by Ajax Green
It was a cloudy day destined to pour rain later. I had just moments before gotten a phone call informing me that an old friend had died while rock climbing. Yet there was Michelle Long on the train platform, all energy and light.
Michelle is the executive director of BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies). This 13-year-old organization is leading the movement based on Localism and triple bottom line business in the US. Michelle is a pioneer and leader whose role is to support and grow BALLE’s 80 affiliated networks like Re>Think Local spread across the US and Canada. With such amazing folks leading the movement to transition our economy it’s impossible not to be hopeful.
Michelle was coming through the Hudson Valley en route to Schumacher Center in Great Barrington for a New Economics conference, so we hosted her for an intimate, informal salon at our board chair Scott Tillitt’s loft in Beacon. About 20 Re>Thinkers joined us, a diverse group of really smart and motivated business owners and leaders in domains ranging from tech to composting, from food and farming to finance, public policy to PR, and also including soloprenuers, academics, nonprofit leaders and activists.
I was moved by a story Michelle told about just having spent a couple days with a very wealthy (billionaire, I think), progressive investor. So often these days we hear about an economy that works for everybody, implying it’s working for the wealthy but not us. Yet this investor described his peers as deeply unhappy, not willing to share their money because of their fears, hiding behind “walls,” lacking community, relying on booze and antidepressants for their happiness. It appears, then, that the economy is working for no one. Shouldn’t we be willing to try new models since the old ones have proven themselves no longer useful?
One of my other takeaways from the day is how important it is for our movement to lead with an open heart. This has been part of Re>Think Local from the beginning (our logo includes a forward-moving heart, after all). At all of our meetings—including the Social Venture Institute/Hudson Valley retreat (stay tuned soon for next year’s dates)—we have integrated self-awareness and mindfulness as key skills for a prosperous new economy. It is this self-knowledge that allows us to successfully partner and collaborate with other like-minded organizations. Yes, this is a little woo woo for some, but there is solid data suggesting those who are kind and open givers over time do far better on the prosperity front. It’s certainly something Michelle echoed from her travels meeting with leading companies, something that all of us present celebrated.
Another exciting development is BALLE’s work convening small groups of historically conservative institutions to find new models that might work for them. For example, many community foundations are struggling to find new big-dollar donors. It’s not that these donors don’t exist, it’s just they prefer to look for more innovative uses of their donations than the traditional community foundation model. BALLE has facilitated several meetings of investors and innovative community foundations with experts on some of these new models to explore on a peer-to-peer basis what makes sense. The good news is that these forward-looking foundations are now trying to invest a portion of their funds locally in their communities, making it a win for the community foundation, the community, and the donors.
In her opening address at the 12th Annual BALLE Conference in Oakland in June, Michelle laid out a number of steps for building strong local economies that serve both people and planet. We closed out our salon in Beacon discussing them with her.
1. Promote a culture of local, cooperative, and community ownership.
2. Build entrepreneurial capacity to meet local needs and to innovate for the greater good.
3. Align workers, labor, independent businesses, and regional anchor institutions around a shared path to shared prosperity.
4. Divest from Wall St. and invest in community.
5. Cultivate shared ownership, land trusts, and the protection of public assets.
6. Eliminate systemic barriers and build opportunity for people historically oppressed.
7. Build shared infrastructure that provides small businesses the economies of “scale.”
8. Use philanthropy to mitigate risk for the pioneers.
9. Advocate for Localist public policies that level the playing field for local businesses, people, and nature.
10. Invest in soil and nature-based industries, energy, and infrastructure and divest from
11. Invest in “backbone organizations” that strengthen community entrepreneurs and real
12. Use magic, soul and inspiration to convene entrepreneurs and to catalyze the courage of their
These are not yet official policies or prescriptions; just ideas to share and discuss. Dialogue leading to action can improve our local economy and be a model to save the world. So, what are your thoughts?