Localism Matters


By Joe Romano, 

Marketing Manager

What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.

— Henry David Thoreau

Last Month, the 10th Annual Conference of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) convened in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Our local BALLE affiliate, Local First Ithaca, was there in force; our contingent included Local First Ithaca co-founder and GreenStar Council member Jan Rhodes Norman and myself, current Local First Ithaca President and GreenStar Marketing Manager. In total, seven people represented Ithaca, all of them GreenStar members.

Together, Local First Ithaca and GreenStar are perfectly aligned to take the concept of Localism to the next level in our community, and so we make an annual trip to another BALLE city like Grand Rapids. To see the programs they have enacted is an exciting enough prospect. The fact that they are hosting a four-day conference with Localism leaders from around the globe, sharing their ideas on living local, makes it a game-changing event. Add a day trip to Detroit to count the victories of the people of that once-great and soon-to-be-great-again city, and it becomes an epic adventure in Localism.

But what is Localism? What does it mean? Obviously it means buying local, so why the –ism?


The reason is that Localism, like cooperation, is guided by principles. They are as follows:

Ownership Matters

Just as it does to cooperators, ownership matters to Localists. When you live in the community where your business decisions are felt, you have the understanding to make better decisions. When owners establish businesses in the communities in which they live, they can figure out how to make their businesses more interdependent. For example, on the first day of the conference there was a tour of furniture manufacturers Herman Miller and Haworth, both of which grew up in this community to be world players. It is their sense of community, though, that leads them to run zero-waste, zero-landfill businesses and to work so closely with the local scrap metal recycling yard to create closed-loop recycling, actually reusing and selling materials that would normally have been waste for other manufacturers.

We also heard from Maggie Anderson, designer of the Empowerment Experiment and author of Our Black Year, the book that outlined her experiment: to shop for one year exclusively at Black-owned businesses. While segregation was still in place in America, there were many strong, thriving Black businesses that were supported by the Black community. When integration began, it left the field open for predatory business owners to come into Black neighborhoods and it opened the way for Black consumers to shop elsewhere. So now there is only one Black owned supermarket in all of Chicago and fewer than fifteen in the entire nation. But though the numbers are small, the Anderson family stuck by their pledge to shop solely at Black-owned businesses, calling ahead to check on ownership, leaving stores when misinformed, but ultimately showing that, with commitment, it could be done. More importantly, Anderson underlined that just a small shift in habits would support these businesses, many of whom were forced to close during that year. She also showed how even a small shift by members of the community toward supporting Black-owned businesses would not only support them, but would encourage other Black entrepreneurs to start businesses of their own.

Place Matters

The whole time that we were in Grand Rapids, we wondered about the grand rapids that had been there in years gone by. The mighty forests that made up this place enabled a logging industry to grow there, one that used the river to transport the lumber down to the city where it would be milled and made into furniture. To this day, furniture is the predominant industry of this place.

Supply chain decisions based on local resources — timber, energy, vegetables, finance, whatever it may be — engender a natural respect for the environmental and human resources of that place.

So the Green Garage, a co-working space in Detroit, decided to find out what local materials were available and only then made up their design, one that best took advantage of those local resources.

Opportunity Matters

We're all better off when we're all better off. That's why Cascade Engineering, a plastics manufacturer in Grand Rapids, made the commitment to creating opportunities for everyone, which eventually led them to create a program called Welfare to Career. First they trained their existing staff to understand the different resources, needs and experiences that many welfare recipients have. Then they actively began to recruit workers from the welfare rolls offering not only jobs, but an opportunity to work up in the business to management positions.

We heard from Malik Yakini, from the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Malik spoke, as he did when he spoke at GreenStar Community Project's Food Justice Summit last year, about how the abandonment of Detroit by industry and affluent white people led to crisis, but created the opportunity of cheap available land, which in turn led to the empowerment of the Black community there through the chance to farm their own healthy food.

We visited the incredible D-Town Farms and the BrightMoor Community Gardens and could feel the power of the people who have turned urban blight into the largest collection of urban farms in the country. We heard how The SOURCE and The Greening of Detroit support inner-city entrepreneurs with business education and green jobs training and how Rising Tide Capital provides access to financing in underserved communities.

Nature Matters

All wealth comes from nature; if we don't respect the natural boundaries and local habitats as well as the renewal rates of native species, we will not have wealth or health for our own species going forward. We visited businesses and facilities that have contributed to and benefited from an innovative public sector/nonprofit partnership — myGRCITYpoints — which is a hugely successful, all-local, closed-loop recycling program available to all city of Grand Rapids residents. We were taken on a sustainable farm-to-fork tour. We saw how businesses as diverse as Brothers Drake Meadery and PADNOS Scrap Metal recognize that localization of the supply chain reduces their impact on the environment.

Measure What Matters

The recognition that triple-bottom-line businesses need to not only measure their profits, but must also develop ways to measure our impact on people and on the planet, was clear. So the discussion at a seminar on BALLE's mission to create a comprehensive data set to measure and quantify the impact of strengthening a local economy took into account the measure of happiness on farms, communities and businesses we visited, and the positive impact our Localism movement is having on our planet. We must learn to measure all three outcomes in any enterprise we undertake.

Relationships Matter Most

Only through cooperation will this Localist movement succeed. The message brought by Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs was one of the most powerful in that regard. She offered the perspective that the lessons learned in the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar movement, the women's movement and other social activist movements are that we must stop resisting the "other" and use the prism of quantum mechanics to help us realize that we are all connected and in relationship. She quoted Einstein: "A new evolutionary level is emerging in which a complex, unfragmented perception ... is the foundation of our thinking, feeling, and acting."

She quoted Margaret Wheatley: "From a Newtonian perspective our efforts often seem too small, and we doubt that our actions will contribute incrementally to large-scale change ... but a quantum view explains the success of small efforts quite differently. Acting locally allows us to be inside the movement and flow of the system ... We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. I have learned that in this exquisitely connected world, it's never a question of 'critical mass.' It's always about critical connections."

So you can see that not only is the Localist movement aligned with the spirit of Ithaca, it is firmly aligned with the mission and principles of our co-op. Next year the conference will be in nearby Buffalo, NY. The gathering will be so close that, not only will many Ithacans be able to attend, but Local First Ithaca is already lobbying for a day trip here like the one we took to Detroit this year. Stay Local and stay tuned for further developments in your local Localist movement.

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