On World Water Day, we’d like to make a special announcement: we have a new client! We are proud to be working with Blue Water Baltimore to help them raise awareness and compel action to protect our most precious resource in the Baltimore area. Their mission is to restore the quality of Baltimore’s rivers, streams and Harbor to foster a healthy environment, a strong economy, and thriving communities. It’s incredibly easy to get involved in their incredible work. Here are a few actions you can take today:
1. Follow Blue Water Baltimore on Social Media
Follow Blue Water Baltimore on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to stay up to date on the latest action issues and learn more about the amazing water system that keeps us and so much wildlife living and thriving.
Occasionally there are stories that finally help you connect and ground thoughts swirling around in your head. A RadioLab piece on the game show called “Golden Balls“ did that for me this week. In the show, contestants are faced with a Prisoner’s Dilemma. They each have two golden balls, one that reads “split” and one that reads “steal.” If both contestants choose split they split the jackpot, if they both choose steal neither get the money. Yet, and this is the part where it gets interesting, if one person chooses “split” and the other person chooses “steal” then the person who chose “steal” gets the entire jackpot. Most of the times it goes down like this:
Each contestant assures each other they will split. The man in the clip above has swindled people earlier in the game so, Sarah, the female contestant, doesn’t trust him to choose split. They plead with each other and Sarah assures him that “everyone who knew me would just be disgusted if I steal.” It looks like it is going to be a split and then it is revealed Sarah, the sweet girl we all assume will make the altruistic choice, chooses steal. Jad Abumrad explained this phenomenon:
If you analyze all the outcomes, which social scientists have done, what you see is that a majority of the time something like what I just showed you happens…They stab them in the back. They are grandmas, policeman, etc. Here’s my theory, it’s not that they are mean people. It’s that they don’t want to be that guy slumped on the table. They don’t want to be the sucker. The fear of being the sucker far overwhelms their desire to do good to their fellow contestants.
It’s that last sentence that made me shout “Yes!” when I was listening to this while running in the streets of Baltimore, assuring passerbys that I wasn’t a complete lunatic. It is our fear of being suckered that impedes our desire for social change.
Let me explain by taking you back to an experience I’ve written about before. About a year ago, a homeless person in Fell’s Point asked me for money. I told him I didn’t have cash so he suggested I could pay with my card for food at a subway.
I agreed and while we were waiting for the sub, he says to me “It’s a shame you didn’t have cash, we would have been able to get cheaper food.” Now my first thought was something akin to “You ungrateful SOB,” but then I realized he was right and in fact being a good steward of my charity. If I had given him the seven dollars I spent at Subway he might have been able to go to the corner store where he could have gotten a decent meal for $4 and still had $3 to put toward his next meal. If I wanted more bang for my buck in terms of impact on his empty stomach I should have just given him cash.
We give to companies who pollute the land, mistreat people, and foster inequality every day, mostly without a second thought. Yet most people are more worried about what a homeless man will do with the $7 than what Subway will do with it. Why? We don’t want to be a sucker and our fear of being suckered far outweighs our altruism.
In a for-profit business transaction the result is mainly assured. If I give my money to a business, they will give me back a good or service. There are accountability systems built in to ensure that I get what I paid for. I give you money and you give me toothpaste. If you want me to buy your toothpaste you generally appeal to my self interest. The toothpaste will give me a cleaner mouth which will make me happier, perhaps help me find love. Regardless, I know if I choose to share my hard earned money with a company selling toothpaste that I’m going to walk out of the transaction with the product I want. Giving money for social good is a bit more like Golden Balls. I don’t know if the homeless man I encounter on the street will use my money for food or to get high. I don’t know if the child I give money to in India is controlled by beggar masters who deliberately cripple children to make more money from other people’s charity. I don’t know if the money I’m giving to disaster relief will help people or is just a ruse to siphon off our bleeding hearts.
We’ve talked beforeonChangeEngine about problems that result from nonprofits who can’t innovate because donors expect them to have low overhead and immediate results. I think the reason we hold nonprofits to a higher standard of accountability is because, like in Golden Balls, the benefit is not ensured. That means the potential for being suckered, by which I mean us giving money to someone and receiving no benefit (both the intended benefit to the supposedly worthy recipient, or the benefit of personal satisfaction at having done good in the world), is much higher than an interaction with a for-profit business.
On one hand, we have to get over our fear of being suckered. I once worked with a guy who was in charge of building systems to make sure no one misused a local food bank’s services. While it costs more money to set up the systems then it saved by eliminating fraud, donors were reluctant to give to any place where there was a chance of their money being misused. “It’s insane,” he told me, “it’s like not giving a dollar to a starving child because you’re worried they will drop a penny.” We need to spend less time worried about how nonprofit employees are compensated or how every penny of our donation is spent because even if there is a penny lost, those donations are doing far more good than some of our purchases to major corporations.
On the other hand, the social change community needs to help eliminate the fear of being suckers in their donors by changing the way we talk about social change. Instead of emotionally manipulating people into altruism, perhaps we need to start showing how investing in social change will guarantee benefits to them. We need nonprofits that are evaluating and measuring their results, who can talk about the impact they have in deep and quantifiable terms, not in pictures of cute puppies or one-off stories. We need to show people there is a real return on investment when you contribute money to social good beyond just a “good feeling.”
The title of this post is famously, though wrongly, attributed to P.T. Barnum, who, although he made his living by swindling others, was also one of the many who didn’t want to be swindled in doing good. When he used some of his money for social good, he used a method called “profitable philanthropy.”
“I have no desire to be considered much of a philanthropist…if by improving and beautifying our city Bridgeport, Connecticut, and adding to the pleasure and prosperity of my neighbors, I can do so at a profit, the incentive to ‘good works’ will be twice as strong as if it were otherwise.”
When we donate to a social change project we are choosing the “split” golden ball and choosing to share the money we have. In return we expect nonprofits to “split” so that not only do they get money, but some benefit returns to us. If we want to involve more people in social change, we have to find ways to return their investment, either monetarily through social entrepreneurship or show tangibly through evaluation and research how their donation returns to them in the form of a better community, more economic opportunity, etc. If you can ensure people there is little chance of losing, little chance you will steal their money without giving them a return, they are more likely to share. To overcome the fear of being suckered, we have to make social change seem about as risky as buying a tube of toothpaste, an act we are sure to get some reward from.
“When is the last time you bought something in East or West Baltimore”
Or, for those non-Baltimorians, when is the last time you bought something from what ever region has been labelled in your city as “the bad side of town.” This is a question I’ve been asking people the past couple of weeks and most of the time people can’t remember or, in a surprising number of cases, the answer is never. For me, it’s been two months, despite the fact 75 percent of my purchases come from local Baltimore stores.
Since the beginning of civilization, trade has built bridges between differing worlds. It has brought us face to face with new cultures, made us dependent on one another, and led to the flow of ideas, customs, and beliefs along with goods and services. Purchasing things from one another requires us to build trust and put stock in each other’s financial futures making their issues, your issues. This is why the answers I’ve received to my question worries me. It speaks to the divided Baltimore Amber, Hasdai, Adam, and others here at ChangeEngine have written about over the past year.
The divide between two Baltimores has been highlighted these past few weeks with the now infamous Tracy Halvorsen piece, “Baltimore City, You’re Breaking My Heart.” Halverson unintentionally revealed how large the gap between our city’s citizens is, when one person can see those outside their neighborhood as criminal interlopers instead of neighbors. For me however the divide was most salient in a remark made by Dr. Tara Bynum in reaction to Halvorsen on the Mark Steiner show. There are many neighborhoods in Baltimore, she explained, where she feels unsafe in because of a history of violence toward African Americans. As she listed them off: Canton, Highlandtown, Hampden, Fells Point, Patterson Park, I realized that I spent a majority of my time (and money) in places she wouldn’t go. I lived in a world apart from her own.
Which begs the question Amber Collins asks in her post this week: How do we build bridges between Baltimores? Why don’t people I know buy things in East and West Baltimore? How do we encourage a “buy local” culture outside of The Avenue, Charles St., our comfort zones?
One interesting project I’ve come across is the Neighborhood Postcard Project. The project makes postcards from marginalized areas of cities including the Tenderloin in San Francisco, Hamilton Heights in New York City, or Mount Pleasant in Washington, D.C. and asks residents of the neighborhoods to write about what they like about living in those areas. The project then takes those postcards and sends them to random people in the very same city to show off a side of their home they might have never seen before. In doing so they hope to change the perception of the community and begin to build bridges between divided neighborhoods.
The project was started by Hunter Franks who wanted to overcome the media portrayal of his home in the Tenderloin of San Francisco where tourists and residents were often warned not to walk in at night. He worked with people in his community to write postcards about places and stories people weren’t hearing about in mainstream communication. In one case a recipient of the postcard contacted him and wanted to meet the writer of the postcard. She had never been to the area of town the postcard was from and the postcard made her curious to visit. Franks connected them and a new friendship was born. While that hasn’t happened with everyone of the 350 postcards he has sent, it certainly has touched some people who have never considered “those parts” of the city from anything else than a mainstream lens.
I’d like to imagine if Tracy Halvorsen received a postcard from one of the youths she’s afraid of meeting in the street that she may have a better perception of her Baltimore neighbors. Maybe it is a little naive but so often the lines that divide us are all a matter of misconception and the vastly different stories we’re told on either side of that divide. I’ve written before about how the media treated a shooting at my high school differently because it was perceived as being in a “bad neighborhood” while a shooting in Columbia would never be blamed on the community. Similarly a crime in Canton is seen by a resident as a sign that outside forces are leaking into the neighborhood while a crime in Middle East Baltimore is an inevitability. The fact of the matter is crime happens in both communities and amazing things exist in both communities. Yet in one community stories focus on hip bars and in another they focus on shootings.
Which returns me to where I started. The fact that we interact so little and that we engage in nearly no commerce with each other means there is no real experience to counteract the ones we receive from Baltimore. Which is why I love the Neighborhood Postcard Project as a start. It’s a guerrilla marketing campaign that gives you an alternative view of your city just by opening up your mailbox. It can also serve as a visitor guide for people to start exploring parts of the city beyond their borders and perhaps dismantle those borders once and for all.
Part of the reason we don’t do that is because we don’t know where to go. I go most places because I’m invited by friends who are going to Hampden, Mt. Vernon, Fells Point, Canton, but rarely even as far afield as even Hollins Market. You’ll find almost no representation from East or West Baltimore in the “Best in Baltimore” recommendations from the The Baltimore Sun or City Paper. Outside of a few volunteering gigs or Baltimore Bike Party there are few times when I have reason to travel outside of the area I call the “White T” of Baltimore. I’ve recently realized the dividing lines are so thick, I know so little about those areas and have so few connections with people who live, work, eat, or go out outside of my own Baltimore bubble.
How do we open up trade routes between our two cities? How do spaces where people of both sides can mix and mingle and learn about each other? Perhaps all it takes is a postcard to serve as a mini-ambassador to open up new worlds. Perhaps a postcard could recommend new sites, new foods, new styles that are only miles away from us. Perhaps it can get people to care about neighborhoods they’ve discarded as dangerous. While the divide between Baltimores is massive, something like the Neighborhood Postcard Project could happen in a few weekends and might help us begin to forge connections. Something as simple as a postcard could get people to begin to spend more time (and more money) in neighborhoods we currently never frequent. It’s an easy place to start to tackle the divides we all know exist, not just in Baltimore but across the country.
In this month’s Fast Company there is a beautiful piece on Hale County, Alabama, a place that has hosted social designers for nearly two decades to help it with its woes. However lack of community collaboration and lack of greater vision has meant the social design projects in this county have largely gone nowhere, impacting hundreds of lives, not thousands. The part that struck me was when the reporter interviewed residents of Hale County about some of the design projects meant to create new jobs. Students had helped build a pie shop and were working on a bamboo bike manufacturing facility, yet these ideas didn’t excite them. They weren’t going to buy a $4 slice of pie and knew no one who road a bike. What did excite them? Walmart.
André and Barbara weren’t skeptical of the general notion of a catalyst for profound change. They just found Walmart a lot more convincing than design microenterprises. The store would have been pure and positive judgment that this is a place with a future.
While I assume many of the socially-minded readers out there might bristle at the idea that Walmart might be better for a community than a local pie shop, you’ve got to put it in the perspective of a resident. A pie shop might be more inclined to pay their employee above minimum wage but the amount of people they can employ is rather minimal. Plus Walmart puts you on the map, it brings people in surrounding rural areas needing anything from a vacuum cleaner to pet food, not just those with a hankering for pie.
It’s easy to criticize this thinking for being small minded. In the grand scheme of things Walmart kills more jobs than it creates and its low wages and benefits aren’t great for their employees. Yet that’s all easy to say, when your a professional social changemaker, as many of us are, often holding white collar jobs and many of us having few acquaintances that have a career at a place like Walmart. The new economy has pushed aside production workers who are still struggling to retrain and find jobs. So I think it makes it pretty easy for us to forget that while the local movement does create great jobs, it’s still not creating enough.
We need new companies that recognize that shirking employees isn’t the best business model. When Henry Ford famously raised wages to $5 a day he didn’t do it out of compassion for his employees, he did it because it made good business sense. Ford was losing employees and the drastic increase in wages actually saved him money on training and finding new employees. The increase in wages also made it easier for his employees to buy more of Ford’s cars, further fueling profits. Perhaps then, Walmart’s reluctance to raise wages will only hurt them in the end, as Adam Hartung suggests in a Forbes article. He believes trends show that more Americans are looking for companies to provide living wages for their employees. Those who do not could lose customers now or if a higher minimum wage is set they could lose out to companies like Costco who are already operating with a profit and decent wages.
But Ford wouldn’t have paid $5 to his employees if there weren’t other automotive companies offering more money. In order for Walmart’s low wages to cost them, there have to be better jobs available to their workers, and unfortunately in a rural area like Hale County there isn’t a lot of competition. Which is why I say we need to start thinking about how to beat Walmart at its own game. Walmart is beginning to show weaknesses. Online retailers are drawing away customers and more and more consumers are considering social impact in their purchases. While boycotting Walmart and running campaigns to stop new ones might help save our local businesses, a more long term strategy needs to be in place to create better jobs in our communities.
The rise of B Corporations is a promising signs that we are ushering in a new era of business. Ever since the East India Trading Company, corporations have been seen as shadowy figures seeking profit at any costs. Benefit Corporations are businesses founded and accountable not only for the monetary profit they make but their environmental and social impact. Twenty states (Maryland being the first) have passed legislation legally recognizing this new kind of corporation accountable not only to passing money to stockholders but to increase the public good. Perhaps this new designation will help companies ready to scale businesses that meet consumer needs without hurting workers. The designation could create new streams of funding socially conscious companies, make it easier for the consumers to identify companies with a higher purpose, and provide government incentives to create and expand companies ready to compete with the Goliath of Walmart.
The social designers in Hale County have still failed to answer the biggest design challenge of our time: how do we create organizations that meet consumer needs while providing living wage jobs, especially in areas with few traditional resources? While the local revolution is creating quirky, great, and vibrant new main streets it is time to expand our focus. We need a new economy that can compete with the behemoths of the old economy and usher in a new way of doing business.
Buying local has for a long time been an act of nostalgia. Only on main streets will you find local book stores still fervently defending the power of the printed word, antique shops allowing you to wander through luxuries of a previous age, and gift shops proudly selling hand crafted trinkets. Buying local in many ways presents itself as the antithesis of online shopping both in community economic impact and in experience. With online sales reaching over a trillion dollars however, perhaps it is time for technology and Main Street to join forces.
IBM’s annual “5 in 5” predictions report outlines five aspects of our lives that will change in the next five years, and gives us a very different perspective of the future of online and local. Instead of a battle of arch-nemeses duking it out for consumer spending, they see the two merging. With mobile technology the customization and variety one gets on Amazon, could be available at a store near you. In fact, IBM predicts in five years time local will beat online.
With the rise of the “Internet of Things,” a term used to describe new technology that embeds internet capable sensors into everyday objects, the power of the web is being used closer and closer to home. For instance, what if all you had to do was push a button on a refrigerator magnet to get your usual order of a large chicken tikka masala delivered straight to your door? Sounds pretty awesome right? It’s not as far fetched as it seems, a pizza company in Dubai has already come up with such a device. Everything in your home could get a virtual makeover in the future. Your closet could someday be able to scan every new item, offer you suggestions for outfits, and connect to local stores to suggest new additions that fit your style. Fridges could track expiration dates, come up with shopping lists based on what you don’t currently have for your favorite recipe, or suggest vegetables for sale at your local farmer’s market that would make delicious meals with what’s in your pantry.
Smart devices not only help us get what we want faster, but also collect valuable data. Data has proved to be a powerful tool for driving sales online and could be a force for change locally. Imagine a system that tracked what you bought at your favorite local shops. While buying a cute dress at a local boutique, a mobile app could recommend other stores in the area that might have dresses similar or suggest a place with matching shoes. An app could take in your measurements and suggest items in their stock that would fit you best. Shopkeepers could also have a keener view of their customers buying habits. In the future they might have an app that recommends new products to keep in stock based on their customer profile.
IBM’s prediction is based on the fact that local stores have something to offer. People do want a personal experience, they want to touch and try on before they buy, and they want the instant gratification of walking out of the store with something new. However technology has made it so much easier for us to get the things we want without going to four stores to try to find it. If IBM is right and you can combine the ease and customization that draws us to shopping online at our local book store, we may indeed see local businesses beat back Amazon.
“When friends in DC ask me what we talk about in Baltimore, I say ‘Baltimore.’”
A friend of mine made this offhand remark last week and it has been spinning in my head ever since. Baltimore’s navel gazing has been seen as a hindrance to some but I’m beginning to think it might be our greatest asset. As I have said before Baltimore was weird before it was cool. That weirdness, that creativity, can be our savior. To save Baltimore, we do not need to look at established models that have worked elsewhere. Let’s be shot of the days of “let’s start a Grand Prix,” “let’s get a Trader Joes,” “let’s attract the next Google.” Let’s stop looking at others and focus instead on pouring resources into creating innovation made for, made by, and made in Baltimore.
Why do I think we need to gaze inward?
The solution we want doesn’t exist. I see no industry out there with the potential to employ or train the large population of “unskilled labor” that exists in post-industrial urban cities with living wage jobs.
The solution isn’t out there because Baltimore hasn’t created it yet. If Baltimore devoted resources to fostering the talent and creativity in this city, I hold the radical belief that we might actually come up with a solution that not only saves Baltimore, but could change the economic landscape.
Baltimore led the shipping industry because the Baltimore clipper was faster than any other ship around. Baltimore became a center for the milling industry because Oliver Evan’s invented the automatic flour mill. We made leaps as a city because we did things better than other places and that innovation requires out-of-the-box thinking. It was innovation that gave Baltimore the competitive advantage to become the huge industrial center it once was, and it is innovation that could bring us back.
Here’s my idea: let’s assume that everything we want and everything we need is already here and let’s do something amazing with it. Let’s look straight into the navel and ask Baltimorians to get to work saving the city. Here’s my plan Baltimore: let’s scrap all established models and start encouraging the novel, weird and wacky to flourish.
How do we do that? I’m not entirely sure, but here’s my list of places we can start:
Create Places Where Crazy Ideas Happen: We need more places focused on finding funding (via crowdfunding campaigns, microloans, grants) and resources (market research, incubator programs, mentorship opportunities) to help people make their crazy ideas happen. Whether it’s a new way to rent musical instruments or a new model for getting local food to those who are food insecure, I want to see a one-stop shop that works to help people take full advantage of the resources we already have in Baltimore to make it happen. I see a string of neighborhood innovation centers to help people turn their crazy ideas into Baltimore’s latest craze.
Focus on Social Entrepreneurship: Baltimore already has a rich community of people creating socially focused businesses and initiatives. I’m not the only one who sees the potential of Baltimore to lead the way in this new field. Let’s invest in businesses and development models that radically change the social fabric of our city through economic development. Social change should be the focal point of our revitalization, not an afterthought, not a trickle down.
Provide Room for Collaborative Design: In order to form great ideas, you need for people to mix and mingle. We already have some spaces that allow for people to collaborate but they are often buried in silos. We need to create intentional bridges between the silos of innovation we know exist in our community. We need to find spaces that allow people to come together and bounce ideas off each other to form those a-ha! moments that will create our shared future. These could be co-working spaces, public spaces, or a traveling series of events that bring us together to create real solutions for the future.
Educate for Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship: We need to involve the next generation in the evolution of our community. That means a radical transformation of our education system to encourage and inspire critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and other 21st century learning skills critical to making our students into tomorrow’s innovators. Whether within or in addition to the school system we need programs that teach students to constantly learn, constantly create, and constantly move our city forward with their entrepreneurial vision.
Create Jobs Accessible to Everyone: Andrew Carnegie once boasted he could train anyone to work in a steel mill in a matter of months, a feat once thought impossible by most of the world. We not only need new industries, we need to create processes that make those industries accessible to anyone. Whether it is training programs to get people up to speed or machines that make it easy for everyone to learn and create something great, we need to constantly thinking about making the jobs we create available to more than a trained few.
Provide Easy Access to Existing Resources: Baltimore actually has a lot of assets. From vacant homes, to universities, to open data we need to create programs that let the public find, access, and use these assets for their grand schemes.
Consider Ourselves the Best, No Questions Asked: Sure Baltimore is always talking about itself, but most of the times we talk about our problems not our solutions. We need to see ourselves as the weird, wacky, center of creativity we are. We need to remember that our city has the potential to reinvent our future and lead the way in transforming the world. We don’t need to be the next Philly, the next D.C., the next New York City because someday people are going to want to be the next Baltimore. We’re just that cool.
If we all invest in making Baltimore a little weirder, we might create the next ingenious idea that gives us the competitive advantage to once again rise to national (even worldwide) prominence. We could not only be known for the problems exposed in The Wire, but be known for being one of the few cities to take radical measure to address them. We could be known for our creativity, vision, and justice. If we start investing inward we might find that the idea that saves Baltimore was right under our noses all along.
Every city wants to create the “next Google.” Go to any start up weekend, tech happy hour, or hackathon in any city you will hear the same gospel: the tech industry can save our city. Yet examples from already established tech communities paint a less than delightful picture of the darker impact of tech fueled economic growth.
Right after I had read Lindsey’s post on the the amazing way San Francisco had come together as a community to support a child’s wish, I came across a different view of the city. An article published this week in the New York times discussed the tension boiling between old time San Francisco residents and the new techie influx. Amid higher rent prices, a 98-year-old-woman being forced from her home to make room for new money, and entire districts turned into frat neighborhoods for “tech bros,” the effect of the tech industry that worried me most was what was described in the Mission District.
In a classic example of gentrification, working-class Hispanic residents who once defined the neighborhood were being forced out by the tech elite. The celebration of Day of the Dead, instead of being a cultural celebration, had been transformed by newcomers into a boozy extension of Halloween. Residents and shopkeepers who had been there for decades were being evicted or forced out, no longer able to afford rents in the neighborhood. The culture of the district is rapidly being lost. As one performance artist described it, “One day they will wake up to an extremely unbearable ocean of sameness.”
This wasn’t the first article I read about citizens being pushed out by the new demands from a tech boom. Earlier this month NPR reported on one of the last trailer parks in Silicon Valley. With real estate being at such a premium in the area, the owners of the land want to sell this park, one of the few affordable housing options in the area, to developers. Residents will be forced to move, not only losing their homes in the process, but missing out on the public schools and being forced to have a longer commute. While perhaps this isn’t something these new city dwellers realize, by losing diversity they are losing something too in this equation. One mother of a Palo Alto student explained, “My son has gone on play dates to homes where he found out his friend didn’t have a bedroom. His friend sleeps on a couch. He didn’t even know that that was how some kids grow up. You learn what they don’t have; you learn the richness of what they do have too — the strength of their community and culture and heritage.”
When they push the natives out, they also push the history out, the culture, the weirdness, the part that makes the city unique. In this way technology doesn’t save the city, it simply takes it over. City natives become refugees, forced to find a new home, and not receiving a whole lot of benefit from “the next Google.” This embrace of techies as the saviors of cities is another shining example of what I call Hipster Trickle Down theory. Basically it is the idea that importing bright new creative types whether they be artists, developers, or designers, will lift up the city for everyone. Yet what these Californian examples prove, it does a better job of pushing out people than it does uplifting them.
Can this change? Is there a way of using the technology industry to help everyone in the city? Can tech benefits reach those historically marginalized communities who sometimes sit on the other end of the digital divide? Certainly here in Baltimore we have some programs trying to train Baltimore youth for new opportunities in tech and design. Yet I think we need more than that. We need a city that prioritizes growing from within over looking for new economic saviors. We need policies that focus first on communities struggling the most with poverty and unemployment, and do not wait for the money of tech billionaires to trickle down.
Yes, Baltimore, and cities around the country need more profitable industries but we need these economic behemoths to combine forces with the city residents, not cast them aside. This doesn’t mean some donations to schools or a few hackathons, but a real intention to infuse the people and place of the city into their company, and to work together with the community to make the community better. It’s time for tech companies to ask not what cities can do for them, but what they can do for cities.
Americans spend over 11 billion dollars on Black Friday each year, mainly at large “big box” retailers like Walmart and Target. Yet a new movement, Small Business Saturday, is trying to get a chunk of that change for local businesses. Started by American Express, Small Business Saturday, drives shoppers away from national chains and down to wonderful shopkeepers on mainstreets across the country. If you are one of the 57% of shoppers who actually find Black Friday enjoyable, here are five reasons to consider waiting a day this year and shopping closer to home instead.
1. Avoid lines, crowds, and homicide: Black Friday, is a holiday so crazy that OSHA has issued safety guidelines for retailers. Anyone who has had the misfortune of shopping on this day of consumerist excess knows that a large percentage of the experience is not actually spent shopping but navigating your way through other shoppers to actually purchase something. Every year we are regaled by tales of people who pepper spray, brawl, even shoot each over ferbies or flat screen TVs. Compare that to fun events like Plaid Friday, an initiative in Oakland, CA that wants to take back the Friday after Thanksgiving to be a time to pleasurably and leisurely shop with friends and neighbors at local stores. Shopping local isn’t just more pleasant, it’s also less likely to get you punched by a woman overly eager for the cut-rate deal on a talking picture frame.
2. Keep money in your community: Research from the American Independent Business Alliance found that “for each dollar you spend at independent businesses returns 3 times more money to your local economy than one spent at a chain.” As this infographic from Small Business Saturday adeptly displays, spending money locally is more likely to return back to you and your community.
3. Find unique gifts: Whether it is a handmade bowl or a fuzzy pairs of socks, local stores are sure to impress everyone on your shopping list. As we’ve seen from numerous examples of big box stores stealing designs from local jewelry or home furnishing makers, local artists are often trend setters, creating beautiful pieces far better then what you’ll find at Target. By shopping local you can give gifts that exhibit your town’s quirk.
4. Find what you need: My number one reason why I shop local every Christmas is because it often saves me so much time. I can walk into my local toy store and say I am looking for a gift for a five year old and I want it to be noisy (I know, their parents will hate me), and I walk out moments later with a wrapped gift that is sure to delight. I have a used bookseller who knows my father loves books about the circus and will save any that come his way for me. Instead of spending time looking from aisle to aisle, store to store trying to find the right gift, I have a team of helpful people working in small businesses who can help me find the gifts I need. Shop keepers at local stores aren’t war-weary cashiers hoping to move you along before the crowd gets too irate while waiting in line. They are generally incredibly helpful and can help you find the perfect gift even if you have no idea what exactly you are looking for.
5. Create jobs: Small local businesses are the largest employers nationally and they are less likely to move somewhere else. Supporting small businesses help them stay in business, hire more people, and create conditions for new entrepreneurs to create new local businesses you’ll surely love. As I wrote in an earlier piece on economic gardening, local businesses are often the best catalysts for community development and growth.
If I’m preaching to the choir then maybe this year is time for you to think about how you convince others to shop local. Get involved with a local businessalliance or Main Street campaign to help raise awareness and convince others in the community to make the switch from Black Friday big retailers to Small Business Saturday shops. Year to year sales increase when communities invest in buy local public awareness campaigns. If you don’t have an established organization or are just looking for something small to do then just get a group of your friends to go down to your local shopping district and thank people for buying local. It’s amazing what a small bit of encouragement can do to get people to continue to buy local and ditch Black Friday once and for all.
If this were a video or radio show I would start with clips from this 1960s movie on the American Maker. Since I’m a blogger, I’ll just highly encourage you to watch the first 90 seconds of this video before continuing on to the rest of the post.
I start with this romantic view of an era of American industry because today I want to harken back to a time where Americans were defined by our ability to produce quality products with both beauty and function. “Of all the things Americans are, we are makers,” the film tells us in its opening. When I think of the American Makers, I think of my grandparents and their siblings who live in rural Ohio. Each one of them has a hobby, from making wooden toys to beautiful fountain pens, to quilting, to making jams and pies. Everything exchanged between them on Christmas are things they have made by hand. It’s a culture of making very emblematic of this video, and a culture that has unfortunately largely died out.
“We no longer celebrate the way things get made. We are more interested in the way things get bought,” Mike Rowe wrote in his piece in Fast Company on how to jump start the American auto industry. You might recognize Rowe’s name from Dirty Jobs. As the host, he tours America, apprenticing in strange, messy, and hard jobs alongside the people who work them (hear stories of his work in his TED Talk below). As a result of his work on Dirty Jobs he realized there was a massive problem in America: hard work, craftsmanship, and making were becoming devalued, despite the important role they played in making our lives possible.
It reminded him of a poster he saw in his high school’s counselor’s office. “In the long history of bad advice, you’d have look pretty hard to find something dumber than Work Smart Not Hard,” he said in a film about him remaking the poster that advocated going to college to ensure you didn’t end up doing manual labor. Rowe instead advocates the we have to work smart and hard. The four year degree is considered almost a prerequisite to entering the middle class job market while skilled labor and technical know-how is no longer brought up as an option to most “bright” students. Mike Rowe would like to change that.
“Consider the reality of today’s job market,” Rowe wrote on the website for his mikeroweWORKS Foundation, dedicated to providing resources and scholarships for those getting into trade work: “We have a massive skills gap. Even with record unemployment, millions of skilled jobs are unfilled because no one is trained or willing to do them. Meanwhile, unemployment among college graduates is at an all-time high, and the majority of those graduates with jobs are not even working in their field of study. Plus, they owe a trillion dollars in student loans. A trillion! And still, we push a four-year college degree as the best way for the most people to find a successful career?”
There continues to be a class divide between thinkers, those destined for office jobs, and makers, those destined for trade jobs. You can see the beginnings of the maker/thinker class divide in education. Students who excel in classes take advance placement courses where they learn Sophocles or calculus while those not doing well in the classroom are sent to alternative schools where they learn to work on cars or run a print shop. “Smart” kids go to college and sit in offices, the rest resort to manual labor. Yet, I believe most successful people need both kinds of education. There is incredible value in learning another language, understanding Shakespeare, and knowing stoichiometry. There is also incredible value in learning how to build a robot, repair a car, and sew a shirt. We need our students to be thinkers and makers. There is opportunity in both.
While our parents sought to get away from manual labor, you do see more people in my generation desiring to go back to jobs that get them outside the cubicle. More and more college educated students are going to the farms after graduation to intern. “It’s almost like a third education after college,” one younger man interviewed in a Huffington Post article said of his internship on an organic farm. I was personally one of those people who interned on a farm one summer while I was in college and while there is a lot to learn in the classroom, there is just as much to be learned digging in the dirt. In fact most people I know who became farmers are far happier then those who went on to office work.
The growth of the Maker Faires and hackerspaces in America does give me some hope for the resurgence of the American maker. We are seeing now a resurgence of maker communities and people who want to tinker, build, and create, not just consume. New robotics and lego build programs in schools give students the opportunities to be makers in schools. Places like Pinterest are popping up with thousands of ideas for Do It Yourself fixes and crafts. Etsy, now makes it easier than ever before to create and buy hand made wares. There is new opportunity for Americans to once again make things.
Perhaps it is too idealistic to think that Pinterest, hackerspaces, and youth robotics teams could spell a new era for American industry. What they do let us do is tap into a part of our history, our culture, that we nearly allowed to be forgotten. “We’ve become profoundly disconnected from a critical part of our workforce. The skilled part. The part that keeps the lights on,” Mike Rowe wrote on his website. It’s time to once again celebrate the American Maker.