Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Project: "My Brother From Another Mother"

On Tuesday and Thursday of this week, we spent some time examining the differences and similarities of Braddock and Vallejo. Let's start with the differences.

Basic Facts About Braddock, PA (15104)
  • Geographic size: .6 square miles (roughly 350 acres)
  • Population (2000 Census): 2,912
  • Ethnicity: 67% African American; 30% white; 1.5% Latino; .25% Asian; and 1.25% everything else
  • Median household income: $18,473/year
  • Percentage of population living in poverty: 35%
  • Largest private employer: US Steel Edgar Thomson Works (900 employees)
  • Current economic situation: Declared "Financially Distressed" by State of Pennsylvania in 1988
Basic Facts About Vallejo, CA (94589-92)
  • Geographic size: 48.8 square miles
  • Population (2000 Census): 116,760
  • Ethnicity: 36% white; 24% African American; 21% Filipino; 16% Latino; 3% everything else
  • median household income: $47,030/year
  • Percentage of population living in poverty: 10%
  • Largest private employer: Kaiser Permanente Medical Center (3,900 employees)
  • Current economic situation: Declared bankruptcy in 2008
On the face of it, Braddock and Vallejo don't seem very similar. Vallejo is bigger, more diverse, and more affluent. Start digging, however, and the similarities appear.

Both towns have a long and illustrious history. Braddock was the site of the Battle of the Monongahela, and was named for British general Edward Braddock, who fell during the battle. It was Braddock's young aide-de-camp, a Colonel George Washington, who would eventually lead the Continental Army when Britain's American colonies decided they didn't want to pay taxes levied on them by Parliament after the French and Indian War. In effect, what happened in Braddock eventually led to the United States of America. As the home of the Edgar Thomson Works (established by industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1875), Braddock is also the birthplace of modern steel industry in America.

Vallejo came about as a gift from local landowner General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo to the new state of California for a state capitol. Vallejo served as the state capitol for only two years (1852 and 1853), but the United States Navy quickly recognized the value of the site--located at the point where the Napa and Sacramento rivers flow into San Pablo Bay--as a strategic location for a naval base and shipyard. Mare Island Naval Shipyard opened in 1854, and for the next 140 years built and repaired ships and submarines for the Navy.

Both towns have their roots in heavy industry with working waterfronts. Braddock's location along the Mon made it perfect for bringing in the raw ingredients of steel, and then shipping the finished product out to world. Vallejo's location adjacent to Mare Island was perfect for taking steel and turning it into ships.

Both towns have suffered devastating economic losses. Braddock is a town built on steel. As long as steel was made in America, Braddock and many other towns thrived. But as American industries shifted to using cheap foreign steel, mills were closed, jobs were lost, and communities found their economic base pulled out from under their feet.

Vallejo was a Navy town. When running at full capacity, as it was during World War II, Mare Island Naval Shipyard (MINSY) employed about 50,000 workers, and Vallejo's population swelled to nearly 80,000. Although the town shrank considerably after World War II, many Vallejoans worked as "Yardbirds," building submarines during the Cold War. Then, in 1993, Congress voted to close MINSY. Almost immediately, people began to move away and businesses began to close. Vallejo could not withstand the shock. In 2004, the school district was placed under state control when it needed a $60 million loan to keep the schools operating; in 2008, Vallejo became the largest California city to declare bankruptcy.

Two towns: on the surface, as different as can be. But underneath, similar enough for each to claim the other as "my brother from another mother."

Monday, October 04, 2010

The Project: Doc >>> Vjo

I do not enjoy teaching Economics. I didn't care for the subject when I took it in college, and I don't like the textbook (Economics: Principles in Action by O'Sullivan and Shefferin). It's difficult to read, difficult to understand and has, in light of the
current economic downturn, little real relevance. When the textbook was published in 2007, Vallejo's unemployment rate was around 5%; today it's more than 12%. High school students respond to "real world" facts and situations and learn in ways that are not possible when using a dusty, dry textbook.

The current advertising campaign by Levi Strauss & Co. that focuses on Braddock is providing the grist for teaching "real world" economics through something called "Project-Based Learning." In PBL, you use a project to make real the concepts you're trying to teach. It can be exciting, crazy-making, scary, and can blow up in your face if the project or how it's guided aren't carefully thought out. As a result, most teachers don't go for big, unwieldy projects. Most teachers also don't use PBL with their most difficult students, saving it for their "best and brightest," so they can have projects to brag about. This isn't going to be one of those projects. About 50% of my seniors are, to put it politely, credit-deficient. In other words, they may not graduate from high school in June because they've failed too many classes during the first three years of high school. They don't have the grades, they don't have a lot of the traditional skills teachers expect, and they don't have a lot of happiness. They live in a bankrupt town, attend school in a bankrupt district, and are the 48th and last graduating class: their high school is being closed at the end of the school year. A big project built around the similarities of Braddock, PA and Vallejo, CA, and what happens when a big corporation comes in and uses the town for advertising purposes might just be the tool for teaching the concepts of economics in a way that is meaningful to them.

We started on Monday, October 4, by brainstorming questions. For each class (there are 3) I hung up a large piece of butcher paper, put up an image of one of Levi's billboards

and asked, "What questions does this billboard, and another similar one in Oakland, raise?" I was peppered with questions. I didn't answer any of them, I just wrote them down on the butcher paper. When the questions started to slow, I showed The Ad. More questions, more writing them down. At the end of the day, I turned them into a master list of the questions, roughly grouped into four areas:

The Town
  • Does Braddock exist?
  • Who or what is "Braddock"?
  • How is Braddock like Vallejo?
  • Is Braddock broke?
  • Is there a struggle in Braddock?
  • Was Braddock an industrial town?
  • What happened to Braddock?
  • What's going on in Braddock to warrant the attention?
  • Where is Braddock, PA?
  • Why is Levi's in Braddock?
  • Why is the town so empty?
The Advertisements
  • Are the people in the ad wearing Levi's?
  • Do the people in the ad work for Levi Strauss & Co?
  • What are the guys in the advertisement working on?
  • What ethnicity are the guys in the advertisement?
  • Who are the people in the commercial?
  • Who are the people on the billboard?
  • Why are the people sad?
  • How do the advertisements relate to selling jeans?
  • Is "things were broken" referring to the rivets in Levi's?
  • Is the billboard some type of inside joke?
  • Is the commercial a "mini-movie"?
  • What is meant by "Go Forth"?
  • What is the billboard about besides Levi's
  • What is the commercial's message?
  • What is the meaning of the narration/voiceover?
  • What is the company advertising?
  • What's with this campaign?
  • Where are the jeans?
  • Why does the billboard say "Braddock, PA"?
  • Why is an advertisement featuring Braddock in Oakland (CA)?
  • Is the advertisement to raise money for Braddock?
The Corporation
  • Does money from the sale of Levi's go to help Braddock?
  • Is Levi's doing a charity in Braddock?
  • Is Levi's giving discounts to poor towns?
  • Is Levi's lowering their prices?
  • Is Levi's trying to sell jeans by suing sympathy?
  • What is the connection between Levi's and Braddock?
  • Why are Levi's supporting another state?
Everything Else
  • Are we (who is "we") willing to fix Braddock?
  • Does wearing Levi's expand your horizons?
  • How can we help Braddock?
  • Is everybody's work equally important?
  • What does this have to do with Economics?
  • What is a "frontier"?
  • Why isn't Levi's helping Vallejo?
  • Why should we care about Braddock?
  • What can we learn from this to help Vallejo?
Their questions, not mine. Can we find answers for them all? Only time will tell.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Wait! What Was That Ad?!?

I was sitting on the divan watching the season premiere of The Simpsons when I finally saw The Ad. I'll admit it--I haven't been watching a lot of TV this year, and when I do, it's usually programs that I've recorded so I can fast-forward through all the commercials. I was watching the actual broadcast, so I couldn't "zap" through the commercials. I saw It...twice.

The first time I saw It, I was rather annoyed (I find most of Levi Strauss' commercials annoying), but something looked familiar about the background. Something about the trees on the hills, and the way the town looked, full of old houses and narrow streets. The quick cut to the "Welcome to Historic Braddock" sign registered on my subconscious; the "Braddock, PA" at the end merely raised the question, "Why was Levi's shooting an ad in Braddock?" It wasn't until until the second time The Ad aired (during Family Guy, if I remember correctly) that it struck me: This was Braddock, PA. No wonder the hills and backgrounds looked so familiar--it was home. I sat there, stunned.

Once the sickening shock wore off, I was angry. Angry that Braddock--and by extension, the other little towns and boroughs of the Mon Valley--were being shown in such a light. Angry that Levi Strauss & Co., the largest jeans company in the world would exploit the people of my home in such a way. Angry that Levi Strauss would travel nearly 3,000 miles to make such a commercial, yet ignore the problems in their own San Francisco backyard. Levi's produced a "feel good" commercial about their product, which they don't even make in the United States any more. Grrrrrrrr!

The commercial broke my heart. Here was Braddock, looking as it probably did in the depths of the Depression, with hardly enough population (2,912 as of 2000) to sustain itself. Braddock's story isn't very different than other towns--the economy of areas such as Braddock, North Braddock, Rankin, and Homestead collapsed when the American steel industry collapsed and, in many cases, have yet to recover.

Sometimes good things can come out of shock, anger, and sadness. I'm teaching Economics to about 100 high school seniors this semester, in a town that has been economically rocked as Braddock has been. Perhaps this can be turned into a "teachable moment."