Reimagining a Fair & Local Economy

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Tompkins Weekly 10-28-13

By Jeff Piestrak

“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality …whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. over 45 years ago, these words seem more relevant than ever to the linked economic, environmental and social calamities we face today.  Our global economy and its effects on nearly every facet of our lives are increasingly seen as a root of these problems. With a warming climate and epic failures like the BP oil disaster and financial crisis, this system and its structures are looking catastrophically flawed and outdated. Making matters worse, the reach and influence of the too-big-to-fail juggernauts responsible for these crises extends deep into our systems of governance.
At the same time, a growing number of communities like our own are grappling with how to sustain basic civic infrastructure, including water, health, social services and educational systems. Put into place decades or centuries ago, they’re now crumbling and we find ourselves without adequate means to maintain or replace them.
We seem to be caught in a destructive feedback loop, unable to break free from a system that is continually reinforcing itself while our communities weaken. Some are wondering what alternatives might exist – how can we reinvent an economy that serves, not consumes us? Unseen by some, a “reimagining” is already occurring. It is rising from communities like our own, leveraging the power of We to solve intractable problems collectively.  Here is a quick overview of just a few signs of this emergent and hopeful movement.
Building Bridges is one group working on these challenges in Tompkins County, founded on a shared vision of a socially just and ecologically sound, sustainable local economy. Creating pathways and structures enabling a greater number of our community members to enter the ownership economy is one priority we’ve identified to achieve that goal.
Helping light the way, Marjorie Kelly’s new book Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution explores ownership structures she calls generative, creating the conditions for life for many generations to come. She identifies five essential patterns of ownership design that make these work: living purpose, rooted membership, mission-controlled governance, stakeholder finance and ethical networks. Cooperative enterprises are suggested as most commonly embodying many of these. Jessica Gordon Nembhard is also helping reveal the life-affirming power of coops, uncovering the often hidden history of African American involvement with cooperative ownership structures.
Greenstar Cooperative is actively working to support these generative values and a healthy Tompkins County food system, a particularly fertile area of economic reimagining. As a first step, Greenstar Community Projects has been hosting community gatherings to explore and discuss our food system, and identify what is needed to move it forward.
Many working to transform our food system seek greater transparency and choice, or “sovereignty” in the way food is produced, distributed and accessed. Tompkins County is an epicenter for this movement, with a burgeoning number of innovative initiatives. This includes Challenge Industries food hub, providing small and medium scale farmers access to wholesale markets. Another important link in our food system: Regional Access, a community-oriented locally-owned company founded on a vision of providing ecologically sustainable food grown in Upstate New York.
“Value chains” offer a useful way of reimagining supply chains, providing social, economic and environmental value to all involved with and impacted by those chains. Earlier this year Shanna Ratner came to Ithaca to share her work helping communities develop value chains that leverage and protect community capital for collective benefit.
A common theme at the recent Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) conference in Buffalo was shifting from an egosystem to an ecosystem.  Judy Wicks talked about business networks and relationships resembling the web of life. Otto Scharmer proposes new types of “innovation infrastructures” to build collective leadership capacities needed for such a transition.
In Tompkins County, Local First Ithaca (a BALLE Local Business Network) and the Sustainable Enterprise & Entrepreneur Network (SEEN) are helping create such critical infrastructure. The Natural Leaders Initiative and Building Bridges Community Educator Organizers (CEO) are working to support development of leadership and networking skills complimentary to these efforts.
Interested in helping create this new economy? Two upcoming events, the Finger Lakes Social Entrepreneurship Institute (11/15-17, w/Judy Wicks as a keynote) and Mann Library hosted Local Fair (11/21), offer great opportunities for learning about solutions based approaches to our economic challenges, showcasing examples from our community.
You can also join the Reimagining Our Infrastructure conversation on the Building Bridges blog: Additional info and links relating to this article are also there.
Though all views (and errors) are entirely his own, Jeff Piestrak is a member of Sustainable Tompkins and the Building Bridges and Greenstar Community Projects Feeding Our Future Planning Groups, and serves as an Outreach & Engagement Specialist at Cornell’s Mann Library.

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