Recently, while in Grand Rapids, I had the occasion to meet Judy Wicks, the founder of the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia, and the woman who, ten years ago, brought the Business Alliance for Living Local Economies (BALLE) into being. Since the meeting, we’ve been chatting by way of email… Here’s the interview.
MARK: Having just returned from the BALLE conference, I wanted to ask you a few questions about the organization, how it got started, and where you see the localist movement headed. Before we talk about BALLE, though, I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about your restaurant in Philadelphia, White Dog Cafe, and why you decided to open it 1983. Did you open it with the intention of pushing the envelope with regard to sustainability and ethical business practices, or did those ideas just evolve naturally over time?
JUDY: When I opened the White Dog Cafe on the first floor of my house, in 1983, I had never heard of sustainability or even socially responsible business. I just wanted to have a warm gathering place serving simple American food, where people could gather for friendship and good conversation. My ideas about business developed over time. My business was my teacher and became my vehicle for bringing social change.
MARK: I’ve read that, prior to the launch of White Dog, you were a co-founder of the Free People’s Store, which later became Urban Outfitters. I’m curious to know if the trajectory of Urban Outfitters in any way influenced your views on business. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but, having heard a few things about the culture, ethics and politics of Urban Outfitters, I’m wondering if what you did at White Dog, and later, through BALLE, was in any way in response to that experience.
JUDY: No, it was in no way a response. I started the Free People’s Store in 1970 with my first husband (Richard Hayne), my 5th grade boyfriend. We were 23 at the time and were very aligned politically as anti-war, anti-corporate progressives. The store was a sixties kind of place with progressive books, houseplants, new and used clothing, and hip house wares – a sort of department store for the under 30 crowd. We even campaigned for George McGovern out of the store. I left the marriage and the business in 1972 because I wanted to seek my own path for a number of reasons. As I continued my progressive views and learned to use my business to express those views through the educational programs at the restaurant as well as my business practices, I was unaware that my ex-husband had changed his views until about 10 years ago and that really had no effect on me whatsoever. We don’t talk politics or business when we do happen to run into each other.
MARK: White Dog was at the forefront of the local food movement, using local ingredients, nurturing relationships with farmers in the region, and encouraging other restaurants to do the same. If I’m not mistaken, you not only cultivated a network of local suppliers, but you shared your supplier list with your competitors. (My guess is that you wouldn’t refer to them as competitors, but you know what I mean.) Why did you think that this was important? Was it in reaction to the practices of factory farms, especially as they related to animal welfare? Or, was it more about taste and quality? Or, were you consciously trying, in your way, to hasten the reemergence of the small-scale “family” farm?
JUDY: My decision to share my farm suppliers with my competitors was a big turning point in my career, in my life really. I did it first of all because of my love for animals and my abhorrence of the factory farm system that is so inhumane to the animals that provide so much for humans. It is a moral issue for me. But also, the whole experience made me very conscious that it is not enough to have good business values and practices within our companies, but that we have to work together to build a whole economy with those values. There is no such thing as one sustainable business. We can only be a part of a sustainable system, and we must work cooperatively to build that system. Supporting local family farms by getting as many restaurants to buy from them as possible was something I could help do. Not only did I share my sources, but I used my own profits to start Fair Food and hire someone to provide free assistance to chefs in learning to buy from farmers. I also loaned $30,000 to the farmer bringing us pastured pork so that he could buy a truck to deliver to many restaurants. So, for me, it was not only about cooperating, but also sharing – two things we need to do in creating a sustainable world for all. Caring is at the base of it all.
MARK: I’ve read that you sold White Dog in 2009, but that you did so in such a way that local ownership was preserved, and the culture that you’d created would continue. Can you tell us how you were able to manage that?
JUDY: Yes, I kept ownership of the name White Dog Cafe and I now license the name to the new owners of the restaurant along with a social contract that requires them to maintain most all the sustainable practices I developed there, such as buying from local farmers, using only humanely raised meat, poultry and eggs, only sustainably caught seafood, fair trade chocolate, coffee, tea, vanilla and cinnamon, 100% renewable energy, solar hot water, composting, etc. They can start more White Dog Cafes, but only if 51% off the ownership lives within 50 miles – so no chains. They did start a second one in the suburbs near where the principle owner lives, and they are doing very well there – more business for local farmers, sustainable fisheries, etc. It’s turned out well.
MARK: Before we talk about your activities on the national stage, I was wondering if you could tell us a little about your neighborhood in Philadelphia, and how it changed with the existence of White Dog. Would I be correct in assuming that White Dog contributed toward making the neighborhood what it is today? Can you give us a few examples of things that happened, either directly, or indirectly, because of White Dog? Have employees, for instance, gone on to create businesses of their own? Have more families moved into the neighborhood?
JUDY: In 1972, when I moved to the block where the White Dog is today (the 3400 block of Sansom Street in Philadelphia), it was slated to be demolished to make way for a mall of chain stores and fast food restaurants. I was part of the community effort to stop the demolition. When we won, we were each given the right to buy our house. That was my first fight against corporate globalization. The White Dog became a hub for progressive activities in Philly with nationally known speakers such as Jim Hightower, Amy Goodman, Lester Brown, and Helen Caldicott, covering topics like ending the war on drugs, climate change, independent media – you name it! We took busses of customers to DC to protest the war or stand up for children. We also had community tours of farms, prisons, affordable housing, community gardens, etc, and international tours to places at odds with the US government – Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Soviet Union, to work on changing policy. We had a film series, storytelling, and community service days, and ran a mentoring program for inner city high school students. We changed many lives through these programs. A number of employees went onto to start their own restaurants as well as a bakery and a chocolate company.
MARK: At what point did you decide to expand your focus beyond Philadelphia, and get involved with the Social Venture Network, from which BALLE spun out ten years ago? What was the impetus behind that move?
JUDY: I was invited to join SVN by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s. Ben discovered me, and connected me to like minded business people. It was then that I realized I wasn’t working alone and that I wasn’t crazy. Other people, too, had unusual ideas about using business as a vehicle for social change. I learned many things at SVN, where we all inspired each other to do more in our efforts to make the world a better place. From my work in local economies in Philly, and also from the work I did with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, I understood that local self-reliance was crucial. I was greatly effected by the sale of Ben & Jerry’s (the sale was opposed by Jerry and Ben, by the way) and saw how even the socially responsible companies were using the old paradigm of continual growth to measure success – growing bigger and bigger, and then being bought out by multi-nationals: Odawalla Juice, Stoneyfield Farms, the Body Shop, Honest Tea, Tom’s of Maine – many of the icons of the movement. I saw that there needed to be a new movement – one that created an alternative economy that decentralized ownership where businesses were human scale and connected to place, protecting the local biosphere and supporting community life. I was the incoming chair of SVN and was thinking deeply about these issues. I suggested the SVN Local Network Initiative as a way to get support for this concept.
MARK: At the BALLE conference, I heard a few references to an historic meeting that took place in the “Wicky Wacky Woods.” Judging from the context, I’m guessing that’s where the idea for BALLE was hatched between you, Michale Shuman, Laurie Hammel, and others, to launch BALLE. Is that correct? And, if so, can you provide a little background?
JUDY: Yes, after I proposed the Local Network Initiative to the SVN board, it was decided that I would have a gathering of the SVN members interested in this. I invited them to my place in the Poconos that I call the Wicky Wacky Woods. There were about 20 of us from across the country from California to Chicago to Boston. We invited Michael Shuman to come because he had written the book “Going Local.” We developed some of the basic ideas at that retreat and decided that we would have speakers on localization at the fall SVN conference, encouraging more SVN members to come to our second meeting, at the end of the conference. It was then that we officially started a new organization, though still being incubated at SVN and not yet with the name BALLE. A number of us went home to our own communities and started local business networks – Laury in Boston, Jim Slama in Chicago, Ted Rouse in Baltimore, Guy Bazzanni in Grand Rapids, Joel Soloman in Vancouver, etc. Once we had some networks established we became an alliance of these networks – the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE).
MARK: How would you categorize the growth of BALLE over the past ten years? Did you think that the organization would have grown to over over 22,000 member businesses in just a decade?
JUDY: I’m not surprised that we have that many. We had some ups and downs that stifled growth – the usual growing pains – or we would likely have more members. I feel we are positioned now to grow much faster, especially because we are opening up membership to individual businesses, investors, and community leaders, where before BALLE members were local networks. Now if there is not a local network in your community, you can still join BALLE. The interest in localization is growing fast, and I expect BALLE grow even faster.
MARK: What are your thoughts on the future of BALLE, now that you’ve grown a robust network of ethics-driven, intensely-local businesses committed to sustainability? Are there ways to leverage the members that you have so far, who span the continent? Specifically, I was thinking that there might be ways to coordinate activities and lobby for single-payer health care, for instance. I appreciate that some members may be disinclined to get too political, and thus alienate potential allies in the localist movement, but I’ve got to think there are some issues that the BALLE membership might get behind.
JUDY: I’m with you on that, but its tricky. BALLE does not have the manpower to get involved in public policy directly, but BALLE is a member of the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) and we support their efforts to be the voice of progressive business.
MARK: I’m curious to know your thoughts on something. I’d like to consider myself a big supporter of local business. I’ve organize buy-local campaigns, held conferences on local business, and do my best to patronize and promote those local businesses that are doing good work in my area. I acknowledge, however, that sometimes it gets complicated. For instance, as much as I like to patronize my locally owned coffee shops, and celebrate the fact that my small city’s downtown has remained Starbucks free, I realize that it’s not black and white. For instance, Starbucks offers insurance, when my favorite local coffee shops do not. They also pay better. Furthermore, they’ve been at the forefront nationally on issues like gay rights. I’m wondering what you would say to someone, who, like me, is sometimes conflicted. In the hierarchy of values, why should localism carry more weight than other considerations?
JUDY: I agree that its not black and white. Not all local companies do the right thing. Often times small local companies can not afford to give the same benefits to their employers that a national chain does, even though they want to. And they are not big enough to have a national impact on issues. But if you want to have economic justice, we need to have more owners to spread wealth more broadly and bring economic power back to our communities. If we want to have a strong democracy, we need to have many owners to spread politically power broadly. We have seen all the bad things that have come from business ownership concentrating into the hands of a few when it comes to equality and freedom. So much of our lives have been controlled by large corporations – the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the news we read and even our government. Localization – the decentralization of food systems, energy systems, media, manufacturing – is changing that. Ultimately, this movement is creating a stronger democracy. And I feel that when every community in the world has food, water and energy security we will have the foundation for world peace. I also feel that there is greater community in places where there are locally owned companies and the owners are involved in civic life. The butcher, baker and candlestick maker were once the backbone of communities. We are building stronger communities and that increases happiness.
MARK: If I’m not mistaken, you’re presently working on a book. If it wouldn’t be giving too much away, could you tell me what it’s about?
JUDY: It’s a memoir focusing on my business career and the path that took me to the localization movement – from growing up in a small town, living in an Eskimo village, running the White Dog, and starting BALLE. It’s called “Good Morning, Beautiful Business – the Unexpected Journey of an Activist Entrepreneur and Local Economy Pioneer.” Chelsea Green is the publisher and it will be out next spring, 2013.