People-Centered Transformation Can Help Save A Town

Today we talk with Michelle Wilde Anderson, the author of The Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America. Anderson is a professor of property, local government, and environmental justice at Stanford Law School. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Yale Law Journal, and other publications.

David Benjamin: What drove you to write The Fight to Save the Town?

Michelle Wilde Anderson: The origin story of the book is related to a job I had soon after college, when I was working for a youth program in Connecticut’s poorest cities. The rollout of a big tax break resulted in major budget cuts to Federal and State government programs for youth and families. With less money coming in from higher tiers of government, the funds to sustain these kinds of programs had to come from the community. I watched our program survive in the places that had a more diverse tax base and could leverage strong relationships in the region to redistribute funds. I watched it shut down in the places that had no local sources of funding.

David Benjamin: Is it a book that business readers might be interested in?

Anderson: I see the book as an invitation to businesses to think of themselves as members of their community, not as free floating capital waiting for the next best offer from a town that wants them to relocate there. When business executives and employees work in partnership with their towns, there’s genuinely so much good they can do and there’s also a lot of joy and meaning to be found in that kind of work. Community involvement is in a company’s interests: It makes people happier in their jobs and makes them feel like they have a place in the world, rather than simply waiting for the next best ride.

I also think that businesses and their leadership should do more to understand where their lower-paid employees live, and maybe this book will help with that. The “poor cities” that are perceived to always have their hands out asking for more funds are in fact the places that make a home for low income workers who are providing really important services to our larger economy. All of us as individuals and as businesses and institutions have to look at our own wealth, where it comes from, how it’s built, and who has helped us build it.

Benjamin: What led you to select the 4 towns you did for the book?

Anderson: The book is about places with intense poverty in some neighborhoods and a shrunken tax base all across the city or county; places where people need more from public institutions, whether government or private nonprofits. I use the term “gateway city” to express an aspiration for places like these — not a “poverty trap”, but a place that can be a gateway out of poverty and a transition to opportunity. I think the goal of these places should be to give people a choice, whether that’s to stay in the town or to leave it. That should be a choice they make on their own, not because they’re trapped there.

I chose the four towns I did (Stockton, California, Josephine County, Oregon, Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Detroit, Michigan) because I fell in love with those places, their history, and the fierce devotion that some of their leaders feel for them . I also chose them to capture the diversity of citywide poverty — big cities, small towns, older suburbs, large rural counties — and all the different people that are affected by this problem. Stockton, for example, is actually the most diverse big city in America. I wrote about each of them, one at a time on their own terms, while also showing that this is a national problem that reaches across a lot of different kinds of places.

Benjamin: One common theme across these towns is how the transformation from poverty trap to gateway city is being driven by local people. What catalyzes “people-centered transformation”?

Anderson: People-centered transformation means helping people to set their own goals and enabling them to achieve those goals by linking them to partners who can help. A great example is what happened with a vacant park in Stockton, where people were too afraid to use the park and generally scared to be outside. Near the park there was also a high school gym that was not used after school hours. Hector Lara, a social worker who had been speaking to local families about what they needed most, heard people repeatedly asking for youth programs. He saw these assets (the park and the gym) and used his skills as a navigator, his professional skills, and his relationships to obtain rights of use for those facilities and to help families build out and staff youth programs themselves. Within a year, both the park and gym were busy seven days a week and staffed fully by parent volunteers.

That spills over into picnics and barbecues, and all of a sudden there’s this larger reclamation that’s taken place and new confidence that’s been built in the community (we can identify a problem and take steps ourselves to bring about change). That confidence and reassurance is as important as the basketball and soccer programs that started in those places, and it eventually forces the city and nonprofits to reinvest. Then the same people can move on to their next ambition or their next goal for the neighborhood, which is exactly what happened in this example.

People-centered transformation also means finding cost-effective ways to build the local job base — like investing capital in existing businesses to help them expand, or supporting early capital needs for new businesses — versus investing in consultants and marketing and lavish subsidies to try to recruit a big corporate savior to town. Governments that are broke stop playing that game and instead invest in things like workforce training to equip residents to compete for jobs in local anchor institutions like hospitals and public schools. These kinds of investments lead to real jobs with dollars that will stay local.

In a way, this book is like watching a movie of self-fulfilling decline and self-fulfilling progress — the natural human momentum of sliding downhill that takes place in communities like these, and then the upward trajectory that begins as people accumulate gains one after another.

Benjamin: Beyond the kinds of communities that you talk about in the book, did you have any insights about preventive measures that every community should take, so they don’t have to “fight to save the town” later?

Anderson: I thought about that lot, sitting in Silicon Valley during the boom years and writing about places that used to be at a peak like this. All of them had giant boom and bust cycles of their own, as has so much of industrial America, and it makes you think a lot about responsibility in your own era of prosperity. What does it look like to have people-centered transformation all the time?

The things that you need in an era of decline are the same things you need to be effective in an era of prosperity. Take San Francisco, for example. It has ferocious needs right now, it can’t afford to pay for everything, and it’s going to have to use its resources wisely and build those networks of interdependence that allow its people to get more done in collaboration. We’ve got a lot of kids here, and we need to invest in them and the neighborhoods they live in, in case current prosperity doesn’t last into adulthood for them.

When it comes to leadership in general, the leaders I observed and wrote about were not just elected officials — they were heads of nonprofits and community colleges and business people and all kinds of ordinary citizens — regular people who cared to reach out beyond their families and to do something useful for their communities. That’s a timeless lesson. I think more of us need to be useful to the people around us and to feel connected beyond our own four walls, no matter where we live.

Benjamin: In the final chapter of the book, you share a quote from Dan Rivera, the mayor of Lawrence at the time you were writing. He says, “first who, then what.” What should that mean to leaders of communities, and what might that mean to leaders in general?

Anderson: He meant it as a reminder to focus on the people in the city today and to really think about what they need and who they are. The best way of explaining that actually came from a different interview I had with Destiny Rodriguez, an extraordinary Lawrence resident who’s doing really good work for local families. She taught me that with kids you have to show up for who they are right now. They come to you with scar tissue and loss, and in some cases, serious trauma, and you can’t just change them overnight, replace them, or demand that they be different. You show up, you adapt, you keep teaching, and you keep learning and one day all of that investment and acceptance shows up as progress in their lives. I think all of that is also true of cities. You have to meet them where they are: “first who, then what.”

Benjamin: Do you have any other specific advice for organizational leaders based on what you learned from these towns?

Anderson: As I said earlier, this book isn’t just about elected leaders, but I want to share an observation I made about really effective ones: They sweat the small stuff while they also don’t shy away from the biggest problems. They minister to individuals during moments of crisis, they attend lots of graduations, inspire people to care about doing their job, and so on. They do all of that one-on-one work, and they also deal with the giant problems, like rebuilding the lack of trust in government, facing chronic housing turnover, and handling the fallout and trauma of local gun violence.

Which brings me to something else that former mayor Rivera put on his whiteboard in Lawrence that I just loved and have never forgotten. It said, “Do something! Can we do it today! ” Then it said: “Stop explaining the problem, start explaining the solution!” Then finally at the bottom it said, “Keep your head up!” What a magnificent rallying cry in the face of so many big problems that local leaders cannot singlehandedly affect, and for leaders in general.

Just do something, whatever is in your control to do, figure out your piece of the solution, and get to work. But also, keep your head up: When times are hard, you have to keep going. You do that in part through friendship, and love, and fun, and moments of celebration and companionship. That’s what makes the work feel like an end in itself and not simply self-sacrifice for the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

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