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Tuesday, January 23, 2018
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The Rural We: Alice Maggio

Alice Maggio is the Executive Director at BerkShares, Inc., as well as Director of Programs at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. Since 2012 she’s worked with the board of BerkShares, now in its 11th year, to use the currency as a tool for local economic development. Maggio has represented the currency in places around the world, including conferences in New York City, Barcelona and the Hague. After earning a B.A. in Sociology and French Studies at Wesleyan, she went on to bake pies in Brooklyn, teach English in the Alps, and cook Basque food in Manhattan before returning to the Berkshires. She serves on the boards of the Berkshire Children’s Chorus, the Berkshire United Way and the 1Berkshire Strategic Alliance, as well as the Community Advisory Board for WAMC Northeast Public Radio.

I was born in Brooklyn, but my parents moved us up here when I was five because my dad wanted to have sheep. When I went to Wesleyan, I realized how different the Berkshires are from other areas of the U.S., and that I was privileged to grow up around sheep and eat food from farmers that I knew. My father is a great chef and my mother is a fantastic baker, so we as a family became interested in what is now called the local food movement. The year I went to college, 2006, Berkshares first were issued. At some point I got one and kept it in my wallet. It was the same year The Omnivore’s Dilemma was published, and that was a huge influence on me. I started to be more interested in how I could help contribute to the local food movement. I had a fabulous sociology professor who made me realize there were a lot of injustices, and a lot of social structures that are invisible but that create inequalities.

Photo by Kari Giordano

I graduated and moved to New York City, where I worked at Four & Twenty Blackbirds, a small pie shop started by two sisters. I was their first pie baker and I learned a lot about running a small business. I then went to the Alps to teach English and got placed in a tiny town five hours from Marseilles that was reminiscent of Great Barrington, but much more remote. It was very secluded but there was a farmers market that sold local produce and honey. After seven months there, I moved back to NYC and ended up cooking at a Basque restaurant run by a husband and wife team. I learned a lot, but realized I didn’t want a career as a chef. My interest in food led me there, but I hadn’t yet really found my place.

That’s when a good friend from Wesleyan got an internship with the Schumacher Center, which is located about two miles from where I live now in Egremont. I found out they’re involved with BerkShares, one of which had been in my wallet for the last five years. I’d been using it to show people where I’m from. There was a BerkShares internship available and, as I read its one-paragraph description, it sounded like it was describing me.

Through the internship, I started to learn about monetary policy and economics, and realized that I’d never before thought of money as a tool. I also realized that there can’t be a thriving local food economy if local business and culture weren’t thriving and supported. And the domino effect would go on from there, leading to wealth inequality, climate change, etc.

I’ve been learning from board members, and bringing what I learn at Schumacher into the community. The Center looks around the world for new models on how to build more sustainable and more just economies. What we learn is transforming how we view ownership of land and businesses, and the structure of institutions. We can bring those stories back to the Berkshires and then create our own stories. Schumacher has been an instigator, but people here have been willing to experiment for a long time. The first CSA in the country was Indian Line Farm, and we celebrate Robyn Van En, its founder, on our 10 BerkShare note. Ted Dobson of Equinox Farm was selling mesclun greens to restaurants, door to door, before people even knew what they were.

One of the things I’m most proud of is our 10-week program for young people ages 14-25, called Entry to Entrepreneurship. It’s crowd sourced at every level. We start out by asking participants, “What are the gaps in our local economy?” The idea is called “import replacement.” What do you want to buy that you can’t buy locally? Then they go on to develop a business plan. Guest speakers come in and talk about how to get a loan, how to bookkeep, etc., and mentors volunteer their time. Then the students present their plans to the public.

On Sunday, we’re co-sponsoring a screening of the new documentary Jane Jacobs: Battle for the City, at the Triplex in Great Barrington. Jacobs is one of our inspirations. She came up with the idea of “import replacement” as a way to keep regions lively.

What I really love about the Berkshires is related to its small business community and the small-town feel. It creates a web of connections; you end up being connected to people in multiple ways. You see them at the supermarket, and you serve on a boards with them, and you dance with them at a contra dance. You can feel the interdependence; there’s an accountability to each other and a feeling that we’re all in it together. People everywhere look for that and we have it.

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 06/20/17 at 01:46 PM • Permalink