“A number of Midwestern communities suffer from population outmigration, declining tax revenues, and job loss. These problems have been exacerbated by an economic downturn that has resulted in massive foreclosures, blight, and the inability of cities to provide basic services. Cities like Cleveland, Ohio, as well as Flint and Detroit, Michigan, have adopted innovative strategies to address these challenges, including the extraordinary step of planned city shrinkage: residents are provided incentives to move from sparsely populated areas to denser neighborhoods, city services are no longer provided to the depopulated areas, and the land is held by a city land trust for future development.” –Assistant Professor of Government Teri Fair
The city of Flint, Michigan, is shrinking itself. Once one of the great production hubs of General Motors, with 80,000 locals working at the auto giant in the 1970s, today only about 8,000 Flint residents are employed at the struggling company. Flint has been hit particularly hard by the recent economic downturn; one-third of the city’s population lives in poverty, and more than one-quarter is unemployed. Some parts of the city are barely inhabited, which has led city officials to advocate shutting down abandoned sections and concentrating public services, such as police and fire patrols and garbage removal, on areas where people actually live.
Last spring, Assistant Professor of Government Teri Fair traveled to Flint to see the urban decline firsthand. As she drove around, all of the statistics and headlines became real. Just past City Hall, in a residential neighborhood five blocks long, every home was abandoned except one lone holdout. Many were boarded up; others were burned out. Old and weathered trash, dirty diapers, and ancient appliances covered the lawns. Even gang graffiti sprayed on the houses had faded, as if the gangs decided long ago that they had better places to be.[flickr album=72157624667090975 num=5 size=Small]
Fair is researching how cities are dealing with the economic decline, and Flint provided her with one city’s answer. But it also raised new questions: What happens to the concept of community if neighborhoods disappear? How has the economic collapse affected voter turnout? What happens to political representation in a bankrupt city? How does a city with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation get by with such reduced tax revenues?
“They’ve hit a bottom—if it’s the bottom, I don’t know,” says Fair. “But how did they get there? And what does this bottom look like? I want to look at the strategies they are trying in an effort to bounce back—and maybe be a part of the strategy at the same time.”
Answering these questions means collecting and analyzing a vast amount of information. It’s a massive, ambitious project—the kind of undertaking Fair’s colleagues and peers say she relishes. And the kind she has conquered throughout her career.
A political future revealed
Fair has seen community destruction like this before. Growing up in Dallas, Texas, her mother would pack Fair, her twin brother, and her older sister into the family’s bronze Ford Thunderbird to take a trip down to the South Dallas projects. “This is where your bad choices will lead you, right to these projects. And I’m not coming to visit you, because I don’t want to die,” her mother would say, gesturing to what Fair remembers as the toughest of the local public housing communities.
Her parents were strict, and the children grew up with restrictions on their entertainment. Fair didn’t have a telephone or a radio in her room and could only talk on the phone in the kitchen, where there was always an audience. The children were limited to an hour of television a week, although PBS and the news didn’t count, a rule which Fair credits for her early interest in politics.
Both of Fair’s parents spent their early years working in the fields of Texas picking cotton, her father later making a career in the Navy. They worked tirelessly to support their family and wanted to make sure their daughter appreciated what she had. Life is about choices, her mother would tell her, and sometimes there are choices you just can’t undo: “I believe you’re going to be somebody. I’m investing in you right now. Don’t disappoint me.”
Fair knew a bad choice could be as simple as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That mistake happened to a boy she knew growing up, costing him two years in jail. “That’s not going to be me,” she told herself. So she was careful and deliberate in her choices.
In 1993 Fair enrolled in Spelman College in Atlanta as a chemistry major, switching to English after two years. She took political science classes as a way to raise her GPA, and got hooked. During senior year, she interned for Robert Holmes, a longtime Georgia state representative and a professor at Clark Atlanta University, where she would go on to earn her master’s and doctorate degrees.
At the time, Georgia was developing a plan to deal with the new federal welfare reform policy, and Fair assisted Holmes’s office by tracking legislation, setting up public hearings on the new laws, and answering telephone calls from constituents personally affected by the legislation. “I felt like I really was a part of the dialogue and the discussion, even though it was just as his intern,” says Fair. “I would go on the floor and listen to how policy is impacting peoples’ lives,” she recalls. “It made policy real. It wasn’t just something that people talked about on television; it wasn’t something that I just read for my classes.” She began developing her own perspectives and formulating recommendations, and then decided to head to graduate school to put some credentials behind her ideas.
Active on campus at Clark Atlanta, Fair was impossible to ignore. Joseph P. Jones, a former classmate and current assistant professor at Johnson C. Smith University, remembers Fair cornering him in his first semester, telling him that one of the student organizations needed more men and that he was to show up for the next meeting. “It was quite striking,” says Jones with a laugh. Fair kept after Jones, and today he considers her a mentor and a big sister. “She’s very highly respected,” says Jones. “And very, very ambitious.”
William Boone, an assistant professor at Clark Atlanta and a longtime academic advisor to Fair, recalls her in similar terms, remembering how she preferred challenging research subjects. “She would choose topics that generally you wouldn’t think other folks would look at—especially if they were just trying to get their degree and move on,” says Boone. “That wasn’t her thing.” Boone recalls her master’s thesis—which looked at the influence of African-Americans and Latinos on Texas politics—as an example. “You could take an easier route on that same question of political involvement,” says Boone. “You could just take a look at African Americans and not worry about the conflicts between African Americans and Latinos. But she tackled it in a different way.”
Her energy at Clark Atlanta came from an epiphany. An early reading assignment in one of her very first classes was a speech given by famed political scientist Mack Jones that dealt with the responsibilities of a black political scientist. “I’ll never forget it,” says Fair. “There we were in the basement of a building that had been built by freed black slave labor, and I was in love.” The professor asked what the class thought of the piece, and Fair was ready with a response. “I said, ‘You know, people tell us what to think, and how to understand the world because they’re defining the concepts, they’re defining our reality.’ And I said, ‘This creates space for me to do that exact same thing. It gives me a charge. I’m not just creating or providing information simply just to provide information. I have a responsibility to give information that’s useful—not just to society as a whole but to a specific community that I dedicate myself to as a researcher, so that they can be empowered. And not just to exploit them for the day so I can get this journal article done, so I can get tenure. I have a larger responsibility.’”
She recalls her entire reply word-for-word, without a stumble or pause. And with that, Fair had an objective. Which for her, according to her academic peers, usually makes success a fait accompli. “Once the goal is established, she puts all her energy into it,” says Boone.
Empowering new civic leaders
On an early fall day in her One Beacon Street classroom, the mood in Teri Fair’s “Introduction to American Democracy” course is electric. Fair has divided the class into two groups, the federalists, who support a strong federal government, and the anti-federalists, who believe the states should have more power, and the two groups are recreating the debate over the Constitution and its merits. “Six years is way too long,” says one of the anti-federalists, referring to the length of a Senate term. When the federalists demand to know why, a member of the other team responds, “Because new ideas are what move things forward. Besides, you can lose touch with the people in six years.”
The argument ping-pongs back and forth for 30 minutes. The anti-federalists say the Constitution is vague. The federalists champion its ambiguity as a boon for future generations. The anti-federalists see a road to tyranny; the federalists point to the check of the judiciary. Students are raising their hands, straining to keep themselves from interrupting others. They argue with passion, and when they are through with their arguments, they smile and set down their pens with great satisfaction.
Teri Fair is beaming. It’s rare to see this kind of fervor in students, let alone everyone in the class. They are all engaged, prepared. Happy, even.[flickr album=72157624667109365 num=5 size=Small]
Such positive responses to Fair’s teaching are common. “Her class was one of the most highly rated,” says Alejandra St. Guillen, program manager of Initiative for Diversity in Civic Leadership (IDCL), a 16-week program designed to prepare people of color in Boston to run for office or seek political appointments. The program is a joint venture of Suffolk University, the voting rights group MassVOTE, and ¿Oíste?, the Latino civic education organization. Fair has worked with IDCL since its inception in 2007; she developed the curriculum and has taught the “Race and Public Policy” portion of the program. “We talk about race throughout the program, but her class on race and public policy really drives things home for people, and they see it as one of the highlights of the session,” says St. Guillen.
IDCL gained instant traction in the city. More than 300 people applied for just 30 open student slots in the first year, and the applicant pool represented a wide range of political ambitions and demographics. There were public policy wonks looking to run for office and community activists looking for political appointments. There were candidates as young as 18 and as old as 72. There were recently nationalized immigrants and those born and raised in the city. And there were those looking for a resume booster and those looking to make dramatic change in their neighborhoods. The program received financial backing from the Boston Foundation, one of the city’s most respected funders. Mayor Menino spoke at the launch. Governor Deval Patrick spoke at the graduation. And the graduates have reaped quick rewards, with inaugural IDCL graduate Tito Jackson placing fifth in a recent Boston City Council primary.
The cause is dear to Fair. “The incumbency advantage here in Boston is something that can’t be overlooked as a barrier to political representation,” she says. “We aren’t even seeing challengers in some cases.” Without challengers, incumbents don’t have to work as hard, a situation that Fair says hurts everyone. So while the stated goal—changing the face of politics in Boston—is an important one, Fair says the program has another positive consequence: “Even just facing a contested election will force an incumbent to reattach to his or her community. It only serves to help democracy.”
She teaches less for IDCL now than she did the first year, although she still works on assessing the program. But for the time being, the center of her focus has moved west.
Planned recovery, not shrinkage
If Fair is intimidated by the prospect of helping to raise Flint from the dead, her ambitions don’t show it.
It’s early still, but she has a plan. She has already met with some local organizations and wants to identify other effective groups, and then craft a strategy with them to make sure Flint doesn’t lose its sense of community. She is also drafting a grant proposal to create a program like the IDCL in Flint, working on the initiative with students from Wayne State University and the University of Michigan at Flint. “I want to help them become aware of the steps to community empowerment and how that can translate to some level of civic engagement and civic empowerment,” states Fair. “It’s important just to get some level of mobilization in a community that, right now, is in a position to be disengaged, ignored, and seen as a problem in need of a solution.”
The work has an academic side, but Fair has an emotional stake in it. After all, the work is part of the larger responsibility that she realized in the basement that day at Clark Atlanta. “My heart really goes out to Flint and its residents,” she says. “They are poised for extreme exploitation.” With land and housing at rock-bottom prices and no restrictions on how much can be bought, corporate developers could swallow it all up and transform it into a dump. “It could be viewed as a choice spot for city waste,” notes Fair.
Plus, she says, the fall of Flint is particularly close to her heart because it takes with it the dreams of the generations of African Americans who migrated north to Flint and other parts of America’s Rust Belt in search of a better economy and racial equality. “There was a lot of hope connected to that move,” says Fair. “And today we are seeing the gradual erosion of that reality.” Once a symbol of long-term wealth and investment, the empty homes now signal a retreat. If it keeps up, Fair says, the city could literally die. With so much of the land now in the ownership of the county, Flint could be fully dismantled in 20 years.
But Fair thinks there is opportunity here and knows that innovation can be borne from desperation. Some of the best ideas, she notes, come when people’s backs are against the wall. With some help, Flint could be a much better place two decades from now and still has the opportunity to be beautiful. The city could work to develop more green spaces and concentrate efforts on urban farming programs. It could be a beacon for green communities; it could develop a diversified economy that is not wholly reliant on the auto industry; it may even be able to recruit corporate service centers to employ its residents. Flint could be a healthy, vibrant place, with new residents and new energy.
Or at least, that’s her goal. And given her history, that should offer Flint some hope.