How I Became a Localist: Deborah Frieze (Full Transcript)

As an impact investor, I want to create the conditions for a just and sustainable local economy to emerge here at home. I do this through my work with the Boston Impact Initiative which provides capital to locally-owned enterprises that address the growing wealth gap and ecological challenges of our times. I know there are others like me doing similar work in New York, Detroit, Oakland, and beyond. I trust that our separate local efforts will add up to collective change.

To do this work, I rely on ‘The two loops’ as my theory of change. So if you embrace this map of change, then the question arises, “What role do you play in it?” When you recognize that the dominant system, the status quo no longer has the capacity to create solutions to the very problems it was created to solve, what do you do? I’d like to share four roles each of us can play to support the shift to healthier systems.

You’ll probably recognize yourself in more than one. ‘Walk outs’ are the trailblazers. These are the folks willing to turn their back on the dominant system, eager to be free to experiment with the future.

If you’re ‘a walk out’, then you’re willing to feel ignored, invisible, and lonely a good portion of the time. That’s because what you’re doing is so new and different, people can’t see you work even when it’s staring them in the face. These can be difficult dynamics to live with, especially when you know you’ve done a good work, that you’ve already solved problems others are still struggling with. That’s why we, ‘walk outs’, need each other.

When we work as community, we sustain the resilience and the stamina to give birth to the new in the midst of the breakdown of the old.

So, let me give you an example from my local economy work. In today’s economy, ownership and investment are in the hands of the few. But every one of us has the right to participate in owning the assets we work so hard to create. Cero is a worker-owned recycling cooperative that operates in some of our city’s poorest neighborhoods. In addition to being owned by every single one of its workers, Cero has figured out how to sell shares of its stock directly to the public, raising more than 370,000 dollars from community investors.

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These people are trailblazers, and they are setting an example for the rest of us on what it looks like to walk out of Wall Street and walk on to rebuild a local, living economy. Of course, not all of us are suited to the kind of uncertainty, isolation, and risk that ‘walk outs’ must embrace.

So another role is to stay inside failing systems and become thoughtful and compassionate in attending to what’s dying, to become good hospice workers. As a skilled hospice worker, your gift is to offer comfort and support to those who are suffering, and to help the dying focus on the transition ahead. It’s my belief that many of our big systems are in their death rows.

Our schools are failing our children, our food is making us sick. Our financial institutions are exploiting our citizens, but all of us can’t abandon these systems all at once. Take a look at the space between the dying of the old and the emergence of the new. There is a gap. And that’s because the emerging systems aren’t robust enough yet to receive all of us.

We still need fossil fuel to manufacture solar panels. We need to provide food aid where there is drought and disease. We need hospice workers to guide us through these transitions. In our local economy, the Jobs, Not Jails campaign is an example of compassionate hospice work. These activists are fighting to redirect two billion dollars from prison spending to job creation.

They are working inside our failed criminal justice system to advocate on behalf of those most vulnerable to its inequities, and they are helping those who’ve suffered regain the dignity of employment and economic stability.

The third role to play in supporting the emergence of the world we wish for is to make visible the choice. If you’re an illuminator, then you love to tell stories, to shine a light on trailblazers’ efforts to create something new. You have to be willing to repeat yourself and to maintain grace in the face of resistance and criticism. It takes perseverance to help others see new approaches for what they are, examples of what’s possible, of what our new world could be.

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How many of you have noticed the JP Local First decals and stores up and down Centre Street? The buy-local and local-first signs on many main street businesses throughout our country are the work of illuminators, those who are helping us, consumers, choose to support local businesses. They’re reminding us that half of every dollar we spend locally stays in our community, as opposed to draining out to multinational corporations. Every day, each of us makes dozens of choices, usually unconsciously, about which economy to support Illuminators help us make wiser choices.

And finally, there are those who’ve been quite successful in the dominant system. They wield power and influence, and they have access to resources and relationships that could advance or destroy pioneering efforts. If you’re a protector, then you’re willing to use your power and position to consciously create oasis where people can innovate protected from the disabling demands of the old system. You are the dedicated and thoughtful revolutionaries who live deep inside institutional life to give birth to the new.

My friend John Barros is a shining example of a protector. John is the Chief of Economic Development for the City of Boston. His roots are as a trailblazer. Right around the corner from here, in Dudley Square, John organized his community to reclaim control of their property through a groundbreaking land trust. Now he uses his influence to support pioneering efforts to make our economy more equitable and inclusive.

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