American Promise’s National Citizen Leadership Conference Wants to End Big Money in Government

We can have a government that fulfills its promise to represent “We the People.” But that’s not the government we have now — big money is getting in the way. 
Because of the pernicious influence of unchecked political spending, we have congressional representatives in Washington more beholden to the wealthy donors and special interest groups bankrolling their campaigns than to the actual people living in their home district. 
The result is fundamentally undemocratic: a government that doesn’t reflect the needs of its people, despite all promises and assurances to the contrary. It’s a mockery of the founding principles of our nation, and it has to stop.   
We the people aren’t fooled. A 2018 poll by Pew Research Center found that 77% of Americans believe there should be limits on spending in campaigns. 
There’s a nonprofit, grassroots movement to make limits on political campaign spending as American as apple pie. If you’re one of the overwhelming majority of Americans who want to fight back against the silencing effect of big money on government, you can join NationSwell in taking part.
From Saturday to Sunday, the National Citizen Leadership Conference (NCLC) will convene activists, scholars and concerned citizens together in one room to strategize how to take back the reins of our nation from the plutocratic few and give it back to the many through the ratification of a 28th Amendment. 
On Monday, following the conference, the group will take to Capitol Hill for Citizen Lobby Day, a day for citizens to meet with members of Congress. Event organizers will form teams to specifically discuss money in the political system and encourage representatives to support campaign funding restrictions. 
The conference is organized by American Promise, the nonprofit leading the efforts to restrict big spending. According to its mission statement, the group endeavors to “empower, inspire and organize Americans to win the 28th Amendment to the Constitution” by motivating Congress and statehouses to put reasonable limits on how candidates and their backers raise and spend money. A version of their bill in Congress has 200 cosponsors, but despite bipartisan support from voters, it faces an uncertain future.
Amending the United States Constitution is no easy task. There are two paths towards ratification. In one, the bill needs approval from a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate, and is then passed to statehouses, where it will need three-fourths of the states to vote in favor of ratification. In the second path, two-thirds of the states call for a Constitutional Convention, where any proposed Constitutional amendment requires three-fourths of the states to vote to pass it. These are intentionally high bars set by our nation’s founders, and it will take a people-powered groundswell to convince representatives on both sides of the aisle that this amendment must pass. 
Fortunately for its proponents, such a movement is exactly what American Promise endeavors to galvanize through the NCLC.
NationSwell founder and CEO Greg Behrman, one of the event speakers, lauded the event as a major opportunity to address one of the key challenges our nation faces, and praised organizers for the innovative, unequivocal way they’ve risen to this challenge.
“One of the major challenges that our government has right now is its irresponsiveness to the will of the people, which has created a sense of distrust,” Behrman said. “At the root of that is the influence of money and special interests.”
He praised American Promise for the bold, creative way it has mobilized so many passionate citizens around ending unchecked spending’s chilling effect on democracy.
“[American Promise CEO and co-founder Jeff Clements’] work has the potential to restore a sense of effectiveness, fairness and trust in government politics,” Behrman said. “That, in turn, can help lead to better policy, to better citizenship, to making communities stronger and lives better — and finally enable us to be more forward-thinking and more effective in advancing the policies that people are really going to need now and in the future.”
“Jeff is an inspiring visionary leader, and we’re proud to have been able to support him through the NationSwell Council,” Behrman added. “He’s become a friend, and I’m so excited to have the chance to support him, and so excited to join the American Promise Advisory Council.”
Other speakers at the event include Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) and Ibis Communications Founder and CEO MaryAnne Howland.
To find out more about how you can attend NCLC, call into Citizen Lobby Day or get involved with your state’s American Promise team, check out this resource.
More: You Probably Don’t Trust the Government. This Lab Plans to Fix That
NationSwell is a proud supporting sponsor of American Promise’s National Citizen Leadership Conference. Additional reporting was provided by the NationSwell team.

Thousands of Silicon Valley Residents Can’t Get Online. San Jose Has a Plan to Fix That

Though San Jose, California, sits directly in the heart of Silicon Valley, many of the city’s residents don’t have access to the internet. In one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S., more than 100,000 people — including 50% of residents with incomes under $35,000 — are unable to get online. 
Finding a solution to that stark disparity was what San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and his chief innovation officer, Shireen Santosam, had in mind when they hired Dolan Beckel, an executive fellow with the nonprofit FUSE, in 2016. Now, as the director of the Office of Civic Innovation and Digital Strategy, Beckel is working to create a sustainable model that expands connectivity and digital services across San Jose. 
As internet access increasingly becomes a universal need, Beckel hopes to see cities shift to models like that in Finland — reportedly the first country in the world to declare broadband access a legal right for every citizen. “I want to live in a world where the internet is considered a utility just like water and electricity,” Beckel said. “In 2019, it’s just as important for our well-being.”
Over the last three years, Beckel and his team have worked with the mayor’s office to understand the systemic changes necessary for tackling such a complex issue. Here are four lessons they’ve learned.


Beckel and the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation knew that in order to create sustainable programs for addressing the digital divide the city needed money. So Beckel did what any smart Silicon Valley entrepreneur would — he identified a need and crafted a deal to fill it. To implement 5G, which provides faster and better digital connectivity, telecommunications companies have been installing compact antennas called “small cells.” But to work, small cells must be situated at high levels with access to electrical power, and the more cells there are, the more consistent the service they provide. The solution? City light poles, the ideal spot to hold small cells. San Jose’s existing workhorse utilities instantly became the most valuable asset the city had to offer telecom companies.
Beckel’s team took the idea to local telecoms and negotiated an agreement to generate income from the city’s existing infrastructure, offering to lease the light poles at a market-based rate in return for guaranteed fast and consistent service. To speed up the process, San Jose used the fees to put in place a team dedicated to installation.
 The remainder of the expected income, estimated at $24 million over the next 10 years, will go into what San Jose calls its Digital Inclusion Fund. Created by Mayor Liccardo, the fund will be used to bring connectivity, devices and digital literacy to 50,000 underserved households, effectively closing the digital divide for these residents. Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness believes the efficiency of the process will potentially save the telecoms millions. “Rather than these companies having to go through thousands of negotiations on each small cell they installed, our offer allowed them to negotiate all at once,” he said. 
These deals have also led to what the city says is the largest small-cell implementation in the country. In 2017, before the project had taken off, San Jose had only managed to create permits for five small cells across the city. These days, Harkness said the city permits around 30 small cells a week.


While most cities place revenue from private deals into a general fund, every penny of the estimated $24 million from the telecom agreements will go into the Digital Inclusion Fund to support citywide programming that addresses the digital divide. San Jose claims it’s the first city in the country to specifically restrict revenue for these purposes.
 “In other cities, that revenue goes into a general citywide fund and then kind of disappears,” Beckel said. “Residents hope that city leaders do good things with it, but there’s no data-driven plan with accountability of ensuring those funds go toward a specific initiative. The Digital Inclusion Fund radically transformed that.”


After approving the fund, the city began to consider how it might spend the monies. But when Beckel’s team surveyed residents about their opinions on citywide digital-inclusion initiatives, many expressed concerns about government involvement. 
With a large immigrant population — almost 40% of San Jose’s residents were born in other countries — people reported feeling afraid that the government would look into their immigration status. Others expressed what Beckel referred to as a “Big Brother” fear that anything related to technology and the government would lead to increased surveillance and an overall loss in privacy.
Listening to their concerns, the city decided to take a different approach to offering new services. Rather than providing those services itself, San Jose is partnering with nonprofits and other organizations that already have a track record of community trust, giving them funds but letting them determine community needs and handle operations. This February, for example, the San Jose City Council approved a partnership with California Emerging Technology Fund, a statewide nonprofit with a singular mission of closing the digital divide. Some of the initiatives that CETF is developing include expanding library programs that allow people to borrow digital devices such as iPads; increasing the number of free community courses on how to use various technologies; offering more Wi-Fi hotspots near public schools that lack connectivity; and adding after-school coding classes. Programs are slated to begin this fall.
“I think the city was good at acknowledging what we didn’t know and admitting that it wasn’t our core competency to run a social justice program,” Beckel said. “And we realized that from a trust perspective, it’s sometimes better for the city to fund the programs but not be the face of them.”


Though Beckel’s team has made crucial steps toward improving digital inclusion, Beckel worries that future federal and state legislation will constrain the city’s initiatives. Just this May, the Federal Communications Commission issued a ruling that threatens city authority over 5G infrastructure deployment. Mayor Liccardo has partnered with other civic leaders to endorse federal legislation that would overturn it.
“I think there is an overreach of the FCC, which is focusing on the needs of the private sector instead of the needs of the public,” Beckel said. As legislation keeps changing, it’s unclear whether the city’s Digital Inclusion Fund and the steady stream of funding it created will survive.
But when Beckel began this work, he knew that it would require a long-term commitment. “Digital inclusion cannot be achieved with just one program that we implement in a year and then be done,” he said. “We knew that this was going to require more systemic change.”

This story was produced by FUSE Corps, a national executive fellowship program that partners with local government agencies and produces solutions-driven journalism.

You Probably Don’t Trust the Government. This Lab Plans to Fix That

America has a serious problem — a lack of trust in our elected leaders.
According to the Pew Research Center, less than half of the people in this country feel the current political system is effective at upholding their rights. Only 17 percent of Americans across party lines said they trust their government to do what’s right — compared to 75 percent in 1958.
These numbers are nearing a historic low.
In response to this crisis of faith, New Profit, a national venture philanthropy organization that funds social entrepreneurs, recently launched Civic Lab. Civic Lab’s goal is to promote nonpartisan democracy entrepreneurship by supporting a cohort of leaders who are working on solutions to build civic trust in America. The cohort currently consists of seven social impact entrepreneurs. Each leader received a $50,000 unrestricted grant, coaching and peer support in order to support their work.
“There’s declined trust in those kinds of institutions that actually used to be places where people formed communities and helped create the social connection and social fabric,” said Yordanos Eyoel, a partner at New Profit who leads Civic Lab.
Eyoel spent two years researching the civic needs of today’s society — a society that’s more divisive and more distrustful than ever before. “Civic Lab was really born with the emphasis of building and helping to support innovative grassroots solutions that are focused on building civic trust and civic culture in our country,” she told NationSwell.
Eyoel’s interest in civic engagement originates from her experience as a refugee. She was born in Ethiopia during the country’s longest civil war. She came to America in her early teens to join her mother, who had fled Ethiopia as a political refugee.
“Having grown up in a repressive government, I was obviously interested in civil society and activism,” Eyoel said. She started working at New Profit in 2013. A few years later, she had to decide between keeping her Ethiopian citizenship or becoming an American citizen. In 2016, the current state of political affairs in the U.S. motivated her to become an American citizen.
“It was a really big personal decision for me to forego my Ethiopian citizenship, but I made the decision to not sit on the electoral sidelines and to become a [U.S.] citizen and vote.”
Eyoel also helped co-found the Sister March Network, which helped mobilize the four million people who participated in the inaugural Women’s March in 2017. At the end of the march, Eyoel wanted to maintain the level of activism and engagement she saw with supporters of the march.
After two years of interviewing entrepreneurs and researching social distrust, Eyoel led the launch of Civic Lab, which brings together organizations that are addressing civic trust in multidimensional ways from multigenerational perspectives.
The pilot cohort launched this past March and features leaders from a range of sectors. But all leaders have a focus on democracy entrepreneurship.
One cohort member, Katie Fahey, is a 26-year-old activist who tackled gerrymandering in Michigan. With the help of Civic Lab, she’s taking on the rest of the country through her organization The People. Another cohort member, Rev. Gregory Holston, founded the interfaith organization POWER, which aims to unite faith-based communities on fighting for justice reform.
“We have shared values and shared cause but our tactics and strategies in the different spaces can help to inform what works,” said cohort member Steven Olikara, who is the founder and CEO of Millennial Action Project (MAP), the largest nonpartisan organization for young lawmakers.

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Steven Olikara (first row, far left) is the founder and CEO of Millennial Action Project. Here, he stands with a group of nonpartisan, millennial lawmakers.

Olikara is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is currently the most racially and politically segregated city in the country, according to the Brookings Institute. MAP’s goal is to empower, develop and amplify millennial lawmakers across the country and across party lines.
Olikara launched the nonprofit in 2013, and with the support of Civic Lab, aims to scale the organization beyond the dozens of legislators MAP currently supports.
With the help of a coach, who has experience in the private, political and nonprofit sectors, Olikara is gaining valuable new expertise.
Olikara said it’s key that the social venture philanthropy sector focuses on democracy entrepreneurship.
“Nothing scales a solution like public policy, and nothing solves the root cause like political reform.”
Olikara stressed it’s a critical moment when an anchor in social venture philanthropy, such as New Profit, identifies democracy entrepreneurship as a top priority.
“If you’re working on education, the environment, or immigration issues and not looking at the underlying reason of why our political system has not produced better outcomes in those areas,” he said, “then you’re missing the boat.”
More: Can A Nonreligious Church Save Politics?

Congestion Pricing Works — and It Might Be Headed to Your Town Next

Anyone who’s been to Midtown Manhattan during rush hour — or seen it depicted on TV and in movies — knows it’s nothing short of a nightmare to navigate. As pedestrians clog crosswalks, buses lumber down 42nd Street seemingly in slow motion, plodding along at an average rate of 3.2 miles per hour. Car riders don’t fare much better; at an average pace of 4.7 mph, they might as well be walking.
And things are only getting worse, says traffic expert and engineer Sam Schwartz. “People are starting to cry uncle,” Schwartz says, likening the growing fury over the gridlock to a scene out of the 1970s movie “Network.” “They’re going to start screaming out of their cars, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!’”
As a member of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Fix NYC panel, Schwartz was instrumental in the passage of New York’s congestion pricing program — the first in the country — which the city plans to roll out in 2021. Though details of the plan are still being ironed out, like how much to charge motorists and who should qualify for exemptions, Schwartz has high hopes that other U.S. cities will follow its lead.
Once considered too politically untenable to be embraced by car-loving Americans, the idea — which imposes a fee to drive on certain roads during peak times — has been slowly inching closer to the mainstream, as cities from Boston and Philadelphia to San Francisco and Seattle debate congestion pricing plans of their own. While public support of such measures remains mixed, it’s clear that something needs to be done.
Americans are driving more than ever. In 2018, we collectively traversed a record-setting 3.3 trillion miles on our nation’s already shaky network of roads and bridges. We also spent an average of 97 hours sitting in traffic, which cost each of us about $1,348 in wasted time and fuel (for unlucky Bostonians, that figure spikes to $2,291, the most of any U.S. city). On Chicago’s crowded Stevenson Expressway, commuters face a grueling 26-minute delay every workday.
Enter congestion pricing. Though it has a long and successful history in global centers like Singapore, Milan and London, Americans are loathe to pay for the privilege of driving. (Worth noting: When Stockholm announced its congestion pricing plan in 2006, there was little to no public backing. After six months, support skyrocketed as residents in Sweden’s capital began to fully appreciate the thinned-out traffic.)
“We have a tendency not to charge motorists what they cost to society,” says Schwartz. At the same time, several states haven’t raised fuel taxes in years, if not decades, while the federal government hasn’t touched gas tax rates since 1993. Add to that the fact that cars are more fuel-efficient than ever, “and there’s barely any money,” he says.
That leaves major metropolises in a lurch as they work to improve the crumbling infrastructure that so many of their residents rely on. As a measure to strengthen and advance existing transit options, most congestion pricing plans recommend reinvesting the revenue from tolls back into the transportation system. In New York, where motorists could be charged up to $25 for driving in Midtown and lower Manhattan, that translates to an estimated $1 billion per year redirected to the city’s decaying public transit system.

A 2018 study showed that Boston is the most congested city in the U.S. and eighth in the world.

Besides boosting revenue and easing traffic flow, congestion pricing also has proven benefits to public health and the environment. In Stockholm, the tax reduced common air pollutants by up to 15 percent and led to a significant decrease in acute asthma attacks among children. (In the U.S., the heavily trafficked Bronx has the highest levels of childhood asthma.)
Despite these positives, pushback to congestion charging exists, and not only because Americans dislike paying for something they historically haven’t had to pay for. Critics of pricing plans point to an undue burden on the city’s low-income residents, who often don’t live where reliable mass transit options are available and thus are more likely to drive in to dense urban centers.
Still, that’s not a one-size-fits-all argument, says Annie Nam of the Southern California Association of Governments, who spearheaded a recent study on establishing congestion pricing zones in Los Angeles. There’s a lot of misconceptions around who drives where, when and why, she says.
“The predominance of low-income people [in the zones we studied] are actually already using public transit or carpooling. So the question is more, ‘How do we better facilitate the sustainable travel that they’re already taking?’”
In the past, local governments turned to new construction or expanded existing roadways to deal with traffic overflow. But studies have shown that, as the Brookings Institute put it, “more road building in order to try to move vehicles faster often makes traffic worse.” Express or carpool lanes, whose popularity has risen over the past several decades, also don’t necessarily live up to their congestion-reducing hype.
Though they live on opposite coasts in cities with very different traffic patterns, both Schwartz and Nam see congestion pricing as the next logical step in the evolution of designing road systems that operate more efficiently.
“There’s a lot of energy around the idea,” says Schwartz, who points out that even Uber, whose rise has contributed to clogged streets from Manhattan, New York, to Manhattan, Kansas, poured millions into lobbying for the adoption of the plan.
With New York moving forward, Nam is betting that a ripple effect will take hold. “The general public becoming more aware of what it is and how it can work [leads to] a sense of normalcy,” she says, “and that there’s an opportunity to do this in the U.S.”

These Volunteers Help Low-Income Families Prepare Their Taxes for Free

Filing taxes is required by law, but 57 percent of Americans don’t understand the tax code. That’s not surprising, since the code, and documents associated with it, add up to more than 76,550 pages.
Complicating things even further is the GOP tax bill that took effect in 2018: people who itemize deductions on their returns are paying less than they should during the year, thanks to outdated W-4 forms not tailored to the new code. That could mean a payment instead of a refund in April — something that 27 percent of taxpayers aren’t confident they’ll be able to pay, according to a survey by Tax Slayer, an online filing service.
That’s where VITA comes in: Thousands of trained and certified volunteers complete millions of tax forms for families who qualify for assistance each year. One of VITA’s main objectives is making sure families take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit, something a fifth of taxpayers who qualify for don’t take. This credit lifted 5.8 million people out of poverty in 2016.
Watch the above video to learn more about how VITA and similar organizations work to help families in need during tax season.
More: This Anti-Poverty Initiative Was Born in a Hospital Waiting Room

The Ghost Bikes Project Gives Voice to the Dead

Since New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed Vision Zero in 2014 — a program with the ambitious goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities by 2024 — traffic deaths are down.
But that’s cold comfort for Mirza Molberg, a volunteer with New York City’s Ghost Bikes Project, an organization that commemorates cyclists killed while biking via ad-hoc shrines of “ghost bikes” chained to street signs near accident sites.
Molberg feels that city officials should invest more resources into preventing the deaths of the dozens of bicyclists and pedestrians who are killed each year by motor vehicles. That’s because two years ago, Molberg’s girlfriend, Lauren Davis, was hit by a car and killed while biking in Brooklyn.
That morning, Davis was biking to work when she was struck by a driver who had failed to yield while making a left turn. According to the victim’s sister, medical records show that Davis sustained lung trauma and rib fractures, as well as blunt force trauma to the head.
“[When a loved one is killed], you feel helpless,” Molberg says. “I was looking for anything to help.”
Molberg’s involvement with Ghost Bikes predates Davis’s death. He had been volunteering with the organization since 2010, constructing memorial bikes in his local church parking lot in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. From the start, Molberg says that he “had a strong emotional response when building the bikes, and especially when meeting family members of the dead cyclists,” though at times he also questioned the usefulness of the project. But after David died, he says, “any doubts I had [about the effectiveness of the project] were blown out of the water.”  
Ghost Bikes are made by stripping brakes and chains off of beater bikes and then spray-painting them white. After a dedication ceremony, they are marked with a small plaque and decorated with flowers that are left to wilt. The memorials may be adorned with candles, small gifts and sometimes photographs of the victim.  
Since June 2005, 164 ghost bikes have been installed in New York City to commemorate 198 known fatalities, including 54 for individuals who could not be identified. Ghost Bike offshoots exist worldwide, and memorials have appeared in over 210 locations throughout the world, such as in Mexico, Singapore and Ukraine. Their mission is to advocate for cyclists — both living and dead — and to ensure that those who have died don’t become just another forgotten statistic. In addition to constructing memorials, Ghost Bike organizes a yearly memorial bike ride and advocates for street safety. They also provide a supportive community for survivors and friends of the dead.

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Activist Mirza Molberg with his girlfriend Lauren Davis, a cyclist who was hit by a car and killed in 2016.

While the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration estimates there were 840 bicyclists killed in motor vehicle accidents in the United States in 2016, Ghost Bike charges that limited news coverage, changing statistical counts, and the lack of publicly available information make it hard to learn about every single death. And that lack of visibility has a lot to do with how accidents are presented in local news, they say. Research supports their claim that media outlets often blame cyclists for their own deaths or describe such tragedies as being the result of an “accident,” rather than a preventable collision.
Which is exactly what happened with Davis. She was initially “at fault” for the accident that killed her: Early news reports claimed Davis was riding the wrong direction down a one-way street. (The NYPD later conceded that was not the case and that the driver was at fault.)
The year Davis was killed, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams led Ghost Bikes’ memorial ride and spoke to the importance of combating victim-blaming and creating safer streets.
“We should not assume that the cyclist was always the person responsible for a crash, or had accepted the risk simply by climbing on a bicycle,” Adams said.
The memorials, probably most importantly, give a voice to the dead and to their families.
“If it wasn’t for the Ghost Bikes Project NYC, Lauren would be invisible in the public domain,” Davis’s sister, Danielle, wrote on Medium. Danielle describes the memorials themselves as “somber and sometimes violent reminders of lives lost to traffic crashes.” Ghost bikes, she says, “push cyclist deaths from the fringes of the roadway to the forefront in public spaces.”
In addition to setting up memorial bikes, Ghost Bikes volunteers pressure the city to conduct full investigations of crashes. Early in its inception, NYC’s Ghost Bike Project stood with the family of 14-year-old Andre Anderson, who was killed while riding his bike on a neighborhood street near his home in Far Rockaway, Queens, demanding a complete investigation of the Anderson’s death and safer street design of the parkway where the accident occurred.
In Maryland, Ghost Bikes Project volunteers pressured legislators to change state laws so that HAWK lights could be installed, after two bicyclists were hit and killed attempting to cross the same five lanes of fast-moving traffic. In studies, HAWK, or High-Intensity Activated crossWalK beacons, have been found to significantly reduce crash rates. That legislation, known as House Bill 578, passed the Maryland House and is currently with the Senate.
It’s hard to calculate the impact of ghost bike memorials. In spite of Vision Zero, cyclists continue to die, and they’re frequently still “at fault.” Some residents even complain the Ghost Bikes put people off cycling entirely.
But for Molberg, Davis’ death and his work with Ghost Bikes has only strengthened his passion for cycling. “It’s almost like Lauren’s death ignited something in me,” he says. The very day Molberg found out about the accident, he says, he rode his bike home from a friend’s house. “They were shocked and questioning whether I should do that, but I feel empowered being on a bike. I won’t let deaths keep me off the streets.”

The Reinvention of Small-Town America

In 2012, James and Deborah Fallows embarked on a journey in their single-engine Cirrus SR22 to explore American life on roads less traveled. Over five years and 100,000 miles later, the husband-and-wife team had flown to dozens of towns and cities across the country, listening to residents beaming with civic pride and witnessing firsthand evidence of economic reinvention. Their journey evolved into Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, a book that examines everything that’s going right in the country.
Exploring places that, on their surface, seem to have more differences than commonalities — Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Eastport, Maine; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and San Bernardino, California, are just a few — the Fallows unearth stories of resilience and creative pursuit.
These towns and cities are not places that pop up on many travel itineraries — which is why they are so often overlooked, James Fallows, a longtime national correspondent for The Atlantic, told NationSwell during a recent conversation. It doesn’t help that the opioid crisis looms large in many economically depressed areas, overwhelming any positive news that might otherwise register on a national scale. But many of these places are not just surviving; they’re thriving, say the Fallowses. While the national narrative has tilted toward chaos over the past few years, Our Towns can be read as a kind of corrective to the pessimism that currently pervades much of American society.
“I think it’s an actual struggle for the future of the country, between everything that is poisonous at the national level and everything that is potentially renewed and healthy at the local level,” James Fallows says. “And we think it matters to have these people who are doing ambitious things locally be known about, and be connected with one another too.”
NationSwell: Why did you choose the places you visited? And why not a city like Detroit, which has become something of a poster child for urban renewal?
James Fallows: So Detroit obviously has been on our mind because it’s such a classic case. There has been a fair amount of attention on the Detroit story, and we were looking generally for smaller places. And I say “smaller” rather than “small” partly because we went to a few biggish places like Columbus, Ohio, which is huge, and Pittsburgh, which is significant. But mainly the criteria was, places that weren’t getting much normal media attention, where they’d only be covered if there were some kind of disaster or a political race.

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For their cross-country tour, James and Deborah Fallows visited small towns that have been left out of the media narrative.

We were also looking for [places where] there was some kind of challenge and response; where there was something that was illustrative one way or the other about how the city was doing. We went to different parts of the country and different sizes of cities and saw different racial mixes and different degrees of economic recovery. This wasn’t meant to be scientific in any way, but I feel as if in the end it became representative.
NationSwell: Was it pretty easy to get people to talk to you? Did you encounter any suspicion about what you were doing?
Fallows: Even though I’ve worked for The Atlantic forever, both Deb and I think of ourselves as being small-town people. Many places were sort of similar to where we thought of ourselves as being from, so I think it wasn’t, “We are here from the big city to examine you as specimens.” Rather it was, “Hmm, this looks familiar. Tell us how it works.”
Also, we were not going there saying, “Why did you vote for Trump? What do you think about Obama? Are you a racist?” It was essentially, “What’s happening here? Are the kids moving in, or are they moving out? How does this school work? Is this business going to fly?” We never ask people about national politics, mainly because our experience was once you do, the results are never interesting. It’s going to be just like turning on the TV.
NationSwell: True. You don’t pass judgment on anything you learn, either, even when it’s kind of jarring, like when you talk about the giant pig slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls, or shipping pregnant cows to Turkey from Eastport. Is it ever hard to be neutral?
Fallows: For anybody who eats meat, it’s part of what things are. I am not a vegetarian and so therefore implicitly I endorse the existence of slaughterhouses. It’s been this really central, but also changing, part of the fabric of Sioux Falls. That’s where the Eastern European immigrants worked a hundred years ago, and then it had a sort of good job, union wage, and now it’s where all these Muslim immigrants are killing pigs. It really is surreal.
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The Fallowses point to innovation in K-12 education as a bright spot in small towns across the U.S.

NationSwell: Something that crops up in several places in the book is the idea of public-private partnerships being central to a city’s economic development. Why do you think such partnerships are important?  
Fallows: I think for anybody in D.C., if you hear that phrase, “public-private partnership,” you instantly think BS, because you think it’s just sort of a log-rolling or pork-barreling provision of some appropriations bill. I always thought of it as epitomizing the bad parts of combined corporate and public power.
But in many places [we visited], people could point to something specific and say, “This bridge, this library, this auditorium, this garden, this river walk was the result of a public-private partnership.” And I think that the simplest illustration is this thing in Greenville, South Carolina, the A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering, a public school where engineers from BMW and GE are teaching these little kids from the poorest parts of town how to become engineers, and it wouldn’t work if both the public and the private weren’t engaged there. So I think my reflexive cynicism about it was incorrect.
NationSwell: You end the book on a chapter you call “10½ Signs of Civic Success.” Can you touch on your most important findings?
Fallows: The secret of U.S. vitality over the centuries has been [that] it’s always stronger when it makes itself more open and always weaker when it fails to do that. [Thriving towns] make themselves open, and by open I mean to immigration, to people at different stations in life, of allowing people to reinvent themselves, etc. To me, that is the idea of America, and it’s at its best when it does that and worst when it doesn’t. So that’s another way in which something is bad at the national level [but] now seems to be the opposite at the civic level.
Another component here is, I think, practical educational innovation. Not every place can have a big research university. That’s something you have or you don’t. But places that are innovating with community colleges and creative schools, K-12 schools, those are important to connect people with new opportunities, and that was surprising because [we found them] in the South, largely. Engagement and also innovation [like with libraries] — you think libraries would be doomed like the corner newsstand. The corner newsstand is in fact doomed, but libraries, even though they were created around physical books, in many places seem to be reinventing themselves. And then, of course, we have the brew pubs, sort of a show of hands for entrepreneurial arts community.
There’s a line in the book from a guy who said, “If you want to consume a great community, you move to Paris or Brooklyn. You want to create a great community, you move to some little podunk place and you’re part of creating it.” People decide that a certain place matters to them. They’re not just passing through there and just looking for a great restaurant and thinking of where they’re going to go next, but how this place will be in the future, both 10 years from now and when their children are deciding where to live.

The Faces of America’s Diverse New Leadership

It’s a watershed moment and a season of firsts in U.S. politics. London Breed was just elected as San Francisco’s first African-American woman to serve as mayor. Hoboken, New Jersey, mayor Ravinder Bhalla is the nation’s first Sikh to hold that position. Danica Roem is the first transgender woman elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. And there is a record-breaking number of female candidates — more than 300 and counting — who are currently running for seats in the House.  
Here are four up-and-coming candidates who, if elected, will upend the status quo and make history in the process.

Stacey Abrams

In May, former state House minority leader Stacey Abrams secured the Democratic nomination for governor of Georgia. Abrams is the first black woman to be chosen as a major party’s nominee for governor, and if elected, she would be the first black woman to ever govern over a state in the nation’s history.
“I am humbled by the opportunity to, you know, sort of tile this ground for folks. But I’m also excited about what it means for everyone who has yet to see themselves reflected in leadership in America,” Abrams told the New York Times after her win against former state Democratic Rep. Stacey Evans. “My goal is to make certain everyone has a seat at the table and that folks can see themselves and their values reflected in our government.”
One of Abrams’ biggest challenges is the state’s Medicaid expansion.
Georgia was one of 19 states that didn’t expand Medicaid services offered through Obamacare. A recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation suggests that if the state were to expand Medicaid in the near future, it could provide health insurance to 473,000 more residents in 2019.
“Medicaid expansion is transformative for our state,” Abrams told the Times. “It will help every facet, every community, and I’m just deeply saddened and ashamed that we haven’t done so already.”

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New Mexico congressional candidate Deb Haaland could make history as the first Native American woman to serve in Congress.

Deb Haaland

“So tonight we made history,” Deb Haaland told a crowd of supporters on June 6, after winning the primary for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. If Haaland wins — as she is expected to — she will be the first Native American woman ever elected to Congress.
But it’s not just a win for diversity. One of Haaland’s top priorities, she says, will be environmental protection. “I’m concerned that if we don’t do more to protect our open spaces and reduce climate change, there will be devastating and lasting impacts on us and future generations,” Haaland wrote on the Daily Kos. “Ignoring climate change sets up our students and workforce for failure by not educating them about the needs of the future.”
New Mexico has recently experienced an oil boom, with Exxon and other companies investing billions in oil production. This also means that the state currently ranks third in the nation for crude oil production, which runs counter to the idea of reducing carbon emissions. Despite this fact, Haaland, a former Democratic state party leader, has proposed to make New Mexico the “clean energy leader” in the nation. “I will fight special interests in Washington who exploit Native, rural, and low income communities,” she wrote, “for the purpose of fracking and drilling that pollutes our environment.”

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Congressional candidate Dan Koh is focusing on improving Massachusetts’ education system.

Dan Koh

Dan Koh was Arianna Huffington’s chief of staff and the first general manager of Huffpost Live before being chosen as Mayor Marty Walsh’s chief of staff in 2014 — all before Koh turned 30.
At 33, Koh is taking on a congressional race for Massachusetts’ 3rd District — and he’s raised $2.5 million in less than a year. If Koh wins, he will be the first Korean-American Democrat in Congress.
A product of a Massachusetts education, with two degrees from Harvard, one of Koh’s primary positions is a better education for everyone in the Bay State. “Massachusetts has one of the best education systems in the country, yet too many of our students are being left behind, especially in under-resourced neighborhoods,” reads his website.
It’s true that Massachusetts has some of the highest-ranked schools in the country, even when compared to other nations. But with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ focus on voucher programs, which Koh argues guts public school funding, there are fears about the future of the state’s education system.
Koh proposes a three-pronged approach to helping education flourish in the state: invest in tuition-free community college; support funding for teacher development and recruitment; and provide universal pre-K for all students.

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As the daughter of immigrants, Lupe Valdez says, “It is my goal to make sure that young Texans don’t face the same inhumane treatment I witnessed firsthand growing up.”

Lupe Valdez

After securing the Democratic primary nomination in late May, Lupe Valdez is the first openly gay Latina to run for governor of Texas.
A former Dallas County sheriff and a hardline progressive, Valdez could be a major player in the immigration debate by leading a state that is in the middle of a heated partisan battle on how to secure the nation’s borders.
A challenge Valdez faces in protecting immigrants is the state’s SB4 law — similar to Arizona’s “show me your papers” law — which allows police officers to act like immigration law enforcement and ask for proof of citizenship during, for example, a routine traffic stop.
“Standing up for immigrant communities has been a staple of my life,” Valdez writes on her website. “It is my goal to make sure that young Texans don’t face the same inhumane treatment I witnessed firsthand growing up.”
Valdez has said she grew up in the poorest zip code in San Antonio, with migrant parents who had eight kids. But through military training and access to good public education, she was able to thrive despite these odds. “I’m the candidate of the everyday working Texan, and I’m going to be their voice,” she says.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Dan Koh was running in Boston; he is, in fact, running for Massachusetts’ 3rd District, which is just north of Boston.

Looking Back: 4 Times John McCain Embraced Bipartisanship

As a self-proclaimed maverick, Arizona senator and former Republican presidential nominee John McCain embodies a brand of politics rarely seen on Capitol Hill these days. Though reliably conservative, with 30-plus years in the body, McCain has forged long-lasting partnerships and personal friendships with Democrats, even siding with them last year to defeat a hastily drafted attempt to abolish the Affordable Care Act, and co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation to regulate soft money in politics. His devotion to the institution of the Senate is arguably as important a part of his life story as his wartime experience.
For McCain, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer last year, the personal and political are inextricably linked, and his inspiring biography the bedrock of his public life and career. So it comes as no surprise that the Arizona senator’s most significant accomplishments are closely tied to his life story, and show a marked compassion for the lives of ordinary Americans. Here are four of McCain’s major legislative accomplishments.


After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the U.S. broke off all diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Ties were slowly restored over the following decades, and in 1991, the Pentagon opened an office in Hanoi to help look for MIA service members. In 1994, almost 20 years after the last American troops left Vietnam, President Bill Clinton started the process of normalizing relations, lifting a nearly 19-year-long economic embargo against the country. While many conservatives and war veterans decried the move, McCain — who happened to be both conservative and a Vietnam vet — became an unlikely supporter of normalization, leading a 1993 trip to Hanoi with fellow vet and then-Sen. John Kerry.
In 1994, McCain co-sponsored a resolution urging full diplomatic recognition of the country, saying that normalization was the surest way to aid Vietnamese political reforms and protect American security interests in the region. In 1995, the two nations officially restored full diplomatic relations, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher traveled to Hanoi to open a U.S. embassy there.


The Keating Five may not have as large a cultural footprint as, say, Watergate, but it was among the bigger political scandals of the late 1980s. In 1987, a group of five senators, among them McCain, were accused of improperly intervening on behalf of financier Charles H. Keating Jr., chairman of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, which was the target of an investigation by federal regulators. Lincoln collapsed in 1989, leading to the loss of $3.4 billion dollars of taxpayer money, calling attention to the substantial political contributions Keating made to each of the senators who had previously shielded him from being investigated.
Though the Senate Ethics Committee ultimately cleared McCain of acting improperly (he was criticized for exercising “poor judgment”), the episode had a lasting impact on McCain, who became a leader in the fight for campaign finance reform. McCain went on to partner with a democratic senator, Russ Feingold, to enact a signature bill, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 — commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act — to rein in the vast amounts of money swirling around politics. Though much of the regulatory muscle of the bill was stripped by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, the legislation still stands as one of McCain’s most important legislative accomplishments.

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John McCain gives an interview after returning from Vietnam in 1973. After enduring nearly six years of torture as a POW, McCain became an outspoken advocate against excessive interrogation methods.


If nothing else, McCain understands the hell that torture visits on a body, having spent nearly six years as a POW in Vietnam. This experience lent him credence as a powerful voice in Congress against the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding. After 9/11, his position on torture pitted McCain against the Bush administration, as Bush’s war on terror relied on techniques that many critics, including McCain, considered torture.
In 2005, McCain sponsored the Detainee Treatment Act as an amendment to a defense spending bill, demanding that the CIA adhere to the Army’s interrogation procedures, which explicitly prohibit the inhumane treatment of prisoners, including those at Guantanamo Bay.
This issue is once again front-page news, with President Trump’s recent nomination of Gina Haspel as CIA director. Haspel has been accused of overseeing a secret CIA detention facility in Thailand where detainees were waterboarded, and then subsequently destroying videotaped evidence of such interrogation sessions. McCain urged Congress to reject Haspel’s nomination, stating that “Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing,” and “her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,” though Haspel was eventually confirmed 54-45.


McCain was opposed to 2009’s landmark Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), voting no on the original bill, and supporting subsequent motions and amendments to weaken or replace it. But in 2017, just days after the Arizona senator revealed that he had a malignant brain tumor, McCain voted no on a Republican-led effort to repeal the ACA, saying that the Better Care Reconciliation Act (i.e. the “skinny repeal” bill), would have destabilized insurance markets and possibly led to deep Medicaid cuts. (Arizona state officials had estimated that the BCRA would have cost Arizona’s Medicaid program $7.1 billion by the end of 2026.)
McCain’s vote, which stunned many of his colleagues and effectively killed the bill, was less an endorsement of Obamacare than it was a rebuke of the way that the bill was being rushed to passage without proper debate and a CBO score. In his Senate floor speech, McCain called for bipartisan health-reform legislation that was the product of “regular order,” where legislation goes through a transparent committee process and both parties are able to work on it.
McCain also voted no on the subsequent Graham-Cassidy proposal, which would have weakened or eliminated the rule that insurance companies need to cover patients with pre-existing conditions. “We should not be content to pass health care legislation on a party-line basis,” McCain said in a statement on the proposal. “The issue is too important, and too many lives are at risk, for us to leave the American people guessing from one election to the next whether and how they will acquire health insurance. A bill of this impact requires a bipartisan approach.”

Update: Sen. John McCain passed away on August 25, 2018, at his home in Arizona. He is survived by his wife and seven children.