Interview with Alex Kotlowitz
The Cleveland Fed’s 2012 Policy Summit closed with a different kind of speaker than most who came before him. Though not a researcher, policymaker, or community development practitioner, Alex Kotlowitz shares a passion for understanding why some neighborhoods thrive and others founder. He has spent years living and working in inner-city neighborhoods, observing up close the unique and steep challenges facing the people who live there. His first-person reporting made him a fitting voice to wrap up the two-day Policy Summit.
Kotlowitz is a writer whose 1991 book There Are No Children Here followed two years of the struggles of two young brothers living in a Chicago housing project. The book won several awards, sold half-a-million copies, and landed on the New York Public Library’s list of the 150 most important books of the century. More recently, Kotlowitz co-produced the 2011 documentary film The Interrupters, which relates the story of three violence “interrupters” working for an innovative anti-violence organization in Chicago.
Between these and other projects, Kotlowitz’s “day job” is writer-in-residence at Northwestern University. He teaches courses every winter and also serves as a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame. Forefront editor Doug Campbell interviewed Kotlowitz following his formal remarks on June 29, 2012. An edited and condensed transcript follows.
Forefront: Today you were in a room full of economists and other people very comfortable with numbers, and you were telling stories that were very powerful, sometimes heartbreaking. What value do you think that brings to academics?
Kotlowitz: What economists do and what policymakers do is incredibly important. They step back and try to look at the broad picture and try to figure out what policy makes sense, what policy works, what policy doesn’t work. What I hoped to do today was simply remind them that we’re talking about real people, and that people are complicated. They’re messy. I know that economists think about people making rational choices.
One of the questions that came up in my dinner with a group of economists last night was, why does it seem that people living in very impoverished communities don’t make the rational choice? The challenge is to understand why, for them, it might seem rational in the moment. Not that it justifies it, but to understand it, to try to understand who they are. I guess I hoped to give what they do some humanity.
Forefront: You talked about the state of our inner cities and how a man from Englewood on the southwest side of Chicago recently remarked how things have gotten so bad. Do you really think things have gotten worse in our inner cities in the past 25 years?
Kotlowitz: There are a lot of things that have changed over the past 25 years, and some for the good. I think the church, especially the black church, has become much more engaged in these communities. There’s been the growth of community development corporations. The CDCs have grown, and in some cases performed minor miracles, but funding is incredibly short.
There was an effort in places like Chicago and other cities to tear down public housing, to raze these monolithic, monstrous structures that probably never should have been built in the first place. So there are things to make us think that we are doing better. And there are probably some good things to say about welfare reform.
But it’s troubling to me that when you go into these communities, especially in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, you see communities that physically look in some ways worse than they did 15 or 20 years ago. In the course of filming [The Interrupters]— we filmed from the summer of 2009 to the summer of 2010—we literally saw blocks change during the course of that year because of the foreclosures. Then you’ve got the stubborn persistence of the violence. You’ve got the schools, which we are still struggling with. We’ve been very good in our cities in creating these terrific magnet schools, but schools in these communities are still not functioning. The dropout rate is still extraordinarily high. So in some ways things have not gotten better, and in other ways they’ve gotten worse.
Forefront: If you’re consuming just the top level of news, you may have heard that crime has gone down, and technology has spread to many places. How is it possible that we’re still struggling with the same problems?
Kotlowitz: I don’t think that we as a nation, our body-politic, really wants to contend with these issues. These communities are where they’re at in many ways because they’ve been neglected, and they’re still neglected. I don’t think that’s changed. But you point to something that for me is the Great American Paradox—we’re in a country that likes to think we’re all in this together, and yet we’re still so incredibly disconnected from each other.
My first book, There Are No Children Here, came out in 1991, and I remember when it came out people said, “Oh my God, this can’t be.” And I felt the same way when I began reporting the book. People felt angry, they felt ashamed. With The Interrupters, here we are 20 years later, this film comes out, and from people I still hear the same thing—“I had no idea. I can’t believe these communities are like this.” And you just want to ask, where has everybody been?
Forefront: You made a useful distinction between the “poverty of the pocketbook,” which I think we all understand, and the “poverty of the spirit.” What do you mean by that and why do you think we’re suffering from it?
Kotlowitz: This is not something new. Poverty of the spirit has to do with lack of aspiration, lack of hope, the sense that “this is my life.” And that’s one of the things that is clear to me has not changed. That window of opportunity has not gotten any larger. In some cases it has gotten smaller, especially, again, in the wake of the economic collapse in 2008. What you see are people who are dispirited, who maybe haven’t given up but who maybe have become resigned to the idea that this is my life, this is going to be the life of my children. Or who throw their hands up because they don’t know what the answers are, how we find our way out of this.
Forefront: You discussed the need for policy solutions to be holistic, and that’s a theme of this Policy Summit. But an interesting contrast is your look at the group Ceasefire in The Interrupters. That was a very targeted approach asking “What’s the problem?” It’s too much shooting. Then, “How do you stop it?” You stop the shooting.
Kotlowitz: You’re absolutely right; this group, Ceasefire, targets just the violence. They want to get in there and mediate the disputes. But it became clear to us as we were filming that as you look at all the other forces bearing down on people, how can you not wrangle with those? And there’s actually a moment toward the end of the film when one of the characters begins to wonder aloud whether in fact what he’s doing isn’t just a band-aid. Because people come to him and they want jobs, they want housing, they want all the things that we know are so woefully lacking in these communities.
I’ve had conversations with the people at Ceasefire about this very thing. If you’re a public health organization, one of the things you’ve also got to do is change conditions. You’re right, that’s how Ceasefire does things; they’re very narrowly focused, and I would argue maybe too narrowly focused.
Forefront: Or maybe they’re a prong in a multipronged approach.
Kotlowitz: That would be the other way to think about it, that what they do is very narrow and very important, which it is. But they need to acknowledge and understand that it’s also incredibly critical that we find a way to provide meaningful work in these communities, that we need to provide better schools, that we need to provide affordable housing—all the things we know that make up strong communities.
Forefront: In your work and in your journalism, what’s the next thing for you?
Kotlowitz: For me, in the end, I’m a storyteller, so I’m just always looking for good stories. And sometimes I find my way back into these communities that I’ve been writing about for the past 25 years. There are also other issues that I feel are really pressing, not the least of which is immigration. But I intend to keep writing, and I intend to keep writing about people who are kind of outsiders.