I’ve just returned from a whirlwind convening of the annual Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) conference of localists in Phoenix, Arizona. I say whirlwind because I got swept up in the energy and excitement of this year’s theme, “What’s Working Locally.” This was my ninth year attending the conference and, every year, it does not disappoint. The localist movement is growing, and it’s not just about locally owned businesses anymore. It’s about investing locally in businesses that grow the local economy; it’s about equality and growing a truly equitable economy; it’s about knowing how your food is grown; it’s about the relationships we have to each other, our business owners and from one business to another. It’s also about walkable districts, policies and financing. It is about employee ownership and community capital. The local economy movement is an ecosystem that we all can take part in. Allow me to share my favorite moments and take-away lessons from the BALLE 2015 conference:
Healthy Soils = Jobs—The conference opened with a dialogue on healthy soils in honor of International Year of the Soils, acknowledging that healthy soil and holistic land management are job creators because healthy land requires people to manage it. Farmer Joel Salatin brought down the house with a reenactment of microbes and his talk on how soils and worms grow healthy food and can clean up our climate, too. As funny as Farmer Joel is, what he says is of utmost importance: “Our entire agricultural/governmental system is funding land degradation.” And this: “If we just increase soil health by 1 percent, we will reverse all carbon damage since we started emitting.” He closed by urging us to “be environmentalist by participation, not abandonment.” As I wrote in my May Local Voice column, we need to know how our food is grown, not just where.
Next Gen Localists—I had the good fortune of being a mentor at this year’s conference, setting up 30-minute sessions with localists who wanted guidance in their work. I met more young localists than ever before who care deeply about their place, their communities and doing business for good. Most of these were young women under 35, each ready to take on their community’s most pressing needs and solve them with innovative business solutions. One woman came to me with a plan for a repair-shop incubator that would bring together all the businesses we overlook in our consumable culture: leather repairs, sewing, watch repairs, small appliance repairs. These are things we have learned to toss instead of repair and, therefore, are losing hands-on skills and local jobs. Creating an incubator business like this that helps older-generation craftspeople transfer skills and knowledge to a new generation not only creates jobs with skills but also preserves our sense of community and keeps money right in our neighborhoods. Creativity in planning a business is driving these young localists to do good.
Doing Business with Kindness—Compassion in business is not something we often discuss. But imagine if we were thinking through our business plans with compassionate business practices and sourcing, finding other businesses that are fair-trade manufacturers, practice equality and humanely source and raise food. These are just some compassionate ways forward in local business. Sharing our best practices with one another is good business. Judy Wicks, founder of the White Dog Café and author of Good Morning, Beautiful Business, built her business on these values and founded BALLE, too, so that we all may learn from each other that “it’s not the coin that counts; it’s the warmth of the hand that gives it. Business isn’t about money; it’s about relationships.”
Local Arts as Local Economy—I was fortunate to be interviewed by a localist colleague from Durango, Colorado, who has been on a research path to integrate the arts into the local economy and educate communities on how the arts are an economic driver. The conference featured talented Phoenix spoken-word poet, Myrlin Hepworth, who reminded us that the arts are the heart of our economy. We must consider all artists as business owners and the arts as a viable sector in our local economies and treat them with as much respect as economic-development departments treat large corporations they try to recruit into a community. We must include long-time, multi-generational artists who have been marginalized by the so-called new “creative class.” These artists have been here a long time. Calling ourselves a creative economy on the backs of those who came before us without acknowledging them is marginalization. Artists of all kinds create communities—and have done so for centuries! People want to live in these cities and towns because they are culturally vibrant. Great civilizations revered their artists as the greatest thought leaders in their communities. We must return to this way of thinking to ensure our local economies are diverse and vibrant places.
#BlackLivesMatter in Local Economies—Equity and equality are not the same thing. Think about that. We need to take a stand for black lives, understand where racism exists in our economy and learn what it means to marginalize people to the edges of the economy, where they are forced to sell cigarettes on the streets and end up incarcerated or dead because of economic crimes. This is not OK with me and should not be OK with you. Former green-jobs adviser to President Obama and now-CNN political correspondent and all-around brilliant activist, Van Jones, closed out the conference with this: “We’re not going to accept trickle-down economics, and we’re not going to accept trickle-down justice.”
It was a jam-packed localist idea-fest, and I can’t wait for the year ahead. I’ll sum up with this from my friend and inspiration, author David Korten, whose new book, Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth, has just been released: “Localism is the leading edge of responsible business and new-economy thinking.”
For more information on BALLE, visit: www.bealocalist.org
Vicki Pozzebon is a localist, writer and cultivator. She is a BALLE Fellow and author of the forthcoming book For the Love of Local: Confessions from the Heart of Community, publishing Spring 2016 by Leaf Storm Press. Read her blog, The Local, at vickipozzebon.com and follow her on Twitter: @vickipozzebon