Buying Local
by Carl Mellor

Over the next six weeks, holiday arts-and-crafts festivals will be in full swing. These examples of local economic democracy include the Peace Council's own Plowshares Craftsfair, Dec. 2-3 at Nottingham High School; Art Mart, currently open six days a week during the holiday season at 401 S. Salina St.; and the "From The Earth" arts-and-crafts show held on Nov. 18-19 and Dec. 16-17 at the Onondaga Nation School. Each brings its own flavor: Plowshares' mix of culture, community and politics, a celebration of Haudenosaunee culture in "From The Earth," and Art Mart's showcasing of local artists and artisans for 52 holiday seasons.

And yet, there is commonality among the three events. All of them provide an alternative to mass-produced goods, stores owned by international corporations and the rampant consumerism evident in the mob scene at local malls the day after Thanksgiving. All honor the creativity of a potter, jeweler or beadworker. All have an economic component-the exchange of money for goods solely within the local community.

More thorough discussion of local economic alternatives must, of course, extend beyond the holidays. Regionally, we can point to food cooperatives, direct buying from local farmers, and local currency systems such as Ithaca Hours, one of the most successful in the world (www.ithacahours.com). There are two socially responsible credit unions, the Syracuse Cooperative Federal Credit Union (SCFCU) on Westcott Street in Syracuse and the Alternatives credit union, based in Ithaca. The Syracuse Cultural Workers (SCW) have operated for 25 years, creating and selling calendars, greeting cards and other items devoted to themes of peace, diversity and human rights. Along the way, SCW has built a constituency not only in Central New York but also around the country.

Even as we celebrate the alternative sector of our local economy, certain realities come to mind. The combined assets of every credit union in Central New York are for the most part small compared to those owned by a bank. In addition, on a busy day like Nov. 24, the receipts for a few of the bigger stores in the Carousel Mall will far outstrip total sales for every local arts-and-crafts show.

Is that cause for despair? No. Is growing economic alternatives a difficult task? Yes. Nonetheless, there is room for expansion. Although the SCFCU has experienced substantial growth over the past 15 years, it welcomes new members. While the SCFCU is open to people living in certain Syracuse neighborhoods or involved in one of 35 field-of-membership organizations, only a small percentage of those eligible for membership have actually joined. Reasons for low membership include but are not limited to the general unawareness that credit unions have federal deposit insurance.

Similarly, with Plowshares now situated in a larger space that can accommodate more than 100 craftspersons, attendance has increased substantially. However, community awareness of the festival hasn't reached a saturation point. Volunteers who work the door at Plowshares still encounter people who say they are coming for the first time or haven't come by in about ten years. Reaching beyond the usual suspects doesn't necessarily mean high-end marketing; it might entail something as simple as mentioning Plowshares or other local crafts events to a friend or co-worker.

We can also be encouraged by what is happening in other communities. Indeed, local alternative economic initiatives are only a microcosm of activities and enterprises around the nation. In other cities, healthcare workers have formed cooperatives to line up work, trim away administrative costs and boost their pay. Self-employed workers have banded together to purchase health insurance. The Craft Emergency Relief Fund (www.craftemergency.org/), a small organization based in Montpelier, Vermont, helps craftspersons who have lost work due to accident, illness or a natural disaster.

Supporting local economic initiatives does not preclude or supplant advocacy for minimum-wage increases or better workplace safety or preservation of the Social Security system. All of it comes into play; all of it is part of striving for economic democracy.

Another facet of this struggle is conceptual; i.e. recognition of the fact that each of us, no matter how modest our level of income, has some power implicit in spending decisions. The first step is looking at a wider range of options, including seeking local vendors instead of a chain store, focusing on the proposition that dollars, whenever possible, should stay in the local community (see below).

This process isn't predicated on a standard of absolute purity. For example, it's not possible to buy a car or truck made in Syracuse or most other consumer goods. It is possible to make small changes, to move a chunk of Holiday shopping away from department stores and toward local players.

Cynics argue such shifts represent a drop in the bucket. Pragmatists acknowledge the inherent difficulties in making significant local economic changes in the 21st century but also say it's a vital step for our community. Spending a dollar involves a decision, a vote as important as the one on Election Day.

Carl is a member of the Syracuse Peace Council.