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Plenary 1: Industrial Heartland: Rust and Renewal

The opening plenary immediately followed J.D. Vance’s keynote speech and engaged the summit’s audience in a discussion of the economic performance of the nation’s industrial heartland.

Mark Schweitzer, senior vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, moderated a panel of 3 experts on the region, defined as stretching from upstate New York to southwestern Wisconsin. This area has been plagued with 2 notable periods of manufacturing job loss, which has presented challenges in economic developments.

This session echoed J.D. Vance’s keynote speech, urging practitioners and researchers to look beyond the data to the social issues in the area and consider the importance of repairing and fostering social networks.

The discussion often turned to the value of investing in historically racially siloed communities through increasing access to education and bettering collective impact networks through youth development, criminal justice reform, and healthcare improvements.


Rolf Pendall, codirector of the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center in Washington DC and a speaker on the panel, stressed that the region’s biggest asset is its people: “Six hundred thousand babies are born every single year in the Great Lakes area. We can improve prosperity by investing in these young people and the places they grow up.”

Audience members found this regionally focused plenary helpful, especially Kurt Karakul, president of Third Federal Foundation in Cleveland: “A lot of what we do is reach out to community networks and work among them to make valuable connections for the foundation and the people it helps. We need to do better to promote collaboration among civic networks, not [perpetuate] the divide-and-conquer mentality.”

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Practical application:

Sean Safford, an associate professor at Sciences Po in Paris, offered an interesting view of the social economics side of improving the industrial heartland by stressing the importance of strengthening social networks’ value through community relationships. Safford guided the audience through a comparison of the networks of 2 similar heartland cities: Youngtown, Ohio, and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Youngstown’s networks exhibited a “divide and conquer” strategy, which left divisions among class and ethnic groups, while Allentown showed a social history of cooperation across class and ethnic groups. It is not hard to guess which town was more successful at rebuilding after substantial job losses in manufacturing employment in the 1980s: Allentown.

Safford left the audience members with something to ponder before they dispersed for an afternoon of research and practitioner sessions: “We need to go beyond the ‘usual suspects’ we see on boards [read: business leaders, lawyers, doctors] and find people at the grassroots level who are directly affected by these issues and are willing to volunteer their time. Where are you going to find these people?”