Building Strong Local Living Economies

[Editor’s Note: Judy Wicks, owner of Philadelphia’s popular White Dog Cafe and founder of Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), spoke at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, in Northampton, Massachusetts, May 13, 2004. This is close to a verbatim transcript—notations within square brackets are my additions—of her remarks, which covered a wide range of sustainability topics. I’ve added subheads, but decided to maintain Wicks’ free flowing discussion, rather than reorganize it into a more linear form; the flow is vey much in keeping with her message. Please read on to see how one business owner has not only built her success on a broadly defined, interconnected web of sustainable ideas, but has reached out to her own community and beyond to try to change the way business is done in our society.
—Shel Horowitz, editor of Down to Business magazine and author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First]

Building a movement of local living economies. We envision a global economy that’s comprised of susatainable local economies..

All local living economies are comprised of living enterprises. I have a sign that says ‘good morning,,beautiful business.’ When I see that sign, I think about the farmers around Philadelphia that are growing the vegetables, the goat herder—when she kisses her goats’ ears, it makes the cheese better. When I have my coffee, I think about the cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico where we get our coffee. Business is about relationships. My business is beautiful because it’s my way of expressing my love for the world and its people.

I started 21 years ago on the bottom floor of my house. I didn’t have a commercial kitchen so I put a charcoal grill in the back yard. For advertising, my kids, 4 and 2, came with me to the University of Pennsylvania campus and we handed out flyers. The bathroom was in my house, you walked past the kids on the couch. And the waiter would put the day’s receipts under my pillow. Now we’re in five houses and gross 5 million a year.

We’ve been successful because we’ve remained small. We’ve been led to believe that success is measured by economic growth that benefits mankind, but we’ve seen the opposite. As the GNP goes up, so does the rate of poverty.

Choosing to Stay Small

I made a conscious decision to stay small. I created a healthy environment for my children. We still live upstairs. That’s the way it was in the old days. There’s now very little exposure of kids to the work world. The first day I went back to work after my first child, I left my baby inside after I locked up.

By getting bigger and bigger, you lose out on the authentic relationships. I found other ways we can grow: deepening our relationships, growing our consciousness, our knowledge, increasing our joy.

Rather than growing chains and chains of cookie-cutter restaurants, and then when it’s time to retire, no local business can afford to buy it, is to look and see what your community needs. Bart’s [a local ice cram manufacturer in western Massachusetts] has diversified into a local distribution co, and now is exploring starting a local milk co. That’s the kind of thinking we’re promoting. Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor has diversified into a bakery, consulting company, and a creamery.

With the White Dog, instead of doing more White Dogs, I did the Black Cat, our retail store next door. Jewelry made by artisans in New Orleans out of discarded Mardi Gras gowns…

Living in the community, you just naturally make decisions in the best interest of all the stakeholders: employees, customers, neighbors, your community.

Being small shortens the distance between the business decision maker and those affected by the decisions. Some of my most important decisions have come not from my head but from my heart.

Wendell Berry calls industrialism “the culture of the one-night stand.” We need to rebuild those relationships that have been broken down by industrialization and globalization, so we know who bakes our bread, makes our ice cream, sews our clothes, brews our beer, runs our hospital.

Publicly traded companies are required by law to make decisions in the financial interest of their stockholders; we are free to make decisions in the best interests of all people.

Adam Smith never suggested that everyone should make decisions on narrow self-interest. His theory was based on the existence of a moral community where decisions were based on common good. This is enlightened self-interest, and the invisible hand does work when consumers and business people understand that the way they interface with the economy affects their own quality of life.

Learning from the Eskimo—And the World-Wide Peace Movement

I was first introduced to a living economy after graduating college, when I went to live in an Eskimo village in Alaska. I attended a seal party. All the women in the village were walking across the snow with these buckets. The meat is divided equally between the families. Everything else the family has accumulated that they don’t need to survive is also given away. It demonstrated the Eskimo philosophy. If I admired your earrings, you’d take them off and give them to me. They believe in sharing, not envy. As a young person, I contrasted this: Our society is driven by envy. We reward people who are greedy—that’s the opposite of a sustainable and balanced life.

In the year I was there, everything changed. When I arrived all the families had a dogsled and one family had a skimobile. By the time I left, only one family had a dog team. All the others had a snowmobile. It changed from a culture of sharing to one of competition. One man actually committed suicide.

But I began to understand that in the long run, a sustainable economy was based on cooperation and sharing, not competing and hoarding.

There are two competing world views now. Interconnectedness and separation. Those who see life as separate, them and us, good and evil, god in some and not other—believe you have to kill or be killed, that actions are fear—based, war is inevitable.

The second world view is that life is interconnected, there’s god in all people, our survival depends on partnership, nonviolence is the path to peace.

On February 15, 2003 [the day of massive worldwide antiwar demonstrations, weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq], people all over the world were saying, war is obsolete. I’m hoping the Eskimo way of harmony and cooperation will prevail, and that’s the philosophy of Business Alliance for Local Living Economies [BALLE]. We can have a n economy that’s giving and caring and loving, as we see our spiritual connection.

At the White Dog, we demonstrate our interconnectedness by having programs. We’ve become a center of discussion and dialog on issues of concern. We have talks after dinner, ecotours, international tours, local tours of minority-owned restaurants, and just for fun, to celebrate community. On July 4, we do a little skit where I give birth o the nation—with a sign on my back that says “George Washington slept here.” I push a beachball down, and there are black and white twins, Liberty and Justice.

We do muffins and coffee before getting on the bus to Washington for demonstrations. People are not just hungry for the food, but for a sense of belonging, community, authentic relationships.

I believe the purpose of business is to serve—to our customers, staff, community, and the earth.

Labor, Animal Cruelty, and Neighborhood Relations

A living wage is a voluntary commitment from an entrepreneur to pay a wage people can live on—the federal minimum wage is ridiculously low. When I first heard about a living wage, it happened that three prep people were lined up chopping vegetables. They looked at me, and I had the realization that of course I wanted to pay them a living wage. By the end of the year, everyone was making $8 an hour.

[Part of our mission is] serving the earth: we source form local farmers, we get 100% of our electricity form wind power—we were the first business in PA to do that. During a drought, I saw the corn was all plowed under, got up to my cabin in the woods and everything was shriveled and brown. I felt the sense of danger and I couldn’t even hear any birds sing. The fear of fire was in the air. I thought, this is what it’s going to be like with global warming. I came back and said let’s find out about alternative energy. I had to be touched by my heart. We pay 15% more but it’s well worth it.

I was stopped at a red light in front of the local high school. They were all African-American. I called the principal and started a mentor program because I want a relationship with my local high school. Senior year, we give a scholarship to a student who’s going on to culinary study. At the end, the kids put on a hip-hop event. At the dance, I saw one of the original mentees, and I thought, they are our children.

95% of the pork you eat comes from the industrial system, they’re in these tiny pens, they never get out in the sun. Pigs are normally very social, they sleep in pig piles. But they’re kept from touching another pig their entire lives. I think how little it takes to please an animal, and how this is institutionalized cruelty and a violation of nature, a breach of our stewardship.

I walked into the kitchen and said I don’t want to be part of this system, take all the pork off the menu until we can find a humane source. So now we buy two whole pigs a week, and we had to figure out what to do with all the parts. Now all our meats are sourced from humane raisers. We now can say we have a cruelty-free menu.

Then I started talking to my competitors. It’s not enough any more to have best practices within your own company. That was a turning point, where I started to work in my community, organizing other restaurants and farmers. We started the White Dog Foundation, to take what we’ve learned in the cafe and take it to a greater impact. I said to the farmer, would you like to expand your business, what do you need? I loaned him $30,000 to buy a refrigerator truck, and set him up with a marketing consultant. Now we started a year-round farmstand selling meat and dairy from grass-fed local animals. Now we have to increase the supply, so we’re working with farmers to bring the farming back outside, reintroduce heritage breeds.

When money flows into the White Dog, I picture it as a watering can, providing living wage jobs, supporting local farmers, a local wind company, fair trade coffee growers, and so on. That’s what a living enterprise is all about.

Founding BALLE—and Actions We Can Each Take

In 1999, two things happened: the WTO [World Trade Organization] protests in Seattle—my daughter went. I looked at the protestors—academics, students, farmers—where was the voice of business? We needed an alternative to corporate globalization.

Days after Seattle, the sale of Ben & Jerry’s to Unilever. For those of us in socially responsible business, it was a huge blow. They taught me about the living wage, about the multiple bottom line [the “triple bottom line” concept that a business needs to look at social and environmental returns as well as financials].

Meanwhile, the environmental crisis has grown even worse. And we’re in a social and political crisis. The alliance between business and government, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Odwalla was sold to CocaCola, Cascadian Farms to General Mills, 60% of Stonyfield is owned by Dannone [known in the U.S. as Dannon]. These companies are trying to change their parents, but the second front is the movement for local economies, not part of these corporations. To deal with the growing concentration of wealth and power by decentralizing ownership, decentralizing energy sources, the food system. Every community needs food, energy, water security. Decentralizing communications, through the Internet and local media. Decentralization of culture, and of leadership, protect local cultures and languages.
In 2001, we formed BALLE. To create the economy by purchasing from each other. If you cannot find a product locally, like coffee, buy it in a way that supports the local economy where it is produced.

I didn’t want my money in any publicly traded company. So I took it all out of stocks and put them into a reinvestment fund where the money is loaned to small business, affordable housing, charter schools—it keeps the capital in the community and I actually end up making a higher return. But even when it’s not, think about the living return, not just the highest dollar return. Don’t feed the corporate global economy that’s destroying our community. Don’t support a farm bill that puts family farmers out of business, here and abroad.

A study in Austin compared a Borders with a local book store. Out of each $100 in revenue, $14 from Borders stays local, $44 from the independent.

We can learn from Gandhi’s struggle. He said, take the British clothes and burn them, we can make our own clothes. Build those community gardens again. When I took the pork off the menu, I was using Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strategy of non-cooperation. Refuse to buy factory-farmed eggs, sweatshop clothing. It’s about democracy and decentralized ownership, a fair price, not the lowest price, partnership, not domination, win-win exchange, family farms, not factory farms. Our bucks, not Starbucks. Our mart, not Wal-Mart.

If we don’t face these issues, we’ll all wake up as serfs on the corporate plantations.