First off, let me be honest I haven't seen the movie. The phrase reached my ears during what was, for me, a revolutionary meeting. Four St. Louis independent business owners were sipping coffee at Meshuggah, talking late into the night about preserving local culture, revitalizing their communities, and caring for their employees.
Perhaps I should explain. I grew up in University City, fairly oblivious to the world that existed beyond my family and friends. When I marched off to Georgetown, I chose the business school just like I took standardized tests: process of elimination. Maybe that's why my undergraduate experience was so schizophrenic. A social justice group on campus took up most of my free time. It's hard to miss the irony when you leave a worker's rights rally early to get to your corporate finance class.
As I journeyed deeper into the often-clashing realms of social justice and business, I despaired of ever encountering a genuine meeting of worlds...until that night at Meshuggah. Javier of Subterranean Books spoke of the pleasure he and his co-owner Kelly took in offering a culturally and politically diverse selection of books you just can't find at a big-box retailer. Mo of MoKaBe's Coffee House talked about supporting the growth of the South Grand neighborhood, and trying to ensure her employees a dignified lifestyle. Dave of Ressner Financial Planning mentioned his satisfaction in being able to fully serve his clients by working for a fee, rather than commissions that would tie him to the interests of large financial institutions. Kris of Left Bank Books shared some of her advocacy efforts to level the playing field between the Borders of the world and small independents.
While this was all heartening, my sense of witnessing the seeds of great change came from the purpose that drew the group together. These four, along with many of their colleagues, have decided to form an independent business alliance termed BUILD St. Louis (Businesses United for Independent, Local Development.) The group consists of locally owned independent businesses, community development organizations, and regular community volunteers like me. What unites us is the knowledge that local ownership and independent enterprise is good for St. Louis for our culture, our economy, and our communities. Economic impact studies have shown that for every dollar spent, locally owned businesses recycle three times as much back into the community (in the form of tax revenues, local vendors, and salaries) as compared to chains. Anyone who shops at independents can speak to the personal relationships that enrich economic transactions. As a resident of St. Louis, I am personally grateful for the locally owned stores, concert venues, and service providers that keep my city from becoming Anytown, USA.
But I digress (for most of the article, it seems). In between cups of coffee, the topic of creating bumper stickers to promote local ownership arose. One suggestion was "Dude, Where's My City? BUILD St. Louis, Buy Local." Aside from being a catchy phrase and morphed pop-culture reference, it got me to thinking, "Where is my city?" Later that night, the answer began to seep in my city is my sense of place. It's where I devote my energy, form relationships, have fun, work, and spend my money. It's in our places of worship and cultural centers. But most importantly, where we find our city and how we create it is a choice. No matter how much economic trends and political programs can seem like forces of nature, each of us can decide how to build our communities and spend our money.
Consider this a personal invitation to get involved in BUILD St. Louis. We're having another magical coffee conversation July 12th, 7 p.m. at MoKaBe's Coffee House. On August 16th, we're holding a conference in the Brown Hall of Washington University's Goldfarb building entitled, "Communities at Risk: Supporting St. Louis by Doing Business Locally." Volunteer meetings are bi-monthly. We need your energy and ingenuity. After all, the good work BUILD St. Louis can do is only limited by how we imagine our communities and their supporting institutions. Who knows, maybe you can even help us come up with a better bumper sticker.
Michael Levinson is an energy analyst for Energy Solutions, Inc., an energy conservation consulting firm. In his copious free time, he is also an organizer for BUILD St. Louis. He can be reached for inquiries, suggestions, and large financial donations at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at (314) 808-8032.