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New Season, New Mission, New Website.
Our Towns looks back at ten years of changes across the United States and looks ahead to our new role.
Like many of you who have done some soul searching during the pandemic and made some big life changes, we at Our Towns have, too, including our newly-designed website, to better serve our revised mission. Here’s a quick tour of where we’ve been, why we’re pivoting, and where we’re heading.
Ten years ago, we had an idea to fly around the country to see how some small towns that had suffered economic or social upheavals post-recession were faring. We had little idea what we’d find.
The first few towns surprised us in a gee-whiz way for all the positive community-level activity. We kept flying, from the Midwest to the Northeast, then down the Mid-Atlantic to the deep South. After visiting a dozen or so towns, we began to see patterns with schools experimenting, entrepreneurs inventing, citizens volunteering, partnerships forming, and more. We saw institutions like libraries reinventing themselves; artists reshaping attitudes and culture; and leaders saying Yes instead of No or Maybe.
We wrote hundreds of dispatches along the way for The Atlantic. We called the project American Futures. By 2017, four years along, we thought we could happily continue forever, or we could pause, and try to make some sense of all we had seen. This next episode became a book, called Our Towns, which was published in 2018.
Good luck struck when HBO paired us with Steve Ascher and Jeanne Jordan of West City Films to make a documentary, also called Our Towns. We filmed for 90 days over two years, watching the words come to life through the people we met and the magic of the filmmakers. We finished post-production remotely, between Boston and DC, during the early months of the pandemic.
The film was released in the spring of 2021. Also at that time, we wanted to continue our own work telling the stories and connecting the people across the country who were doing more and more of what we had first seen in 2013. We started the Our Towns Foundation and launched the website as a platform to continue.
Now, two-plus years in, we realize it’s time for another change. Our storyline – that smaller towns are important and serious for the future of the country—has moved from being a ‘cute’ idea to becoming conventional wisdom. The pandemic propelled that change as many people had time to consider their lives and values, and many were making lifestyle changes that included moving to smaller places. Also, people are now telling their own stories in countless new publications, many online. People are knitting themselves into networks, through hubs they create themselves around many topics we believe in, from schools to libraries to rural life to local journalism to civic activities, to climate issues, economic development, and more. Big foundations and institutions are supporting many of these efforts in world-changing ways.
So, we realize that we should rewrite our mission to acknowledge all these changes and to do things a little differently. We will continue to do some reporting on towns, because it is so energizing for us and so important in keeping us current. We’re going to focus on certain topics more closely, all of them from a local, community perspective. What is happening in communities to address climate matters; to rebuild local journalism; to reboot schools, especially in tech skills and trades; to attract citizen volunteers; to develop communities in their own spirit. We are also starting to work more closely with institutions that are way bigger than we could ever be, to share our observations and experience in efforts they are supporting.
We would like to point you again to the next iteration of our website, which we hope illustrates our new emphases and mission. For now, you’ll see the most Recent Articles, which will be part of the archive of many hundreds that we and a few colleagues have written over ten years. We’ll also rotate some special collections that we’d like to call out from time to time, in a section called Popular Topics. And we’ll feature a curated Special Report that is important in the moment; right now that is Local Journalism.
We hope this site will be easy for you as users to navigate around, and we hope it will be easy for us as the producers to write and deliver to you.