notes from BALLE talk

i spoke today at the annual gathering of the business alliance for local living economies.

the theme for this session was changing the story. fran korten facilitated, with gar alperovitz, d’artagnan scorza and myself as panelists.

i was selected as a BALLE fellow last fall, and am super excited about their work, although i ended up stepping back from the fellowship because it wasn’t lining up with where my life is going (babies, writing sci-fi, etc) and i wanted the resource to go to someone in detroit who loves entrepreneurship and could really bring the skills home (enter the remarkable jess daniels). they were deeply understanding about it and invited me to still come through to the conference.

i spoke after gar, whose brilliant book i have been reading (and I had prepared some questions for him but he had to dip early), and d’artagnan, who is a serious mlk meets will allen meets berry gordy type brother from l.a. who i have come to deeply respect since connecting in the fellowship.

though my formal work (facilitation, curriculum development) with the detroit food justice task force is done, i still wanted to share a little about what i learned there and what changing the story looks like in my beloved detroit. these are the notes i prepped for the talk, which came out a bit differently, but you’ll get the gist here:

detroit is the ultimate city of changing the story – narrative is the key to our future.

detroit is dying? ‘we see opportunity in crisis’, ‘detroit is what the country has to look forward to.’

time to right size the city? ‘we aren’t leaving the land we have tilled’, ‘now is the time to grow our souls.’ [grace lee boggs]

detroit’s a blank canvas? detroit is a city full of survival stories and brilliance.

noticing stories? we notice stories, we create stories.

my friend mia herndon often says, capitalism is not failing, it is working for the elite. beautifully. but in detroit, lots of people are beginning to practice alternatives, even if we don’t yet have language for it.

the businesses and organizations that we support are ones that honor the survivors, the resilience, not saying they are filling empty space or saving poor detroiters. detroit doesn’t need saving, we need folks to recognize the creative and brilliant ways detroit is still here.

even just what you see – you might see abandoned lots – we see fertile ground. we are detoxifying years of abandonment, corruption, and being forgotten, composting the —- people have spoken about/dropped on the city.

literally and figuratively. we have the fastest growing and largest urban agricultural movement in the country! land mass to compare to l.a. but just over 700k living there. do you understand that scale of potential food growth? but it hasn’t necessarily created sustainable business models – because the majority of the 713k people left in the D don’t want to eat it, or can’t get to it, or can’t afford it.

so the food justice task force charged itself with connecting the abundant food potential to the hungry people of the city – that’s why the twitter handle is @justfeeddetroit – looking at all possible options to feed detroit.

first, wow, it’s overwhelming how many challenges there are, how many systems need to shift. it’s a long arc, a long piece of work. but one of the things we realized was that we needed to change the story at the neighborhood level.

so cook eat talk was a series of events we created where instead of asking people what was wrong with their community, or training them on the crisis, we asked what works? what is your favorite food? who are your food heroes? who is feeding the neighborhood now? where are the gardens? how are your cornerstores and liquor stores, where you get groceries?

and then we could ask, what do you need, what do you long for, what is the new story of the neighborhood?

we heard about grandmothers cooking for the neighborhood, folks gardening found plots. to be real, a narrative and land battle is afoot in detroit, between those who claimed the land when no one else wanted it, and those who just realized it is the most fertile gorgeous place…

we also heard about chili cheese fries. how delicious they are, and the real question from a young person of ‘could they be nutritious’? (audience members told me to try parsnips and string beans btw)

the real question emerged: how do we create a desire for the healthiest food possible, the healthiest life possible?

it’s possible to get it, it’s possible to get the rights to grow it, we have a food policy, we have restaurants and farmer’s markets and grocers and cooks and pantries and foodlab and all the potential for a justice based food system. we must tune into and keep growing that longing, consistently.

the cook eat talk model worked for folks, and people have run with it, even using cook eat talk to have other community conversations. the task force is finalizing a food justice curriculum to use for the next round of programming.

i want to throw in that my other work is in science and speculative fiction, growing our capacity to imagine, practicing the right and responsibility of writing ourselves into the future. which to me falls in line here with moving past idealism and into new practices.

competition is not going to be eradicated with pointing fingers. we must ‘be the change’, we must ‘transform ourselves to transform the world’ – the older i get the more i understand we can’t change others. we can inspire though, we can show that something is possible. we have to do inner work, generate new imaginings, to heal the trauma and change the patterns within ourselves.

we have to practice. understand that every single thing we are doing is a practice. are we practicing old? new? very old? intention, with?

envision the new story, practice it into existence.

after this fran asked everyone to reflect on the story they are trying to change, and we created a map of the stories we are changing from (profit is our purpose, any job is a good job, american dream, change is impossible, dystopia), and the story we are changing to (we have many purposes and that biodiversity is good for life, abundance is the default state of earth, meaningful work, dreams for all, change is inevitable, utopia). we talked about how we make that change – naming the vision, practicing, creating art and culture, redefining wellness, practicing, practicing, practicing.

it was inspiring to hear how much this room full of small local business owners grasp these radical love-based thoughts. the great turning feels active.