James and Deborah Fallows Talk American Futures Project

Apr 17 2015

On April 16, 2015, NYU Shanghai hosted a talk by James Fallows, renowned writer and journalist for The Atlantic, and Deborah Fallows, contributing writer for The Atlantic.

The Fallows discussed their American Futures project, dedicated to discovering the smaller cities of the U.S. and how these cities thrive and reinvent themselves on the local, social, and economic scale. Jim pilots a small plane, and together, they venture across the country pushing their perspectives to new heights.

Though based in Washington D.C., the pair has lived abroad in Malaysia, Japan, and China, which led them to pose the question: “What if we approached our own country as if we were foreign correspondents?” Throughout their U.S. travels, the Fallows have been moved by two surprising finds.

“There were more unexpected positive news,” as opposed to the hard-hitting portrayal of perpetual recession and crisis the U.S. is typically associated with. The reality of these small cities showed “signs of people inventing a new way for their region to make a future." They also noted that “it’s a different political situation,” where the greatest concern of politics is on the local scale, where cities prioritize improving the community.

They’ve seen everything from public boarding schools giving top education in the sciences and mathematics, to tractors driven by GPS robots that methodically plant seeds and go back to fertilize and water them, and even libraries where people  can borrow crop seeds.

“U.S. libraries now play a critical role in towns and make up for other shortcomings," said Deb, who sees librarians taking on a civic duty as guardians of children frequenting after school programs. The library serves as an "open to all" safe haven, as a community center and a workspace.

“We’ve got young people in their 20s using library resources and conducting their business there. It’s a virtual office for people who can’t afford their own private office space. People will network, and there is this tremendous synergy,” Deb says, concluding that it’s pivotal and one of the best things going on in these towns.

While every town may seem small from above, the Fallows find great value in the inexhaustible stream of individual accounts and efforts, urging us to ask of each other: “What’s your story?”

With NYU Shanghai students and faculty representing a diversity that hugs the entire globe, it was a question that resonated, and the room was left charged with that palpable energy only satisfied by the telling of a good story.

The Fallows are authors of several books, three of which focus on China: Postcards from Tomorrow Square and China Airborne by James Fallows and Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows.

Written by Charlotte San Juan
Photo by Sally Ni