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Michelle Long: Local Living Economies

--Bela Shah, on Jun 8, 2014

Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of Business and the author of “Givers and Takers”, divides people into three categories: People are either givers, takers, or they respond to the other. He also says because most people are waiting to see, it takes just one of us to give first, to love first, and that can change the whole culture.

What does it take to bring this mentality into the mainstream conversation? Michelle Long, the Executive director of Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), works to create local economies through entrepreneurs that learn how to operate from a space of interconnectedness.  On our Global Awakin Call, Michelle shared insightful research, case studies, and personal experiences around this question.

BALLE is a network of 50,000 community entrepreneurs that have come together to build a local economy; it’s a network of business owners who care about each other and the land where they live and are trying to re-envision the economy for all people and the natural world.

Illustrating Adam Grant’s quote, it all began through one individual that wanted to give. A woman named Judy Wicks, who had a little restaurant called White Dog Café in Pennsylvania, started BALLE. It began with her decision to make better choices for her restaurant as our world was becoming more globalized.  Judy said, ”I would like to serve local food. I want to know where and how it was grown and how the animals were raised, whether they were tortured or cared for. I want to know where the power comes from that runs my restaurant.”

Giving it all away
Judy’s restaurant eventually became the most socially responsible in the country and that was 25 years ago. She admits that she did have this moment where she thought to herself,

“Wow, I am the most socially responsible restaurant owner in the country, everyone will choose me!” Then luckily, a few minutes later, she said to herself, “Wait a minute, what difference can I actually make with my one little restaurant. I need to show other people how to do what I’ve done. I need to hire people and go pay them to teach my competitors what I’m doing.”

Judy admitted her fear that if she showed her competitors what she was doing, they would take over. But the courage of her heart was stronger. She realized that she loved the land, she loved the animals, and she loved the people. So she knocked on her competitor’s doors to offer them her trade secrets, and in the end, her heart helped everyone to win. Eventually, she built a whole network of food businesses and this expanded to many other fields until BALLE was established.

“By giving it all away, Judy attracted more attention and more support and today everything still thrives for her.”

“For the last 15 years, BALLE has focused on how to make a product greener and more local, but now we’re also focusing on this question: How do we pay attention to the space from which we’re operating?”  

 In the last two years, Michelle has started to see more people in academia, business, government, and even finance start to say things like, “Our global economic system requires new leadership capacity.” For example, John Fullerton, founder and President of the Capital Institute, wrote a response piece to a cover story of the Economist, “Welcome to the Anthropocene”. His response was, “There is of course only one logical response. We are all in it together and we have to act that way.”

So just as Judy realized that she had to provide a living wage to her workers and she had to share her secrets for the betterment of everyone and everything in our world.

The Inner Journey
For Michelle, it all started when a friend and colleague, who is also a professor at MIT, invited her to participate in a global well being lab in Bhutan. He invited people who influence large networks from various parts of the world to come together.

While there, Michelle experienced something very powerful when everyone went to Tigers’ Nest where people had been meditating for hundreds of years. She felt a center of gravity where people were holding something, holding our humanity. Michelle was with one of the lamas that was chanting and she had an overwhelming desire to put her forehead on the floor and when she did, tears just started streaming from her eyes. She had an image of a large picnic blanket and monks were trying to hold down the corners and the blanket was holding down our capacity to feel compassion, empathy, and the deepest aspects of our humanity. The monks were holding it down so that it didn’t float away.

Before, Michelle thought that people that go away to spend their lives meditating were doing this for their personal journey and not for all of our personal journeys.

“Because of that experience, I felt safe to give it all away and I knew that I would be ok. I had on a necklace that was important to me and I thought, “Well not this,” and than I thought, “Well of course this.” And I believe that is the point, to give it all away and then the next day to give it away and then the next.”

“In Bhutan I also met the person who created the Gross National Happiness (GNH) framework. He said, “New systems conditions require new leadership capacities, the ability to feel and act from interconnectedness. That ability can be cultivated by developing knowledge of altruism, courage and suffering. For me it’s about spreading those practices that can awaken the hearts of entrepreneurs.”


Michelle has a picture on her wall that relates to her favorite quote by Hafiz. It’s a picture of a big fish sitting on the back of a camel with a hot sun overhead and the fish is just sitting there for the ride. Hafiz said, “First, the fish needs to say, something ain’t right about this camel ride and I’m feeling so damn thirsty.” That is the call of action for Michelle.

“Everyone knows it’s not working. They are just riding along on this camel under the hot sun in our economy, miserable with no sense of belonging, no sense of purpose or connection. We’re getting results that nobody wants, we’re destroying the Earth for our children and it’s devastating. So first we have to wake up. We are not meant to be in service to the economy, the economy is meant to be in service to us. So if we were meant to live from that place, what would we do differently and what’s standing in our way?”

Gross Corporate Happiness
The Greater Good Science Center out of UC Berkeley is doing new research into what actually makes us well and what actually makes us happy. What they’ve found are four categories in which people are well.

“According to their research, people are well when we feel deeply connected to a purpose and to our deeper, higher selves. People are well when we feel connected to each other. People are well when we feel connected to the natural world. And people are well when we’ve been generous with each other.“

Michelle recently met a CEO in Germany who is taking the GNH framework and applying it to companies in Germany. He calls it Gross Corporate Happiness and used this GCH framework in three companies that he turned around. He came into these companies that were almost out of cash and the people that were still working there didn’t believe in themselves or the company.

In one of these companies, there was only 6 weeks worth of cash left. He took one week of that and used it to host a party or celebration for all of the employees that were there and he asked all the management to serve them, to do their best to care for them, and to show their love and respect to the employees. From there he led all of the employees into some processes to tap into their personal purpose. Why are you here? What is it that you believe we do best and could do best that could be of service to the world through this business? In each case, he turned around those companies. They would look at what they were doing and eliminate contracts that weren’t of most service to the world.

If what they were doing wasn’t adding value and it wasn’t of higher service, then they eliminated that because GNH asks first, “Is my product or service fundamentally or inherently of value and if it’s not, how can we change the product?” Second, GNH asks, “How much profit is enough for the owners and what do we do with the rest to maximize well being for the most people?”

GNH recognizes that inner transformation was integral for wrestling with these questions. Are you really coming from a place where you want to maximize wellbeing for the world? I know other companies, such as Armonia, that are radically thinking, “How can we invest in the people that are making the products and services? How do we know that people are able to innovate with whatever comes their way over these next few decades? How are we helping the leaders of these companies to become more generous themselves?”

Meeting people where they’re at
If our economy is meant to be in service to us, what do those values look like that are universal to all of us?

BALLE has 6 principles: First, ownership matters, second, place matters, third, nature matters, fourth, opportunity matters, fifth, we should measure what matters, and sixth, relationships matter most.

Ownership matters: On the one hand you can say that ownership of anything is wrong, but the way the economy is set up, very few people are benefiting from the assets of production. Today in the U.S. the number one employer of African American people are African American business owners and yet we have had systemic, historical oppression that means the African American population has had very little wealth accrued so very little wealth to start businesses with. There are three African-American owned grocery stores in the entire country so it’s our responsibility to assure that ownership is more broadly distributed.

In fact, the Harvard Business Review and the Economic Development Quarterly are saying that higher density and diversity of locally owned businesses in any community leads to more jobs and more wealth for more people.

Place matters because we are humans so operating at a human scale allow us to see the impact of our decisions. Opportunity matters because we need to align workers and businesses. For example, some of the people that BALLE works with that provide technical assistance to businesses have the business owners sign contracts that say, “As you grow and expand you will sacrifice profitability if it gets in the way of your being able to provide good jobs with real career paths and benefits. You will not take all the profits for yourself. We’re not going to help you grow your business in that way.”

Nature matters: BALLE has many businesses that it works with that are localizing their supply chains. For example, in North Carolina, they recognize that apparel can travel thousands of miles before it ends up on your body. They have started to revitalize the cotton growing and the ginning facilities around them and now they only travel 150 miles for the environment and the health of the local economy.

Relationships matter. As Michelle quoted before from the Greater Good Science Center, true wellbeing and the things that make us happy are connecting deeply within, to each other, and to the natural world. These are all local acts by their very nature. We are social creatures and nobody can do it alone so relationships matter most, we’re better together.

Putting it into practice: What can you do?
This comes to the inner work. Michelle put forth a series of questions that you can ask yourself:
1) If you’re showing up from a place of love first, how would you act differently in your transactions and in your economic life?

2) How are you conscious of where and whom you’re buying from? If you’re in the position to be an entrepreneur or if you have a business, how are you creating and changing what your business is?

3) How can you convene and bring together businesses in your place to think about how we can help each other and how we can localize our supply chain?

4) In every community, we need to promote the idea that this matters. We need to support entrepreneurs who have the greater good as their goal because the system is not currently set up that way. So if you run an incubator for local businesses, with these values you can ask, “How am I sourcing? What practices am I deploying inside of my business? How am I measuring what I do differently? Where does my financing come from?

5) You can look at, “Where does your money go? Are you investing in Wall Street, in anonymous fast moving funds around the world so you don’t know the impact of your choices? Where can you invest instead?

6) How are you building information and knowledge sharing between businesses? There are myriad ways depending on the position you have in the economy and what you would like to do with the economy. Are you an investor? Are you a purchaser? Are you a business owner? Could you be an entrepreneur? Could you be a convener?

“It really just takes all of us working on ourselves and really perceiving an interconnected world and stepping forward and joining together to make that come true because together we can certainly perceive a dangerous, divided world and that would come true as well.”