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Growing Local: Interview with BALLE's Michelle Long

By working with local businesses, Michelle Long helped make Bellingham, Washington a national leader in urban sustainability. As executive director of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, she's taking her vision to cities around North America.
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Brooke: What methods and ideas did you learn in Bellingham that you hope to transfer to other communities via the wider BALLE network?

Bellingham businesses

In Bellingham's Fairhaven district, a historic building now houses the Colophon Cafe, a member of Sustainable Connections.

Photo by Joe Mabel

Michelle: I think that what’s most important is that we help connect the dots between all the healthy pieces of a local economy—and do so deeply within the context of place. We aren’t isolating. Some groups work on local food, but they don’t really think about supporting the independent grocer or restaurant that actually has the autonomy to buy local. Or they’re not thinking of land use and green building practices as farm issues—yet cities need to be really green, dense, exciting magnets that draw people in, leaving the country for farmland instead of suburbs.

There are so many ways that all these things are connected. We understand that businesses need a profit to stay in business, so we want to help them to be financially viable and successful because of their stewardship. We’re not just about getting them to change their employment practices or getting them to change their environmental impact. People often come in one gateway—maybe they’re interested in energy efficiency, for example—but soon they start seeing the whole picture, realizing that they should be doing more local sourcing and whatever else.

It’s also important that our programs are led by businesses. These are the entrepreneurs and innovators that are actually building our homes and growing and distributing our food and powering our lives—if they are thinking in creative ways, then we can get to the root of change much more quickly. Businesses have such wide influence—their customers, the traffic of their storefront, their clout in local government.

As an example, we did a Green Power Community Challenge two years ago—we asked our business members to switch from polluting power to sun, wind, or local cow power (we have a methane digester here). At the time, .6 percent of our electricity came from renewable sources; our goal was to move to 2 percent, enough to make us an EPA-certified Green Power Community. There are only a handful in the nation, which is, of course, pitiful. Over a nine-month period the community  went from .6 percent renewable power to 12 percent. We became the number one Green Power Community in the entire country.

That cultural shift can only happen once people see examples that allow them to believe it’s possible.

Because businesses were saying, ‘we’re going to do this,’ it made it a lot more difficult for government to just say, ‘that’s not a fiscally smart thing to do.’ Instead, they were able to say, ‘Okay, business wants us to do this? Well, we are going to switch to 100 percent renewable energy for all our municipal operations.’ And both the city government and county government did that.

The success kept building on itself, enabling more people to get involved. Because of the bulk purchase of this one community, the utility was able to negotiate better rates and the price of green power went down 40 percent for the entire utility district, not just Bellingham.

Brooke: In Bellingham, your work depended on building relationships in a particular community. What is it like to try to scale some of Sustainable Connections’ innovations up to a much larger level?

Michelle: I am getting used to being on the phone a lot more! But it’s still relationship-based. All BALLE is, really, is a nervous system that supports the work of local communities. They’re the ones that are leading the way with innovation. We connect them with what’s working in different places and with other national organizations that need to be connected to a grassroots presence. We’re scaling up in a networked way: our 79 networks all have deep relationships in their communities.

Brooke: That structure seems almost like an answer for my next question, which is about how you scale up these local economies themselves.

Michelle: That’s right. Instead of a global village, we want a globe of healthy, connected villages. Lots of places that are strong. We want lots of owners of businesses, and we want lots of unique communities sharing ideas with each other.

Brooke: So that’s what a North American economy based on a network of local living economies looks like?

Michelle: It looks like lots more small business owners, lots more people with the opportunity to be entrepreneurs and innovators. More attention to questions like: ‘Why don’t we grow broccoli here anymore? In the Pacific Northwest, we used to grow broccoli really well. We’re eating this much broccoli every day and yet we import it all in. Does that make sense?’

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We’re one of the top dairy counties in the entire country. We have lots of cows. Lots of cows means a lot of cow manure, and in the 1990s environmental groups and dairy farmers really battled about manure in the watershed. And yet, as we were starting our ‘local first’ campaign, I was at a garden supply shop and saw huge plastic bags filled with cow manure for a garden. But it had been imported from Texas. That’s insane: filling big plastic bags and putting it on a diesel truck and driving it from Texas, when we’ve got piles of it getting into our watershed.

Because we subsidize unhealthy parts of our economy, prices today don’t tell the truth, and the result is insanity like that. We need more import substitution, more owners, less consolidation, less monopolization, less moving everything farther and farther away, and instead more people doing it within their own communities. Of course, there will still be trading and importing and specialization—of things like coffee, for example, or the raspberries that grow uniquely well here in Whatcom County.

Brooke: What’s still needed to create local living economies on a broader scale?

Michelle: We need a different story. YES! Magazine’s an important part of that. Issues like climate change and the recent financial crisis have caused a lot of people to think differently about the relationship between people, the economy, and the planet. But a lot of that cultural shift can only happen once people see examples that allow them to believe it’s possible. BALLE’s networks, because they show rich, deep, interconnected models of what communities can be, are like Petri dishes or incubators. People say, ‘Aha!  I see how!,’ and then they share ideas, and they learn from each other, and create huge cultural momentum.

And then there are necessary policy shifts. We need to shift how much of the national budget—in terms of subsidies, investment, and research—goes toward market farms versus those that are designed for export. We need policies that encourage built environments that work for our environment. You just wouldn’t believe how many archaic zoning or building codes work against innovation. There’s also a need for regional tax sharing so that tiny communities don’t have compete against each other for yet another big box store because they need the tax dollars.

To me, policy will change later, just like the cultural shift comes after proof of concept. The biggest area of focus for BALLE is innovation from the private sector—connecting the businesses together, helping them to mentor each other and come up with new ideas for how to create a healthier world. We support the business shift because we believe it will enable the cultural and policy shifts that are also necessary.

Brooke JarvisBrooke Jarvis interviewed Michelle Long for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Brooke is YES! Magazine's Web editor.

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