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The Fabric of Society

Under the auspices of Deutschlandjahr, the American Council on Germany and the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius are hosting a series of discussions across the United States on social cohesion. Following a successful event in Dallas, Texas, in late March, the two organizations hosted discussions in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee, on the economic, political, and social concerns on both sides of the Atlantic. More than 120 people attended the two discussions with co-authors of Our Towns: A 100,00 Mile Journey into the Heart of America Dr. Deborah Fallows and James Fallows (1977 ACG Young Leader), and journalist Martin Klingst, author of “Trumps Amerika: Reise in ein weisses Land” and Senior Political Correspondent for DIE ZEIT.

To give a local perspective, in Charlotte, Chris William, Managing Director at Wells Fargo and Host of “Carolina Business Review,” and in Nashville, Karl Dean, former Mayor of Nashville, moderated the discussions, which honed in on how communities are trying to address the fraying of the fabric of society.

Community engagement remains the backbone of American cities, and libraries play a critical role in communities. Across the United States, local government remains important. One of the takeaways from the conversations in Charlotte and Nashville was that regardless of issues at the federal levels, local governments are thriving. Local communities are looking internally to fix their challenges instead of turning to the federal government.

Many of the same issues can be seen in Germany, even if common challenges are being addressed differently on both sides of the Atlantic. This includes concerns like affordable housing, growing cities, immigration, the urban/urban divide and the urban/rural divide, and education and workforce development. However, there are also differences between the two countries. For example, Germany has better public transit in urban areas and a better health care system and does not have an opioid crisis.

There is reason to be optimistic about the future. While completing the research for their book, the Fallowses saw that although many places are wrapped up in local problems, there are opportunities. One example can be seen in Erie, Pennsylvania. This rust belt town lost much of its industry in the 1980s and 1990s, however the town decided to reinvest in education and technology. Erie is now a hub for startups. Mr. Klingst believes that there are people everywhere “fighting the good fight.” In the United States, an advantage is the can-do spirit. This is unlike Germany, as many fear failure. Having served as DIE ZEIT‘s Washington, DC, correspondent for seven years, Mr. Klingst found it difficult to obtain meetings with politicians in Washington; however, his experience in small towns was quite different. He found that people were very open and willing to share their experiences. He was welcomed into communities and saw the passion of the American spirit.

Throughout their travels over the course of four years, Deborah and James Fallows encountered communities across the United States dealing with the same issues. One of the common themes they encountered was the rural/urban divide. While small towns are addressing their struggles, they still feel left behind. This could be seen in the sentiment toward immigration, education, and workforce preparedness. The 2016 election results turned people away from focusing on national or international politics and toward looking at the local level. Dr. Fallows believes that the struggles are the same across the United States.

Given their journalistic backgrounds, each of the panelists aimed to get a fair and accurate depiction of small towns. Mr. Fallows stated that public events tend to skew older and white, however their research was more representative of the communities. Dr. Fallows noted they went to schools, YMCAs, concerts, libraries, and pubs. Those conversations counted for more than large public gatherings. Mr. Klingst did similar visits to measure the pulse of communities across the U.S.

Although small towns and cities on either side of the Atlantic face issues of social inequality, there are people at the local level looking for solutions to their problems. On the periphery of the two public events, the panelists met with local leaders, including Charlotte City Council Member Braxton Winston, who became engaged in local politics after the shooting of an unarmed African-American man, Keith Lamont Scott, by police in 2016, and Shanna Hughey, President of Think Tennessee, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that helps strengthen civic engagement throughout the state. In both cases, these individuals are providing voices to the disenfranchised and working to improve the lives of those around them.