I was recently in Lille in France as a speaker at an event called the World Forum for a Responsible Economy. One of my fellow speakers was Judy Wicks, who I’ve wanted to meet for years. Judy is from Philadelphia in the US, and is a retired entrepreneur, and was one of the founders of BALLE, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. She now describes herself as an ‘activist citizen’, acting in a variety of ways which you’ll hear about as we get into the conversation we had. We met over breakfast in the hotel we were both staying in, so listen out for the rattle of tea cups and the distant munching of croissants. I started by asking Judy to give us some background on BALLE. What is it, and what does it do?
BALLE basically supports leaders, identifies and supports leadership, and connects them around the country because oftentimes leaders in local economies are isolated. It shares solutions, and it moves capital into local economies.
We have a particular lens on equity and making sure that those who have been left out in the old economy have ownership positions in the new economy. I’m no longer active in that. I’m an emeritus board member but I’m not a voting board member any longer, so I can’t tell you the details of the current situation but that’s the general idea of it.
What is it for you do you think about the economy that we see – the kind of things that come into BALLE, the bottom up citizen led economy – that feeds the imagination better than the top-down corporate model, in your experience?
From my perspective, globalisation through multinational corporations has really stripped us of imagination because it’s all about replication. It’s all about spreading your brand around the world or whatever. And in order to do that you have to reach the common denominator. You have to routinize and make things the same. It’s the opposite of imagination. It’s to try and routinize the economy so that you can grow that big.
A local economy by nature is more creative because we’re looking to see what does my community need? What does my place want to be? And move towards that. I feel it’s also about intuition. I think there’s an imbalance of masculine and feminine energies in the world, in our economy. I don’t mean gender, but I mean the masculine and feminine energies that are in each of us. I had a farmer that once say that good farming is a balance of masculine and feminine energies. He characterised the masculine as being about efficiency, and the feminine as being about nurturing. Right now our economy is totally out of balance.
It’s all about efficiency: how can we reduce expenses to get the cheapest product on the market? As opposed to nurturing. There’s almost no nurturing in the industrial economy. Looking at food production, for instance, there’s just so much cruelty that underlies industrialisation. Towards animals, towards nature, towards workers, and so on. Part of this – what we need, and part of imagination really – is to have more feminine energy. It’s not just about imagining how much money you can make, or how you can reduce expenses at the expense of others, but it’s about imagining a better world. Imagining how your business can serve your community and work in harmony with nature and so on.
There’s something about all this that is about remembering in our DNA. Those of us who can imagine a world at peace, and cooperation and love and so on, are not just imagining it, but we’re remembering it somehow, in some mysterious way. Because I do believe that the world once was in that way, was harmonious, that indigenous people did live in harmony with nature, and that they cooperated.
I lived in an Eskimo village for a year, in Alaska. There I saw a culture of sharing and interdependence and cooperation with nature and with each other that really helped cement my worldview. I feel like in many ways the indigenous people are our guides right now. That’s about remembering how man once lived in harmony with nature. Intuition taps into the universal consciousness, which is timeless, and has memory of everything that’s ever happened in it. When we can tap into that, to our intuition, we can be guided by that.
I feel like, for me, I’m not an intellectual. I hardly ever even read a book to tell you the truth. I buy all these books and then I find I don’t read them. I don’t have time to! And I don’t really have that much interest really because there’s just so much happening in real time. So I’m very much guided by intuition. I can remember when I started the White Dog there were times when I felt that I was in a dream. I was just doing things. I didn’t even have a total vision.
I was just doing things because I just knew, out of knowing, that this what I was supposed to do. This was the right thing. This makes sense, in some kind of intuitive way. I’ve always been that way. I think in general that females have the opportunity to do this more than males because of the way we’re brought up. I think it is about feminine energy. Feminine energy is about intuition, and that females hold more of that than men because of our culturation.
Through BALLE when you’ve spent a lot of time around people who are the kind of leaders or incubators, the pioneers of this kind of an economy, if you think of them, and then you think of people who start big corporations, what is it about those people who come in to this approach of doing things that makes them more imaginative? What are the qualities you’ve seen of those people?
Independent thinking. I work with almost all entrepreneurs. BALLE, in the beginning, was a network of entrepreneurs. It’s not that any more. Now it’s more of a network of non-profit leaders who are running networks of businesses. But BALLE was born through the imagination of entrepreneurs.
By nature entrepreneurs tend to be mavericks. At least for me, the reason I have always started my own business is because I don’t want to work for someone else. I want to win or fail through my own initiatives. When I think of the people that helped to start BALLE, they were entrepreneurs. Paul Saginaw, who started Zingerman’s, he was on the board of BALLE. We had some intellectuals. David Korten, who wrote When Corporations Ruled the World, and Michael Shuman, Going Local. They weren’t entrepreneurs.
But most of us were entrepreneurs that were on the board at the beginning. So, being independent, wanting to be free. That’s the main reason I see for starting your own business. You want to have freedom. Freedom of the imagination, freedom of the mind, is part of that. I guess ever since I was a little girl, I’ve thought of something and then made it happen. When I was little I would build forts up in the woods, or I’d build a miniature golf course or whatever. I would look at a pile of wood when I was nine years old and imagine that becoming a fort. Then I would build it. That is a trait of entrepreneurship.
But to tell you the truth, I think many people could be entrepreneurs, but their imagination is blocked because of our educational systems, because of corporatisation, that we’re taught to repeat facts, and not to actually think. I wasn’t particularly good in school because I was more interested to be staring out the window than listening to the teacher.
Our education system many times inhibits imagination. Not totally. I mean, there’s a lot of really great schools that don’t do that. But I think we’re being taught to fit into an economic system that really doesn’t want individual [inaudible 11:27] freedom. They want to teach you to be a cog in a wheel. They want to teach you to be a pawn in the corporate plantations.
There’s a beautiful word in French which is ‘bricolage’, which there isn’t really an English version of, which means ‘making the most of what you have’. Like if you have a limited palette of stuff. Like in the A-team where they would go into a garage and build a tank out of just what they found in the garage. That sort of thing. It feels like there’s something in the local economy movement about looking and saying, “Okay, we live in a time of limits, and climate change imposes limits and things, but actually we can flourish within those limits and see those as an opportunity.” Whereas if you’re Donald Trump you just think, “I can’t even see those limits. There are no limits.” What is that quality of being able to look and say, “Actually, our options are constrained but hey that’s great.”
Absolutely. I totally agree with that. If I had been a very wealthy person I wouldn’t have been as successful as I am because I used the cards that were dealt me. Here’s what you have. Like when I was a little kid. Okay you have these pile of sticks, what can you do with it? I started my business very small as a take-out shop, with muffins and coffee take-out because I didn’t have enough money to do anything more than that. But then I built it bigger and bigger. Each time, added to that.
But I didn’t come up with some grand vision, like if I had been a millionaire, I would have had some grand vision. And when you have a grand vision, and you build this grand vision, you don’t have the opportunity to learn along the way, and it’s the process of learning – of taking steps this way and then retreating and going this way and so on – that’s the creative process. When you have too much money, you’re not in that frame of mind. Ingenuity…
Another thing I saw in the Eskimo village was how the Eskimos have very limited resources and they would take apart an engine and carve pieces out of ivory to replace parts because they didn’t have any parts and stuff. They just use all the resources they had. There’s so much we can do with so little if we put our mind to it. We have too much. I think that is the big problem. We have so much that we don’t have to use our imagination.
It seems as though everything we could ever imagine is already at our fingertips. Which is not actually true but there’s just so much that we never test ourselves to actually make something new, because we already have everything we want.
If it had been Judy Wicks who was elected as President Wicks in November 2016 and you had run for office of a platform of ‘Make America Imaginative Again’, recognising that there was an urgent need to increase the imaginative capacity of life in schools, in home life, in work places, in politics, in universities and so on and so on, where would you start? What might be some of the things that you’d do in your first 100 days as President Wicks?
It’s hard to think on that scale because I would empower local communities. I would decentralise. I feel like the United States should be decentralising our democracy. We have the technology where we could individually all vote on things and we don’t use that because we don’t want to. The powers that be don’t want to. They want to make the decisions. But I would decentralise power. Decentralise decision making.
I would encourage communities to gather in town halls or whatever because I feel like co-creation is called for right now. It’s always how mankind has progressed through history, through co-creation with others. Now that we’ve gotten, at least in the United States, into a very individualistic path, the hero of the ‘lone cowboy’, or whatever, which is really a myth because on the frontier you had to work together to survive. We now have the delusion that we can survive individually when we really cannot.
We need to cooperate to build the systems, to build sustainable systems in order to survive. Especially, climate change gives us the perfect reason for doing this now, and doing it quickly, to organise into communities and know our places. Like, where does our water come from? Where does our food come from? Where does our energy come from? Where does our waste go to? To examine these things and as a community figure out sustainable ways to live. And to work together towards that in a local way.
We need larger powers, like the federal government, to make this shift towards renewables, saving us from climate change. And in the United States it’s horrible right now. We’re going in the opposite direction. The Federal government could help through laws and through resources and through sharing information and through cheerleading. You know, encouraging it. Every single person needs to be part of this transformation, to an economy that works with nature and serves us all, and it’s not like someone else is going to do it. We all have to do it.
This whole idea of decentralising decision making and power, and so on, to make people understand, to feel empowered, to make people feel empowered. That’s part of the lack of imagination, is that people feel disempowered. They don’t feel that they can make a difference; that what they could imagine could ever happen. A part of it is to empower people to take charge of their lives and to work with others.
When people live in contexts that would often crush the imagination (poverty, stress, anxiety, isolation), where little space is left for the imagination, what are the inner resources or capacities you’ve seen in people that mean it’s been able to flourish?
A really great example is Detroit. After the car manufacturing industry crashed there, there were just whole neighbourhoods that were vacated because there were no jobs. Out of the ashes arose a new economy that was locally based where largely African Americans took over empty lots and started creating gardens.
It’s just been a huge phenomenon of how people use their imagination, “This could be a farm” instead of a vacant lot, or a trash strewn lot or whatever. It’s just amazing how they’ve created, not only gardens, but in working together they’ve created day care for the kids and the youth, empowered the youth and given them hope. I haven’t been there lately but I went on a tour a few years ago and there were just really interesting businesses popping up too.
This watch was made in Detroit. This company, Shinola, they used to make shoe polish. The guy who inherited the company decided to create a business that would employ former autoworkers to make watches. I bought a watch from them when I was in Detroit. But that kind of thing, where you’re really looking at the situation: what does my community need? My community needs jobs. What are our resources? We’ve got a lot of these workers that know how to put things together.
He also started a bicycle company. He used these auto workers to make watches and bicycles. I think that imagination also comes from necessity. That’s part of using what you’re dealt. Here’s the situation. Here’s our problems. Here’s our resources. What can we make out of that?
I’m not as involved in BALLE as I was, although I’m going to the leadership summit so I’ll hear more stories about what’s happening, but there’s certain things happening all over the country. In the old days when I was co-chair of BALLE, I would travel round to all the different things and see what’s happening. Mostly I was so impressed to see the new businesses popping up. They were like porous pavers. We know now that our storm water systems in cities are not working. We need to have the water go back into the earth, so these businesses are creating all these new things to solve these problems. That’s what I really loved about the old days in BALLE.
We would have conferences around different places, and you’d go to that place, whether it was Charleston, South Carolina, or Burlington, Vermont, or Phoenix, Arizona, all very different climates, and see what are the entrepreneurs doing in those cities? I loved that. It was a really good change to decentralise culturally and racially. That’s been really helpful.
So that was all my questions. Just if you had any last thoughts about imagination that I haven’t asked you the right questions to elicit?
Maybe I feel this way maybe because I’m an entrepreneur but I feel we need to give a lot of space and support to entrepreneurship at the local level. We need to move funding into that. That’s one of the things I’m doing now as I mentioned earlier. I started a microloan fund. It’s called ‘The Circle of Aunts and Uncles’, and the idea is to provide family stage money for entrepreneurs that don’t have family with resources.
We also provide social capital, you know, direction and connections and so on. Each entrepreneur that we loan to has what we call a sub-circle of aunts and uncles that are their support group. Tomorrow I’m missing a meeting. There’s a company called Lobo Mau. It’s a local manufacturing company. They make clothing locally. I don’t have anything on right but I do have some clothes that they made. Oh yes I do, that jacket. Where’s my jacket?
This is made by Lobo Mau. Here’s the bad wolf. That’s the label. But anyway, it’s designed and made in Philadelphia. And this is actually paint. They paint this white paint onto the fabric. It’s like sweatshirt fabric. Anyway, on their sub-committee we loaned them $12,000 so they could buy a new sewing machine. We have a meeting tomorrow, our sub-circle, to talk to them about their growth strategy.
We only loan to companies that do not have a strategy for growing bigger and bigger and selling to multinationals. We’re looking for companies who want to grow within their own community to better serve their own community. Entrepreneurs are so essential in building local economies that we have to help them. That’s what I’m trying to do now, is to get my friends, who are baby boomers, retired – they have money, they have time, they have expertise – to support the millennials, who are starting the companies that we need in our communities to grow our local economies, local clothing, local food.
Most of our entrepreneurs are in food processing. We have three ice cream makers. All three buy from local dairies. All the cows are grass fed. They use ingredients also that are seasonal, from local farms. We have a butcher. A female butcher. She buys the whole animal. All grass-fed beef, pastured pork, free-range chickens. We have a baker who buys heritage grains from local farmers, and so on.
These young entrepreneurs are struggling and they need our communities to provider low interest loans and investments and business that we need to educate our population about the importance of buying local. So I’d say that entrepreneurship is the key to so much, and it is about imagination. It’s about someone that can imagine in their mind the design of this jacket – they call it a Pom jacket – and to make it, and to provide that to our community. We don’t do enough to help entrepreneurs.
Teaser photo credit: By Bryan Alexander – https://www.flickr.com/photos/bryanalexander/2304184832/in/photolist-3AAEy-bujsgk-bujs72-aA1zPR-7x8WRX-aqfPMK-aqiunU-aqfNHg-7xcJHC-4Upw3B-4Upw1D-4UtKxW-4UtKwm-4UpvVr-7qJe8j-53pMqK-aS5CeK-61JbW-4vBxSG-fryrj, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40757885