BALLE: Local Heart and Soul
I wasn’t prepared for the emotion. I didn’t realize that when people got together to talk about supporting and growing local businesses, how much they would care. When the speakers gave the audience members a glimpse into their communities, we could see that they are fighting for their homes, their friends and neighbors, their neighborhoods and a sense of belonging. They are teaching their children to stay, connect and rebuild, instead of leaving for more prosperous cities. But even after seeing all that, I didn’t expect the tears.
It was my first time attending a BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) conference, and it was held in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Most of the conferences I have been to were about business products or services. No one cries at those. Businesses outline and promote their tools, and many can have great impact on customers and even communities (like the recent IBM PULSE2012 conference I attended), but you felt like you are viewing these products from a mile-high, bird’s eye view, whereas the BALLE stories put your boots on the ground and you looked these community members in the eye. You felt their despair when their communities were abandoned and devalued when large employers folded or left town, and cheered when they described how a few people led the way in revitalizing their small corner of town, and how that feeling, that inspiration spread. Since the setting was my home, I felt inspired, too.
At a time when most are championing a sharing economy vs. consumerism, one of the themes at BALLE was ownership. Much of the discussion revolved around ownership of local businesses, ownership of your own career, ownership of your destiny and its place in your community.
We hear a lot about how famously sustainable communities like Austin or San Francisco are on the cutting edge of recycling and reuse and are nationally patted on the back in the media. Their accomplishments are impressive, their residents conscious and conscientous and their sustainable attitude is assumed. But, as Robin Rather pointed out at SXSW Eco, you don’t hear stories about the other communities who really need the help – those whose struggles aren’t glamorous or in the news and usually only matter to their own residents. The most impressive stories are those where communities that are not steeped in a progressive, sustainable culture manage to turn not only their economies around, but their culture and way of thinking.
Cities that lie in the often-mentioned Rust Belt are just such towns. For many generations these cities relied on manufacturing and other industries that have not traditionally been known as sustainable, and when those companies and jobs dried up, these communities were left to pick up the pieces and pave an entirely new and unfamiliar path. In places where devastation reigned and sustainability was a foreign idea, real community bloomed.