Bringing It Home conference encourages community business ownership

EXPLORING THE OPTIONS: Following a series of varying financial education seminars, author, educator and activist Jessica Gordon Nembhard will deliver the keynote speech on cooperative economics at this year's Bringing It Home conference.

If you want to bring home the bacon, first you’ll need to bring home the tools to succeed, say the organizers of the Bringing It Home conference. And that applies to all of us, whether we’re trying to dig our way out of personal debt or start a million-dollar business.

Accordingly, this year’s conference is broadly aimed at all of us, particularly those who sometimes feel left out of the standard entrepreneurial model. And to ensure the conference is accessible to all, organizers say, the event is free.

This year’s conference will be held Tuesday, March 15, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Last year’s inaugural Bringing It Home conference was more tightly focused on the importance of buying local goods and building local businesses. This year, organizers decided to expand the event’s reach to appeal to the general public.

Those attending will have four tracks to choose from — and will be able to switch tracks as the day progresses.

Track one: Financial literacy — Over three separate sessions, attendees will learn about credit practices, how to avoid predatory loans, how to budget and save money, plus the ins and outs of buying a car.

Track two: Building wealth — Attendees will learn how to buy a home (and prepare to buy one), and how to start and finance a business.

Track three: Cooperative business models — These sessions address how to start a cooperative business and/or convert an existing business to the co-op model. Attendees will also hear real-world stories about co-ops in action. The conference’s focus on co-ops is evidenced by its choice of keynote speaker Jessica Gordon Nembhard, a noted co-op authority.

Track four: The community — These sessions will look at different players in local economic development: youths, faith institutions and nonprofits.

“I think this conference offers something for everyone,” says conference organizer Jane Hatley and western regional director at Self-Help Credit Union. “Building wealth for everyone — no matter where you are in that journey — is important, because really we’re all in this together. We all bear a responsibility for helping our local economy, [for] knowing that you’re part of that local economy and seeing yourself as a member of that local economy — [which] hasn’t always been the case for some of our under-served population. To know, ‘I can do this because here are some practical steps. Here is someone who has also done this. I can see this is possible.’ ”

QUIRKY YET QUALIFIED: “How can we all work together to make this place stronger?” asks Jane Hartley, the animated organizer behind Asheville's Bringing it Home economic conference. Armed with decades of business experience and a stack of diplomas, Hatley hopes to get others as "jazzed up" on local economies as she is, come event day.
QUIRKY YET QUALIFIED: “How can we all work together to make this place stronger?” asks Jane Hartley, the animated organizer behind Asheville’s Bringing it Home economic conference. Armed with decades of business experience and a stack of diplomas, Hatley hopes to get others as “jazzed up” on local economies as she is, come event day.

Keynote speaker Nembhard has made a career of studying collectives and their role in societal change. She is a professor at City University of New York, an author and a community activist. Hatley calls her “an amazing national figure in the world of co-ops.” Nembhard is author of several books, including Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, and was recently nominated to the Cooperative Hall of Fame. “We’re just really honored to have her here. She’s such a vibrant speaker,” Hatley says.

Hatley is not alone in her enthusiasm about the Nembhard appearance. “I still can’t believe she’s coming,” echoes Franzi Charen, owner of Hip Replacements boutique, founder of Asheville Grown Business Alliance and board member of the Bringing It Home conference. “She’s just so inspirational. If you don’t go to anything else, please, just come and hear her speak.”

Nembhard’s expertise on cooperative economics has garnered international attention — which makes her Asheville appearance all the more exciting, Hatley notes.

Cooperative businesses “broaden the opportunities for prosperity by allowing community members to own their own business and control them democratically,” Nembhard told Xpress.

One of Nembhard’s focuses has been how black communities have used cooperative business models for generations — “for both economic survival and economic independence as a platform to move forward,” she says.

“Cooperatives are owned by people who come together to create a business because there’s a lack of a certain kind of service in their community,” she explains. “But the model is also about democratic participation and broad ownership. In a stock company, if you own 10 shares of stock and I own 100, I can outvote you every time when making major company decisions. My money counts more than yours because you have less. In a co-op, even if somebody invests more, you only have one vote per member. It allows all the members to have a voice — all decisions to be made democratically — to satisfy this need in the community and create a business where something is lacking.”

Hatley notes that this approach has much to offer any community trying to build wealth in new ways.

The entire event is free — the information sessions, the networking cafe with local service providers, the speech — though an optional $20 tour through the Eagle Street neighborhood will be offered to hear an alternative side of Asheville’s history.

“[The conference] can’t do everything, but it can give people a reference for what is out there,” Hatley says. “Obviously, things aren’t working that well in our economy. The average white family has 12 times the average wealth of an African-American or Hispanic family. In North Carolina, we have a huge problem with child hunger — Greensboro has the highest level of child hunger in the country. What are we doing? What we are doing now is not working.

“We can all come together as a community and think of some other model or, if nothing else, come together and talk about it and get to know each other better,” she continues. “We’re just giving people some practical tools, providing them the opportunity to meet [people who] might be able to help them and who they may have not known were there — to have it be a coming-together of all the different levels of economy. Not just for low-income folks — for everyone — to kind of fill some gaps in terms of what they’re struggling with or where they are in their own journey to building wealth. We can all learn about [these options] together and try to see if we can make something work here.”

Child care services, free parking and transportation are being offered at Mount Zion Baptist Church — and free breakfast and lunch are available at 8:30 a.m. and around noon, respectively. “It’s a great thing that we can offer [this conference] for free, and I’m happy about that and I’m happy that we can offer things like childcare and transportation at the event. But sometimes people don’t value stuff if its offered for free,” Hatley observes. She says she hopes that people will use the opportunity to learn and take note that the event is offered for free in order to make these resources available to all Ashevilleans.

“It’s just something that we believe strongly in,” Charen explains. “We really love to focus on democratizing ownership. That’s one of the key pieces that we feel can bring economic justice to a community and can help people in our community gain equity — and help facilitate that idea getting out there.

“This year we’re specifically focusing on resources to build wealth,” she continues, not just for persons wanting to build a business, but also for those focused on the basics: to save money, buy a car, buy a house. At the conference, Charen notes, “People can take advantage of those resources all in one space and by having channels open up. We’re hoping people feel a lot freer to learn and, as a group, share with people with similar desires to learn, [to] ask questions, find out who to go to and where the resources are in our community. When they connect with those people, they feel more free to utilize those resources.”

And if you’re on the fence, wondering, “Is this conference relevant to me?” Charen jokes that free food always brings in a crowd. “What’s not to love?” she says, laughing. “But I think that our ability to provide this free choice for our community — and not just the lunch — is phenomenal. It’s essentially a think-tank where folks are going to have so much experience. People don’t have to stay for the whole day; they can pick and choose what they attend. We really wanted to try to reach as many folks as possible and as broad an audience as possible. I’m hoping, if nothing else, people bump elbows and get inspired,” Charen says.

For more information on the Bringing It Home conference, visit bringingithomewnc.org or check out the schedule in the sidebar.

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About Hayley Benton
Current freelance journalist and artist. Former culture/entertainment reporter at the Asheville Citizen-Times and former news reporter at Mountain Xpress. Also a coffee drinker, bad photographer, teller of stupid jokes and maker-upper of words. I can be reached at hayleyebenton [at] gmail.com. Follow me @HayleyTweeet

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