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Prosperity for All: What’s Working Locally with BALLE Director Michelle Long

SOCAP Global May 26, 2015

Michell Long BALLE

We can and should design our businesses and economy around things that actually make us well. Real prosperity is a deep connection to self, others, natural world, and all of those are, by their very nature, local.

–Michelle Long

One of the leading organizations in the Localist Movement is the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, BALLE. Sara Day Evans, a BALLE Local Economy Fellow in 2014 and Founder and Executive Director of Accelerating Appalachia, recently had a conversation with Michelle Long, the Executive Director of BALLE, about the things that are working in the Localist Movement in 2015 and her organization’s goals for the future.
 
Sara Day Evans: Achieving prosperity for all has always been BALLE’s mission. How do you define prosperity?
Michelle Long: I just got off the phone with David Korten who is a long time friend and author. He was talking about a visit he had with a man who helped create the Gross National Happiness Framework in Bhutan. He said, “well you know, time is life.” And that struck David so much. Instead of time is money, no actually, time is life. What is the goal of prosperity? The GNH in Bhutan is saying we should think about measuring whether or not we are well. Not whether or not we have more microwaves per household.
I think that real prosperity would be aligned with what makes us well. We are more prosperous in our lives, in our work, in our communities, and in our economies if we are well. That includes meeting material needs, but it also includes what two decades of well-being science have shown makes all humans deeply well. This includes a connection to meaning and personal purpose in our lives. It means forming deep connections with other human beings, besides just our own little clans. Recognizing that all people are fundamentally connected. We won’t be okay unless we are all okay. And it means a connection to our place in the larger natural world — in almost a reverent way. To allow ourselves to feel awe. I can’t believe that the tomato plants give me tomatoes everyday–just growing out of the ground. It’s amazing, it’s awesome. Whether it’s the mountains or the universe, we need to feel a sense of reverence and connection with the natural world. Being generous makes us feel well too. We feel better when we are giving to others. This is all from the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley.
I, and many others too, believe that we can and should design our businesses and economy around things that actually make us well. Real prosperity is a deep connection to self, others, natural world, and all of those are, by their very nature, local.
What are three of the top objectives BALLE hopes to achieve this year towards the goal of achieving prosperity for all?
One is investing for opportunity in communities that have been historically oppressed. We have a big focus on partnering with communities that have not, because of various “isms,” including racism, have not had the same opportunities to build wealth. We look for what’s working and for the leaders in these communities and back them with additional connections and financial resources and storytelling to help them thrive and all of us to learn and that is a big part of our work.
Second would be around building entrepreneurial capacity to meet local needs. How are we investing in those who support entrepreneurs to make more of what we need closer to home using local resources?
And then third is around shifting our investment strategies from Wall Street, from faceless, nameless, anonymous transactions–in which we don’t know the impact of our investments–toward real businesses. Investing in real people. The founder of BALLE is a woman named Judy Wicks. She wrote a book called Good Morning Beautiful Business. A BALLE board member, Leslie Christian, speaks of something that is a play on that, she calls it, “Good Morning Beautiful Portfolio.” The premise being that you should be able to read through your portfolio happily and look at pictures of the actual people and the actual things you are making a difference in with your money. I was just at another conference where I was speaking recently, and attended an impact investing panel. The panel was all about vehicles and products — not the businesses or people they were investing in or what they were trying to create. Someone talked about the inefficient small scale farmer market. Someone else said that the social enterprise market has not been yet been ‘fully exploited”–so it’s a big opportunity. The language was just so divorced from anything real. Who are the people you are investing in? Not just thinking about your returns from an anonymous vehicle, but WHO are you investing in, really. And how is your money an expression of your values and who you are and are you putting your money into something you care about or not. And I basically felt sad. So that kind of place-based impact investing is one of our third biggest areas of focus this year.
BALLE’s Local Economy Fellowship program was started in 2011, but has already impacted over one million people–with over 80% of the Fellows focusing on underserved and low income communities. From what you’ve learned from that program, what resources or infrastructure do you think would help more entrepreneurs be able to create greater impact in low income and underserved communities across America?
That’s a great question. (The answer) is multi-pronged. There is broken infrastructure at the community level. For instance, (look at) basic food systems. Fifty years ago we grew most of our fruits and vegetables in the places where we ate them. Since then, we’ve so swung the scales in the opposite direction that much of that infrastructure has been lost. So to rebuild the ability for us to grow food and make and deliver the other goods and services that our communities need closer to home requires an re-investment in infrastructure. That allows for local economies of scale so that lots of locals can succeed, as opposed to where we’ve gone now–which is fewer and fewer large, distant corporations. We know the number one contributor to inequality over the last 40 years in the United States has been how much Wall Street activity, financialization of our economy, has taken place, (ILO study across 71 countries). So as companies get larger and more distant, we see fewer jobs and less wealth for the majority. And we see wealth going into fewer and fewer hands.
Ownership is really the key to building the opportunity for everyone to be able to benefit from the labor that they put into something. That is the key to building wealth and jobs for more people. We need to decentralize ownership and this requires the rebuilding of infrastructure as well as technical assistance at the local level. This requires investing in the technical assistance and capacity providers locally, which come in multiple forms. Its a spectrum. There are those who are doing pre-entrepreneur work. People who are working in low income communities that have been historically oppressed and are helping young men to graduate high school. Being there with young men who have not had the same opportunities, to get them even to a place where we can talk about equality. Equality and equity are not the same thing. To get people to a place of equity requires more pre-investment and pre-entrepreneurship work. This is so so critical. Especially in low income communities of color. We have to invest in those communities if we ever have any hope of having an equitable society. And money is now concentrated in so few hands that philanthropic gifts or government support are needed to distribute that money back into a wider circulation.
So there’s pre-entrepreneurship work and then there’s the microenterprise level work that’s necessary. We need to invest in those capacity builders that support microentrepreneurs–the people who are starting their own small businesses and then helping them navigate the ropes. Helping them connect the contracts with larger institutions in the area. Helping them legally. Helping with basic business planning for main-street businesses. We must get over this obsession with tech start-ups. Most people want to start everyday main street companies and these are who are providing us the most jobs, the most job growth.
And then we need those who are supporting at the business association level locally. Business associations that share values of, “we are not here to only help you become a large transnational corporation”, which obviously most do not anyway, but we are here to help you succeed here. Help you collaborate with other businesses locally, procure locally, and help you hire locally, help you to ensure that your environmental impacts are stable if not regenerative. We want to help you find values aligned capital so that to pay it back you don’t have to become acquired by a company that does not share your values one day because you accepted capital from the wrong places early.Those who will share this kind of vision of an economy that works for everybody and all life–these are the kind of business associations that we need now.
And then we also need those who are providing the technical assistance to companies that are providing good jobs, certainly not everyone is going to run a business or be an entrepreneur. How are we supporting businesses to provide good jobs, good career paths? One example is in Oakland, Inner City Advisors, they provide low interest loans and lots of technical assistance to businesses that provide “good” jobs.
Then there’s also the capital side. We know since 2008, 40% of the small business closures has been related to lack of access to financing. So we need to get capital into the hands of the smaller businesses and the source of that capital needs to be value aligned. There’s all sorts of innovation happening here right now with investors who are looking at how to partner with capacity building groups that support entrepreneurs. What kind of capital do you need? How do we get it to you? Bringing together banks, foundations…etc. and figuring out where the gaps are and why is it so difficult for us to navigate access to capital in our community. How can we streamline the path to capital and innovate around that?
And finally a lot of foundations are starting to think about their endowment and bringing that to communities as opposed to it being off in Wall Street somewhere. People are asking, “What about all the money that’s been sitting in the stock market? What’s happening there?” BALLE has both a Local Economy Investor’s Circle, and a Community Foundation Circle, which are similar to the Fellowship program. One of the members told us that when they analyzed the investments in their own foundation’s portfolio (we recommend that foundations look to see which companies they are actually investing in, because often times they don’t) they found a big chunk of their return was coming from predatory payday loan companies. And yet they were trying to give grants to the very same communities that are often harmed by those companies. And they started asking if  they were doing more harm than good. They have a lot more invested than they give each year. So the the wall between giving and investing is coming down and that money is starting to flow into communities. And that’s necessary too.
Where do you draw inspiration from? What is giving you hope right now?
I have more hope now than I ever had before. I have great hope that a beautiful, great joy is possible for us. The main thing that gives me hope is that what we need to do,and what we actually want deeply, and what is actually working–are all actually the same thing. Problems like climate change and the other big complex crises that we face today all have just one logical response–interdependence. We are all in this together.. It’s an evolution, the recognition that we are interdependent, that we have to lead from a place that it’s not just me that benefits, it is all off us that benefits including me.
This is the type of leadership that’s being called for in this era. So if you study organizational systems, at the government level, at the level of academia, finance, all these realms, I’m hearing these very thoughtful people saying that we have got to learn how to act from an understanding that we are interdependent. And what gives me hope is that it turns out that really the capacities that are necessary to recognize our interdependence can be cultivated. So its not that we’re just stuck in this place. Its not that this is just the way that we are. We are continuing to evolve and grow and we can cultivate and practice in a way that awakens our understanding of empathy, compassion, interdependence, that we can can practice small acts of generosity and altruism which turn out to make us happy. We can cultivate a connection to our own purpose, to our own inner voice. Those are steps towards our own personal wellness too.
We have, I think, gotten to a place of such shattered “apartness.” We’ve broken into millions pieces that are so disconnected. Where does our food come from? What does my money do off in some mutual fund? We don’t know our neighbors. We’re depressed. We’ve broken apart so much. Walking the path toward solutions for the crises of our day means walking back again toward connection. That can be cultivated. Science has shown this and this is what will make us feel happy. It will bring us joy. So the fact that we want what we need is incredibly hopeful to me. This is new science, only over the last two decades that shows this is our humanity, this is what makes us well.
So if we operate from a place of recognizing our interdependence, of caring for each other, of believing that maximizing our relationships with each other matters more than maximizing a single bottom line–we would also be doing the things that BALLE fellows are doing in their communities. We would, for instance, choose to buy from people we have a relationship with. We would want our money to be in line with our values and choose to invest in things that we understood, we would choose to do more with business that are an expression of our gifts to the world, we would innovate from that place of service, innovating for the good of our communities. We would ask ourselves what do communities need? How can I meet that?
And it turns out there all those kinds of things, whether we are doing them because they make us well or because we want to do good, those are the areas of our economy that are actually working. So we need to focus on building more entrepreneurial capacity, where more people are, in their gifts and purpose, creating more jobs, more wealth, more success. Wherever we try to help someone out, it helps all of us. These things are actually working for economy, working for all of life. Where we are maximizing for health of all of us. That’s what makes us happy. That’s how we solve these crises. Thats what gives me great hope.
BALLE lists convening as a solution that is pushing the localist movement towards the goal of achieving prosperity for all. Coming together helps us recognize our interdependence. There’s nothing quite as powerful as gathering in a peer network–to know that you have that support network, that you grow from it, that you then share it back in your community. The convening of the fellows, at BALLE conferences—that is something that we’ve brought home. We brought that into Accelerating Appalachia, for instance. We always had a peer mentorship concept in our accelerator, but the way BALLE convened us around transformational leadership is so inspiring that we specifically accepted entrepreneurs who are open to the concept of transformative leadership. So to speak to how BALLE brings together peers and convenes in the way that the way that “we’re all better together” has been really valuable to us and my peers.
That’s great Sara Day, and to add to that—we very much align with that Einstein quote, “No problem can be solved through the same level of consciousness that created it.” We must move away from an analytical mind that sees “differences between” rather than “connections amongst.” To allow people to understand each other’s struggles…to help people to access more parts of themselves, so that we can innovate, from a new level of consciousness, so we can solve problems in new ways, ways that we’re using now which are about interdependence. We are all in it together.
I just wanted to affirm that, because that sense stays with you. That sense of interdependence is something that you continue to carry with you in your work and in your life.
This is how change happens. Our theory of change is around accelerating the emergence of a new economy that works for all life. The way that we do our programming is directly aligned with the science about cultivating emergence. So if something new is trying to emerge, if there is a movement for change—whether it be civil rights, or creation of the Internet–it all starts with little pockets in lots of places and then they connect with each other and then it eventually becomes the new thing.
You can work to accelerate that emergence by finding those innovators, those little pockets of innovative change and connecting them and resourcing those innovators. Those innovators are always fighting against the old system while trying to create what’s next. It’s very difficult and very lonely. By convening them together, great courage emerges. They learn—”I’m not crazy after all.” And when they feel resourced and they feel encouraged, then nothing can stop them. The root word for courage is “coeur”– french for heart. When you feel that moral imperative, nothing will stop you. And the innovation just flows out. You don’t question yourself, “can this be done?” You suddenly are telling yourself, “This can be done! We will figure out how.” And then the final piece of that is to illuminate their work. Illuminate the work that comes out of these innovators and their connections so that others can join in and accelerate the birth of the new economy that is happening.
BALLE is a SOCAP Network Partner that is working to grow the social capital market with a focus on local economies. You can learn more about what’s working locally, and benefit from the power of convening, at the 2015 BALLE Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, June 10-12. BALLE and the Localist Movement will be also featured at SOCAP15, October 6-9th. One of the major themes at SOCAP15 will be Neighborhood Economics, the movement to accelerate the flow of capital into local neighborhoods and rural communities and distribute that capital more equitably.

Equity and Inclusion / Impact Investing / Sustainable Development
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