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“Keeping America Great in Manufacturing,” one training project at a time. (Mobile Lab outside main site of Technical Employment Training in San Bernardino, California (James Fallows)

In previous accounts we’ve described the economic predicament of San Bernardino, California. Most of its former industries have departed, and most of its remaining people are non-privileged in nearly every way. And challenging as its economic prospects are, San Bernardino’s political predicament has been worse, because of a rare city-level version of the unproductive me-first/screw-you standoff of our national-level governance. Two and a half years ago this led San Bernardino to municipal bankruptcy, largely due to a perverse arrangement where taxpayers of the poorest city (of more than 50,000 people) in California were being financially bled to pay some of the highest police- and fire-fighter wages anywhere in this very rich state.

I could go on. But that’s as much bad news as anyone needs on the San Bernardino front. (And on the plus side, remember that just last week the city council voted 6-1 in favor of a reform-and-governance plan that is the first step back from bankruptcy.)

Seriously, that’s it. From this point on, we’ll use our San Bernardino installments to describe people my wife Deb and I have met who have drawn our attention and respect for their efforts to change the prospects for their town.

Last month I mentioned one such group, an alliance of young people called Generation Now. At face value, their purpose is retail-level civic betterment: cleaning up parks that have been full of broken glass and litter, promoting concerts and cultural events, painting murals in public spaces and otherwise trying to improve the look of eyesores. (Mural-painting is something we’ve seen as civic tool lot of places, for instance Pittsburgh and Fresno.) Their deeper ambition, as members explained to us, was to “model the civic behavior you would like to see,” in ways big and small.

Michael Segura of Generation Now (in hat) during a mural-painting project last month (Generation Now)

The small ways include greeting neighbors and seeming to care for the battered town. The large ways include civic engagement, in meetings and especially in voting.

Nationwide we know that voting turnout falls off badly in non-presidential election years — especially for young voters, and racial minorities, and the non-college educated, and the poor. This leads toward a predictable skew against the interests of those groups. San Bernardino’s electoral system brings this pattern to an extreme. Its population has all the markers of low turnout: poverty rate twice as high as for the state as a whole, college-grad rate only one-third as high, “majority-minority” ethnic status (about 60% Latino and 15% black).

On top of that, the city inexplicably holds elections in odd numbered years, without even midterm Congressional races to draw voters to the polls. As a result the tiny handfuls of citizens who bother to vote have played an outsized role in setting policy. For instance, in a city of 200,000+ people, school board members can win with fewer than 5,000 votes. This has been bad news for decades, in ways described before. It can be good news for Generation Now: if even a small fraction of the city’s youth gets interested in voting, they can have a big effect. And as we’ll see, fewer than 5,000 votes cast in a school board race four years ago are proving to have a bigger effect than many people might have foreseen.

They are having that effect through the next person we bring to your notice in San Bernardino: an Air Force veteran, aerospace-tech entrepreneur, defense contractor, and now education reformer named Michael Gallo. You see him on the far left of the photo below, with members of Generation Now on the right and the San Bernardino Superintendent of Schools, Dale Marsden, to the immediate left of the poster easel, with a necktie. (Generation Now Facebook photo.)

At a “Beyond Bankruptcy” session sponsored by the San Bernardino Sun.

Mike Gallo, who is now in his late 50s, came to San Bernardino in 1980 as a young second lieutenant at what was then the huge (now closed) Norton Air Force Base. He left the military in the mid-1980s to work with Dan Goldin, later renowned as the longest-serving head of NASA, on a program to develop missile-launch vehicles at the TRW aerospace firm. This was during the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative / “Star Wars” buildup, when the Pentagon was funding a wide variety of missile-related programs.

In 1992 Goldin left TRW to join NASA; without him TRW reduced its emphasis on the launch business; and in 1993, when Gallo was in his mid 30s, he and partners decided to start their own firm. It was called Kelly Space & Technology, or KST, and they intended it to be a pioneer in the “reusable launch vehicle” business for military and civilian customers.

One of the company’s original concepts was that vehicles headed toward space could be towed up for their initial ascent from Earth. A transport plane would tow a smaller craft up to high altitudes — and from there the smaller vehicle would head into space, rather than having to blast off through the thick air and stronger gravitational pull at ground level. The concept worked in demonstrations, and a NASA monograph recognized its technical validity. “It was a big deal!” Gallo told me. “A whole kind of reusable launch technology that wouldn’t be geared to launch pads. It was going to open up space to a new kind of economic development!”

Illustration from NASA paper on the KST towed-launch concept.

In the end, Gallo and his partners were not able to develop that business. “When we got back to earth, we realized that it wasn’t so easy to raise half a billion dollars of funding,” he said. “And I didn’t happen to have that in my back pocket. So I had to do one of two things. Either file for nonprofit status, because I was never going to make a dime in this business! Or figure out how to make a dime. Which is what I did.”

I won’t go through the next 20 years of KST’s business and technological history, the details of which you can read about here. The main points are: it has been a bona fide success; it is still in the launch-vehicle business along with a variety of other advanced-tech fields; it is still privately held; and it operates in what are now the civilian facilities of the former Norton Air Force Base, which was being closed at just about the time KST was starting up. Here’s a sample from KST’s “about us” statement:

KST has established the Aerospace Research & Development Center (ARDC) at its modernized facilities to incubate and commercialize leading-edge technologies based upon its Reusable Launch Vehicle(RLV) research and development activities. KST’s vision is to create and commercialize technologies that will open space to large-scale commercial development and apply these space technologies to beneficial use on earth.

My point for now is less about the company than to set up the kind of person Mike Gallo is. Military- and defense-minded; trained as an engineer; schooled in modern management practices, so that his conversation is peppered with references to the latest Harvard Business School report and motivational comments like, “When you don’t have a shared vision, you end up confusing activity with accomplishment. Because you haven’t defined or, worse, prioritized your interests and investments, years later you end up just waking up tired, without any accomplishments.”

Mike Gallo in his official company photo (Technical Employment Training)

Gallo talks passionately, and very fast. He reminds me of other go-getter, built-the-company-and-met-the-payroll-themselves entrepreneurs I’ve known in the hardware and tech fields, from Alan Klapmeier of Cirrus Design (and now ONE Aviation) to Liam Casey of PCH International.

The resemblance is that these people have built their business not on clever apps or software concepts they hope will”go viral” but on tangible pieces of valuable real-world equipment that have to be designed elegantly, manufactured precisely, and then sold (and maintained) one by one – with terrible reputational and real-world consequences when any of them fails. I didn’t ask Gallo about either his politics or his faith. But from the posters and photos in his office and the general vibe, I feel safe in assuming that he is an active church member who votes Republican. (One clue was the office photo of him with a recent GOP presidential nominee.)

This background is relevant, or at least interesting (to me), because the mission that now engages Mike Gallo is creating better, fairer educational opportunities for the mainly poor, mainly Latino or African-American, mainly left-behind students in his adopted city’s public school system, and helping build a local economy that can employ them.

What does this mean in practice? There’s more he told me than I will recount at the moment, and in the next installment I’ll talk about a San Bernardino public elementary school, public high school, and non-profit tech-training center I got to visit today, in all of which Gallo and his allies have played a strong role. But these were three strong elements that ran through what Gallo says and does:

Personal involvement. Early in his time at KST, Gallo recognized that he was trying to build a high-tech company in an area with a low-skilled workforce. He became a founding member, and then the chairman, of the California Space Education and Workforce Institute, one of a list of regional-betterment efforts he became part of. Three years ago, Governor Jerry Brown appointed Gallo to the statewide Workforce Investment Board. Gallo’s list of organizational commitments is long indeed, and many of the groups he either founded or led.

“I figure, why participate if you’re not going to lead?” he responded, when I asked him why he did all this. “I don’t just sit around. I don’t sleep much. That’s what I do. I do stuff.”

Let’s pause for a Policy Point™: Most of our modern economic-utility models have a hard time accounting for people who decide to commit so much of their attention, effort, and peace of mind to public-good causes of this sort. (When I pressed Gallo, he said, “I believe in servant leadership,” which of course takes us beyond the economists’ purview.) Observation of national if-you-lose-I-win politics would lead to the suspicion that we’ve run out of figures willing to spend time or take risks for the collective good. (Except the military heroes to whom we pay ritual homage at public events.) On our travels around the country we keep running into them, and chronicling them, because it’s worth remembering that this still is part of the national fabric, to be recognized alongside the more discouraging signs.

One of Gallo’s latest involvements is as president of the city public school board. He won a seat on the seven-member board in 2011, with 4,647 votes. At his first meeting, he was elected the board’s vice-president; not long afterwards he became president. He is up for re-election to a four-year board term again this fall and so far has no concerted opposition.

Why did he bother to run in the first place, given the nightmare of school politics and the many other obligations he had? “I figure, you’ve got to get inside if you really hope to change the situation.”

And what did he hope to change? “I noticed where the dollars were being spent. So much was remediation, corrective action, strategies to get you barely enough credits to graduate. That leaves you with almost no hope you’ll be working.

“We have one of the poorest communities in the nation, 54% of the population on some kind of public assistance. And our public school system is requiring that they further invest the dollars that they don’t have just to barely get an entrance requirement for community college. That’s tragic. I couldn’t take that any more. You’ve got to fix it.”

Modern “Career Technical” Education. I can’t mention it often enough: the educational development that Deb, John Tierney, and I have found consistently most encouraging and exciting involves community colleges and “career technical education,” which in the old days would be dismissively called “trade school” or “vocational ed.”

Yes, the mighty research universities are America’s crown jewels. Yes, a liberal arts education is the best possible preparation for the predictable unpredictability of life.

But as a way of offsetting some of the brutal economic polarization of this Second Gilded Age, and also as a way of equipping U.S.-based businesses for new manufacturing and tech opportunities, career-technical training is of enormous importance. It can give people who won’t finish 4-year colleges an alternative to low-wage retail or food-service work. It can be the basis of startup activities far from the famous big cities, as we have chronicled in Mississippi and rural Maine and coastal Georgia.

Why does this involve Mike Gallo? Because long before he joined the school board, he set up a non-profit (technically 501(c)(3) ) organization called Technical Employment Training, whose purpose is to train San Bernardino-area students for better opportunities there or elsewhere.

Sign outside the TET classroom and machine-shop facility in San Bernardino.

I spent time today at TET and with its president (and Gallo’s close friend), Dr. Bill Clarke. I’ll save for the next report the story of how Gallo, Clarke, and a growing group of like-minded allies in San Bernardino are trying to change education from the kindergarten-and-primary-school level on through adult training. (And today freshman Rep. Pete Aguilar, the former mayor of Redlands and the first Democrat to represent this district since the 1960s, introduced a job-training bill paralleling the work being done in San Bernardino.) For the moment, I’ll say that what they’re trying is a more comprehensive version of what we’ve seen succeed elsewhere — and that in San Bernardino it is being applied in unusually challenging circumstances. If they can make a difference here, that will have implications elsewhere.

TET instructor with one of the advanced machine tools in their training center today

Engagement. The San Bernardino drama is at surface level an economic story, but it is really a cultural and political one. It’s a story of disengagement and suspicion: no one group feeling responsible for the others, or willing to extend any bond of trust.

That is what Mike Gallo said he most wanted to change. “We want to give our kids an incentive to stay here in our local region, rather than continuing the flight of our educated population somewhere else. We have to create that sense of hope, here, and opportunity and trust.”

Gallo went on to mention poll results and academic studies that measure the level of hope and trust and the community level, and among students in schools. “One important indicator is whether a student feels that there is an adult who cares about them at their school. Another is whether they have a best friend at school. And whether they’re involved in any extracurricular activities. These are all measures of engagement, which is aligned with hope.” And this, he said, is what he hoped to promote.

But why, again, here, with so much stacked so badly against him? When San Bernardino is a place he came to for work, not his original or generations-long home? And when almost any other city government, school system, or student/parent population would start out far ahead in rankings? Why is this worthwhile— here?

“Why here? I am here. My kids are here. Now my grandchildren. You want to leave a place better off than when you found it. This is my place.”

I am sure that anyone as forceful as Mike Gallo will have his critics and his shortcomings — though I will say most people I asked about him in San Bernardino were very grateful for his service. I’m not presuming to offer an authoritative portrait of him. But I do feel confident in saying that he has practiced a kind of public service that deserves broader notice, in addition to the service we more usually honor on Memorial Day. It also resembles the best of what we have seen from coast to coast.

I also note that both he and Bill Clarke asked that I publish their email addresses, for contact by anyone interested in their efforts. They are, and Tell them hello from me.