On Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, in Erie, Pennsylvania, the Jefferson Educational Society, in partnership with Our Towns, hosted “How America’s Towns are Writing the Future of the Country” during the think tank’s annual Global Summit — an event series that I have been a part of since 2015 aimed at bringing big ideas to a smaller community. It is now available to stream on-demand, and I have embedded the video below.
But first, some context-setting about what you’ll see and hear: The event features opening remarks from Our Towns’ co-founder James Fallows, followed by a panel discussion I moderated featuring Jason Neises, the Community Development Coordinator at the Community Foundation of Great Dubuque; Alice Trowbridge, a contractor with PA Humanities; and Isaac and Heidi Tucker, residents of Dillsburg, Pennsylvania.
The thread weaving the panel together? Community Heart & Soul, a resident-driven community development process, which we’ve reported on often on this site (and is a partner and supporter of our work).
In his opening remarks, Jim discusses the origin of the ongoing Our Towns journey, noting that the story of America as often shown on cable news and as often told in national headlines contrasts what can be seen often playing out from neighborhood to neighborhood at the local level.
From afar – the national observation – the United States appears to be divided, as our differences are pronounced, playing out in high definition, and written in large, bold font. But focus in on the local level, and you’ll see that “all around the country, at times of national-level distress that we’re so familiar with, there is this diaspora of people trying their best and people coming up with new ideas, and the potential of another reform movement taking shape,” Jim told the in-person crowd of some nearly 300 attendees at Gannon University as well as those tuned in virtual to the live stream.
One example of a process for how people are working to improve their towns, addressing challenges with opportunities and resources, is the Community Heart & Soul process. The how happens at various levels – from the residents, to volunteers to project coordinators, to coaches, as I discuss with Alice, Jason, Heidi, and Isaac.
Also in those opening remarks, Jim, when discussing the “Our Towns” HBO Documentary, notes the power of video to capture in seconds what might take a writer a thousand words to do.
In the spirit of that observation, with which I much agree, I’ll skip over lengthier analysis and commentary, but will share just a few things to listen and watch for:
1 — How the Community Heart & Soul process creates an inclusive community development process, helps build capacity for nonprofits, cultivates emerging leaders, establishes local and regional identities, and more.
2 — Why storytelling plays a powerful role in shaping the future of towns.
3 — How civic leadership can connect with residents in authentic, meaningful ways – like gathering around a grill full of hotdogs.
4 — What’s to be gained by creating a space for the youth to be, to be seen, and to be themselves.
5 — Why being 18 has more to do with an 18-year-old leaving any given town than the town itself, but why intentionally creating a place that 18-year-old who left years ago might return to matters more than trying to never let them leave.
5 1/2 — How a lot of gears driving community progress are greased with craft beer.
As a bonus, a rough-and-ready transcript is available on the Jefferson Educational Society’s YouTube channel. You can follow along – with the awareness that it contains typos and will differ in some word-by-word details from what you may hear for yourself. The time-stamp numbers you see cue to portions of the video.
As Jim concludes (which sharing here does not spoil the watch but should rather only further encourage it): “The country is full of creativity and insight, and that is something that the country needs to know about itself.”
So, whether you were in the room as part of the in-person audience, or tuning in via live-stream, or haven’t yet watched or listened to this program – I encourage you to stream it on-demand.