second-most-attentive and third-most-attentive tiers of citizens.
The Republican minority on the Judiciary Committee understood this basic rule. For all their intellectual and ethical limitations—and those were excruciating—Republicans on the committee arrived with a clear message. These hearings are a farce. We refuse to respect the most basic rules of decorum, and we grant permission to all like-minded Americans to dismiss them as thuggishly as we do. Ugly, but clear and comprehensible.
Why everyone’s mornings seem more productive than yours
My mornings are the messiest part of my day. I do not rise and shine. Instead, I hit snooze on the alarm and throw the covers over my head. As I hear the early bus shuffle through my stop outside my window, my mind fills with thoughts from the night before, with to-do lists and deadlines. The alarm goes off again, and I repeat the snooze cycle twice more. By the time I roll out of bed, I’m a tangle of anxiety.
This never seems to be the case in other people’s morning routines. I know, because those routines now seem to be everywhere: in series like The Cut’s “How I Get It Done” and The New York Times’ “Sunday Morning,” in roundups on news outlets from CNN to Vogue, and in hashtagged Instagram pictures of frothy lattes cut with leafy designs. The subjects of most of these morning-routine reports are celebrities and other conventionally successful people. Richard Branson plays a “hard game” of tennis at 6 a.m. Elizabeth Gilbert makes homemade chai and dances.
Defenders of the Electoral College argue that it was created to combat majority tyranny and support federalism, and that it continues to serve those purposes. This stance depends on a profound misunderstanding of the history of the institution.
Two of the nation’s last three presidents won the presidency in the Electoral College, even though they lost the popular vote nationwide. In 2000, Al Gore outpolled George W. Bush by more than 540,000 votes but lost in the Electoral College, 271–266. Sixteen years later, Hillary Clinton tallied almost 3 million more votes than Donald Trump but lost decisively in the Electoral College, 306–232. And, as a recent New York Times poll suggested, the 2020 election could very well again deliver the presidency to the loser of the popular vote.
Despite this, defenders of the Electoral College argue that it was created to combat majority tyranny and support federalism, and that it continues to serve those purposes. For example, Representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas, responding to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent criticism of the Electoral College, tweeted that “we live in a republic, which means 51% of the population doesn’t get to boss around the other 49%,” and that the Electoral College “promotes more equal regional representation and protects the interests of sparsely populated states.”
GOP lawmakers used to oppose the president’s embrace of Putin and the Kremlin. Not anymore.
Just how far will Republicans go in following President Donald Trump’s embrace of Russia? An answer may be crystallizing as the GOP mobilizes its defense of the president against impeachment.
Both congressional Republicans and conservative commentators are defending Trump from impeachment partly by accusing Ukraine of intervening against him in the 2016 presidential election—despite repeated warnings from national-security and intelligence officials that those claims are not only baseless, but advance Vladimir Putin’s goal of discrediting Ukraine.
Earlier in Trump’s presidency, many Republicans sought to distance themselvesfrom his warm tone toward Putin. But just this week alone, a number of Republican lawmakers, the official House Republican report rebutting impeachment, and the Fox News host Tucker Carlson have repeated Kremlin lines on Ukraine.
Perhaps fittingly for the end of the decade, 2019 was filled with thoughtful, retrospective works from master filmmakers who cast an eye on the past amid the rapid changes of the present. While veterans like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino wrestled with their moviemaking legacies, some of the other best works of the year were about the wrenching and rewarding labor that goes into a work of art, be it an 18th-century French portrait, an experimental student film in 1980s Britain, or one of the best-known works of American literature. By any measure, this was a thrilling year for the medium, featuring fascinating movies of all genres and styles to dissect, enjoy, and debate for decades to come. Here are my 10 favorites.
Harry Reid may be the only person who can keep the Democrats from killing one another before selecting a nominee. But will he live long enough to do it?
LAS VEGAS—Swing past Caesars Palace; head up the Bellagio’s driveway, where its famous fountains are erupting to an auto-tuned Cher hit. Walk by the Dale Chihuly glass-flower ceiling above the check-in line, and the animatronic exhibit with the half-human, half-monkey figures. Head past the blackjack tables and the jangling slot machines and the chocolate fountain to the austere concrete corridors beyond them. There, getting wheeled around in a red metal-frame wheelchair is the 80-year-old man on whom the unity of the Democratic Party in 2020—if not the Democratic nomination—may hinge.
If he can stay alive that long.
Harry Reid, who retired in 2017 after representing Nevada for 30 years in the U.S. Senate—a dozen of them as chair of the Democratic caucus, eight of them as Senate majority leader—was supposed to be dead already; his pancreatic cancer was forecasted to prove fatal within weeks. But he’s still here, which is how I came to be talking with him, not long before Thanksgiving, in a conference room at the Bellagio, asking him why he remains the person to whom many of the Democratic presidential candidates come for advice and anointment.
The poisoning of a double agent sparked an intelligence and PR battle between London and Moscow, the details of which are only now emerging.
Tucked away in a drab industrial estate on the outskirts of the Swiss town of Spiez lies a multistory concrete office block flanked by a parking lot and a soccer field. A modest gate with a small plaque is all that greets visitors. A river rolls behind the building, fed from the peaks of the Blüemlisalp massif above. This is the Bernese Oberland, the corner of Switzerland where James Bond met Blofeld in a revolving mountaintop hideaway; where Sherlock Holmes plunged to his death.
The building in question, an outpost of Switzerland’s Federal Office for Civil Protection, might be unassuming—home to just 98 academics, engineers, apprentices, and technicians—yet its occupant, the Spiez Laboratory, is world-renowned. The elite facility focuses on global nuclear, chemical, and biological threats, and is one of a limited number of sites designated by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to conduct research and analysis. Safely under the protective cloak of the country’s diplomatic neutrality, Spiez Laboratory carries out its work with little fanfare or controversy.