Real Prosperity Starts Here

I spent two days last week in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the “Real Prosperity Starts Here” conference organized by the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE).  Even though I was only able to attend for a short time, I left re-energized and excited by all I saw and engaged in.  The annual BALLE conference, which has for 10 years been among the leading places for innovative business-people in the place-based “local economy” to exchange techniques and concepts, is expanding its focus to incorporate the most important questions of our time including limits to growth and vast economic inequality.  Their expanded reach (always understood by their visionary founders) and our deepening understanding of how place-based economics lines up with the design principles of nature has refreshed my deep appreciation for their work.

While I was at the conference a few events stood out:

  • With great passion, performance artist Rha Goddess powerfully detailed how Americans of all stripes have been affected by the economic crisis in her performance piece “Opportunity Now!”  Embodying the voices of three diverse individuals, she is a tour de force covering many of the ways in which the lives of everyday Americans have been affected by the economic crisis.  I highly recommend making time to watch her performance available here.  As if Rha’s performance was not enough to drain one’s emotion confronting the reality of losing our grip on the American Dream, she was followed by Maggie Anderson.   Maggie is “smart and successful.”  She grew up on the South Side of Chicago, studied law from the President of the United States, and with her husband, spent a year trying to purchase their family’s goods from their community, the black community.  Maggie’s journey is of course controversial, chronicled in her book “Our Black Year”.  There’s no happy ending, at least not yet in sight.  Rather, it’s an honest and gut-wrenching look at the challenge to create economic prosperity through business ownership in African American communities.
  • The Big Picture track panel in which I participated with David Korten, Gar Alperovitz, and Marjorie Kelly was an exciting locus of fresh thinking from the new economy movement.  Marjorie’s new book “Owning Our Future,” which she presented at a prior session of the conference and we grappled within our discussion, offers a vision for the future of business ownership in a “generative economy” (her term) that is in clear alignment with Capital Institute’s current work on the emerging “regenerative economy” (our term).  Gar Alperovitz also made an important contribution, offering many important thoughts about this time as a political moment, including his take on the importance of ideas in which he said, “ideas matter now, more profoundly perhaps than any time in modern American history.”  I shared my thinking on the great systemic challenges of a debt-based financial system accustomed to endless exponential expansion running into biospheric growth constraints (I had just come from a “degrowth conference in Montreal, more on this in the future).
  • Upon arrival on Wednesday, I participated in the pre-conference Accelerating Community Capital Workshop with Don Shaffer, Michael Shuman, Jenny Kassan, and many others.  Hearing Michael Shuman and Jenny Kassan discuss their success in getting crowdfunding into the JOBS Act and the tremendous progress of the community capital movement in advancing crowdfunding (an idea with clear benefits but also challenges to manage), community-focused funds, and more was immensely encouraging.

The place-based local living economy movement – they call themselves “localists” –  still invisible to most, is happening right under our noses!