Connecting people and businesses will make for a more resilient economy and a happier population, Balle founder Michelle Long tells Oliver Balch
theguardian.com, Monday 7 April 2014
Michelle Long, founder and chief executive of Balle: ‘We no longer know where our food comes from’. Photograph: BALLE
The family-run Colophon Café is your archetypal local eatery. Staff members know their customers by name, most suppliers live nearby and a proportion of profits finds its way to charities based in the area.
Nor is it alone in boasting such neighbourly credentials. The Bellingham-based cafe is one of over 600 local businesses across Whatcom County in Washington State committed to pursuing a “localist” agenda.
The regional network forms part of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (Balle) to redress the “disconnections” inherent to contemporary global capitalism.
“We no longer know where our food comes from when it ends up on our plate or where the waste goes when we finish a meal,” observes Michelle Long, founder and chief executive of Balle, as well as a long-term Bellingham resident.
It’s not just the impact of globalism on our food chain that concerns Long and her fellow localists. Our whole system has come unmoored, she argues. Savers have no real idea how their money is used. Shoppers know next to nothing about the environmental impacts of the products they buy. Chief executives live in worlds far removed from those who work for them or from the communities they purportedly “serve”.
For Long, repairing what she sees as the broken relationships wrought by the combination of economic globalization and corporate giantism is essential. And not only for our economy, which she argues will become more resilient and more productive as it becomes more local (ie boasting shorter supply chains, greater local ownership, closer proximity to the environment, higher socially inclusivity and so forth). But the more connected as individuals we are, she maintains, the happier and more fulfilled we’ll be as human beings.
“To connect deeply within, to connect deeply with one another, to connect in reverence to the natural world: these are local behaviors. That is real prosperity … it’s not a distant act, it’s a local act by its very nature,” she states.
She likes to cite writer and conservationist Wendell Berry, the so-called “prophet of rural America”, who talks of the need to move from our current “one-night stand economy” to a relationship-based economy. But how to get there?
The answer, perhaps predictably, centers on making connections. First, with one another. The primary function of Balle is to work with “connectors”: individuals who bring together local farmers, retailers, investors, manufacturers and the like from across a community. The infrastructure of today’s economy – be it physical, financial or regulatory – all encourage a business ecosystem that is large and loose. Turning that on its head will only happen when local change-agents bandy together.
Balle runs a fellowship program for these kinds of connectors. The two-year course involves multiple-day immersions, visits to one another’s communities, structured network opportunities and “deep leadership work” designed to connect connectors with themselves.
“At Balle, we find pioneers, we connect them, we nourish them and then we tell their stories so others could imagine what’s possible for their communities”, says Long.
It’s a hands-on affair. Long is deeply suspicious about technocrats sitting round big tables laying out plans to solve other people’s problems, elsewhere. To help Balle’s wider network of “dreamers-and-doers”, the organization offers a host of webinars, case studies, conferences and workshops to “spread the things that are working”.
Connecting locally-minded business owners with investors marks a particular imperative. Balle recently ran a series of webinars on Community Capital, for example, which set out to how to identify and approach local investment clubs, community foundations and the host of other non-Wall Street funders now cropping up. Balle also lobbied hard for a recent change in federal legislation that makes it easier for small businesses to raise capital through crowd funding and mini-public offerings.
Long points to the Boston Impact Initiative as an exemplar of how the world of finance is localising. Offering a combination of debt, equity and grantmaking, this private investment fund adopts Balle’s localist principles as its investment criteria. Its portfolio of investments, all of which focus on the Boston area, includes a recycling cooperative, a non-profit lender to small businesses, a microfinance agency and a neighbourhood deli.
“It’s really radical to start investing this way, rather than ‘How do I make the most money?’ or ‘How do I screen out a couple of things that are bad?’” notes Long. “Most of the socially responsible investing has not really questioned the premise that the same people will end up with the money. That has to be fundamentally called into question if we are going to change our economic system.”
Back in Bellingham, Long’s localist vision is coming face-to-face with today’s globalised realities. Planners have earmarked the town as the possible site for a new mega-export facility designed to ship “tons and tons” of coal to Asia. Long is adamantly opposed: “It’s not what the community wants.” Those enjoying a quiet, leisurely bite in Colophon Café almost certainly agree.