“Let’s rethink the economy,” urged Ed Whitfield of the Greensboro-based Fund for Democratic Communities, the keynote speaker at Asheville’s inaugural Bringing It Home conference. His clarion call — simple in conception, but challenging to execute — espoused a sense of shared responsibility that seemed to permeate every interaction during the March 18 event, manifesting in candid panel discussions, probing question-and-answer sessions and impassioned side conversations as some 192 individuals brainstormed the best routes to collective prosperity.
“The event was just better than I ever dreamed,” said event organizer Jane Hatley, the Self-Help Credit Union’s regional director for Western North Carolina. “People said it made them think about things differently, although I wish we could have spent more time talking about what practical things they can do to help their local economy. Maybe that can be the focus next year!”
Flashing light bulbs
Perhaps not surprisingly, topics of discussion mirrored the diverse mix of folks who came together for the daylong event at A-B Tech’s Enka campus: small-business owners, investors, employees and assorted individuals with an interest in collective prosperity. Seven locally focused panels covered wide-ranging themes: sucesses, failures and lessons learned; self-sustaining food-chain strategies; opportunities for renewed fiber and textile industries; innovative models; sources of capital; and regional partnerships. In the process, each of the dozens of speakers had a brief opportunity to raise eyebrows.
And as community members pondered various weighty issues — the state’s lack of a comprehensive legal framework for cooperatives, food deserts in rural versus urban settings, the challenges of motivating youth to return to their hometown bringing valuable life skills, and how to gain trust as a minority contractor — Hatley’s goal of “making light bulbs go off” certainly appeared to have been realized.
“While the issue of the local economy is no doubt important, the recognition that our local economy is inextricably linked to the national economy was not lost on conference participants,” reflected HandMade in America founder Becky Anderson.
And Glenn Cox, HandMade’s current executive director, noted, “Again and again, I heard from others how their goals are to assist their neighbors, and the shared recognition that helping others ultimately helps everyone.”
Carol Peppe Hewitt of Slow Money NC and Community Sourced Capital stared straight at her audience, declaring, “I’m looking at all the money I need right now: I have my eye on your money.” Advocating wide-open dialogue about often-touchy financial situations, she instructed listeners to take the initiative and ask trusted business owners whether they need a loan. Too often, she noted, these entrepreneurs are reticent or don’t know whom to ask for the help they need. Peer-to-peer loans, the money matchmaker maintained, are a viable option.
Several attendees expressed an appreciation for the panelists’ diversity, reflecting a collective desire to hear from more of what Date My City founder Sheneika Smith called “marginalized voices in the community.” For her part, Hatley said she’d like to assemble an even more eclectic group next year.
Some, however, felt the conversation was incomplete.
“This conference is about how to bring it home and keep it local,” said Elaine Beattie, who chairs A-B Tech’s business administration department. “We cannot do that and not talk about profit. Poverty is a major issue here in North Carolina.”
Beattie also said the community’s strong cohesion can unintentionally foster a kind of us-them mentality. Calling for a broader definition of “local,” she pointed out that many newcomers to the area are deeply committed to building a life and career in Asheville, and we shouldn’t exclude them or automatically shun franchises.
But Franzi Charen, founder of the Asheville Grown Business Alliance, stressed the importance of maintaining that distinction. “Maybe the elephant in the room is capitalism,” she said passionately, adding that small, independent businesses are what keep Asheville from merely being “Anywhere, USA.”
Jennifer Flynn, chief operating officer of Accelerating Appalachia and brand manager of Blue Ridge Naturally, talked about the value of regional partners and doing business with local firms. “Some companies are still not making efforts to localize their supply chains,” she lamented.
Just Economics, an Asheville-based nonprofit, encourages local employers to pay their workers at least $12.50 per hour (without employer-provided health insurance) or $11 per hour (with benefits). During a panel on local economic innovation, Mark Hebbard, the program’s certification coordinator, explained how his team reverse-engineers businesses’ profit formula, starting with the premise that employees working 40 hours a week deserve to be able to cover their basic needs. Paying a living wage, the nonprofit maintains, also helps businesses by reducing employee turnover.
“But it’s not just wage that matters,” responded Ravi Gaikwad, a business coach at Mountain BizWorks. “Once employees start participating in the ownership of the company, it gets harder for them to leave and go to another employer. They may be paid a lower wage, but they’ll be doing so many other things that make the company successful.”
Hebbard, however, said, “You pay more, you get more,” though he agreed that wages are only one important part of a larger solution.
Meanwhile, Steve Breckheimer, a Hendersonville Community Co-op board member, felt that “The whole cooperative business model needed more time on the program. I really don’t think most people understand how co-ops work and how powerful they can be economically and in building connections within communities.” On the plus side, however, Breckheimer said he was pleased to have received information on “how our co-op can help connect farmers and potential farmers with training, land and financing.”
Next year’s conference will feature fewer panelists, says Hatley, so that each will allow more time to facilitate in-depth discussions.
Challenging core beliefs
Despite the conference’s local focus, Ed Whitfield offered a broader prescription for a new economy. But after reciting the adage “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime,” he went on to challenge it, quickly winning the crowd’s full attention. Even for a skilled angler, said Whitfield, a privately held pond “wouldn’t provide a single fish sandwich.” Unequal access to means of production, rather than low-income individuals’ indolence, is one of the greatest barriers to progress, he argued.
“American history is ugly,” continued Whitfield, noting that inherited money can often be traced back to the slave trade. The sale of land, the community activist asserted, is also rooted in theft, since it cannot be earned through creation. “Have any of you ever created a piece of land?” he queried, skewering an audience of wide-eyed faces. “I believe if people reflected on where their money came from, they’d be willing to redirect some to reparations.”
Still, Whitfield sees cooperatives as the best bet for turning things around.
“The fundamental social disparity between the rich and poor results from extraction of wealth,” he maintained. Co-ops, on the other hand, tie wealth to the community and turn employees into owners.
Later in the day, Whitfield gave Asheville a report card, giving the area high marks for “enthusiasm and goodwill” while identifying several areas in need of improvement.
The conference, he said, had facilitated “resource sharing, so folks with entrepreneurial ideas can try to develop them. But there wasn’t much emphasis on cooperative economics — which are, to me, the most likely to be part of serious wealth creation. I fear that much of the wealth created through noncooperative means ends up concentrated in too few pockets and, consequently, doesn’t have any ongoing relationship to building a community.”
Besides keeping up the sustainable systems already in place, Whitfield advocated community land trusts, increased food security efforts and a mentality that goes beyond simply bolstering wages.
“The idea that having a business that pays wages is wealth-building bothers me a little bit,” he revealed. “Typically, people’s wages cover their expenses,” and increased earnings often merely fund additional consumer purchases. “They don’t cover an accumulation of wealth … or provide for rainy days.”
Even during the conference, however, Beattie noted that “The important conversations are going to happen in twos and threes, not necessarily during the major sessions.” And tucked inside the sturdy canvas bags each participant received — created by local businesses Block by Block Industries and Image 420 — was a guide to many of the region’s financial and business service providers, aimed at encouraging newly acquainted networkers to continue the dialogue. Several upcoming events will offer other opportunities (see “Continuing the Conversation”).
In wrapping up the conference, however, Charen also counseled patience, saying, “We’re like the tortoise in the race: We are strong, and we’re purposeful in our moves. We think 50, 100 years down the road. We do not have to get to the finish line tomorrow. If we want economic justice and freedom, we must take our money out of Wall Street and put it back into our streets.”
Continuing the conversation
Several upcoming events will offer further opportunities to network and strategize ways to strengthen the region’s economy:
- Authentic Communities Summit (Tuesday through Friday, March 24-27), a series of events aimed at advancing local economies through innovation and collaboration, will take place at New Mountain AVL in downtown Asheville. Visit exploreyourauthenticity.com for more information.
- Communities of Color (Thursday, April 30, 6-8:30 p.m.), a town hall forum at the YMI Cultural Center focusing on exclusionary housing. To learn more, visit ymiculturalcenter.org.
- Venture Local Fair (Friday and Saturday, Sept. 25-26) in South Slope (website coming soon).