SVI 2013: Judy Wicks, Local Economies Activist

“Material growth is in conflict with the finite resources of the planet. We need to find ways to grow that aren’t in conflict.”

Adventure seems to ooze from Judy Wicks.

There seems to be no end to the list of accolades and awards Judy Wicks has amassed over the years. She has been celebrated as the James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year, presented with the International Association of Culinary Professionals Humanitarian Award, and the Philadelphia Sustainability Award for Lifetime Achievement—and there are many, many more distinctions beyond these. Yet the enviable reputation that precedes Judy speaks not of others’ recognition, but of her boundless energy, her lifetime of dedication, and of love—love felt by many for her, and love that she herself has clearly demonstrated for the many people who have moved through her work and life.

SVI Hollyhock

Ahead of the 19th annual Social Venture Institute September 18-22 at Hollyhock, I was fortunate to spend time with this serial social entrepreneur, lifelong adventurer, dedicated activist, and outstanding human being. As one of this year’s ‘True Confessions’ keynote speakers, Judy is looking forward to sharing insights into her work and career with the 150 social entrepreneurs who will fill the campus at Hollyhock.

So I worked for ten years with the Zapatistas.

It’s an unusual sentence to dive into a conversation about local economies! But that seems to be Judy’s style. A lifetime of adventure and international activism will do that, I suppose. Judy was moved by the Zapatistas’ resistance to large, US-based businesses whose presence in Mexico post-NAFTA was threatening their ancient local economy. Theirs was not a unique experience: from rice growers in southeast Asia to textile makers in Africa, many local economies were threatened by transnational corporations’ global expansion.

The greatest ‘aha’ moment came for Judy, though, when she realized that the same dynamic was apparent in her home town of Philadelphia. Despite her long commitment to sustainable business with her famed White Dog Cafe, she came to realize that there’s no such thing as a single sustainable business: “We all need to be a part of a sustainable system.

She set about to work with her restaurant’s suppliers—vendors of pastured pork, grass-fed beef, free range chicken, and of course a full complement or organic vegetables and fruits. She built a network of local producers, and then shared it with her competitors! The Fair Food Network became a shining example of sustainable supply chains and local economic development.

Building BALLE

In the 1990s, Judy was in a leadership position with Social Venture Network, the 25-year old organization of social venture pioneers (in which the Social Venture Institute finds its roots). She convened a retreat for members of SVN who were particularly interested in self-reliant, local economies. About 25 people showed up for a weekend of conversation, and at the Fall 2001 SVN conference, they announced the launch of what would become the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.

Today, BALLE envisions within a generation, “a global system of human-scale, interconnected local economies that function in harmony with local ecosystems to meet the basic needs of all people, support just and democratic societies, and foster joyful community life.” As a BALLE Director to this day, Judy is still wholly committed to this mission.

We’re fortunate this year that SVI will count among its attendees more than a dozen of the current BALLE Fellows. These 16 diverse advocates of ‘local, living economies’ represent some of the best and brightest ‘localists’ from across North America. Their ideas and approaches bring profound lessons for social venture leaders of all stripes.

Rethinking Our Ideas of Growth

In the business world and in society at large, we need to find new ways to think about growth. Judy’s example with White Dog Cafe, perhaps her most famous business, is a strong one. The restaurant grew and grew, finally stabilizing at about $5 million in revenues and 100 staff—a significant local player. One idea for growth—and it’s a typical approach—was to create a second White Dog in another community. But that might have displaced another local business that already was doing well. So instead, Judy opened (what else?!) Black Cat, a retail store right next door, that sold locally made, fair trade gifts.

“I ran that store for 20 years,” said Judy. “And over the same time, we expanded White Dog by offering educational programs, which deepened our relationships with our customers. We expanded our consciousness; we developed creativity. And none of that absorbed any natural resources!”

Rethinking Our Ideas of Decision-Making

In business, so many decisions are made analytically and logically. Often, the quickest route to scale is believed to be the best route to scale. But that’s an outmoded and staid line of thinking in an era when we know humanity’s influence on our planet is threatening ecosystems around the world.

Sometimes—perhaps most times—decisions are stronger when they “balance the head and the heart,” says Judy. In the social venture community, this is fortunately not a unique claim. Many effective social venture leaders are doing the ‘inner work’ it takes to lead lives of balance, and to infuse their daily experience with the wisdom it takes to make sound, enduring decisions that benefit their businesses, and equally the communities around them. “Some of my most important decisions were made from the heart,”Judy recalls. Certainly, as her passion for her new book, Good Morning, Beautiful Business: The Unexpected Journey of an Activist Entrepreneur and Local Economy Pioneer, flows down the telephone line, it’s clear that working from the heart has become instinctive for Judy.

Rethinking Community Connection

Often in conversation, Judy’s first instinct is to ‘be a localist’—BALLE’s slogan and rallying cry. “Live in the same community where you work!” Judy led White Dog Cafe while living in an apartment upstairs: “I couldn’t have done what I did if I didn’t live above the shop,” she said. That proximity to her children made it possible to connect entrepreneurship and motherhood. Which leads to an interesting piece of advice….

“Don’t separate ‘work life’ and ‘family life,’” she cautions. “Developing deeper, closer relationships around holistic lives means we’re not torn between different communities. And commuting time is just silly and wasteful!”

It’s hard to argue. Judy’s tone is always light and cheery, but her message is sober and clear: our constant obsession as a culture with more / bigger / faster has led us to create a society that’s fragmenting even as it ‘scales up.’

“We need communities that can rely on themselves for basic needs: food security, water security, energy security. Eventually housing, clothing and more.” This is the imperative that has driven Judy from White Dog Cafe to her work with the Zapatistas, to the formation of BALLE, and through so many other adventures and enterprises. “We should be using global trade to exchange truly exciting things that are distinctive to local markets,” she says. “Fashionable shoes [in a hat-tip to fellow True Confessions speaker John Fluevog], good wine, cheeses, cultural pieces and art…. there’s a real need for entrepreneurs to turn their attention to this!”

It would be easy to be dazzled by Judy’s many awards, or even to be intimidated by the accolades that precede her. But she won’t let you. This is simply because for her, it all comes down to a profound and simple truth: that which is local connects us, binding us together in community. For Judy, this is how we together “celebrate our humanity.”

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