Civic Life

OUR TOWNS CIVIC FOUNDATION: THE IDEA, AND THE GOALS


James Fallows
Posted on

Downtown Eastport ME. (Courtesy of Don Dunbar.)

What is the idea behind this site and the new Our Towns Civic Foundation? And what are the goals? Here’s a brief summary.

The idea, as mentioned in this accompanying piece, is that crucial guidance for American recovery in the years just ahead will come from American innovation at the state-and-local levels in the years just past. 

Therefore, people across the country will benefit if these dispersed, independent approaches are as widely known as they can be–and more widely shared than they are now. It also will help innovators everywhere if they have more opportunities to learn from one another, to connect and pool their efforts, and to make what had been separate activity into a movement.

The central role of local-level innovation meant one thing over the past few years, when national-level politics was so frequently zero-sum and resentment-driven. Then, localities were mainly havens and incubators for ideas that could not force their way onto the national agenda. Many of those ideas were right; their timing, for drawing broader attention, happened to be wrong.

Now the tide has shifted; the timing has changed; and these models of effectiveness at the local level have new significance. The technology of this era makes possible a kind of connection that reformers of the 1880s, or the 1920s, or even the 1960s might only have imagined. In those days, good ideas tried-and-tested in Toledo, or Tallahassee, or Spokane, might have flowered or perished without notice in other parts of the country. Now there is the possibility of people in widely dispersed areas learning, improving, and supporting one another in facing their shared challenges.  

New kinds of schools; new ways to bring people—and possibility—to rural communities and other “declining” areas; new business and cultural expressions, born of new technologies; new approaches to economically sustainable local journalism; new sources of patriotism and sense of the civic—the examples for doing these things will not mainly come from Washington, D.C., nor mainly be put to the test there. Instead this coming era’s policies will be applied in Ohio and Indiana, in California’s Central Valley and Inland Empire, in former textile-and-tobacco communities of the Carolinas, and in scores of similar locales. Dayton, Danville, Bellingham, Des Moines, St. Louis, Erie and Johnstown, the Charlestons and Springfields of various states—places like these play a minor role in our era’s journalism and national discussion, except during election campaigns, but they are likely to loom much larger in histories of these times. They are where our era’s history is being lived and written and made, week by week and city by city, right now. 


The goals: The country is full of entrepreneurs, innovators, and local patriots who have been pouring time, money, idealism, and ingenuity into improving their localities. But too few of them are aware of how many other people are trying to do the same things in other places. Some of them end up reinventing the wheel — or losing heart about the possibility of wheels being invented at all.

The purpose of this foundation is to help make the success of an upcoming renewal era more probable. Toward this end we will: report on and share the stories of local innovators; distill and share the lessons of their successes (or failures): promote connections among like-minded people around the country, in virtual and real-world venues; encourage new journalistic models (and technologies, and funding sources) to cover local stories and their implications; and in other ways help now-disconnected innovators and reformers realize that they’re part of something larger.

We plan to include these elements in our site:

  • A home for ongoing reports about developments, ideas, and models on the local level.
  • A base for new models of reporting and journalism, including those involving innovative “geo-journalism” mapping tools.
  • A contact point where people from different communities can engage with one another.
  • A steadily improving “knowledge-base” source of journalistic accounts, consultant studies, advice, guidelines, and other data, indexed and organized on themes important to civic renewal. These will range from public arts to community colleges, from downtown-district renovation to racial and ethnic inclusion, and many more. This initial version of the site shows only a few of the hundreds of reports we have done over the years. Soon we will include many of those past dispatches, to populate the “Towns” and “Topics” menu pages, and as background for upcoming coverage.
  • A forum for local writers, civic leaders, organizational innovators, and others around the country to exchange about their experiences and insights—in writing, through podcasts and other audio features, and in video. As soon as possible, we hope to host some of these exchanges in person.
  • An advocacy site, which in a non-partisan way will support public and private measures that would advance local-renewal prospects.

We hope you’ll join us in this endeavor. Sign up here

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