Writers bring experiences of small-town America to BYU
“Our job this morning … is mainly to give you reasons to feel some hope about the communities you’re living in, the communities you will build, the nation you are a part of, the world you will inhabit and shape,” James Fallows said.
He, along with his wife Deborah Fallows, spoke at the Marriott Center at Brigham Young University Tuesday, spreading a message of hope, the resilience of small towns, and the importance of the institutions that bring communities together.
The Fallows’ spoke on their experiences co-writing the best-selling book “Our Towns: a 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America,” which was published in 2018 and turned into an HBO Original Documentary in 2021.
“Our Towns” details James and Deborah’s journey as they traveled across the United States for over five years in a single-prop plane visiting smaller towns in the United States to listen to the stories of those living there.
“We spent more than five years in that little plane traveling around the country to about 50 towns and we ended up knowing about half of those in depth. We learned a lot from being in those different towns and have some perspectives to bring to you on what we found, the way people build a strong community,” Deborah said.
Deborah spoke on how a town’s local institutions, public arts programs and the work of the next generation are integral pieces of keeping a flourishing community. She specifically highlighted the importance of public libraries.
“I want to talk about one of the strongest institutions we found in almost every town went, which was the public libraries. You know they are well expanded in their mission beyond bringing books and information to people, they have become real community centers and civic centers,” Deborah said. “It’s bringing the disparate parts of a community together in a single place.”
According to James, as the couple traveled, they realized that although the general consensus was that the United States was in a bad place, these small towns were pulling together to create positive change.
“The last decade when so much of the national news has been of strife, and of setback, and of challenge, and of reasons to lose hope, it’s been a time of unusually flourishing experimentation at the local level,” James said. “You find experimentation in civic engagement, you find experimentation in kinds of schooling, you find experimentation in sustainability, you find experimentation in the looks of downtowns… our contention is that when people look later on at this period in American history…a time of national strain seems to be leading to a time of great and under-publicized experimentation and renewal at the local level.”
You will not find mention of towns from Colorado or Utah in “Our Towns,” and according to James, this was due to a natural feature that both states share — the mountains.
“Your mountains are ones that we didn’t want to fly into in our little plane,” he said.
Deborah and James both emphasized the role young people play in sustaining and improving the towns they grew up in
“This is something that is on you to figure out yourselves of what you can do to build strong communities. A few things that we have observed, I would say the most is to think of engaging in something where you find your passion,” she said. “Go out and join things, be a part of your community, learn to find your voice there and to do what you can.”
Deborah remarked that she believed members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who served a mission had a distinct advantage. They could use their experiences serving in far-away places to help better their own communities upon returning home.
“As you go out into your missions it’s really such an opportunity. You have a secret weapon that other people your age don’t have,” Deborah said.
James is a writer and journalist, having appeared in publications like The Atlantic, Slate, The New York Times Magazine, The American Prospect and The New Yorker. James also served as chief speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter for two years.
In addition to his career in journalism, James has authored 11 books from “The Water Lords: Ralph Nader’s study group report on industry and environmental crisis in Savannah, Georgia” in 1971 to “Our Towns.”
Deborah is a writer, linguist and fellow at the New America Foundation. She also served as an assistant dean in languages and linguistics at Georgetown University. Deborah has authored “A Mother’s Work,” published in 1985, which chronicled her experiences as a stay-at-home-mother after the birth of the couple’s second son.
James and Deborah co-founded the Our Towns Civic Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the belief that true change and renewal within the United States will begin at the community level. The Our Towns Civic Foundation shares the stories of local innovators within small communities and encourages new journalistic means of covering news in small towns.