Thursday, October 24, 2013

Creating a culture

I had the great opportunity to chat with a fellow from the American Independent Business Alliance last week.  While we didn't really share much that either of us didn't already know - sometimes hearing from a fellow traveler is refreshing; sometimes, like this time, it is also inspiring.  The fact that these folks, and their counterparts at BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) are out there, disseminating research, offering resources, tirelessly acting as cheerleaders of small independents, is of value beyond words.

And I wasn't letting him leave until he answered some of our most pressing questions.

What I wanted to know from him is this: why does it seem like there is an unbreachable chasm between those who get it, and those who do not?  And how do we press for the epiphany?

Before you decide I am offending you, odds are that if you are bothering to read this blog, you are one of the ones who make an effort to stop here instead of Hannaford to get your staples, or drop in before work for an egg sandwich, or show up on a sunny Saturday for groceries while you're at your upstate home.  You spend a few minutes bantering with me at the register; perhaps you throw a few friendly jabs in about the President's healthcare plan, just because you like to poke at a liberal now and then.  I am honored to serve you; and so when I refer to those who don't get it, I am not talking about you. 

Mostly I wonder about those folks who live fairly close, but can't quite make the effort to spend their dollars here. Where do they go for a cup of coffee?  Or a loaf of really good organic bread?  And how come I can't seem to reach them?

Joe has done a lot of grassroots organizing, and is now communicating with lots of small business folk on a regional and national level, so he's got some nuggets of wisdom to share.  In a nutshell, it's about nurturing a localist culture - developing the collective mindset that this place is worth caring about, worth protecting and nurturing.  And I think that requires folks to be brave enough to imagine truly great places, the kinds of places that are resilient and sustainable.  Places where we want to raise children, and places where our children would want to raise theirs. When you believe that it's possible to imagine those places, then it isn't so much of a stretch that you'd buy groceries at the independent grocer down the road and bypass WalMart.

And while most conversations, in real life and on social media sites, seem to revolve around how I can get folks to shop for groceries in Medusa, there is a much broader conversation to be had - how do we nurture the larger ecosystem of independent businesses necessary to recreate functioning whole communities, especially in rural areas like ours?

Perhaps it's about getting a farmer training program off the ground?  Or developing a land trust so that young farmers have access to our abundant, and woefully underutilized, land?  Perhaps it is figuring out which products are low hanging fruit, when it comes to import substitution - we can do more than produce fabulous honey and maple syrup, I think. Perhaps we can spend more time lobbying our local governments to focus on village beautification - remind everyone that we should be creating spaces that matter, places that are beautiful.  (James Howard Kunstler has spoken eloquently and passionately about this.) Perhaps we can figure out ways to create economies outside of traditional exchange - Shareable has been doing this sort of work for a while now, and we are joining with our first Repair Cafe starting in November.

I know I certainly don't have the answers - and it often feels like we're groping in the dark. But I don't think we have a thing to lose by heading in this direction. And, you never know, these efforts, *your* efforts might just that push we need to truly start to engage our community, businesses and residents alike.

Are you ready?

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