The Power of Place: Context, History, and Culture in Local Economy Work

by Andrew Crosson

The 2018 Local Economy Fellowship cohort convened for the second time in July 2018 in the powerful land of Northern New Mexico. As former Local Economy Fellow and current BALLE Network Weaver Steve Dubb shared in his summary of the first Fellowship immersion, the group focused their initial time together on building trust and relationships – the underlying foundation for any meaningful change effort. I came to the July retreat new to this cohort, and was struck by the strength of the group’s collective identity after just one week together back in April.

The 2018 Fellows, while predominantly rural in their locations and focus, are incredibly diverse in their backgrounds and work (for more detail on the 2018 Fellows, see here). Yet, the thoughtful foundation of relationship-building laid in the first immersion allowed us to dive right into hard conversations about our work, while also deepening connections with each other. I (and I’m not alone in this) was also struck by the power of the place we were in – Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico – and how that context permeated our time together.

“When we learn about a new place, it helps us think differently about our own place” – Laura Zabel

The week started with a deep and intentional grounding in the location for the immersion. Fellows arrived early to spend the afternoon in a policy conversation with some of New Mexico’s progressive movers and shakers, organized by former Fellow and current Weaver Eric Griego.  

Once informed on the local policy context, Fellows got their first taste (literally) of the region’s cultural heritage – a traditional Matanza co-organized by New Mexico’s own BALLE Fellow Sarah Wentzel-Fisher, Fellow Mike Roque from just over the border in Colorado, and Moises Gonzales, a professor, researcher, and organizer at Cañon de Carnué Land Grant. Moises shared the history of land grants in New Mexico, including the heroic efforts of community members to recover and retain community control over land and water resources through various waves of colonization.

Later, we went outside to enjoy the land and were joined by a dozen or more guests involved in economic development in the region. We celebrated and connected over delicious food, including a whole roasted pig raised by a local farmer, veggies donated by other area farmers, and ice cream homemade by Sarah with peaches from her tree. Fellows departed with a feeling of fullness of body, spirit, and mind from the gifts we’d been offered. From there, we transitioned to four days of group work to deepen our shared understanding of this cohort, and learning visits to deepen our shared understanding of Northern New Mexico.

“We are all indigenous on this planet” – Roxanne Swentzell

As a primarily rural cohort, it is no surprise that a powerful theme emerged around the importance of foodways, place, and culture in local economy work. On one of our learning visits in the surrounding community, Pueblo artist and foodways activist Roxanne Swentzell shared her work to reclaim indigenous foodways, preserve heirloom crop seeds and explore the health benefits of a return to traditional diets. Humans are just like any other species, she reminded us – our genes evolve through generations as we adapt to the conditions that surround us. Paying attention to our place, to traditional ways of growing, cooking and eating food, has major implications for our land, health, culture, and economy.

BALLE Fellows immediately drew connections to their own work, from seed saving in Bert’s Nisg̱a’a Lisims nation in British Columbia, to Mai’s efforts to revive traditional Vietnamese crops and cooking styles, to Brennan’s Georgia community rediscovering traditional (and healthy) African recipes for southern crops, to my own colleagues who are working to preserve and celebrate centuries of diverse mountain foodway traditions through the Appalachian Food Summit.

“When you have these industries in your communities, it’s a form of economic slavery” – Beata Tsosie-Pena, Tewa Women United

We  also learned that the Pueblo people of Northern New Mexico, like indigenous and land-based people all over North America and beyond, face an ongoing struggle for economic self-determination. We heard the story of a community that has become captive to a dominant industry, creating a mono-economy that cripples economic diversity, opportunity, and inclusivity.  Many of these captor industries – military bases, coal mines, prisons, big energy, government complexes, and more – suffocate real economic opportunity even as they provide the primary source of jobs and tax revenue. Cyclical poverty and disinvestment exist a short drive away from incredible wealth and resources.

In Northern New Mexico, as in Appalachia or the Rust Belt or countless other regions, we need a just transition away from these industries – a transition that creates sustainable and wealth-building jobs, that empowers local ownership, and that builds on our communities’ strengths and identity, rather than reinforcing a narrative of poverty or disfunction.

This visit reminded us of the incredible wisdom and knowledge of land-based people who have so much to offer from their traditions of living in place, even as their contributions are not acknowledged or respected by the modern systems of law, land rights, scientific research, technology, or economic development.

Art’s Economic Ripples; Creating a Model Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Santa Fe is famous for its arts and artists, but the industry establishment hasn’t felt inclusive to many aspiring artists and creatives. We experienced a guided tour and discussion with some of the founders of Meow Wolf, a mold-breaking artistic enterprise and culture hub with over 100 worker-owners. In addition to providing a space where marginalized artists can find belonging and opportunity, Meow Wolf has paid close attention to the socioeconomic ripples they’ve created in their community and is now seen as a model for cultural and economic revitalization.

Fellows also engaged with the City of Santa Fe’s plan to develop a “model entrepreneurial ecosystem,”  sharing advice, concerns, and cautions based on the incredible array of expertise within the group. Recommendations for inclusive economic development strategies included things like cooperatives and collective ownership structures, agricultural technology that actually supports smallholder farms, microlending and democratized finance, a focus on building wealth among the most vulnerable, and, above all, learning from the lessons of the past.

This crowdsourced brainstorming session left me giddy with the possibilities offered by such a deep and varied body of knowledge – this BALLE Fellows cohort has the brainpower, insight, and experience to tackle problems and opportunities at the largest scale.

“After this immersion, I see the collaboration growing tremendously.” – Stephanie Gutierrez

With all these conversations and learnings swirling in our collective mind, the time that fellows spent together was rich and exciting. Fellows continued to deepen their connections with each other through relationship-building activities and explorations of the limiting beliefs that hold each of us back from our full potential. They led many of their own conversations, including in-depth workshops on fundraising for change efforts and inviting partnering with Native Communities. We experienced the rich wisdom of the peer group through “council” sessions focused on a challenge or decision faced by an individual Fellow.

As New Mexico resident and Fellow Sarah Wentzel-Fisher reflected, “I appreciated how both facilitation and subject matter of our second immersion have moved towards using our real world work as content to explore theory and personal/emotional experience.”

Fellow-led open space groups delved into some weighty questions like: What does it mean to decolonize economic development strategies in native communities? What do fair and positive public-private partnership look like? How can we disrupt the racial wealth gap through working with business, land, and culture? What are creative financing options for major facilities purchasing? And, what are acquisition and governance strategies that increase land security for farmers of color? 

Needless to say, none of these complex questions or historically rooted systems of inequality were resolved during our time in Santa Fe. Yet, there was a powerful sense that we were moving towards something important, together.

As the Fellows returned to their own lives, work, and places, I know we are each carrying a piece of New Mexico, and of each other, home with us. I can’t wait to see how this group continues to grow, evolve, and achieve together, starting with the BALLE Shift Capital Summit in November. Until then, onward!


Andrew Crosson is a 2018-19 Network Weaver and was a member of the 2016-17 Local Economy Fellowship. He is Director of Regional Initiatives at Rural Support Partners, where he works to support a just and sustainable economic transition in Appalachia.