BALLE – Conference 2012: Building Resilient Communities

Posted by Khary Dvorak-Ewell

I just returned from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where BALLE, Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, held their 2012 conference. The conference focused on developing resilient local economies and co-operative (worker-owned) business models.

BALLE chose this focus because the United Nations named 2012 the International Year of Co-operatives; an effort to raise public awareness of the contributions of co-operative enterprises to reduce poverty, generate employment and strengthen communities. Before any discussion of business and economics the conference opened by acknowledging the indigenous people of Michigan through a presentation, song and the passing of a prayer bundle. Witnessing that acknowledgment was a first for me at a business conference and truly set the intention for the rest of the week.

Maggie Anderson delivered a power keynote speech about her family’s “quest to buy black in America’s racially divided economy.” For an entire year her family set out to live solely on black-owned businesses in their Chicago community. In her book chronicling the journey, Our Black Year, she highlights the challenges she faced that year as well as advocates for “conscious consumerism;” this is the term she uses to describe consumers supporting businesses that empower struggling communities. I look forward to reading her book to see her analysis of the black-owned business community and what solutions she discovered in her work.

Catalyzed by the Occupy Movement, Michael Shuman presented on ways for the 99% to invest in their communities and local businesses. In addition to thriving innovations like Kickstarter, he highlighted the newly opened Awaken Café in Oakland, CA. Awaken Café pre-sold gift certificates to its café to raise the start-up capital it needed to open. This unique capital development model not only enabled the Oakland community to invest in a local business but it developed a loyal customer base before the café ever opened.

Finally, Ester Park Vice President at RSF Social Finance, explained how their organization lends capital to both non-profit and for-profit social enterprises. She explained that RSF lends to businesses that others may view as pre-bankable, and outlined a four-point checklist for applicants.

  1. Applicants must fit into RSF key issue areas of food & agriculture, education & the arts, or ecological stewardship.
  2. RSF looks at the feasibility and sustainability of the applicant’s production line and supply chain.
  3. The third factor she described as “the x-factor,” which is based on the management team and their intentions. Since its founding RSF has invested in “individuals and enterprises committed to improving society and the environment.”
  4. The last factors in their loan decision are the ‘Five C’s of Credit:’ Character of the applicant, cash flow of the business, collateral, capital already invested, and conditions of the overall market and the businesses-specific sector.

The biggest thing I took away from the 2012 BALLE conference was the importance of building community resilience by supporting local small business. For some, this could mean making a financial investment. For others, it may be as simple as shopping locally.