The local economy movement is multi-faceted. But throughout its evolution, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies—BALLE for short—has been its spiritual center and guiding force. Seventeen years after it was founded to advance the ‘buy local’ and Main Street agenda, the nonprofit is entering a new phase. Under the leadership of Rodney Foxworth, a 2016 BALLE Fellow who late last year took over the reigns from longtime executive director Michelle Long, the organization is poised to deepen its work around racial equity and collaboration, furthering the BALLE vision of “an economy that works for all.”
Since leaving his native Baltimore, where he founded and ran Invested Impact, for Oakland, Calif., Foxworth has been on a whirlwind tour, meeting with BALLE networks and funders. We managed to catch up with Foxworth, pictured above, to talk about the future of BALLE. Just don’t call it Rodney’s vision.
Locavesting: You came from the BALLE Fellow network… how has it had an impact on you and your work?
Rodney Foxworth: The fellowship experience was phenomenal, difficult and challenging at the same time. It was deeply impactful for me. In terms of how it informs my leadership of BALLE, I know intimately what it’s like to be a leader within a community that’s been hard hit, where you’re trying to create system change and create opportunities where they did not exist before, with very little resources. I’m focused on that under-resourced doer, that changemaker, and what kind of resources they need.
How has BALLE evolved since its founding in 2001 and how will it evolve under your leadership?
BALLE started off as a member-based organization that served local business associations leading buy local first campaigns, and encouraging local production of goods. It was pioneering. BALLE developed an ecosystem approach to something that was scattered, and didn’t have robust infrastructure or coordination. More recently, we’ve moved towards communities of practice, beginning with the Local Economy Fellowship aimed at identifying systems entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders developing inclusive, equitable economies in their place.
That program has continued to grow—we’ll be announcing our fifth cohort in March: 25 individuals working in or with rural communities across North America. They’re edge-pushers in their place as it relates to economic inclusion, development, and equity.
The Local Economy Foundation Circle started off as a partnership with RSF [Social Finance]. That community of practice is focused on working with foundations with a place-based mission: community foundations, private foundations and other philanthropic organizations looking to mobilize capital within their community, including place-based impact investing. They’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in their communities and pushing the role of philanthropy.
Another program, the Local Economy Investors Circle, helps individuals who are looking to invest in their local economy and create positive change. They’re from all over: Arkansas, Boston, California, Montana.
The BALLE Leadership Network encompasses these three communities of practice.
And going forward?
A big part of my vision is deepening the work of our communities of practice and growing from there. I’m committed to deepening the resources that are available to our Fellowship community, who are often very under-resourced individuals, whether they’re in Jackson, MS, Cincinnati, OH or Washington, DC. I want to evolve BALLE into a conduit for resource aggregation, where our Fellows have the financial and social capital necessary to achieve their visions. The goal is to mobilize a lot more resources financially. That includes potentially developing philanthropic and hybrid funds to support our Fellows, particularly around collaboration. Is there an opportunity for us to accelerate and resource that collective action?
The second thing, BALLE is a North American network of pioneering individuals who really push the boundaries of economic change in their communities. We’ve got this phenomenal Leadership Network. The question is, how do we better connect them? We have the BALLE Leadership Summit and immersions where we facilitate for our communities of practice. How do we make sure they are connected across different cohorts, and that our Foundation and Investors Circle members are connected with Fellows? What can we do to accelerate that?
It’s a community vision. As I’ve transitioned into the role I’ve spent four or five months engaging with staff, Fellows, circle members and funders to really create something. I see it as much more than Rodney’s vision, it has really been informed and crowdsourced by BALLE stakeholders.
How big is the cumulative BALLE leadership network?
With the launches of our next cohorts of Fellows and the Foundation Circle, this spring, there will be 160 individuals in the Network.
You have written powerfully about the urgency surrounding the injustices and inequities that hold back people of color, and the non-urgent response of many foundations. Any progress on that front in your view?
I’m working on a piece about impact investing now – we have proof points from BALLE circles that there are philanthropic investors that understand. One thing that is universal across our communities of practice is these are all individuals that are ecosystem builders and doers. Within our Foundation Circle, you’re going to get the person who is fighting for change within their foundation, the boundary pushers of their institutions. There are foundation leaders that definitely understand it. The question is, what is the role of an organization like BALLE to support decision makers at these institutions, ready to act with urgency? I’m optimistic or I wouldn’t be doing this work. And I’m inspired by the foundation leaders I see trying to push equity and inclusion that are driving change.
BALLE Fellow highlights for 2017
Aaron Tanaka’s Boston Ujima Project launched their effort to democratize the Boston economy with a founding general assembly.
Jessica Norwood’s Runway Project announced their first “friends and family capital” loans to entrepreneurs of color.
Lisa Pinckney’s Footprint Foundation in Chattanooga, TN, voted to shift 100 percent of their $20 million endowment into impact investments.
Sallie Calhoun, Esther Park, and Nikki Silvestri launched the No Regrets Initiative, a relationship-centered approach to land and asset management.
Let’s talk about the BALLE Fellows, that brilliant group of innovators. What are some of the things that you’re excited about?
As I mentioned, we’ll soon be announcing the 2018 cohort, which will be a great opportunity to discover more about the incredible work that is happening in rural communities across North America. Overall, I’d say the scale of collaboration is what’s most encouraging. We get to see what happens when Harold Pettigrew from Wacif is ensuring that Fellows in southern California like Tomás Durán [of Concerned Capital] are integrated and incorporated in National League of Cities.
Or when Brendan Martin of The Working World organizes Fellows to raise capital for worker-owned businesses. Often, institutional investors will say, ‘your fund is too small, we need to deploy $50 million.’ So Brendan is saying, how about we come together and collectively approach these asset owners and managers, and say we can have a fund of some size that will allow you to enter into the Cincinnati market, or D.C., Boston, New York, southern California, instead of going at it separately.
So our Fellows have been working together to achieve incredible outcomes. Those are the kind of things that are exciting to me.