There are several Oaklandisms that hit me when I visit home: sunny glints on loose hair, swinging gaits, razzing trunk beats and wafts of aromatic smoke. Twice a year I return from my western outpost to re-sample Oakland’s many tastes. This summer, a new guidebook promises to help me find my next haunt: This is Oakland, the cover reads in bold, hopeful letters, A Guide to the City’s Most Interesting Places.
This guidebook began as a Kickstarter campaign last year and is the brainchild of Melissa Davis, owner of Ruby Press, a “style-driven” public relations agency. Like so many Oaklanders, Davis moved here from somewhere else. She grew up in northern Virginia, worked as a fashion editor in New York, and then arrived in Oakland by way of San Francisco.
“I didn’t just move here because of the cheaper rent,” Davis says. “What I want readers to know about Oakland is how exciting it is. This city for so many years has had a bad rap, but everyone has had their ups and downs. More so than other surrounding cities, Oaklanders have a pride that really goes deep. And when The New York Times writes about the city several times a month, I think: something’s going on here....”
The intersection of Mandela Parkway and West Grand Avenue is usually just a spot I drive through on the way to another part of Oakland. Mandela is littered with huge, ancient warehouses that house the history of Oakland’s legendary makers. The warehouses were factories that turned raw steel into products that the whole world still uses.
American Steel Studios occupies two of those massive warehouses that today provides affordable space (and lots of it) for artists and entrepreneurs to create (70% of the Burning Man sculptures are created within those walls). But last Thursday, the space became a night-long epicenter of Oakland’s maker and artist community when it held the 12th annual BALLE Conference, bringing together an appropriately eclectic collection of entrepreneurs and local merchants from across the US.
Last week I was fortunate to join 600 local advocates, social enterprises, municipal leaders and small business owners as they came together in Oakland, California for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies – BALLE 2014 Conference. Over the inspiring three days we saw examples of disenfranchisement, complexity as well as stunning collaboration.
BALLE focuses solely around small and locally owned businesses as the main drivers for resilient economies – and for good reason. Businesses that are locally owned translate three times as much economic benefit back to the local economy. That economic benefit can come in the form of direct and indirect local job creation and wages, local procurement and local philanthropy. So, please do buy local!
However, it isn’t realistic for every product or service to be made locally – and since businesses that don’t accommodate local ownership are our current reality, I would like to consider what non-local businesses can do.
How might non-local or big business authentically and meaningfully contribute to the places in which they operate and to the people that live there?
Hundreds of Localists from all over North America gathered in Oakland, California, last week for the Business Alliance of Local Living Economies (BALLE) Conference. This conference is an annual gathering of individuals working to build strong and sustainable local economies in their own communities, and serves as a place to share ideas and build relationships with those working together towards a singular mission: Prosperity for All.
Prosperity for All was an underlying theme of the entire conference. Here in Arizona, we’re working towards building a strong local economy that allows any local business owner (or aspiring owner) to thrive, prosper, and contribute to their community. We met others from around the country that are working to do the same thing in their own communities. Collective impact and collaboration were also stressed throughout the conference as major themes, as our impact can be much greater when working together. We were encouraged to meet those around us and seek out unique partnerships.
The business of small business networking has traditionally been the role of Chambers of Commerce, and informal networks of clubs like Rotary and Lions Clubs’ that had supporting roles for sustaining the community’s causes. The chief function of these old-school social institutions often centered around networking (pizza parties and galas), and development events that connect community businesses with consumers.
But the expanding public consciousness around movements for civic sustainability, green tech and social enterprise have spawned a new way of looking a local business communities as ecosystems that should work cohesively, even selflessly for the community good. Last week, I attended the BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) conference, a network started 13 years ago that focuses on building socially conscious small business communities.
I'm just returning from the annual BALLE conference in Oakland. BALLE (the Business Association for Local Living Economies), is the fastest-growing network of sustainable and value-based enterprises in North America. It was founded some fourteen years ago, but the origins of this networked grassroots movement go back to the 1990s, when Judy Wicks, the founder of the White Dog Café in Philadelphia, decided to source and manage her café 100 percent locally and sustainably, using socially just practices. People loved it and it became a legendary success. But instead of turning her winning formula into a regional or national brand, chain, and eventually an empire, she decided to reinvest her profits in the health and well-being of her local community. She set up a foundation through which she taught everything she had learned to her competitors, using her money to help suppliers upgrade in order to serve all the cafés and restaurants in the region.
That shift from ego to eco, that is, from empire building (which is driving the Apples, Googles, and Facebooks of our age) to generating well-being for all, was the original spark that inspired the local living economy movement in many places across North America.
For the past half-century, cities throughout the nation, and especially in California, have competed fiercely with each other to attract big-box retailers and chain stores. Politicians, mindful of the sales tax revenues that these businesses can generate for local governments, have dangled a host of perks — including redevelopment funds, tax credits, and favorable zoning rules — to entice corporate giants to their cities. In recent years, however, cities like Berkeley and Oakland have begun to see what small, independent business owners have known all along — that big-box and chain stores whose primary mission is to maximize profits by paying low wages and selling cheap, environmentally unsustainable products harm local economies rather them help them, and make our cities less desirable places to live.
By contrast, communities that cultivate a true local economy based on small, independent businesses are experiencing a positive multiplier effect. Small, independent business owners typically live in the cities they serve and employ local workers. They also often pay living wages and increasingly are selling locally sourced and sustainably made goods. (That's especially true for the local farm-to-table restaurant movement.) The dollars they generate, as a result, often end up supporting other small, local businesses, while creating jobs and generating tax revenues for cities at the same time — rather than funding massive bonuses for CEOs or padding corporate profits sheltered in tax havens (like the Cayman Islands)...
The Wall Street Journal published an incredible story about local investment featuring many of our colleagues and partners including Local Economy Funders Circle member Sallie Calhoun, Jenny Kassan of Cutting Edge Capital, Stacy Mitchell from the Institute of Local Self Reliance, and Localist expert Michael Shuman – all leaders at the BALLE 2014 Conference.
There has been a growing buzz about what kind of economy we need in order to address wealth inequality, environmental unsustainability, and lack of democracy. Clearly, many desire something new and dramatically different.
Perhaps this buzz around what many supporters call a “New Economy” will grow into a powerful social movement—one that we desperately need to transform the current economy. But whether it does so or not will depend critically on its color (or lack thereof).
Fortunately, we don’t have to look hard to find examples of communities of color both now and in the past that have advanced economic principles of fairness, sustainability, and democracy.
In less than a week, more than 700 “Localists” are expected to gather in Oakland for the 12th annual BALLE Conference. Held at the historic Scottish Rite Center overlooking Lake Merritt — and various other locations across Oakland and beyond — the 2014 BALLE Conference: Prosperity for All is where you’ll find all the top thinkers and doers, movers and shakers that are proving that “Local Living Economies” can and are solving some of the toughest social and environmental problems of our time.
Each year, BALLE, which stands for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, partners with a local business network to co-host, and this year Sustainable Business Alliance (SBA) holds the distinction. SBA has deep ties to the Oakland community and plays a crucial role in promoting locally-owned, independent businesses in the East San Francisco Bay Area. SBA has built a network of business owners, community residents and local government officials who share a common vision: to create a local economy based on relationships, the environment and social equity for all citizens — both current and future. BALLE also calls Oakland home, having moved into the new Impact Hub Oakland in March.
Oakland is a vibrant, artistic city that lives and breathes BALLE’s core belief of Prosperity for All. But we don’t need to sell fellow Oaklanders on how great we are. So instead, we asked a New Yorker. Not just any New Yorker, but one who co-hosted last year’s BALLE Conference in Buffalo. We asked BALLE 2013-14 Local Economy Fellow Harper S.E. Bishop to tell us why we should all look forward to coming to Oakland for Prosperity for All:
I visited Oakland last year with my BALLE Fellow cohort. During one of our sessions, which was dedicated to community capital, Bill Thomason of E3 Innovation Fund spoke directly to the origins of our current economic system being rooted in racial inequality — tracing its history from slavery through reconstruction and all the way until present day.
That presentation remains one of the most impactful, through a transformative two-year journey with my friends and colleagues in the Localist movement. It is one of the aspects that I value immensely each time I set foot on Oakland soil. I have a sense that conversations like the ones that we had immediately following Bill’s aren’t rare occurrences. They take place hella often. And, they have been taking place for over half a century.
The revolutionary actions of the Black Panther Party, Brown Berets, and other radical organizations that fought — and continue the fight — against racism and bigotry, and for self-determination, are felt throughout the city and reside in the pride of its inhabitants.
It’s for these reasons, and many more, that when I think about the 12th Annual BALLE Conference being held in Oakland under the theme of “Prosperity for All,” I know that a more appropriate place does not exist, and that there are few as qualified to guide us through as nuanced a discussion as those who have continued to infuse people-making practices into this progressive bastion, including our gracious host Erin Kilmer-Neel, Director of the Sustainable Business Alliance, Nikki Silvestri, Executive Director of Green For All, and all the other incredible Localist leaders who will make Prosperity for All an incredible experience.
We couldn’t have said it any better. Check out the agenda for June 12 here, all the exciting parties and auxiliary events happening here, and register and see who else is coming here.