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Suggestions for Civic Effort


I'm currently making my way through Our Towns. A book by James and Deborah Fallows, which covers their four year journey, crisscrossing our country, visiting many of our less flashy towns and remote outposts. While I'm only about 20% of the way into it, I couldn't resist flipping to the back for their its conclusion, where they imparted lessons learned and things they felt were more common than not when a place seemed to be heading in the right direction.

  1. People work together on practical local possibilities, rather than allowing disagreements about national politics to keep them apart.

  2. You can pick out the local patriots: put another way, "who makes this town go?" It would surface any number of answers: political figures, business leaders, real estate developers, historians, professors, civic activists, artists, etc

  3. The phrase "public-private partnership" refers to something real

  4. People know the civic story: As with guiding national myths, the question is not whether these assessments seem precisely accurate to outsiders. Their value is in giving citizens a sense of how today's efforts are connected to what happened yesterday and what they hope tomorrow will bring

  5. They have downtowns and are pouring attention, resources and creativity into them.

  6. They are near a research university

  7. They have, and care about, a community college: these institutions potentially offer a connection to higher-wage technical jobs for people who might otherwise be left with no job or one at minimum wage

  8. They have distinctive, innovative schools

  9. They make themselves open to immigrants

  10. They have big plans: When a mayor or community council shows me a map of expansions I think: I'd like to come back.

The list is obviously not a panacea and the Fallows' do not call it one. These are merely indicators and ideas. What I liked about it was it made me reflect, "I have ten levers in front of me. If I'm going to pull one or two, which will they be?" Some are no doubt easier to play a role in than others but I think it is a valuable way for us to reflect on the outputs of our personal, professional and civic efforts.

For my part, the fourth item listed, civic story, appeals to me. To take a step in learning that civic story, today I visited the Carondelet Historical Society. I learned a number of things in the 90 minutes I was there. I got to see the classroom where Susan Blow launched the first kindergarten classroom and much of its curriculum came from Germany and was designed to be much more interactive and functional in what it taught. I also learned that the township of Carondelet, having recently been annexed by St. Louis, benefited from the city's progressive mayor who actively supported Ms. Blow in getting the kindergarten started. Despite her family's wealth and her determination to get the program started, without government help, she wouldn't have been successful in her launch.

Another part of our history I learned was one less that is less inspiring. Segregated schools existed in the community and at one point when the white population had outgrown its school, the African American school, Delaney, was converted into a school for whites called Virginia Ave.

This is an example of two of our city's complex history. We are a town with a rich history of innovation, production and tradition. We are also one that has dealt great injustices to portions of the population. It is only by knowing our history and where we have come from that we can better define who we have been, who we are and who we wish to be going forward.

Go Forth Boldly


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