On Saturday, October 30, Net Impact closed out their 2010 conference on sustainable enterprise at the UMich Ross School of Business with keynote speaker Majora Carter, a dynamic green community development consultant whose work is revitalizing in New York’s inner city South Bronx neighborhood. Carter harnesses her undeniable charisma to drive attention and resources toward turning “politically marginalized” communities into greener, healthier landscapes with greater economic viability. And she means business. Welcome to “Hometown Security,” a theme she offered to describe economic restoration through localized efforts that empower people and protect the environment.
Carter issued a mandate to business leaders and students: “I want you to demonstrate the value of investing in local enterprises” that address issues of environmental and social sustainability, and bring those models to scale. Carter announced that $50 million dollars worth of funding has been secured to transform the South Bronx’s waterfront territory, infrastructure, and related jobs into “The Greenway.” She also pointed out that the work of organizations, such as those below, have not been attracting the kind of funding and resources required to quickly expand their positive imprint, despite their local visibility.
- Tree People a LA-based organization dedicated to assisting “communities to put technology into action alongside healthy, well-cared-for trees in order to create a Functioning Community Forest in every neighborhood of L.A.”
- Sweet Beginnings a Chicago-based, an artisan honey and skin care producer that employs and invests in the development and livelihood of “people facing significant barriers to employment, particularly those with histories of criminal conviction who are striving to make a beneficial change in their own lives and in the lives of their families and communities.”
- Coal River Wind—An Appalachian alternative energy company. This considerable “David” to the Goliath coal industry in West Virginia, was formed through the community-based organization, Coal River Mountain Watch.
Carter also challenged the business community to “develop an analysis tool that makes it as easy to open up an urban agri-businesses as it is to open up a McDonalds franchise.” Carter just served up a new potential buttress against the foul-smelling winds of big agri-biz: the conscious management consultant.
Whether MBAs will be vying for internships at the still rare, commercial urban farm like Milwaukee’s Growing Power is yet to be seen, but Carter’s mandate points to potential economic growth for city farms. Certainly, Columbia University’s Urban Design Lab has been tracking this trend and developing prototypes like the Vertical Farm and attracting capital interest.
Carter emphasizes that localized solutions are drivers of success in this sustainable economy. She is planning to explore “use regional growing power of seasonal farming, augmented by indoor growing facilities in urban areas, creating worker cooperatives.”
Small-scale, social enterprises are naturally “embedded” in local communities to create positive change, because they are born to address those communities’ specific needs. Contrastingly, business-as-usual corporations must entirely revise their business models to achieve localized sustainability, as is the case with base of the pyramid ventures executed by multinationals.
Consider this question underlying Carter’s mandate, what would be the conditions for scaling localization?
One might turn to the lessons that permaculture offers in contrast to agribusiness. Permaculture aims to design productive, sustainable land use by taking advantage of regional biodiversity. Biodiversity protects against crop vulnerability and pests by offering natural defense mechanisms (in a sense, similar to how mutual funds minimize investment risk). Biodiversity is so important that 2010 has been declared the International Year of Biodiversity (IYB) by the United Nations. Lasting biodiversity requires the propogration of native species.
By extension, a sustainable economy will depend just as much on human biodiversity of ideas and inspiration. When human diversity is present, meta-memes like “sustainability” flourish.
Likewise, the permaculture parallel signifies the importance of growing solutions within most-affected and disadvantaged communities like Whitesville, WV and the South Bronx, which bare the brunt of industry’s “negative externalities” in the US. Herself from the poverty-stricken South Bronx, Carter’s presence was both symbolic and refreshing against the conference landscape of experts & executives who, despite their deepest commitments to sustainability and development in vulnerable communities around the world, are less often products of those at-risk communities.
Carter found a mentor and ally with coal-miner’s daughter, Judy Bonds of the Coal River Wind. Julia Bonds has been a major organizer for CRMW, and is now battling lung cancer, as Carter woefully shared. Undeniably, Julia is also a product of her environment.
There are already many community stakeholders who, like Julia Bonds, who are fighting for “hometown security” by creating solutions and demanding a voice at the decision-making table of America’s era of sustainability. Even as sustainable ventures grow in scale, developing an economic permaculture will depend on the leadership of those whose communities are at stake.
Candace Sala Hewitt confesses to having lived life as a double agent as an ad strategist for multi-million dollar brands by day, while in her off-hours pursing a shared vision of a more socially and environmentally just world through indy arts & social dialogue. She now strives to unify her expertise and passions by sharing the good news of sustainability through brand and community engagement. Visit her her blog, RootsInWater.