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James and Deb Fallows: Young people hold key to change

On February 19, the University of Redlands community had the pleasure of hearing authors, commentators, and U of R honorary degree recipients James and Deborah Fallows underscore the key role of the younger generation in creating change. Co-authors of the upcoming book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America (Random House Publishing), the husband and wife duo encouraged young people (and the young at heart) to embrace their potential to address today’s social problems.

In the first segment of the talk, James—who has a 30-plus-year tenure as correspondent and editor of The Atlantic, as well as experience as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter—drew on his arsenal of American historical knowledge to emphasize that individuals have an “opportunity to make a difference.” He accentuated America’s seemingly never-ending state of trouble and referenced the U.S. Civil War to make his point that “anything that matters was fought for.” Other major struggles of the last century have addressed safety in the workplace, a living wage, women’s role, African-American rights, the environment, and gay marriage. He stressed modern society was made “because people tried.” Young people, in particular, were central to these social movements: “Things we value come to be because of young people.”

Picking up where James left off, Deborah contrasted four generations, representing her parents, herself, her children, and her grandchildren. In the G.I. generation of her parents’ era, women tended to assume a caretaker or housewife role, while men often went into the military or focused on making money. In her generation, the baby boomers, the rise of female autonomy in decision-making created “a lot of contention about what women should be doing.” The concept of female choice became normalized in the next generation, the thirteeners, where there was a societal “shift in how young people composed their lives.” 

Current college students, the millennial generation or Gen Z, are “extraordinarily networked” because of the rise of the internet, “incredibly creative,” and adept with working in groups and collaborating, she said. They are tapping into these qualities in the most recent social movements, including the demand for gun control reform. Deborah noted she was mesmerized by Florida youths’ ability to act constructively and demand change immediately after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on February 14.

Deborah cited other examples of millennials working for change from the couple’s extensive travels across the country in researching Our Towns. Two millennials they met, Melissa Butler and Jeremy Boyle, used their backgrounds in education and engineering to create the Children’s Innovation Project, which teaches inner-city children in Pittsburg how to build, manipulate, and discuss circuitry. 

James took up the theme of the younger generation’s potential, noting a “historic opportunity on the gun issue.” “This issue is contingent on young people to take the lead,” he said. He offered two tactical suggestions to activists, drawing on experience from his days working in politics: writing “physical letters” to representatives (rather than emailing) can have an oversized impact; demonstrations also get noticed and encourage politicians to take a stand.

Toward the end of the talk, Deborah addressed U of R students directly saying, “You are recipients of this great education. Head into this with maturity—” James finished her thought and added, “and situational awareness.” 

The Fallows will be back in Redlands on Wednesday, May 16 as the only Southern California stop in the book tour for Our Towns. Tickets are available for the event, which will be held at 8 p.m. in the University’s Memorial Chapel.