Thursday, April 18, 2024

Unreadable: Podcast Transcript - April 2024

In our April episode of Unreadable, Ross speaks with Benjamin Herold about his book Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America's Suburbs, which follows five families in different areas of the United States, including Gwinnett County, and examines their experiences living in suburbia and their experiences with suburban school systems. 

Benjamin Herold is a education journalist, who has reported for Education Week, PBS NewsHour, NPR, the Hechinger Report, Huffington Post, and the Public School Notebook. He has a master's degree in urban education from Temple University in Philadelphia, where he lives with his family.

Join us for an author talk with Benjamin Herold at the Sharon Forks Library on Saturday, May 4, 2024 at 11:00 AM.


Ross Gericke: Hello and welcome to Unreadable, the official Forsyth County Public Library podcast for news, upcoming programs, and recommendations. I’m your host Ross Gericke, the Branch Manager at Hampton Park.

In this episode, I talk with award-winning journalist Benjamin Herold about his new non-fiction book Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America’s Suburbs. Ben will also be visiting the Sharon Forks Library in person on May 4th from 11:00AM - 12:00PM to talk more about this book and even sign some copies. Hope to see you there.

Now on with the show.


Ross Gericke: Ben, thanks for coming on the podcast today.

Ben Herold: So glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Ross Gericke: So, tell us a little bit about your professional background, particularly about your time reporting on education.

Ben Herold: Yeah, I've been an education journalist for about 15 years and I started covering the school district of Philadelphia where I'm based and did that for a local nonprofit news outlet and the local NPR affiliate for several years, and then moved on to Education Week where I was covering K-12 schools nationally. 

And really through all of that work, what I love about education journalism is two things. So, one, schools are the place where all the magic happens. All the things that we care about most get concentrated in schools. And then, second, it's a place that really kind of allows – it almost functions like a portal into all of these other issues that connect, whether that's community or family or politics [or] economics. All of it kind of gets concentrated in schools. And so, I ended up – a lot of my time and my professional career was really focused on covering urban schools, particularly, Philadelphia and elsewhere, and I really didn’t think about suburbs much until I started hearing all these horror stories out of my hometown which led to the book.

Ross Gericke: Right, that was gonna be my first question. So, how did you come up with the idea for the book? Because it felt strange to say, but the problems facing suburbia seem so vast [that] it's almost difficult to notice, particularly for those of us who have gained from them.

Ben Herold: Yeah, it’s – a couple great points in there, and this idea of it being very difficult to notice: the mass suburbanization of America happened so quickly and so rapidly and at such a dramatic scale [that]  it just kind of became normal in our minds, and so we haven't really scrutinized it in a lot of ways. And so, for me, that applied too. 

Really the thing that kind of punctured that kind of mythology and bubble that I had myself was hearing that the suburban community outside of Pittsburgh where I grew up – I'm white. My family's white. We got a very generous social contract there, starting in the public schools, and then I left, and I really didn't look back. I started my career and was focused elsewhere. And so, it was hearing that Penn Hills Public Schools, this system that had served my white family so well, was somehow, a generation later, 172 million dollars in debt. They were furloughing teachers and slashing services and programs. Property taxes were going up. Home values were stagnating. So you could kind of see this suburban version of the American dream eroding in real time, and I got very curious – hey, first off, what the heck is happening in my hometown, and how is it connected to the experience my family had there before? And then also, is this happening elsewhere? So that kind of led me on this journey to the five different communities and families and school systems that are featured in the book.

Ross Gericke: So, the book covers pretty huge topics that range across recent history and the entire United States. How did you find the particular families you chose to follow for the book?

Ben Herold: Yeah, it's a great question. I started actually with the communities. One of the big ideas in the book and the argument that I hope to make is that there's this pattern of kind of racialized development and decline that almost functions like a Ponzi scheme. So you'll see the first few generations of these post-war Suburban communities, predominantly white, getting all of these benefits and opportunities, but doing that by pushing the true costs off onto the future, and then the black and brown and poor and immigrant residents who follow into suburban communities, hoping for that same suburban dream, end up not only not receiving it themselves, but on the hook paying for what families like mine already extracted. 

So that's a hard pattern to see, because it plays out over generations and whole metropolitan areas. The five communities actually trace that arc from beginning to end. There's a new ex-urban community outside of Dallas. There's Gwinnett County, in your neck of the woods; Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago; my hometown outside Pittsburgh; and Compton, California. Within those, once I kind of said these are the communities that help tell the story, there was a sense of “Ok, just do the leather reporting now.” So I met one mom by just knocking on doors. It was a cold call. Another through an activist group. One family, the family in Compton, California, I met through their local elementary school, and the family in Dallas I actually met through their realtor. And so it was doing a lot of the things reporters do, and then the story kind of comes to you.

Ross Gericke: So why did you choose Disillusioned as the title of your book?

Ben Herold: Yeah, there's actually kind of two reasons for that. So one was the most important, significant, kind of central thrust of the book is this sense that for so many American families who have come to suburbia with all of the dreams and hopes and ambitions that we bring to the suburbs, particularly when it comes to our kids and their futures and the ways that education and public schools play a role in that, what I found in all five of these communities with all five of the families was this profound sense of disappointment. That this idea of hey – particularly Gwinnett County was a great example of this. I followed an upper middle class African American family, who really felt like hey, we've done everything right. We have multiple advanced degrees. We have professional careers. We have the nice house in the nice neighborhood attached to the good public schools, and it just wasn't working out. And so that disappointment and disillusionment that comes from that I think is really significant and profound not just for individual families and communities, but for America as a whole.

And then, the kind of second theme, there's a running kind of thread through the book about my own experience as a white person who grew up in suburbia and benefited from this, now having to kind of confront my own complicity in this pattern that I'm describing, and in order to accurately see what was happening, I really had to shed a lot of my own Illusions and misunderstandings as a middle-class white man, who's a product of Suburbia myself.

Ross Gericke: Yeah, and it's interesting that you brought up Gwinnett County in particular. I think a lot of people in the area, myself included, have a direct connection to Gwinnett County. So I grew up in Gwinnett County during the 80s and 90s and sort of had a similar experience that you probably had in Penn Hills. I grew up where things were on the rise and then left to find a similar experience for my own family, and it's not some grand plan on my part. I just assumed that that's what everybody was doing. I didn't even think to look back about what I had left behind in Gwinnett. So, do you think that's actually a very common story particularly for white America?

Ben Herold: Very much. I think it's, in some ways, like the central American story of the past 30-40 years, and I think that goes hand in hand with a diversification of suburbia, which is a huge story that we've really overlooked. And so you see these kinds of waves and patterns of development. And I think what we've really seen and what I came away from writing about Gwinnett in particular was the sense that so many of America's suburbs have gone through this rapid, rapid, and very dramatic racial diversification. So you see the population in a place like Gwinnett go from 90% white to overwhelmingly black, brown, Asian, and multiracial in the span of a generation.

But that's the population. The folks who are in power, whether that's the County Commission or it's the School Board or it's the leadership of the school district, often – not just Gwinnett County but all over America – [are] so much slower to change. And in many ways, like when I talked to Mrs. Radloff and some of the other longtime board members who have been on since the 70s, 80s, 90s, their sense was hey, we need to protect what we've built. That's why everyone's coming here. So we need to protect it and keep it the same. And it's an understandable impulse and argument, but then when you hear families’ experiences of saying hey this system doesn’t – it feels like it's designed for somebody else and it's not accounting for my interest, needs, priorities, culture, history, background. Then you really see that conflict.

Ross Gericke: Yeah, it would – even other things like Gwinnett Place Mall. Gwinnett Place Mall was, when I was growing up, like that was a central location for the whole county. Everybody went. You went after church on Sunday, to go eat and to go shop. I worked there in high school. It doesn't even exist anymore. It's basically closed at this point and that's such a massive change.

Ben Herold: Those kinds of details were things that really jumped out to me as someone who's coming in from the outside and getting to know a place and realizing that what my kids know about the Gwinnett Place Mall is that it was a set for Stranger Things. And so, it's literally this physical manifestation of this nostalgia for a bygone era. Then in the book, it becomes a place that is a touchstone for some of the protests following the murder of George Floyd and against police violence. And so you can see, it's not just the people who have to kind of tangle with this change but it's the infrastructure and the institutions and the places that mean one thing in one generation, but start to mean something very different later on.

Ross Gericke: Yeah, I thought all that was fascinating. I learned a lot about where I live, which is crazy. 

Ben Herold: That's great to hear.

Ross Gericke: Switching it to a lighter topic though, I listened to the audio version of Disillusioned and I was excited to hear that you actually did the recording. I thought you did a great job by the way, but was that a new experience for you or had you done stuff like that before?

Ben Herold: I actually worked in public radio for a while. So when I covered the School District of Philadelphia, I worked in part for WHYY here, and so I wouldn't say that I was a highly trained and decorated or accomplished radio reporter, but I did have experience talking into microphones for people to hear. I think the longest story I did for that was maybe seven minutes, so expanding that to 14 hours was a little bit of a stretch but it was actually a lot of fun. I ended up kind of experiencing what I wrote in a new way having to read all of it out loud, so I actually really enjoyed that.

Ross Gericke: Did you get to spend all that time recording it at home, or did you have to go into a studio?

Ben Herold: No, I was in a local recording studio. And when I walked in there was a big kind of palatial suite with couches and tables, and I was like, oh this is gonna be fun, and they're like, no that's for the musicians. You're in the closet down the hall. But it was great. The folks couldn't have been nicer, and they made it really easy and enjoyable. And it was so much fun that Bethany Smith, who's one of the moms who's not only featured in the book but actually writes part of the book herself. She wrote the epilogue, and she ended up reading that in her own voice for the audiobook too, which I highly recommend. She's fantastic.

Ross Gericke: Yeah, I was super stoked to hear her at the very end. I felt like it just brought the whole book together right there at the end.

Ben Herold: Great, that's great.

Ross Gericke: Ben, thank you for coming on the podcast. This has been great.

Ben Herold: Thanks so much for having me and I can't wait to come down and talk about the book in person, too.

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