Session Two: American Stories

John Fetterman

John Fetterman is the hulking, tattooed and impassioned mayor of Braddock, PA, a tiny town ten miles from downtown Pittsburgh.

John Fetterman

Braddock was built around the steel industry: vintage pictures show a thriving downtown area boasting 30 tailors, 5 banks, 51 barbers in their community. Over the last few decades, the town has imploded and now none a single one of those businesses remain. The town is incredibly depressed: the median price of a home is $5200 and the average annual salary is $17,500. 

What can be done to stabilize a community that’s lost 90% of its population and rebuild successful community? Fetterman chose to focus on the community that remains. Under his leadership, the town has focused its efforts on youth employment, opening playgrounds, and bringing green spaces and arts back into the area. Urban agriculture is helping to green up public spaces and his team has worked to introduce neighborhood artwork and re-purpose abandoned homes into foster care facilities. 

Regular Braddock Block Parties have a strong community flavor; often bringing families together for holidays since so many can’t afford to celebrate at home. One popular event is arm-wrestling: if you can beat the Mayor, you win his paycheck! And new businesses have opened in town, such as the Transformazium, a collective art show and Fossil Free Fuel, which converts cars to biodiesel and offers a training program in how to do so.

Fetterman states that when he took over in 2006, 5-6 homicides a year were being committed in a community of less than 3,000 people. There’s been no murders in the past 18 months and crime overall is going down. 

Fetterman was shocked to learn just days ago that he was on the cover of the Atlantic; that same week he learned that Braddock’s biggest employer was shutting down, which is going to devastate the town on many levels. An emotional Feteterman said he was not sure what the future of Braddock holds. Something tells me he will continue to fight to make it brighter for the people who live there and in doing so, set an example for many similarly decimated towns across the country. 

Erica Williams

Erica Williams

Erica Williams is a Washington DC-based activist who works to get under-represented communities to take part in the political process. She asked the PopTech crowd to put aside any pre-conceived notions about her generation (the Millennials, born in 1978-2000). Williams was raised by two pastors and defines her childhood by two things:faith and church. When she was sixteen, her father was delivering a sermon entitled “New Life”, suffered a heart attack and died in an instant. This guided her decision find her personal calling and become involved with politics (even though she confesses she doesn’t really like what America calls “politics”).

The Millennials, says Williams, in fact don’t relate to traditional politics. However, despite a lack of trust in political leaders, they are one of the most civically-active generations. Williams is interested in redefining politics to include more than a bumper sticker, a yard sign, or even voting. She’s helping to figure out what politics should look like in an ideal, collaborative, “post-racist” society. This generation is using the tools available to them (e.g. Internet, blogs, web forms) to research and organize. This is more powerful, explains Williams, and better addresses her generations unique needs and demographic. 

22 million voters unders under the age of 30 voted in the Presidential campaign — this is how he got elected. The Milliennials supported Barack Obama because he supported them and their vision for what they want to achieve. Williams’ vision for America is about honesty, connectivity and collaboration. These shared ideals should be timeless and ageless.

Reuben Margolin

Reuben Margolin - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME

Sculptor Reuben Margolin works in the medium of motion. As a child, he started playing with stilts and was enamored with math. After going in a few different directions in school, he set out with a typewriter strapped to the back of a motorcycle to write poetry as he traveled across the country. This resulted in the creation of a mobile, which he drove for five months in order to have deep, meaningful conversations with people he met along the way.

Soon after, on a hike, he saw a transparent caterpillar that inspired him to try and replicate it as a machine. Although the finished product didn’t move as elegantly as a caterpillar in nature, it fueled his interest in examining movement in the natural world. Still seeking a way to perfectly capture the wave of a caterpillar’s motion, he demonstrated on the PopTech stage a much sleeker machine made of wood, thin rope and metal that did indeed undulate like caterpillar creeping. He’s now exploring applying this principal to giant circles, wooden frames and other forms.

Margolin ended his presentation by revealing a gorgeous, sparkling sculpture suspended from the Opera House Ceiling, which swung gently above the crowd as though wind was blowing through a giant, gilded glass net.

Margolin noted that there are two ways of looking at things: one is at the sparkle and the dawns and the beauty of the world, and one is at the structure and the meat and the math. His art brings both of these elements together in a way that is both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually interesting. 

PopTech Fellows: Taylor Stuckert and Mark Rembert

2009 PopTech Fellow Taylor Stuckert, co-founder and Mark Rembert of Energize Clinton County founded their program when their hometown was impacted by massive layoffs. After living away for several years, they both returned to their town with “fresh eyes”; wanting to help the town rediscover its place in the world. They wrote a letter to the editor (which is what, they joke, people do in small towns) about going green that instilled the town with a sense of purpose. Now over 90 businesses are participating in ways to buy local, helping to weatherize homes and solving for themselves problems that are putting them at the forefront of green efforts.

Energize Clinton County is looking to form partnerships that will allow them to bring their vision of self-sufficient, greener communities nationwide.

Watch PopTech streamed live or follow us on Twitter @poptech

Photo credit: Kris Krug

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