Paul Saginaw joked that during his senior year of high school, he was voted Least Likely to Have a Positive Impact on Society. The remark drew a laugh from the crowd of more than 100 people attending Think Local First’s annual meeting on Monday night – most of them know the Zingerman’s co-founder is an advocate for socially responsible business, as well as a driving force behind the nonprofit Food Gatherers, which launched 21 years ago this week.
For many years, that high school description was “so true,” Saginaw said. “But for the second half of my life, I’ve been trying to prove them wrong.”
Saginaw, the evening’s featured speaker, talked passionately about the need for local economies built around “human-scale” enterprises, with businesses as a positive force for social change. He described several ways that the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, a national group, is supporting the efforts of small, independent businesses. The goal? “What we want to do is change the world,” he said.
BALLE – Building a National Network
Saginaw serves as vice chair of the board of directors for BALLE, the acronym of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. Judy Wicks – the group’s founder and owner of White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia – was the speaker at last year’s Think Local First annual meeting. [See Chronicle coverage: "Thinking (Eating, Drinking) Local First"]
At Monday’s event, held at Big George’s on West Stadium Boulevard, Saginaw described several initiatives that BALLE is undertaking. The group is a “network of networks,” he said – Think Local First is an affiliate – representing over 20,000 independent businesses in the U.S. and Canada. Their goal is to strengthen and connect these networks, helping communities build sustainable economies through independent retail, sustainable agriculture, green building, renewable energy, community capital, and zero-waste manufacturing. The organization is eight years old, Saginaw said, “but it’s starting to get traction now.”
Saginaw said that BALLE has secured major funding from the NoVo Foundation, led by the son and daughter-in-law of financier Warren Buffet. BALLE also has hired a new director, Michelle Long, who previously was co-founder and executive director of Sustainable Connections in Bellingham, Washington – an organization similar to Think Local First that eclipsed their local chamber of commerce in membership, Saginaw said.
BALLE will be pushing for public policy changes that favor small, independent businesses, Saginaw said. Right now, it’s easier to withdraw all of your savings and lose it gambling in Detroit’s Greektown Casino than it is to invest in a local business, he said, and that needs to change. It’s part of the concept of community capital – keeping dollars local, whether it’s buying from a locally owned shop or investing in a local business.
In addition, BALLE’s research and public policy director, Michael Shuman, will be putting out a monthly e-zine – a magazine distributed via email and other electronic means – on issues related to sustainable, living economies. Shuman is the author of “The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition.” Copies of the book were raffled off during Monday’s event.
During the first part of his talk, Saginaw focused on the efforts of BALLE. He devoted the rest of his speech to an impassioned defense for the virtues of building sustainable local communities. In many cases, business has become an instrument of greed rather than one of social good, he said. But as local business owners, he continued, we know that business can be beautiful – an expression of personal creativity, providing meaningful work to others at a fair wage, and creating a mechanism for social change.
The latter kind of business, he said, is the foundation for a healthy community and a healthy democracy.
Think Local First: Looking Ahead
As part of Monday’s annual meeting, Ingrid Ault, executive director of Think Local First, gave brief remarks before Saginaw’s presentation. Ault said the group is focused on two main goals for the coming year: 1) overhauling their website, with help from Bonnie Valentine of The Whole Brain Group, and 2) applying to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit. The group’s current status as a 501(c)6 nonprofit does not allow them to apply for certain grants or take advantage of tax-deductible donations, she said.
Longer term, Ault said they hope to get sufficient funding to turn her part-time position into a full-time one, so that she’d have more time to devote to the buy local movement.