You don't have to be in Washington or Raleigh to shape the future

Matthew Young, manager of the CSS Neuse Historic Site, talking to a UNC-CH student.
Matthew Young, manager of the CSS Neuse Historic Site, talking to a UNC-CH student. Eric Johnson
Americans are more pessimistic than they should be.

That’s the thesis Jim and Deborah Fallows put forward in their new book, "Our Towns," a travelogue covering small cities and rural communities from inland California to northern Maine.

“Most parts of the United States that we visited have been doing better, in most ways, than most Americans realize,” Jim Fallows writes. “Because many people don’t know that, they’re inclined to view any local problems as symptoms of wider disasters, and to dismiss local successes as fortunate anomalies. They feel even angrier about the country’s challenges than they should, and more fatalistic about the prospects of dealing with them.”

In place after place, "Our Towns" captures a sense of energy and confidence among local leaders working to tackle the problems in their own communities. Schools trying out wildly creative approaches to teaching; business owners searching for a new niche in world markets; mayors who understand the importance of a shared story, a civic narrative that people can rally behind.

If all of that sounds like a soft response to the hard problems of economic decline, drug abuse, and political division, it’s because we underestimate the value of willed optimism in public life. Hope alone doesn’t solve anything, but it’s a necessary start.

The Fallows’ national experience echoes my own travels across North Carolina over the past few years. The controversies that roil statewide politics — bathroom restrictions, gerrymandering, corporate tax rates— often overshadow progress at the local level.

I’ve heard a no-nonsense sheriff in Columbus County talk about effective intervention for opioid users, getting them treatment and social services so they don’t wind up back in jail. I met factory managers in Western North Carolina who make time to supervise hands-on projects for college engineering majors. I traveled with Durham high schoolers learning about community journalism all the way out in Ocracoke.

And I joined a group of UNC-Chapel Hill students on a fact-finding mission to Kinston, where they heard nonprofit leaders, business owners, and government officials describe the town’s pragmatic approach to development.

“The folks here represent a very wide political spectrum,” said Matthew Young, site manager at the CSS Neuse Interpretive Center, speaking during that 2016 trip. “But we’re all working toward the same thing. We all want to make Kinston a better place to live, a better place to work, and a better place to visit.”

That kind of get-it-done attitude defines effective local leadership. “The focus in successful towns was not on insoluble national divisions but on practical problems a community could address,” Fallows writes. “The more often national politics came into local discussions, the worse shape the town was likely to be in.”

To overcome the perception of civic life as one extended shouting match, we need to elevate the good work happening all over the state. We need to connect small-scale efforts to a broader landscape of rebuilding.

“There are a lot more positive narratives out there, but they’re lonely and disconnected,” says University of Virginia professor Philip Zelikow. “It would make a difference to join them together as a chorus that has a melody.”

N.C. State’s Institute for Emerging Issues wants to build that chorus. As part of an effort called ReCONNECT NC, they’ll be canvassing the state over the next few years for success stories to highlight and share. If you have a story to share, get in touch with Leslie Boney at IEI: lnboney@ncsu.edu.

ReCONNECT NC will help celebrate the people making a difference in quieter ways. One of the running themes in "Our Towns" is that dedicated individuals can change the fortunes of a city or a region. You don’t have to be in Washington or Raleigh to shape the future.

Community columnist Eric Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at ericjohnson.unc@gmail.com.