The audience arrived early vying for good seats. The crowd was comprised of mostly grey-haired couples. If the people who asked questions were indicative of the majority of the group, many of the spectators had followed the work of James and Deborah Fallow for decades as they documented life and language for the Atlantic both internationally and in the States. The couple took the stage with a smile, accompanied by the night’s interviewer, the Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief, James Bennett, to share insights from their cross-country travels.
Since last August the Fallows have undertaken a project of national importance. They have piloted themselves around the nation at 2500 feet by propeller airplane to visit America’s small towns and uncover their stories. The small towns that they seek must meet a certain criteria, not merely a low number of permanent residents, but also places typically out of the national spotlight. They land in the small towns of the flyover states and report to rest of us what should be recognized by the whole of us.
The couple apologetically interrupted each other as they eagerly shared their favorite stories from the far-flung cities across the plains and the coasts, spanning from California to Maine, Michigan to South Carolina, South Dakota to Vermont. Their stories gave away their earnest surprise to discover high levels of national pride in every town. Each place also exhibited a go-hung ho attitude that expected and desired solutions for its successes to come from within its population, not from Washington or their own respective state capitols.
Listening to tales of the nation there were trends that stood out, things that as a country we should applaud and issues that we should all work together to overcome. In cities all across the nation there were entrepreneurs vying to not only create businesses that would allow them to remain in the small towns that they loved, but there are business innovators who are changing the economic markets by revolutionizing local industry. In Maine seaports are being reinvigorated, in South Carolina there is tech boom whose creative environment and designs rival that of Silicon Valley.
These places are transforming through collaboration between old populations and new residents and there is a strong desire to retain their younger generations. Change is good, but it comes with its challenges. There are clashes between PFAs (People From Away) and those who were born in the town. There are ideas about a sense of propriety and identity that outsiders are often expected to conform to which is sometimes difficult for Americans from other places and no more easy for immigrants.
In America today, many immigrants are skipping large cities as ports of entry and heading straight to small towns and suburbs. Some places, such as Sioux Falls, South Dakota, are on the map because they have extraordinary refugee integration programs. Economically immigrants are a boon to society but sometimes there arrival is wrought with complications that challenge communities to be adaptive. In many places across the United States ESL (English as a Second Language) classes are taught by teaching English to students via another language, often Spanish. This model is becoming useless in areas where there are more diverse immigrant populations and Spanish may only be spoken by 30% of the population and the other 70% is comprised of native speakers of various languages from across the globe. The schools are experimenting with various teaching models that have been previously underused in this country such as ulpan teaching method, where the instructors only speak the language that they are teaching without any translation into the students’ native language.
“American Futures” presents a country that is adapting to life in the 21st century but is also grappling with its past. Though the Fallows’ reports present a mostly positive view of American life across the country they are careful not to be too Pollyannaish, and with good reason. Many towns are still coming to terms with their violent histories of racism. There are still stark divides in perception of the advances areas have made when residents of different races are asked about their impressions of and experiences in their town as it relates to progress and opportunity.
There is hope for the United States’ future. The large cities tend to overlook small towns but the small towns have big personalities. They are hard workers and patriots, generous and innovative. They may be understated but they are not sitting idly. The entrepreneurial spirit and the imperative to confront problems head on offer lessons that the rest of country would do well to heed. “American Futures” offers lessons on humility and teamwork. Together city and town, large and small, known and unknown, we can advance impressively if we overcome our provincialism to embrace and celebrate our national strengths.
Courtney D. Sharpe is a world traveler who has spent extensive time in the Middle East studying, traveling and working with the Peace Corps. She is a graduate of Northwestern University where she pursued a double degree in International Studies and Religion.