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Kelley Rajala is an entrepreneur and local business extraordinaire, founder of ShareExchange, North Bay Made, and The Livability Project. 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 Kelley about local economic impact centers, planning for succession, import substitution, and more.
Interview with Kelley Rajala (edited transcript).
Tell us a short story of a time when you were most inspired, effective and engaged in your work.
The Share Fair.
In late 2010, I left the organization I was with to go deeper into economic localization. I had this dream of opening a "Livability Center," a physical brick and mortar place that embodied solutions for sustainable living. We didn’t and don’t have big funding so we had to do everything on a shoestring.
We called the Center the "Share Exchange." We couldn’t afford a big space, only this specific building downtown Santa Rosa on 5th St, but we were still living the dream because we had a physical space (!) to start experimenting. We realized we were just off the beaten path of where all the people are (4th St) – we’re on 5th Street, so we cooked up an idea to attract people to our location and promote all the businesses on 5th Street. We had just opened the Share Exchange and the Made Local Marketplace and decided that on top of opening 2 new businesses, we would shut down 2 blocks of our street and host a gigantic "Share Fair."
There were hundreds of artists, a whole block of kids’ activities, dancing and music and magic shows, and a whole section of the fair for sharing resources – car sharing, our tool library, a stuff swap, other "Sharing Solutions" and Richard Heinberg was one of our speakers. It was a blending of bringing out the concepts of the sharing economy with a street fair/maker fair and bringing in the Post Carbon "Why are we doing this" perspective.
It was a big event to plan and a major organizational feat. Although it was our first street fair, we had several thousand people come and we received great feedback. The participants and community loved it. We seriously had people coming into the Share Exchange afterward in tears saying it was the sweetest event they had ever attended with their families. We had just the right combination of activities, the vibe was beautiful with kids and families and it was awesome to introducing people to new sharing resources. We had a brilliant team come together to pull the whole thing off.
One of the outcomes I am most proud of is that Shareable.net asked us to share what we had done, and now there are ShareFairs happening all over the country.
One of the complexities is taking these "new [social] technologies" – the sharing economy, for example, and figuring out how to teach them and make them accessible to the mainstream. So to have Richard Heinberg talking about the state of the world with all of these examples of sharing and community was really great. It was a magical experience.
What is most alive in your work right now?
There are really two pieces for me…
I’ve had a major shift – just in the last one or two months I have shifted gears, spending a lot of my time in my garden growing food and turning that into a business with my partner Eric Robinson. It’s called "Kelley and Eric’s Urban Gardens". I’m loving spending more time with plants and less time with people. It feels very restorative to me and less face time in front of a computer is feeling really great. It has been incredibly challenging too. As you would suspect, the learning curve for being a food grower and producer is significant. We’re growing all kinds of food and selling to local restaurants right down the street from us.
I feel like I need to prove that this is something people can do on the ground level–oh yeah! You can start your own food business and really make it work!
That ties into the second part – I want to take my work with all my business entities: ShareExchange, North Bay Made, Livability Project, and work at more of a strategic level where I work less in the weeds/details and more with other communities to share what we’ve learned through all of these pilot programs and businesses. I want to move into more of a strategic role in all of this work.
My Livability Project business partner, Dave Feldman (Bethesda Green), and I are cooking up an intensive workshop to help communities get similar organizations off the ground. We want to partner with organizations like Transition US and BALLE to accelerate sustainability at the local level. We plan to find the right partners and big supporters to scale these models. We both have huge reservoirs of experience to share. The more we can transfer our experience and help people learn from our successes and mistakes, the faster a community can ramp up their own local organization saving time and money.
So as you transition into the food enterprise and the more strategic work, can the local projects you’ve started continue running without you?
Yes. I set it up intentionally to be self-reliant. I’m only in there one day a week, and then spending most of my time in the garden. I’ve started ten different projects now in this local sustainability area. It takes time, and we need to be able to do it faster.
How many people are being supported through these projects (with a livelihood)?
The first business I started 15 years ago is still running and they are expanding. They’ve got about 15 teachers, and they’re growing. I’m really happy to hear that, and that’s just one example. Another would be GoLocal, which now has a value of $8 million. That one took a long time to get off the ground, but now it’s going great.
What approaches are you thinking about as you move from your local work to helping many communities to do this work at an accelerated pace?
One of the things that I think is important is community mapping: who is doing what on the ground. It helps to identify gaps in what the overall ecosystems of a locale or region are. That gives focus to what a group could be working on, based on what other people are already doing. It’s also important to try to stay very flexible–a startup is a startup whether it is a business or nonprofit. There are some key elements to each startup that are unique. A lot of folks try to come in with a structure. I like to stay close to the ground, agile, flexible and experiment a lot. I put structure in place once something is working.
With these projects, you are constantly zooming in and out –sometimes with laser-like focus and then out to the Big Picture. It’s important to keep these perspectives in balance.
One other thing that is very alive, is North Bay Made
. The idea is to build on what we’ve done with the Made Local Marketplace and expand to the surrounding six-county region and create more opportunities for import substitution. I LOVE this project. I especially love working with our counterparts in the other counties — other people who care about localization as much as we do. It makes me not feel so isolated. In addition to North Bay Made being a great idea, it is a super-beautiful and inspiring campaign, with really great graphics.
Let’s contribute positively to the future, and while we’re at it, let’s make sure there some beauty and simplicity to it.
It’s amazing how much you’ve done – and there’s also the co-working spaces and the Bay Bucks alternative currency project you’re working on…
We would just be rocking with a really big supporter!
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 are now hundreds of "Local Economy" or "Livability Centers" across the United States. They’re in small rural towns, suburbs and neighborhoods in big cities–Chicago has five of them! They are physical centers and the go-to place for education, action and starting new local businesses. The Centers are the focal point for the sustainability movement in each location. And they ROCK! They are totally supported by a diverse array of income streams.
The Centers all have elements of BALLE, Transition, "new" economic development and import substitution. They have tracked their success and shown that their communities are more vibrant, their local economies more resilient, people are having a higher quality of life, they’ve reduced their carbon footprint by 89% and generally people are healthier and happier.
Is there more you want to say about these centers and their impact?
These centers bring out synergies between groups that in 2014 felt isolated – now there is more support and crossover. It is the support structure for the new economy to take hold. Everyone agrees that these centers played a critical role in making the New Economy the dominant paradigm.
Given that there were different groups that were working on this, like Impact HUBs and others, what made it possible for everyone to come together around this particular arrangement?
Each group realized they had shared values and a shared vision. They saw that they could all flourish by working more closely together. The funders also appreciated this approach.
What was the catalyst for them seeing that, and realizing it?
There was an enlightened funder that put up the funding to take the two pilots – one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast – and it turns out there were a lot of other budding local economy centers trying to come to life. By pointing to those models and providing some financial support – identifying it, recognizing it, and helping to scale the model – that key enlightened funder provided the support to help these Local Economy Centers come to life.
The community leaders that had the original pilots did everything they could on their own — even selling their house to bootstrap their project. They simply couldn’t take it farther without the big funders’ support.
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.
What happened back in 2014 at the NEC conference was that my business partner Dave–with the Livability Project– was at the conference looking for the right partners. Dave reached out to Transition, Post Carbon , Michael Shuman and Michelle Long from BALLE. He/we proposed the idea of Local Economy Centers, where localization comes to life. We painted the picture of what these Centers would look like across the country. They would be the headquarters for Transition, BALLE, local economic development–all in one place. Everyone got really excited and saw the possibilities of all of us working together, so the New Economy finally had a "headquarters."
Our new team got together with the Enlightened Funders Network over a glass of wine and floated the idea of a network of these Centers — The New Economy Headquarters. And the Enlightened Funder said, "Oh my gosh! I was just talking about this last night with my buddies!" And so they got together and wrote a check to make it happen.
Ben: The old model is the funders in one room and the nonprofits in the other, competing with each other for grants. And instead we need to have everybody in the same room, thinking together about how we can use a big pot of money to serve the whole movement most effectively.
By the way, the Enlightened Funders Network came from the insurance industry because they understood the power and importance of increasing community resilience. They knew deeply that unlimited growth could not continue, since that was the real cause of climate change. Almost like they were an inside whistle blower, saying we cannot keep this up. They saw the brilliance of accelerating the resiliency movement in communities through a distributed but connected network of Local Economy Centers.
More Weaving the Movement essays at Resilience.org.
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