Joe Grafton is the Director of Development and Community Engagement for the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA). As part of PCI’s “Weaving the Movement” project, a series of interviews and group conversations with leaders in the new economy and community resilience movements, we spoke with Joe about the unifying nature of Main Street, bridging the “resource gap,” and more:
Interview with Joe Grafton (edited transcript)
Tell us a short story of a time when you were most inspired, effective and engaged in your work.
Not sure if anyone has ever asked me this question! The sweet spot for inspired and effective is an interesting mix. In 2009, the local organization I launched — a local business alliance (Somerville Local First) — was about a year old. At that point in time I was full of inspiration and drive to really make a difference, and most effective because the fundamental – at least in my world & experience – resource constraint in this work had not caught up to me. So I felt the ability to be fully invested, without some of the personal sacrifices that have been necessary for me to be able to continue the work. In particular, there was a project I did as part of my work called Shift Across America – I crowdfunded it before crowdfunding was a ‘thing’ and found local sponsorships for a cross country documentary road trip to conduct interviews with people building local economies across the country. I drove 9200 miles, conducted over 70 interviews in more than 20 communities over a 3 week period.
This was the time of the fiscal crisis. The story in the mainstream media was that the economy is collapsing–doom and gloom– but I had the perspective of regenerative economic work happening by my peers and wanted to do some alternative storytelling. I had a radio appearance on NPR’s Here & Now with Robin Young, as well as a feature article in Boston’s alternative news weekly, DigBoston. This project helped shift the culture in greater Boston from a focus on consumption/consumerism to something fair and sustainable.
It was a life-changing experience that reinforced my beliefs that we really have a chance to make this shift with enough people moving in the right direction.
That was before I was really aware of the resource constraints we (as a movement) face. We’re doing really challenging work with limited resources and there’s a brain drain problem because some really talented people aren’t willing or able to make the sacrifices necessary in order to continue to do this work.
It’s important to me from a personal and movement building perspective to try to attract more resources to the work we do. It’s hard enough to find good people, so then to not be able to keep them because we can’t support them [is really difficult].
What is most alive in your work right now?
What I would say is most alive in our work right now at AMIBA and in our movement is that "the work works!" We’ve seen time and time again, both through studies and anecdotal evidence, that the work of our network of organizations and members is having a real impact. There’s an annual study by ILSR that has shown independent businesses with an independent business alliance in their community are seeing revenue growth 3 times higher than those without one.
That’s directly attributable to our ability to shift culture – not just AMIBA in this space but collectively in this world of local first; buy local has made tremendous shifts. Not sure it has translated to the level of behavior change we’d like to see, but certainly in awareness. Something that attracted me to this work is the unifying nature of "Main Street" – from conservative Alabama to liberal Massachusetts, it unites people, and there are few ideas like that to latch on to.
For me, one of the most important things in our collective – broader new economy – is to not just point out what we don’t want, but to paint a very specific picture of what we do want. At an awareness and, to some extent, a behavior level, we’ve changed the culture as far as where people buy. We’re up against big money and some of the most sophisticated marketing the world has ever seen from corporations, which pushes people in the opposite direction, but we’ve still seen successes, and I can only imagine what would be possible if there was anywhere near the same level of resources going into our work.
We’ve got the right message and this is the right time to be doing this work. It could be working at a much higher level–there’s a long way to go. But we’ve a collective network of 25,000 independent businesses in every possible type of state, and in both urban and rural settings. This is the right message at the right time, and we’re having an impact in the local economies and the culture.
We live in a world that’s divisive by design, with an effort to split us into groups of 51% and 49% so that those in power can keep things the way they are. The more that we can find those 80/20 or 99/1 things that unite us, the better. A unified populous is a powerful thing.
Imagine it is five years from now and your work has succeeded wildly. Frame your next responses as if you are speaking from that future point in time.
a) What has been catalyzed in the world?
There’s been a rebirth in entrepreneurship. The world is talking about the great economic revitalization of the United States. We see businesses being formed in a variety of structures – privately and cooperatively owned, B corps & community owned businesses. Through that there has been an incredible boom in job creation. Unemployment is at record lows, and it’s due to GOOD jobs with a living wage and advancement opportunity being provided.
We’ve seen a fundamental paradigm shift in the world of finance. Less than 1% of people in the country previously invested locally, now more than half of people with individual investment portfolios are investing in local businesses.
We’re seeing a fundamental culture shift. People have rejected the idea of consumerism, and have made the desire for things the antithesis of cool. It’s even making its way into the suburbs, with people thinking differently in the most "strip-malled" places in the country. Quality matters more than getting the cheapest item possible. Where their dollar goes is an exercise in where their power goes, so people are making more informed decisions about the long term consequences of their purchases.
Policy has undergone a fundamental shift. Somehow the will of the people has actually compelled policymakers to reverse decades of fundamentally flawed economic policy. We’ve identified flawed policy that consolidates markets for those that can afford the highest priced lobbyists rather than those who can provide the most quality jobs. We’ve seen the minimum wage rise and the lowest rungs of the workforce have seen a dramatic rise in their quality of life. They now have the opportunity to make enough money without having to work 2-3 jobs and no longer live paycheck to paycheck.
We’ve seen a rebirth of community – as all of these jobs have been created, people have reconnected with each other. No longer forced to lead a mind-numbing 9-5 corporate life, they’ve found new ways to find higher quality of life, connecting through local markets. Crime is down. Public health has increased substantially as quality of life increases and stress levels decrease. People go to the library more, see music more, spend more on art, find more time to connect with neighbors, frequent parks and green space, use a bicycle.
It’s a rebirth of American culture and one that focuses on collectivism and bringing people together as opposed to looking for our differences.
Reflecting on what it was like to answer this question…
We’re lacking a clear picture of what success looks like for this movement, so this inquiry seems very valuable. We need to define and describe what success looks like!
b) Imagine that the emergence of the New Economy Coalition in 2014 was a key to the success of your work over those next five years. Tell us how that happened.
During that seminal moment, a few things happened which fundamentally altered the course of our collective movement.
As a group of attendees representing an ecosystem of organizations, we realized we all come from different areas and perspectives, but the most value we can generate is through finding the common ground we share and discovering principles we can all abide by.
Prior to that, people were maybe too grounded in their own perspectives and not willing enough to open up to new approaches. Some were very good at speaking to a specific audience but not as good at engaging with the masses.
The second thing is that we identified that massive change requires speaking to more than middle and upper class people. We have to reach the masses. We decided to create an open platform that could engage more people while also ensuring our messaging had an impact.
Finally, we created an idea and a strategy that succeeded in addressing the resource challenge/gap. Those who had access were willing to open up channels for those who didn’t. By bringing people together this way we were able to find new resources and funding sources and were able to fundamentally address our key challenges – our overall inability to engage leaders and keep them engaged by providing them a living wage. The bridging of the resource gap was an inflection point in the movement that had its start at the CommonBound Conference.
Do you have more thoughts on what bridging the resource gap might look like?
There’s plenty of money that goes out every year under the guise of economic development, small business development, etc. which is poorly directed in my opinion. If we could just re-direct that money instead of identifying new funding, that would fundamentally change the game. I don’t know the worlds around environment or cooperative ownership as well, but my sense is that’s probably true there too.
There’s money being distributed in the name of what we’re all working on, but it’s really going to keep the establishment going rather than making fundamental change. If you’ve ever read the Plague, by Camus, there are two characters that are representative of the funding world for the New Economy movement. One character (Tarrou) is helping people to be more comfortable while they’re dying (lancing boils), while another character (Rieux) is trying to create the cure. And I see that we’re sending money to the former, and not the latter. If we can get away from treating symptoms and towards funding solutions, we will be much better off.
What might cause that shift, do you think?
I don’t know. I’m not in the government/foundation "club." My guess is that if some pioneering thought-leading organizations put a big chunk in a direction and started leading the rest of the foundation world in that way, that might be a game changer.
It goes back to the expression of our vision. Which world do you want: a fundamental change in everything, or something less? The foundation world, at some level, in my view, is an extension of the corporate world and they sort of support each other. I wonder how many foundations really want their vision to come to life, since that would put them out of a job.
Ben: It reminds me of the saying – "it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism."
I’d love to try capitalism – because what we have now is really not capitalism, not the way it was designed.
If properly framed at the local level, I think there is huge potential. At the state and local level, and the major corporate level, the culture is so strong that it’s hard to imagine it changing from within. The only thing I see as being effective is a mandate from the people, where we are really exercising our power.