Downtown Dardanelle, from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. See more on Downtown Dardanelle’s revitalization at the end of the article.
One of my favorite magazines is YES!, a national publication striving to, as they explain it, “reframe the biggest problems of our time in terms of their solutions.” In both their online and print publications they provide inspiring stories of everyday people who are engaged in citizen engagement from the bottom up.
Most of the stories in the magazine aren’t about politicians or large non-profits or philanthropists—the societal roles we often believe will solve our problems. Rather, this magazine focuses on the power of everyday people working together to creatively address our deepest struggles. It’s a publication that continually reminds readers that we don’t have to be a city leader or independently wealthy to make a change. We can start right where we are. Many of you are no doubt doing this.
Concepts of localism have gained a great deal of traction in recent years. We all know our downtowns are struggling to survive and this is more than just an issue of nostalgia. Sprawl is a reality even in small towns, where big box stores offer low prices and undercut small businesses, forcing local people out of business, many of whom have been there for generations. Sometimes towns pushback against this; most often they do not, partially because the death of our small towns can feel inevitable, especially in a time when everyone is already struggling to make ends meet. After all, big box stores can bring jobs to communities, offering a much needed income to struggling workers. It’s hard to be an idealist when you just need to put food on the table.
But local economies deeply matter, and they’re what make communities thrive over the long haul. It’s about small-scale decision making rather than corporate rule. And it’s something we’re losing sight of in a major way, aided by politicians on both sides of the aisle. Downtowns aren’t just quaint places to buy crafts. They’re about local democracy, about putting people to work using local resources and using these resources wisely so they’re still there when our grandkids’ grandkids call these places home.
But far too often discussions of local economies are geared toward middle and upper middle class people who can afford a certain kind of consumerism. If we want to create sustainable long-term goals for local economies, we have to think about folks who aren’t making much. Local business and low-income workers should not be seen as two different ends of an economic spectrum. We need a new language for talking about localism that defies gentrification.
A recent series in YES Magazine is exploring what they publication is dubbing “Commonomics,” an exploration of what strong, sustainable, local economies can look like. Here’s how YES! describes the new series: “In Commonomics, we’re going to talk with some of the people and groups who, when it comes to sustainability and localism, have often been excluded from the policymaking and the debate, and yet who may have the most rooted and innovative ideas for building strength.”
So the series isn’t a series about the usual players—the wealthy donors, the tourist shops, or a strict focus on rebuilding our Main Streets with high-end shops. This is about thinking about economies that are built for everyone in the community.
Of course, this isn’t in support of bringing more Wal-Marts to town or populating our communities with mega stores. It’s about rethinking what works locally—-not just now, but 30 years from now, one hundred years from now. Series editor Laura Flanders explains it this way: “The goal is having community-led, community-controlled economies where the decision-making is by those who are feeling the effects of the decisions that are made. [We need] humanly scaled systems both in economics and politics.”
I’d love to hear about what these discussions can look like locally. What has history taught us about local businesses? Are we learning from our successes and failures? Are we thinking about the long haul of community building? Are we building democratic economic systems on a local scale? If not, how do we, everyday people, start right here right where we are?
More on local issues:
“Dardanelle Residents Working to Develop Downtown.”