Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations, May 2016 - June 2016

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Sustainable Business Conversation, June 23, 2016 Topic: Gentrification; the importance of access in a sustainable community

How can we understand what gentrification really means? Photo from Flickr by hettie (CC BY-ND 2.0)
  • With gentrification the real question is access - Access to many things; education, housing, transportation, goods, services, clean water and many other things.
  • Many of us like artisan-made, local food and crafts but these things cost more and not everyone can afford them.
  • When apartment rental costs go up in an area, some people can’t stay in the area where they’ve lived for years because the cost is going up beyond their means. How can I design an experience so that there are various entry points for people with different economic means?
  • One of the group reports that he lives in a historic neighborhood with older homes and it’s becoming more diverse. You need a higher income to maintain a historic home so it’s just not realistic for some people. But what happens to the long-term residents who have lived here for years?
  • On the east side of Detroit, poverty and unemployment are major issues. Squatters have lived in some homes for a long time and have kept these houses alive – making sure that scrappers did not come and strip the wiring and appliances. They have no legal status for being in these homes, but they are providing a valuable service. What happens to them when neighborhoods get stronger and these houses are sold?
  • Some people want to be part of the economy but don’t know how. For low-income people to stay in some neighborhoods, either price needs to go down or their economic means need to go up. How does development increase opportunities for long-time Detroiters?
  • Midtown has quite a bit of low-income housing, but not everyone knows about it. As more development happens, we need to make sure that affordable units are included in new developments. It’s important to keep people of lower means in our community.
  • Some new businesses have intended to hire Detroiters but that can be harder than it looks. Some residents have skill gaps that make it hard to fit in with employer’s needs. Many people have been left behind by lack of education and with the increase in technology.
  • Does new development cater to families? Groups like the elderly or young children are not always seen and valued.
  • Recent statistics say that unemployment is down. However, these statistics don’t include people working 2 or 3 jobs just to make ends meet.
  • There’s a class divide and many middle class or more affluent people don't come into contact with those who are less affluent. Local governments have a history of hiding the homeless, and moving them off the streets before a conference or a sports event. Where are people being moved to? Americans don’t like to look at people suffering.
  • There are always some homeless people who are not interested in help that may be offered - they are content with their life and don't want it to change. They have a lifestyle that they value just the way it is.

Sustainable Business Conversation, June 16, 2016 Topic: Investing in a Sustainable Future, Part 2

Photo by Chris Palmer, from Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Topic this week: Investing with our dollars – how do we make choices in when we choose to spend (or not spend) money?

  • Many of us try to buy from local businesses to keep money flowing into the community. We like to shop at Marcus Market, Avalon, and Goodwells. Also the Meijers in Detroit at 8 Mile. There is now a second Detroit Meijers open near Rosedale Park and a third one may be in the works.
  • When we are showing international visitors around, show them Detroit positives. We invest with our dollars and influence others with our stories and enthusiasm.
  • You can have a significant impact on local businesses even if you spend only small amounts of money.
  • What about gentrification? We need people and money in the city, but we also need a balance between low-income and higher income residents to have a healthy community. Gentrification means there’s an imbalance. (More on this topic next week...)
  • When we buy energy (electricity) you probably don’t know what the makeup of power sources is. How much is made by coal-fired plants? How much by nuclear? How much renewable? You can call your utility and ask them how you can make green energy choices. Let your utility company know that you want green choices. One group member said that he has a smart meter now and run appliances like the dishwasher at off-peak hours (i.e. at night).
  • Wind energy has some opponents in rural areas where a lot of windmills are being built. Problems with strobe-like reflected lights, noise and bird hits are concerns.
  • New information can lead to real changes in an industry. When people learned about the health impacts of formaldehyde in plywood, sales of that type of plywood dropped off and other options were made available.
  • Growing your own food is enjoyable. Plant a little lettuce. Or, go to a local farm stand and support the farmers in your area.
  • Some of us have stopped eating at fast food franchises and prefer independently-owned local restaurants.
  • Reuse things like aluminum foil and plastic bags.
  • Our children are "embryo citizens." What they learn now develops values and habits that will be with them when they’re older. Schools also need to connect with parents and other family members to encourage new habits for the whole family.
  • One of our group took a busload of people to Eastern Market to shop on a Saturday. Food stamps were doubled. It was a first time experience for many and they loved it.
  • How well you maintain a car affects how long the car will last. Also driving habits make a difference. When you do quick starts or slam on the brakes, that takes a toll on the car. A well-maintained Prius should get to 300,000 miles.

Comments on simplifying our lifestyles:

  • I cooked all meals over a fire at a camp recently. I had to learn to control fire and I made some mistakes at first. Learning to use fire gave me a deep down confidence and a connection to ancestral energy. I want to reconnect with my heritage and with nature, to scale down my lifestyle. I really don’t need that much money to run my life.
  • I don’t want to end up with so much life stuff. It’s so easy to buy things and get more stuff. It’s more complicated to get rid of your belongings if you don’t want to just put it out in the trash. If we were accountable for our stuff all the way through to its disposal, that would have a real impact on what we would end up buying in the first place. You take on responsibility when you buy things.
  • Some people want to buy experiences and not stuff.
  • The sharing economy is based on buying less and sharing more. This could create a quandary for business – how can businesses make money when people want to buy less?

Sustainable Business Conversation, June 9, 2016 Topic: Investing in a Sustainable Future, Part 1

More comments on the issues of safety and security:

  • Ribbon Farms Hops: In planning our hop growing fields we are aware that fully leafed-out hops can create hiding places which could be security concerns. Hantz Farms has also been aware of the safety concerns of neighbors who worried that nearby fields planted with trees could create hiding places for crime.
  • What are we willing to risk to fight gentrification? One of our group said, "When I was just out of college I was willing to risk myself. But now that I'm married I have a different view. I want to be sure things are safe for my wife – so we have a big dog, a fence and a security system.
  • A lot of cameras have been installed along walking paths to downtown.
  • The thing about security is that it’s an ever-moving line, and the steps that we take to ensure our security can always be changing. Fences may not always be needed. We are providing leadership through our actions.
  • Get to know the letter carrier, the UPS driver and other neighborhood people who are on the street regularly.

Today's Topic, Sustainable investing: what does that term really mean?

  • Wall Street has long focused on a single (financial) bottom line, but that’s changing. Morningstar (rating firm for investments) has recently rolled out sustainability ratings for all mutual funds on their lists. These ratings include environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors to give people and institutions more information when they make investment decisions. Changing investor preferences have raised these concerns and the investment industry is responding.
  • Understanding risks in the ESG areas helps to understand the overall risk profile of a company which is based on more factors than just financial risks. These ideas are coming up rapidly as a groundswell of new thinking, but there is still significant resistance and many persist in old-school thinking. It’s like the rise of organic food sections in grocery stores, where such sections would have been unimaginable 10 years ago.
  • Investing in stocks has an emotional psychology to it. Many people want to invest in companies that do positive things and want to divest from companies involved in negative actions.
  • For Millennials, sustainability is a given – we think about what we eat, where we live, political choices we make and we tend to question everything. We look for authenticity and transparency – but we live in an age of information overload. There is so much information to sort through.
  • Colleges have changed their investment strategies based on student protests over several issues such as apartheid or conflict minerals. Some of these issues started out in the 1960s or 1970s, but then we forgot and bought suburban houses and big cars.
  • In business, sustainability relates to everything; who you hire, how you reward, how you source materials and how you sell your product. Triple-bottom-line businesses generally outperform the market.
  • Program Related Investments (PRI) are defined by the IRS as investments related to one of the primary purposes of a tax-exempt foundation and could include investment in non-profit organizations with a social purpose. There is a higher demand for this type of investment than there is a supply of PRIs, so significant money that wants to invest in good works is sitting on the sidelines.

Sustainable Business Conversation, June 2, 2016 Topic: Safety and the Sustainable Community, Part 2

Photo of White Pine by S. Rae from Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

We are all involved with issues of safety every day – what are actions we can take?

  • When selecting trees for El Moore Gardens we decided to avoid dense evergreens like Black Hill Spruce, because that creates spaces where a person could hide. Instead we’re looking at Eastern White Pine with an airy growth pattern. Dense overgrown shrubs are not inviting, while beautiful trees and plants create a space that can reduce stress. Context matters – a stand of dense trees in the countryside would not induce fear, but in the city there are different issues and risks.
  • Just say hello: I like to say hello to everyone I walk by – and 85% of the time people speak back to me. This friendly response is more common in Detroit than other cities. I also notice that when I ride a bike, more people are waving and being friendly.
  • Connect and share your stories of the city: Sometimes I tell brief stories to people on the street – for example how the Fox Theater is the second biggest theater in the US – or how there used to be a Bocce ball court in the area near Olympia Stadium where my Grandma lived.
  • When we moved to a house in Boston Edison, neighbors commented on little things like raking leaves and really appreciated that we were taking care of the house. Caring for property creates more beautiful and safer neighborhoods and bring our communities together.
  • The slogan “Detroit vs Everybody” is not really meant to shut people out. It can be an opportunity to come together.
  • Just talking about Detroit in a positive way and having a positive attitude is doing something for our community.
  • A busy neighborhood is also a deterrent to crime. Bringing businesses to Detroit puts more money into the local economy which can lead to less crime.
  • Putting windows into a building that had none (old Green Garage building) changes the dynamics. You send new energy into the system. Things change one flower at a time, one hello at a time. Neighbors start to look out for one another.
  • Activity, Presence and Knowledge: When Two James Distillery started out, we did not initially want metal gates and security systems. Experience showed that some of these things were necessary. When there were fewer surrounding businesses, there were more security issues, but as more businesses have opened nearby there is less petty crime. Now there is a lively Corktown entertainment district.
  • Use common sense: opportunistic crime still happens. Example: It’s not smart to leave a laptop out in plain sight in a car.
  • A sustainable future is only possible when community happens.
  • We need multiple perspectives to understand those who share our community and the dynamics of that community.

Sustainable Business Conversation, May 26, 2016 Topic: Safety and the Sustainable Community, Part 1

Photo by Anders Bornholm from Flickr, (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Comments from last week's conversation:

Value of art in communities:

  • Arts bring diverse people together and can knit a diverse community into a whole.
  • Exposure to arts in schools has allowed many working class kids to get outside their environment and build creative lives.
  • Is art supposed to be limited only to the upper class? In Shakespeare’s day, theater provided opportunities for the royals and the upper classes to come together and interact.

Sharing the creative process:

  • David Philpot will be creating a peace pole for El Moore Gardens. He wants to do the carving in the open, in the park with people watching, talking to him and contributing ideas. This is the way artists work in some African communities.
  • The artist needs to get energy from the community and relate to the community’s soul.

The creative/ intuitive/ emotive human potential is often left out of the work world. We talk about the “quality with no name” which is only experienced at soul level.

Energy is exchanged between performers and the audience in a theatrical production. Each performance is unique and can be magical in the moment.

Today's Topic: Safety and security in community

  • Boggs School has had 3 or 4 break-ins recently – which has affected the community in and around the school. How do you build community if you don’t feel safe enough?
  • There’s a security door in my apartment building. We are told not to hold the door open for someone you don’t recognize – open only for someone who has a passkey. It can be hard because there’s a lot of turnover in student apartments. I hate to be rude, but security matters.
  • Different people perceive safety differently. One set of neighbors may be worried about security and have alarm systems and a safe room in their home. Others feel safe in the same location and rely on common sense.
  • One group member's father was shot and killed in Detroit when her was young. As a reaction to that he decided to live in Detroit - an intentional choice not to live in fear.
  • Our city has many unsafe neighborhoods where drive-by shootings take place. The Remember Me quilt project makes memorial quilts with photos of those who died from gun violence and their families can help to finish the quilts and also to find ways to display them. It’s a statement not to forget the people who have lost their lives and making something can help families in their grieving process.
  • Skillman Foundation research has found that many children in Detroit are living with toxic levels of stress, similar to children in war zones like Afghanistan. With these levels of stress, the brain shuts off areas needed for learning. It’s about survival.
  • There used to be a code on the streets that women and children would not be harmed – but that seems to be breaking down. Random violence is more common and bystanders (including children) get shot.
  • Poverty is not necessarily connected to more crime – especially if there is a strong community. In a viable community people look out for one another. Jane Jacobs says that eyes on the street are key.
  • When the Green Garage was starting, work on the Green Alley was a priority. The alley was originally full of trash and some people thought it was foolish to clean it up because it would just be trashed again. But that’s not what happened. We have a belief in nature and in human kind. We took actions to value the space and to value the people. Now there’s little or no trash problem. We still take sensible precautions for safety. But, as leaders, it’s important to think about what we say - are we spreading rumors and stoking fear? Or are we adding to healthy responses? Crime exists everywhere.

How can sustainable practices help build a community?

Sustainable Business Conversation, May 15, 2016 Topic: Role of Sustainability in Building Community

  • Sometimes working on mundane things like waste management can build community. Recycle Here is one example of people getting to know each other and socialize.
  • Re-use of materials connects people and projects. Tom had a experience walking in the neighborhood and talking to someone who was starting to tear down a building. They wound up being able to re-claim bricks to use at El Moore Park. Getting to know the story of where things come from is important. We wound up creating community – in a way we never expected.
  • Sometimes, when community breaks down, there can be a level of distrust or a closed mindset in a community or organization. This happens in many areas of Detroit that have suffered years of neglect and seen things go downhill for a long time. People go into survival mode and operate with a scarcity mentality. Issues are rooted in collapse of areas of the economy, racism and other deep issues. There’s a tendency to circle the wagons and protect your position.
  • Finding locally sourced ingredients creates community. The stories of food supplies appear on menus so that patrons can become aware of the local farms and growers who supply their food.
  • At a local distillery/bar, a circular bar was designed to encourage conversation between folks who don’t known each other. There’s a friendly spirit in Detroit that wants to come out when there’s a chance.
  • What if each of us had to determine local destinations for our waste instead of just sending it off to an incinerator or a landfill? That would make people really think hard about what happens to their waste and create connections that fit their values.
  • The working class ethic is part of the fabric of Detroit - heads down, work hard and get your paycheck. People work hard here and get things done. This doesn't always lead to the kind of openness that facilitates building relationships within the wider community.
  • Corporations are part of our community and we need to understand the corporate point of view. GM has a policy of only donating waste materials to non-profits. There are probably multiple reasons behind their policies. Those who want to divert waste from a landfill to productive use have to figure out how to work within existing rules, and those rules can change over time.
  • Innovation doesn’t necessarily come from new technologies. There are simple ways to innovate based on inter-connectedness and small projects. A green entrepreneurial think tank would be a great thing. Business ideas can build together and help create jobs. Food, shelter and transportation are basic needs. Sometimes entrenched entities block innovation.
  • Music is an international form of communication. The electronic music festival creates a worldwide community, attracting over a million people to Detroit every year. Detroit is a very welcoming city and has more room for new people and more opportunities than many other cities in the US or the world.

Sustainable Business Conversation, May 5, 2016 Open Discussion Day

This was an open discussion and we started with a check-in around the table:

  • A long-term holistic approach is basic to sustainability.
  • Relationship building is fundamental.
  • Some of us face challenges in talking to people who just don’t understand the concept of sustainable practices.
  • In Sarah's family business they have learned that it's so important to build a relationship with a new customer. You must establish trust and find out how a customer pays their bills before extending credit. The first deliveries must be cash on demand (COD). Women tend to have a hard time setting a fair price – saying “this is how much it costs.” – then sticking to a price that is fair to the business.
  • Peter is working on a project looking at reuse options for spent grain from the brewing and distilling industry. The volume of spent grain is one of the largest co-products in that industry and Detroit has a significant number of craft breweries and distilleries. One estimate is that about 50 tons per week of spent grains are produced in Detroit alone. Currently this co-product can be used as cattle feed in some circumstances. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed rules to regulate the use of spent grain as cattle feed, although the risks associated with this practice are seen as minimal. There is the potential for the creation of a spent grain clearinghouse to facilitate reuse and identify outlets for the highest economic value. Numerous other entrepreneurial opportunities could arise from this virtually free and valuable raw material. Other possible reuses include: fish food, soil amendments, dog treats, energy production, construction materials, etc. However significant work would be needed to develop food handling protocols to get the FDA to allow re-flouring for human consumption.

What motivates you to do what you do?

  1. As an artist I want to address social issues – good and bad.
  2. When we are aware of all the issues – we have to do something about it. Doom and gloom doesn’t motivate people. I’m persistent for issues I care about.
  3. I’m retired but I don’t want to be in a rocking chair – time to stay relevant. It’s fun to help people with their businesses.
  4. 100 years ago organic farming was the norm. My grandfather was convinced in the 1950s that food additives could cause cancer.
  5. I want to be part of innovation and business. It’s in my nature to find solutions and contribute to something real.
  6. I love physics and sub-atomic particles. Consciousness is a cosmic blunder. We need to come up with creative solutions to beautiful, intractable problems.
  7. I’m aware of injustices for people with mental health issues. The human spirit is amazing – how we can re-create ourselves in so many ways. We need to clean up our world.
  8. I’m just stubborn – I don’t want to let these issues die.
  9. People used to be part of healthy communities. We need to go back to basics. It just makes sense.
  10. People need someone to share with. Stories need to connect with people. Globalization pulls some people out of poverty but also can create isolation in local areas.