Amazon Eats Whole Foods

A few people wonder: “what do you think it will mean now that Amazon is acquiring Whole Foods?”

Here are my “arm[less]chair thoughts” about the Whole Foods Acquisition by Amazon touching on a bit of local economics, and company culture. Of course, it’s perspective from an attentive layperson’s point of view informed by how Whole Foods established its location in Detroit ever since their announcement to the Detroit Economic Club (I once-upon-a-time was a member of the American Economic Association and University’s Economics Club).

I’m probably missing some nuances that other people might know as someone who worked within the company so please do chime in especially if I’m off-base:

Whole Foods already had little issue about crowding out local markets–in some ways, it functioned a bit like Walmart. Amazon absolutely has no qualms about putting local brick and mortar businesses out of business, even if we give leniency in saying some companies like Borders Booksellers were slow to adjust to online reading. “Customer Obsession” aside, it’s competitive aims are a specific part of the company culture and part of its corporate DNA (AKA Company Values).

It’s amassing a lot of monopolistic capacity in ways people don’t really pay attention to unless it’s already affecting them, and the way they operate financially, it gives them even more buffer for underhanded monopoly strong-arming than a company like Walmart or Lowe’s has. Picking between Amazon and Walmart, Walmart turns into the less-bad of two choices because they will still have a physical presence in a city or some community. Like Walmart or Lowes, Amazon will likely eagerly exploit Dark Store tax loopholes every time they can expand with another Whole Foods location. I also think we’ll start seeing some changes in supplier choices over (a long) time if/when the big data infrastructures of Amazon are able to merge with Whole Foods (assuming a case can be made that justifies the cost of trying to revamp the systems).

That said, there will always be a need for smooth transactional convenience, that’s not something I’d fault a business like Walmart/WF/Amazon with–it’s specifically one of their strengths in the market. Acknowledging that, things go downhill when you consider how they’re willing and able to strong-arm local businesses (and small cities, maybe even state governments) into the ground with unfair strategies like dark store tax loopholes and price slashing or rewrite laws in their own favor that reduces consumer protection and genuine market choices.
Considering how inaccessible Whole Foods can be for a lot of the general population (myself included) though, it also means a VERY steep opportunity (as in, very challenging to get started/maintain and/or coordinate whether your company is a start-up or a been-up [been-ups=business that’s been around operating even if the media doesn’t pay attention to it for decades as described by Crain’s Detroit and Blac Detroit]) exists for local/organic/whatever businesses that will thrive on a relationships-first, I like this place because I-know-and-trust-the-owner/employees/farmer basis.

Maybe we’ll also see echoes of the book industry happen within an online version of Whole Foods. IKEA, the Swedish Walmart of Furniture and meatballs, is pondering if not testing what would happen if their business went on Amazon too (see this aptly named INC. article: “And Then Suddenly Ikea was like, ‘Wait. What if We Just Sell All Our Stuff on Amazon?”.

What it means for the rest of people who really care about localized/organic/co-operative/whatever food is that the smaller businesses and local suppliers will need to organize so that they’re able to coordinate and keep a place at the policy table when decisions are being made municipally, state-wide, and nationally because a major monopoly-scale industry will likely write the legislation.
I’m less familiar with Bezos’s acquisition patterns, so grains of salt with the following as it’s a bunch of thoughtful speculation: What matters for Whole Foods in the shorter-term will be whether they can preserve the positives of their existing employee culture (including benefits) now that they’ll be part of a company that doesn’t value employee wellbeing across the heirarchy (i.e. working conditions at Amazon distribution centers were terrible, and a reputation for employees in middle management burning out into dismissal is something I’ve heard from a few candidates) in the same way. I think this might eventually depend on how clearly WF demonstrates LEAN value in its HR practices.

Amazon related

Amazon & IKEA

Amazon vs. Brick and Mortar

Amazon vs. Brick and Mortar community impacts

Amazon Labor Practices
We should note that a lot can change in a few years, especially in a company with high employee turnover. The following articles may point to trends from the past instead of current practice so in some modicum of fairness, I also included their INDEED reviews.

Amazon & Sears Under Investigation for Labor Violations, 2016:

Workers expected to strike in Germany:

Amazon’s Expansion & how it affects jobs–note, we run into the quality of work/quantity and efficiency of labor spectrum debate in some of the ILSR’s arguments:

Overview of reports/studies on localization by the ILSR:

A view on how both mom & pop + big box retailers might co-exist (depending on conditions)


The “Dark Store” economic/legal taxation tactic: exploit old property for unfair tax advantages that benefit major big box companies regardless of impact on the local community. As seen in places like Sault St. Marie, MI:

Other “Dark Store” coverage in Michigan:

On what’s not working with Michigan’s municipal financial system:

Update: a similar case is going to the MI Supreme Court

Some folks think big box businesses don’t hurt small businesses, I’ll disagree to an extent but see where they’re coming from.



Featured photo of an organic pesto pizza–not from Whole Foods, but it looks like something you might buy from them. It’s from family-owned Silvio’s Organic Pizza in Ann Arbor. Disclosure: I occasionally play gigs at this restaurant but was not sponsored to promote them in this post.

Raw notes: inc NSF success meta-analysis

With my students, reflection and next steps is a big thing.

Summary of the article:
1) Cultivate/develop sense of belonging
2) Growth mindset
3) Have goals and values you can articulate

One “remarkable finding” according to the study, was the degree to which “brief writing exercises [improved] these intra- and interpersonal competencies.”

For example, students who were required to “write about the relevance of course topics to their own life or to the life of a family member or close friend” saw positive development. Another remedy involved what sounds like a bit of benevolent manipulation–making students feel more at home on campus by having them write stories and reflections that “fram[ed] social adversity as common and transient.”

Spiral Staircases Everywhere in France

France has spiral staircases everywhere. Even some of their fire escapes are spiral staircases. I think French architects must be very proud of them, maybe they even claim it’s a French innovation. Yesterday I waited in front of a community services group to pick up one of my bags and got to visit a castle (Chateaux Vincenne) with them. The castle had spiral staircases everywhere too. You could get dizzy just from climbing the steps!
By far however, the most memorable staircase of all so far is this one from the hostel I stayed at during the Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne with C.L. & Efe Bes at La Maison Rouge – Backpacker Hostel. It’s as if Tim Burton and Dr. Seuss became architects just to create this stairway in Saint-Etienne. #CityofDesign

We are the Griots

[4 minute read]
Photo from the beginning of today’s workshop on participatory design at the Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne Festival in front of the ONE MILE Detroit Mothership.The Mothership opens as up a DJ booth and is used to convene intentional gatherings that uplift the community’s stories and efforts. It’s called the Mothership as a nod to the birthplace of Funk in the Oakland-North End neighborhoods (ergo the name ONE MILE) of Detroit. We represent an [re-]emerging paradigm for educational design and culture by intentional design that links music, storytelling, and timely or timeless commentary together with places and people.
We see this as the role of a griot, the French derivation of a kind of troubadour to the word djeli from the Malinke language. We find urgency in being able to convene people from different walks of life to guide curiosity and inquiry toward advancing one another with conscientious shared purpose as a broader community. We also believe all of us–audience participants included–are the griots. We are the people and leaders we have been looking for who can and will create and/or facilitate the futures we seek.

In the Malinke empire, griots also served as storytelling bards for peacekeeping purposes–warning tribes and nations with historical performances and storytelling, and recounting the toll of destruction from previous conflicts in moments before decisions for war were made.

As the French election cycle ramps up, it’s interesting to note that the city and campus we perform in was home to one of the finest weapon factories in France. Now, the city of Saint-Etienne strives to shift from its former industries toward celebrating and cultivating its creative design, architecture, and art as industries in co-development with Detroit–which for a time held a reputation as the “arsenal of Democracy” during World War II.

This workshop is intended to guide participants through various kinds of structures for governance (exploring through elections and traditional corporate hierarchies), the strengths, and pressures associated with them. We also established consent as a premise for genuine collaboration and co-operation. While lessons learned from language barriers and other nuances to leading this kind of workshop provide plenty to refine, I’m grateful for the opportunity and experience.
It’s an honor to convene so many people from around the world here in Saint-Etienne as part of the Detroit delegation and I look forward to doing so again at our next workshop and upcoming performances.
Many thanks to Bryce Detroit, D.J. Los – The Original, Efe Bes, Duminie Deporres, and Emily Rogers and the bold French participants who took part in the workshop. We got to explore what it feels like to experience emergent behaviors when organizations begin to scale up, and play a few tunes too. Thanks also to Anya Sirota, Jean Louis Farges, Inge Eller and the rest of the Saint-Etienne Biennale team for their support and presence too.
Edited for clarity and accuracy on 26 Mar. 2017–it’s unclear which part of the Biennale’s site was a weapons factory. I also walked by a building that is a known workshop for some kind of weapon smithing (I assume gunsmiths) in the downtown area near Rue de Republic. I also added Inge Eller’s full name as she did so much to support us–she even helped me find the location for my workshop and helped me get pencils and papers so that participants could write their reflections from the workshop. The sound crew, P.H. Martin, Etienne Simoneou, and Julien ___ also did outstanding work to ensure we were properly prepared with microphones, good audio engineering, and good performance space accomodations.

Joy, Truth, and Love from L.A.

We’ve returned from LA with dashes of joy, plenty of truth to discern, and love for everyone who supported us and made the event possible! We’re grateful and still growing amid lessons in community support, self-advocacy, and grace.
If you’ve heard Markita’s song “Three Chords” before, there’s a line in the chorus that goes:
“I’ve got three chords in my pocket. Their names are: Joy, Truth, and Love.
They make the world go round, I can hear it by the way they sound.” -Markita Moore, Three Chords
I’ll organize this reflection in that spirit.
We found lots of joy from simple moments:
Like having gentle sunlight and mild rain and sand beneath our feet (instead of gray skies and a sparse sprinkle of frozen snowflakes) in the middle of February. Or when we arrived and had to find food, getting advice from a local woman that a sandwich from Subway was going to be the most affordable option for us in an area where everything was overpriced. We met another generous woman, Paula, who between working several jobs helped us navigate the bus & metro system even going an extra stop to show us the proper connection to take for our hotel. Our gratitude to the kindness of fellow bus and metro riders who helped us get from the airport to Hollywood can’t be emphasized enough as well as the hospitality of the staff–from security to room service and cleaning crews–at the Hotel we stayed at.
Markita figured out how to play on the beach without getting her guitar wet.
We also encountered several challenging truths.

What struck me (Ian) most about the experience came from experiencing the city through all of its public transportation and seeing the disparity between more impoverished communities, and the completely different dimension of affluence that comes with living in Hollywood. Los Angeles is like Detroit if Detroit were to age and grow times 300% unchecked: it’s horribly sprawled out (imagine trying to set up a small mom and pop restaurant in the middle of the Southfield/96 junction next to warehouses and hotels), it relies a ton on car transportation, they have a more functional and slightly better connected bus/rail system, the weather and whatever natural areas you can have access to are beautiful, there are very wealthy and very impoverished places sometimes just a few streets away, cultural diversity tends to happen in small segregated pockets outside the wealthy areas, and the people you run into that are rooted in their communities are often very supportive and welcoming.
Higher in the hills of Hollywood, many mansions. Into the distance, neighborhoods and streets crammed with houses where residents often have to “live to work”–rent and real estate is very expensive throughout L.A. whether you’re speaking with a registered nurse from Manhattan Beach, a nanny from Cranston, or the general manager of a luxury automotive dealership from Redondo Beach who originally came to L.A. from Portland during the Great Recession.
It’s easy to forget that where you live can trick you into thinking about what’s normal in the rest of the world and the perspective gained from our journey from Michigan to Hollywood and back again will remain memorable even with all its associated challenges. In Hollywood’s hills, it’s possible for whole neighborhoods to be made up of mansions in the hills, and meals could easily surpass $200 a day per person. Riding the bus routes, it’s possible to forget that there are people who never have to think twice about whether using Lyft, Uber, or a taxi would put their credit card beyond the limit (this was a real concern for us).
Navigating public transit that didn’t accommodate for people who have trouble walking or are encumbered (having escalators/elevators shut down while carrying luggage with an injured knee can be a real challenge when walking a lot), the costs and consequences of travel on public transportation for low-income people and their communities, are things we all probably hear about or even personally experience in our own communities here in Michigan.
In Michigan, I often work in places or stay with people who are already part of this or that community and know I have places I can go even if there are problems. It’s another thing to experience a city as a stranger to someone else’s community or bus line. In some parts of L.A., missing a stop could mean not having enough money to make it through a rough neighborhood with luggage and no one to host or back you up in the night.

At the same time, there’s a certain familiarity and sense of solidarity you can sense when someone from LA to assume you’re from the area and starts talking about exactly the same kinds of problems we experience in Detroit. For example, late/no-show buses and how people wind up missing parts of their classes or work despite doing everything right to prepare (a woman I spoke with planned to arrive 45 minutes early in case the bus was late by 15-30 minutes and the bus was still too late for her class because it came 45-50 minutes late).

As to the studio visit: It’s easy to see how naive musicians get churned by the industry. What I mean by that is that it’s easy for someone to get used by another organization without knowing how to recognize it, how and when to speak up for their self, or even by being pressured to do things they didn’t anticipate they’d do like speak on behalf of a product, person, or program that they don’t know anything about.
I lost some of my hearing during the studio visit (they’ve got very powerful speakers and I forgot my earplugs in the other room) which in a roundabout way probably adds pressure to the music industry’s bias toward favoring young musicians over the older ones. Markita was asked to do a filmed interview that she didn’t feel prepared for. As I understood it, DJ Mustard churns out hundreds of tracks which are then chosen by a different agent/artist to sing over. Much of his success comes from the sheer volume of work, and he gets paid enough that even 1/100 of his tracks getting picked keeps him among millionaires at this point in life–and it doesn’t really matter what message the vocalist wants to convey, he just makes the beats and an agent or manager might do the matchmaking. That’s serious “churn” if you’re not in a position to work through those kinds of conditions or advocate for better alternatives.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see how challenging it would be for an organization like the VH1 Foundation to get stretched thin when doing a contest/experiential prize reward. I personally (not speaking on behalf of the band or Markita) think because Markita and I are both musicians and still work/have worked with music education that the kind of focus we had on wanting to record, or learn from DJ Mustard made it challenging for VH1 to accommodate and fulfill their contracted obligations in full for the reward. We weren’t able to record in studio or make a track with DJ Mustard’s guidance–Markita can speak more to details and her disappointments about this–though we did get to meet him in a studio and I’m grateful for the experience.

After that, we stopped by an open mic in Santa Monica where Santa Monica locals warmly greeted us and we got to enjoy the company of musicians making some genuine blues straight-from-the-heart (thank you for streaming us too, Jenny Zepp!).
One of our fondest memories from the trip was meeting another fiddler Thomas Letchworth and jamming at the airport to entertain other exhausted fellow passengers while waiting for delayed flights. Here’s a brief clip (the camera ran out of memory) of that magical moment which we hope you can enjoy too. Thank you again to everyone who made it possible for us to have a place in the contest and to VH1’s Save the Music Foundation for indulging us with the trip to LA.
A local woman I met running on the trail said “we’re the only people crazy enough to be out here right now.” Sure enough, here I am in shorts and soaked by the rain and mist with our hotel in the background.

The Water Ain’t Safe but We Can Make it Better.

[working draft, most claims are linked to news items, references, etc.]

“The water ain’t safe. The land’s made of water. … The water ain’t safe no more.” –Aesop Rock
Wednesday while waiting for rehearsal I walked past drinking fountains that had signs declaring the water was not safe for drinking (due to the boil water advisory in Detroit) and proceeded to use the bathroom. Partly naive and part curious, I decided to try washing my hands and realized water coming from the tap smelled very similar to what waste water released into the Rouge River smells like: it’s a mildly sweet odor and it’s sickening when there’s a lot of it to smell (you learn to connect these things growing up by the river and then from working with environmental science professionals). Shortly after, I picked up my friend Bryce Detroit (who’s also the bandleader/a community entrepreneur & culture shaper) from the grocery store. With him was a large bottle of water freshly purchased which he brought into rehearsal. The ability to create and choose genuine choices over a situation is fundamental to dignity. We were lucky to know what was going on and have bottled water for the day. As a commuter to Detroit, I had the privilege of returning home to a place that still has clean and affordable water from the tap. Meanwhile the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality extended the warning which means Detroiters will need to boil their water or use bottled water for at least one more day at the time I’m writing this post. Water (and the people who depend on it) in Michigan currently faces three threats: 1) Contamination–it’s not safe to drink or at risk Flint residents still must use bottled water to drink, bathe, and brush their teeth. Many Detroiters must boil their water due to potential bacterial contamination. A cancer causing chemical leak in the ground water will likely shut down major parts of the water supply in Ann Arbor and neighboring cities over the next 8-10 years. These are all major, some of the biggest, cities in Michigan. Affecting much of the Great Lakes region, there’s a proposal to store radioactive waste near Lake Huron puts 44 million people’s drinking water downstream at risk (though you can read more about it and voice your thoughts here). Additionally There are a few gas and oil pipelines (i.e. Line 5 near Mackinac in “worst possible place”) in or slated for the Great Lakes. And toxins from algal blooms (as a result of too much fertilizer running off from agriculture and lawns into the rivers) shut down Monroe [and Toledo, Ohio’s] water supply a few years ago too also remain a threat. 2) Over-extraction Nestle seeks to increase the amount of water they can pump from a spring in Northern Michigan and would not need contribute water or financial compensation back to the community it took the water from. By exploiting a legal loophole, the permitting process sets precedent for other international companies interested in taking water from the Great Lakes region and selling it to places far away from us. 3) Physical prevention and financial exclusion In Detroit, many places are unable to access water either because the providers shut off access to it, or due to unrealistic approaches for financing water bills that are often imposed on poor people. The companies responsible for much of the water bill delinquency in Detroit are also often not held accountable. 4) Financial exploitation A business has is own priorities, and it makes sense that bottled water companies would sell water to people who need it. Yet when we look at the policy several of these water crises point to a different kind of relationship poised to happen: it paves the way for the state to put over-invest in believing privatized water utilities will solve the issues we see with public utilities and companies that sell bottled water. Wtate agencies like the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and government officials are willing to claim state-supplied bottled water are a workable solution to unsafe drinking water. Bottled water companies are primed to exploit water crises. which would operate as monopolies in their respective regions and don’t have to answer directly to the people they service. During the Flint crisis, Dennis Muchmore was linked with deep connections to the multinational beverage company, Nestle. The MDEQ already points to the state of Michigan supplying bottled water being a common first step for emergency responses. The state of Michigan recently moved to withdraw aid for bottled water to communities Flint, meaning residents whose water remains undrinkable/batheable and are still paying their water bills will need to buy more bottled water for themselves. Publicly owned utilities offer us something that most privately owned/investe businesses don’t: public accountability, and multiple legal obligations to the people they service. This doesn’t mean they’re always working or the best choice for everyone, but public services are an important and significant choice for most people.
This shouldn’t happen in Michigan or a place like Detroit if you understand where we live. In fact, we in Michigan are surrounded by about 1/5th (20%!!!) of the fresh surface water in the world. One of the things visitors tend to appreciate is that we have good water and for the lucky few who know or have the resources to access it, we can enjoy it in many ways. The land is literally covered with fresh water sources, Detroit sits next to a major river that’s managed by two highly developed countries that are “leading the free world” and people can’t trust what they can drink.
The first priority is to make sure people are getting what they rightfully need and that the services improve. That’s a mix of human rights and basic customer service that organizations like the Great Lakes Water Authority needs to answer to, and that the people of Detroit and other areas serviced by the provider speak out (see Monica Lewis Patrick’s post here on how you can take tangible actions toward doing so, or donate here). In the longer-term, we also need to start creating and supporting new choices for ourselves that allow us to we respond to crisis in our own communities. This past weekend I spoke on a panel hosted by Jackson Koeppel of Soulardarity about how legislators often don’t know about the kind of leadership that’s happening in Detroit: people are putting solar lights that are off-the-grid (not connected to DTE’s power lines–100% running on solar energy) in their neighborhoods. While they’re doing it because it needs to be done and the city didn’t invest in meeting their needs, they also happen to be doing work that well ahead of where most of the nation in emergency preparedness. Of course, this is in part because they were in the midst of a genuine emergency when DTE removed the streetlights from their neighborhoods. I mentioned security for water as part of the priority too: If the power goes out, water stops flowing through the pipes too. Detroiters know what it’s like to have no access to power and water. Many people still remember the black out of 2003, and several people have first hand experience with getting their power and water shut off even today. Meanwhile today, there are companies like Nestle which happily take advantage of the situation–so much that they’ll even take good drinking water from communities without paying anything back to the area, and sell it elsewhere. This might be normal business behavior to sell something that’s not being used, but the real issue happens when people have to rely on purchasing bottled water. The current Michigan energy laws will (in 2 years) eventually prevent small businesses and neighborhood organizations from creating renewable energy at a reasonable rate due to a lot of lobbying from companies like DTE. This prevents small businesses and neighborhood organizations to generate power independently from companies with a monopoly on energy like DTE. We need representatives to hear more of their communities. We need more communities to speak out to their representatives. We need more communities to come together to create or support their own local businesses that want to or are already developing solar energy in Detroit. What solutions might exist for these problems? 1) Know there are people working to support and establish water stations: For supporting water distribution in Detroit, you can also contribute: 2) Engage the city: the following list compiled by Monica Lewis Patrick and her peers includes many concrete actions which can be done in Detroit to request for realistic financing for water payment, hold the suppliers accountable, and support efforts to ensure safe water is available to people in the area. 3) Activate support from the international government level of policy: The International Joint Commission is working to be a resource to community leaders and helps hold the U.S. and Canadian governments accountable to maintaining water in the Great Lakes. Allison Voglesong can fill you in further about their upcoming meeting and the organization’s aims. Send comments to (this is the US Canadian group that’s responsible for making both countries make the water swimmable, fishable, and drinkable). Show up to their public meeting on March 21st in Detroit: 4) Be prepared to respond to emergencies like water and power shortages if you can. 5) For advancing longer-term proactive priorities: Educate people about community-generated power and water. Organize your community’s leaders and enthusiasts to create or work with organizations that support decentralized energy, rainwater collection, clean drinking water, and environmental quality for water and public health. Call your representatives, call representatives who are part of the energy committee, and the city. Let them know what’s happening is unacceptable and that you’re interested in having your community create electricity and collect water locally instead of relying on the energy company, instead of relying only on the city and instead of having to buy bottled water. When you’re able to generate electricity from your own community and collect and your own water from rainfall, you can purify it without always relying on the municipal grid, and skip having to purchase bottled water all the time when the city’s power and water.
6) While we’re on the long-term: run for office or support & elect (vote for, etc.) people who do care about access to water, water quality, environmental quality, and public health. Keep in touch with your representatives who are already in office and let them hear what your mind. We can, and many already do, work to restore rivers that are kept clean enough to swim, fish, and drink from. There are parts of Michigan where people don’t hesitate to swim, fish from, and don’t worry if they accidentally gulp a mouthful of raw river water. This is our place, and watershed moments require participation from people of all perspectives for positive outcomes to precipitate.
Available actions as I interpret it: “Ann Arbor resident Vince Caruso, a member of the Allen’s Creek Watershed Group and the local Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane, encouraged residents to go online and sign a petition to get the EPA to do a Superfund cleanup, arguing that’s the community’s best option at this point.“ *Some people consider getting EPA Superfund site status as a last resort–the argument being that putting authority into a local judge rather than federal-level EPA gives us more control and contact with the people responsible for overseeing remediation/clean up and other work on the dioxane plume and better local awareness. This makes sense to me, that said if anyone wants to pursue the EPA Superfund site designation, there’s a petition in support for that:

Poverty, Politics and Purpose

[20 minute read]
Disclaimer: this is an iterative post–will openly draft, revise, and update over time.

Technology without politics will never solve poverty. That’s the thesis to Hamilton Nolan’s opinion piece: “Poverty Doesn’t Need Technology, it Needs Politics” by
[original link: ]. There’s more than the tech industry in the U.S. that can create tremendous change, and while people in poverty sometimes do have access to technology, it’s rare to find substantive opportunities in communities where poverty exists.

Meanwhile, brick and mortar stores, and mundane services we rarely see paraded in the media continue to run, and people still need to take care of their day to day basics. What Nolan claims we need in his article is politics, as he views it consciousness to explicitly manifest beneficial changes to problems like wealth inequality that affect more than the what a business was designed to do on its own. There’s also more to the poverty than simple “wealth distribution” on face–where most people might assume it means redistributing wealth through taxation–as the sole starting point to solving poverty. We also need to make wealth creation a more inclusive endeavor.

I believe it also means we need to reframe how we think of entrepreneurship, business, and charity–how it happens and who we envision as entrepreneurs, and what the limits to charity are–in order to address genuine impacts in working to significant local and world problems like poverty or climate change.

This requires a sense of conscience and coordination in and among businesses that’s informed by shared purpose and awareness about a business’s role in industry can also be a hinge to deep issues in society.

Why Technology Won’t Solve Poverty by Itself
If I were to make a sympathetic guess about the raw assumption for what tech entrepreneurship conferences studded with Silicon Valley superstars and hackathons designed to “disrupt poverty” are based on it’s this:

Any economic mobility that emerges from a business can be a transformative step for uplifting individuals out of cycles of poverty. That’s a broad but valid starting point.

But what makes the tech industry so special in the economic development/poverty halting conversations that I tend to hear?

Tech attracts everyday people, investors, and policy makers alike because it lends itself to scalability and visible success stories. In what seems like an instant, you can reach millions of people on youtube or facebook, without spending much money, if you know how to make and access the right advertising.

Technology is fast, lucrative, and often easy to see as an industry. Its results get paraded along with larger-than-life personalities who are then praised by the media for their daring and subsequent wealth.
The same line of reasoning applies to why countries might welcome foreign businesses looking to “exploit” emerging markets in the name of economic development–consider China 20-30 years ago welcoming U.S. commerce, people considering countries like Vietnam today. Similarly, this is how some might see plus sides to speculation in the gentrification debate in major cities like Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Pittsburgh, or Detroit. There’s a degree of truth to being the first to provide desired goods or services in a place that does not yet have access to them yet. Sometimes, it also does a lot to give people economic & social mobility.

Being able to have a well-paying labor job and moving up into different areas of education and business sometimes happens, but but it’s becoming rare and if studies from 2014 and 2016 are correct, people are starting and staying relatively poor (The Atlantic reports this in 2016 [I need to finish reading the primary source academic article, will update when I can get closer to it]). The increase in jobs we might be seeing don’t equate to upward career mobility, if anything career mobility points downward (as observed in a 2014 study of the United Kingdom according to The Guardian [this was a study conducted by sociologists, I’ve yet to read the primary academic study, will update when I can get closer to it]). The evidence suggests an opportunity for wealth (or even basic employment) will not readily connect employees to the higher echelons of career growth.

Another Kind of Entrepreneurship [Still] Happening
Technology won’t solve the fact that some people have unfair advantages or narrow interests in their business.

Understood as a fact of reality, that’s not necessarily bad. But in the big picture it does happen that the “market” misses out on other genuine needs which may never get addressed, and what we choose to value–socially,  economically, or existentially–will always influence the kinds of solutions we’re willing to see and create.

In most cases, when someone can associate widespread need with a business opportunity it’s easy to associate the potential for wealth with potential for economic impact.
But they’re not the same thing.

Lots of businesses that aren’t powered by smart phones or big data still exist and still need attention. Whole chunks of the U.S. remain about 30 years behind metropolitan centers in technology use, and many of the needed businesses in those communities will never be visited by a Silicon Valley company.

It’s easy to forget that a significant sum of businesses still make the backbone of most communities in the U.S. are small to medium sized businesses that we probably take for granted or forget about.

An immigrant Korean-American family opening a dry cleaner.
A Black family opening a small produce market in a neighborhood of Detroit far from downtown.
The electrician in Southeast Michigan’s downriver labor communities.
The family-owned lift and hauling business in rural Pennsylvania.
My friend who’s creating a powerwashing/yard cleaning business.

All of them count as entrepreneurs and have businesses that can meet some kind of need without relying on apps at this time.

I think the Hamilton’s premise for critique is in the right place (in case you still haven’t read it yet, see “Poverty Doesn’t Need Technology, it Needs Politics”)–especially considering context and dominant themes we live with and are able to see:
We know some people get very wealthy for unfair reasons (monopolistic/predatory businesses, speculative investors, land grabs through closed-door deals, etc.).
I’ve also witnessed most people struggling even with honest hard work and doing what they can to work intelligently–it’s wealth stratification–and the ties between systemic injustice and perpetuated cycles of poverty.

In Detroit, several long-time community residents & property owners who took care of their own properties and are looking to expand by purchasing land for sale by the city are still unable to do so while major business barons like Dan Gilbert and John Hantz are often able to negotiate inexpensive purchases (in Hantz’s case, land bought by eight cents per square foot and sold at $300 per plot).

Looking at the U.S. financial crisis of 2008, many taxpayers would be justified for feeling angry that major banks and their executives were not held accountable or pressed with criminal charges. Instead, the banks were bailed out with taxpayer money, and later the U.S. government was sued by many of the same banks that received government assistance. This kind of support and exemption wasn’t available to emerging entrepreneurs, smaller businesses, or the employees who were laid off.

A moment’s tangent to address exceptions for “fair wealth creation”
I personally think there are ways to creating and attaining extreme wealth that exist independent of systemic exploitation. Knowing how to scale through online commerce might be a way that people can legitimately earn something without exploiting anyone in particular–you can sell an app that makes advertising less intrusive for example.

That said, I’ve yet to make it work and I believe for most people it rarely happens because the tools for creating a viable high-growth business must be met with:
1) decent preparation
This includes learning, focused hard work, and the ability to maintain your focus on the work without getting distracted by competing priorities like basic needs, family, etc. or outright having to fend off/live under oppressive influences
2) earned or inherited relationships
It takes time, learning, and effort to cultivate good relationships and the integrity to establish and maintain a solid reputation
3) lucky and/or carefully facilitated opportunities that work in your favor
For example, you might need to be able to recognize a big problem that affects others (potential clients/customers) exists in advance, or happen to have a working solution ready in time for disasters or the latest breakthrough (i.e. imagine the folks who first recognized the potential for smart phones).

I also believe where you are and the people you grew up with have a role in shaping the kinds of opportunities you’re able to recognize.

Some advocates will often ambiguously refer to these as “privileges” or in other words which for the sake of clarity I’ll define in a way that includes privileges that are unearned and earned.

Even in the place I live now, I was stunned to find people who are almost a decade younger coaching each other to “never take an internship that’s not paid your worth”–the context to their conversation was that one woman had applied to several internships, almost all of them were paid. Here’s what’s stunning about this:
1) I and many other people I know were initially under the impression that having an offer for experience is good, and if there’s a paid opportunity, just go for that
of course we suspected something was unfair–I went to a commuter campus, and had to pay tuition for the credit hours counted by the internship. If it’s an unpaid internship, that means you’re literally paying to work more.
At the same time, someone in my family had recently lost their job due to the recession, and anxieties about the economy were palpable throughout the U.S.
2) The conversation between the two took for granted that they were already in a position to choose from multiple potential employers, and
3) The kind of coaching comes from a very specific environment–many people have trouble bridging what they need with their ability to confidently ask. It’s something I am personally working on doing with grace.

Ujima & Ujaama: Politics in a Philosophical Sense and Business with Bigger Purpose
Politics is the articulation of desired action–it sometimes involves explicit and tangible actions, but more often than not it’s about people talking about things that they want or believe.

I’m not a fan of this, but we know politics are important. Articulating a desired action creates the possibility for design–creativity with intention–as Cornelius Harris (one of the first creators of techno music from Detroit) would say in his casual wisdom. This means we can then design potential solutions to meet fundamental needs.

As long as it’s operating, a business will (hopefully) always be creating something. What matters is that in the broader scope, the business and people working in do so with a sense of responsibility that makes relationships clear to other organizations and actions that are intended to meet the needs of people in a specific place–a community. For those who unfamiliar with the holiday Kwanzaa, this is approximately what the principle Ujima highlights: collective work and responsibility. While Ujima is often focused on a very close community and family, the idea applies well to organizations too.

Concidentally, Kwanzaa also celebrates a principle called Ujaama: cooperative economics (for a few perspectives on what it means: in depth 1, in brief 2, in brief 3).

In this sense, recognizing that a business can exist as part of a broader intention is essential to the idea that we need to create businesses that are part of real communities–whether directly connected to physical neighborhoods or abstractly connected to other entities that can influence a cause.

Even if the business has a very narrow focus, it’s possible for its employees, leadership, customers and stakeholders (people affected by the organization even if they’re not customers) to recognize how it serves a role in the bigger picture.

Maybe it specifically creates bearings for an automotive supplier. Then it has a role in transportation and the broader arc of transit accessibility in its multitude (aka transit justice). Or the business creates fight gear for women, it can focus its existential responsibility as an enterprise on fitness and/or women’s empowerment as we see with Society Nine. Of course a company like Society Nine wasn’t built to give every woman a solution for fitness or to teach them how to participate in professional/recreational fights. That’s not necessarily their top priority as a business, but political intention does exist as part of the broader ethical fabric of the company’s existence.

Acknowledging all of the above, I don’t believe wealth exempts a business or individual from responsibility and their relationship to the rest of the economy and society. Being able to acknowledge privileges–whether earned or endowed, hopefully never exploited–might be a way to beginning to leverage them toward positive contribution and impact as well.

The gap between enthusiasm for Corporate Social Responsibility and genuine change tends to exist in part because most businesses look at it from a short-term perspective shaded solely by public perceptions of charity (e.g. send your employees for a day to clean up a neighborhood, build houses, plant trees, with a local non-profit), or at worst as a shallow marketing & PR initiative. They don’t integrate the broader political context–existing or potential environmental & social impact–into priorities for their core culture and operations.

Changing Paradigms About Charity
As a general public, most of us have a naive or divisive interpretation of charity: we might look at charity as a good compassionate activity for helping the needy on generous terms.
A less pleasant but also valid perspective might criticize charity as something that perpetuates dependence.
Either with judgmental narratives about needy people who might rely on external aid. Or in more nuanced views, dependency on philanthropy and Non-Profit organizations to make up for the gaps created by employers who underpay their employees and communities.

A few examples on underpaying employees & communities that ultimately make public taxpayers more reliant on charity and services provided through government assistance:
A company like Walmart negatively affects individual tax payers (links to and is susceptible to claims that employees need to rely on estimates of up to 6.2 Billion dollars in public assistance (links to Forbes article).

For communities, Walmart often attempts to slash local tax laws through “Dark Store” local tax exploitation tactics, as seen in Sault Ste. Marie, MI in 2016 (links to Bloomberg News). For a next-level big picture example, consider how ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council‘s members use legal tax exemptions to lobby (link to PBS’s Bill Moyers documentary).

In both cases, it creates a negative loop: a company underpays its people creating unnecessary dependency on charitable support. The company eventually gets to benefit from certain charities by also contributing funding as a “tax-exempt charitable donation” to some kind of non-profit charity, which allows the company to file a significant claim to reduce their existing tax obligation. Some would consider this a glimpse into the components of the “Charitable Industrial Complex” which creates and perpetuates systemic dependency.

Both perspectives on charity–the compassionate and the dependent one–are valid. I imagine returning to the idea that understanding a business with deeply political curiosity can help answer or facilitate evidence for solving the fundamental issues we face with attitudes about charity that lack genuine context to inform good intentions.

Aligning Politics for Purpose in a Company
Most companies altogether don’t choose to prioritize these charitable efforts in a way that aligns with their existing area of potential impact. Again, we can accept that it’s very challenging to operate a functional business in the first place especially in a small or medium sized enterprise. Small organizations frequently find attention, staff, and other resources limited if not challenging to spare.

In larger enterprises, there’s a hope that the company can delegate responsibility to an isolated department and hope all problems will be solved by a department made of corporate environmentalists and social justice advocates before the rest of the company must change course. Or if no department exists, they might seek out a consulting firm to shoulder the responsibility for (though ideally, with) them.

But think about what this means: do people delegate their every day social responsibilities to an ethicist to take care of their own personal responsibilities on their behalf? Responsibility for taking care of things that really matter to us still belongs to us. It requires us to engage in fulfilling our duties, even if we can hire assistants, coaches, consultants, therapists, or counselors for advice.

How many major companies have a department for Sustainability, Corporate Social Responsibility, of Community Relations, or Environment Health and Safety, etc.?

Ask people working in those departments at any level, from Chief Executives/Officers to interns, and you’ll likely find frustrated employees who believe the rest of the company’s leadership must to take ownership of their strategy for broader environmental and social responsibilities (even profitable ones like efficiency initiatives) to match what they say they need with what to do.

Keeping aware of your socio-political relationship to systemic problems as an individual and/or enterprise matters–you’re inevitably connected to something, an integral part of something that can become more inclusive or create value for the community(ies) your work affects.

Street Sign, Water Tower, and U.S. Flag in New Baltimore, MI photographed by the author.


The article that started this:

On employment and upward mobility (jobs might be more available, but fewer offer career growth):
In the United States:

In the United Kingdom:

The Brookings Institute examines similar trends on poverty in the U.S. and its link to negligible or decreasing economic mobility:

Kwanzaa–cooperation in economy and community responsibility:
“Been-Ups instead of Start-Ups”

Cases on Walmart and Tax impacts
For individual tax payers–underpaying employees and public assistance:

Walmart claims the headline and study is misleading and counters the study by claiming employees have opportunities for upward career mobility and that most are paid above minimum wage on average of about $11.83/hour. The study comes from a group advocating against Walmart.

The “Dark Store” economic/legal taxation tactic: exploit old property for unfair tax advantages that benefit major big box companies regardless of impact on the local community. As seen in places like Sault St. Marie, MI:

Other “Dark Store” coverage in Michigan:

On what’s not working with Michigan’s municipal financial system:

Update: a similar case is going to the MI Supreme Court

Impact of large chain stores on communities:

How ALEC can serve as a legal loophole for lobbying and major corporate tax exemptions:
Charitable Industrial Complex

A rebuttal:

Considered beyond the phrase

This post was spurred by the following piece:

The problem when academia crosses into the public without a common baseline for education:
1) someone/some group of scholars create a concept that encompasses issues that aren’t directly associated with the topic in its phase
If you’re familiar with my thoughts on “sustainability”, consider what happens when people want something better than maintaining a negative trajectory. When people or organizations would say “we want a more sustainable future” a few years ago in their mission statements, the hope they convey in the expression mattered as much as the “definition” of the word. Eventually, industry or advocates take hold of the concept and it often becomes a buzzword by distancing itself from the actual research and meaning that went into the word or phrase.

2) academia rarely reaches & educates enough of the public to bring every day people into understanding nuanced phrases like sustainability and structural racism.

When I say academia, I mean the gap between a handful of scholars who know & champion the ideas, and the rest of higher education–most Universities and colleges are so centered on research & basic student training (teaching basic classes) that students and staff often fail to engage the public beyond their campuses during their time there. It’s understandable if you know what the responsibilities for being in higher education as a professor are and how the career system (tenure track especially) are set up.

But I believe the organization & “movement” or “industry” for higher education itself has an obligation to engage and educate the rest of the public. The public should at least understand why a liberal arts degree like Women’s and Gender Studies or Environmental Science matter and what they practically contribute to the world beyond their specialized perspective.

How do you explain that structural racism assumes discriminatory policies also affects people who aren’t discriminated against on basis of race?

Sociology, social work, feminist theory (in terms of examining power structures), and political science might be places to start.

How do you validate what sociology, social work, feminism, and political science–or even basic natural sciences like geology and environmental science–to the general public when they barely know why these fields exist in the first place?

The answer to this comes from proactive outreach and better education that happens before crises take place. Practical tools do emerge from the “squishy” or “soft” social sciences, and natural sciences work for a reason too.

Academia–the part that does the research and learning–needs better Public Relations. I hope people in the position to create those jobs will have the foresight to properly value and employ the communicators tasked with bridging gaps beyond phrases soon.

What You Want to Create: Re-Examining Minimalism, Mistakes, & Musical Cognition

“Focus on what you want to create, not on trying to avoid mistakes.”-David Marquet [paraphrased, I think. Marquet wrote one of my favorite books called Turn the Ship Around! on emancipatory leadership and management]

I’ve found it more beneficial to focus on what you want to create, rather than the risk of failure or mistakes in strategy and life. Work for long enough with and learn from experienced practitioners in any field that demands creativity–entrepreneurship, counseling, the arts, even military strategy–and you’re likely to hear similar advice.

It’s been years (almost decades) since I really dived into minimalist music as a listener. Recently, I found a youtube video with sheet music from one of my favorite minimalist pieces by Karl Jenkins for a string quartet called The Fifth Season.

As someone who came across the piece as a listener first rather than a performer, it was surprising that seeing the sheet music made the piece “feel” more challenging to learn than it would be if I were to figure it out by ear. I think it’s because I associate reading the notes  with certain fingerings and where I’d need to place the bow–which instantly correlates to guessing the amount of effort it would take to process each piece of information note-by-note rather than let me imagine what it’s like to play a whole phrase.

For non-musicians, I’d equate this to reciting a beloved speech–recalling it’s phrases based on what you heard might be easier than forcing yourself to examine and deliver a speech word by word. It automatically frames your relationship with the work in a way that becomes risk-averse. Your aim shifts from wanting to communicate an overarching expression to wanting to avoid mistakes.

[go ahead and press play to listen and watch for a bit if you’ve got the time!]

There’s something about how our brains work best when we can let intricate details emerge or fill-in as we work toward processing bigger steps.

For anyone unfamiliar, Karl Jenkins is the composer who wrote Palladio which drove the Diamond industry into fame for the DeBeers “A Diamond is Forever” advertising campaign. It’s important to note the DeBeers Cartel’s and the Diamond Industry’s history of human rights abuses and violations continue even into recent years [1].

For anyone interested in hearing a less famous composer whose work has been running through my mind lately, here’s Simeon Ten Holt’s Canto Ostinato for Two Pianos and Two Marimbas:



Namibia: Exposing The Corrupt Practices Of The De Beers Diamond Cartel

False Freedoms with Wealth at Burning Man

“Burning Man foreshadows a future social model that is particularly appealing to the wealthy: a libertarian oligarchy, where people of all classes and identities coexist, yet social welfare and the commons exist solely on a charitable basis.
It doesn’t seem like Burning Man can ever be salvaged, or taken back from the rich power-brokers who’ve come to adore it and now populate its board of directors. It became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core; and, without any semblance of democracy, it could easily be controlled by those with influence, power, and wealth.
As such, it is a cautionary tale for radicals and utopianists. When “freedom” and “inclusion” are disconnected from democracy, they often lead to elitism and reinforcement of the status quo.”
I know quite a few people who have or regularly attend the Burning Man festival(s) [if we include regional ones] and love some of those people dearly. Without having participated, I’m curious to hear their perspectives.
Based on what I know about how people can reclaim and beat “the tragedy of the commons” problems [0]–and more practically, my perspective on what citizens can do in the U.S.–I think I disagree with the conclusion that “it can’t be salvaged/taken back” etc.
At the same time, the critiques and parallels are spot on when it comes to addressing some of the systemic issues we experience here in the U.S. and the concluding sentence captures rings true:
“When “freedom” and “inclusion” are disconnected from democracy, they often lead to elitism and reinforcement of the status quo.”
“Free Market” economics don’t work when companies with a monopolistic grip on the industry and government write policy that excludes new and small businesses from competing on fair ground.
For example, with solar energy here in Michigan, we see DTE and Consumers Electric companies lobbying to force any community solar companies to pay the major utilities prices that makes installing solar electricity unprofitable and burdensome to start [1].
With schools in Detroit, we have lots of “privatized choice” but almost none of the private schools actually provide a worthwhile education and yet the public schools are getting dismantled in part by charter school lobbyists like the DeVos family and wealthy policy makers who benefit from their legal or undercover “gifts” [2].
The likelihood for substantive change does seem slim unless you don’t choose a hyper-local point of view, some people start off with advantages that aren’t even part of what most imagine are fair, and others aren’t allowed.
It’s not easy to make real changes in policy as someone who works multiple jobs when a handful of wealthy companies have full-time lobbyists living at your state and national capital working to crowd out the possibility of public oversight.
But once you know what’s happening, there’s hope and I believe we still have the chance to get people aware and prepared to do something about it.
Beating the tragedy of the commons:

[follow up commentary]

I think for most people who go–similar to what happens in the real world–there’s plenty to explore and learn just by living the Burning Man principles in the places you already have access to which still makes it worthwhile and enriching.
An example might be how there were vandals who disrupted/sabotaged a very exclusive camp and that several people at Burning Man didn’t even know it had happened until they left the festival and saw it in the news. Meanwhile, I’m certain my friends have been inspired and continue to carry some sense of wonder about their presence and the experiences they created.
For life outside of Burning Man, most people aren’t running into the lobbyists and the business owners who are responsible for pulling strings to push policy and control commerce in their favor.
Even when we do run into people who have this degree of impact due to their wealth, it’s not something most of us know to look for, or hold accountable.
Also important to note: I believe there are ways to ethically attain financial wealth, and there are some people who have rightly earned to a point of definite wealth.
Several online business models–or any business idea that can scale out without much cost for replication and without exploiting workers, the community, or environment–do exist. Most people don’t learn or hear about them and that’s a failure in the way education and access function. For example, the intuitive response from a lot of people might be something like a Robin Hood “redistribute wealth from the rich” which automatically shuts down any meaningful conversation about what’s ethically earned, what’s a product of exploitation, what ethical relationships for wealth creation really look like, and how it’s done. Those are the non-headlines that are real priorities worth discussing.
How many people are aware and understand the impact lobbying, PR & Government relations has on the public? How many people have actually worked with their representatives? Even voted?
At the last primary election, my home district (a relatively affluent area) had a 7% voter turnout. 7% turnout for filling in bubbles to give certain candidates a chance at being elected in a place where most people don’t need to rely on foodstamps/EBT/Bridge, and have a car.