For Judy Wicks, the founder of Philadelphia’s White Dog Cafe, living for a year among indigenous people in an Alaskan Eskimo village offered a new perspective — “a worldview based on sharing and cooperation as opposed to competing and hoarding.” The Eskimos were frugal, finding a use for everything, she came to learn. And they lived as much as possible in harmony with the natural world.
This vision for an economy might not sit well with many capitalists. “It is a hard thing for Americans to get their arms around because they are so competitive and individualistic,” Wick says. But it became formative for her as she made her way up in the restaurant business, finally starting the White Dog Cafe in 1983.
Wicks will speak on “Building Self-Reliant Local Economies in a Time of Environmental and Economic Crisis” at a We Are BOOST forum on Wednesday, May 27, at 6 p.m. at the Trenton Marriott. Also speaking is Stephen Paul of Trenton Fuel Works. Cost: $35. For more information call 206-202-2883 or E-mail eventspromo@-weareboost.org.
Wicks describes the White Dog Cafe — which she sold recently to begin a retirement career of speaking and writing — as being less about making a profit and more about maximizing relationships with her customers, community, employees, and nature. In making business decisions, she would ask herself how it would affect each of these relationships — for example, the decisions she made about energy use through the eyes of a homeowner.
So when Wicks found out that she could buy 100 percent of her electricity from windpower she became the first business in Pennsylvania to do so — even though that meant paying $7,000 a year more than it would have cost her to buy energy from a coal or nuclear plant.
To benefit her employees, Wicks implemented the idea of a living wage, which obviously cost her more money than would a legally defined minimum wage; what she paid was enough for her employees to live, eat, and buy clothes in the city of Philadelphia. “This is an example in the social sector of making a decision where you pay more money in payroll, but are building a more equitable economy by raising the bottom,” says Wicks.
Wicks’ broader goal is to encourage the development of self-reliant local economies, where, as much as possible, basic needs — food, renewable energy, building materials (sustainably harvested wood and stone), and clothing — are produced locally. What is not available locally, for example, coffee or bananas, is traded at fair trade prices.
The model. Rather than using energy shipped around the world in oil tankers, local enterprises would produce alternative renewable energy. Instead of purchasing food from thousands of miles away, communities would support local farmers. Rather than supporting a global economy controlled by corporations that ship things unnecessarily around the world, communities would focus as much as possible on local ownership.
“They will create a class of artists and creative entrepreneurs to produce unique products that can also be sold globally — decreasing imports and replacing them with products made locally,” says Wicks. In turn, these efforts will “make our region unique and valued in the global marketplace.”
Cutting the long-distance supply chains will reduce carbon emissions, says Wicks, but will also prepare communities for the consequences of climate change — weather disruptions and social upheavals. “It is imperative to build capital locally to feed populations at a local level,” she says.
Power to the people. Another consequence of developing self-reliant local economies is bringing economic power back to the local community. “Now reliant on large corporations to deliver us our basic needs, our spending dollars are going out of our community,” says Wicks. When people buy at chain and big box stores, she explains, capital leaves a community, whereas when they buy at community-owned stores, that money is recirculated in their own community.
Self-reliance also demands that people invest locally rather than shipping their earnings out of the community by investing in the stock market. Wicks encourages putting money in community banks and credit unions that will build community wealth as they support community businesses, affordable housing, and energy-efficient electricity production like wind turbines. “Especially with the collapse of Wall Street and the tremendous losses in the stock market, people are trying to think more critically about the knee-jerk tradition of putting investments in the stock market,” says Wicks. “Maybe there are other ways that are more beneficial and less risky.”
Wicks herself invests in the Reinvestment Fund (trfund.com) in Philadelphia. The fund’s website describes it as “a progressive, results-oriented, socially responsible community investment group that today works across the Mid-Atlantic region.”
So what needs to change to create self-reliant local economies? Wicks has a few suggests:
Seek value rather than the lowest price. “A lot of Americans have been trained to seek the lowest price, and they are considered suckers if they don’t get it,” says Wicks. But, she points out, prices are low for a reason. First of all, says Wicks, “Probably someone is getting cheated along the way.” Most likely the workers who created the product are not paid a living wage, and may even be in the throes of the Chinese slave trade, she explains.
And if it is not the workers, then it is the environment that is suffering. “It is a lot cheaper to pollute than to clean up your messes,” says Wicks. Third-world countries that produce many of the consumer goods shipped to the United States have weak environmental laws. As a result, many factories burn coal and other products that pollute the air, or they dump untreated toxic waste into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Even in the United States, she adds, where the laws are stronger, this happens.
Wicks suggests that the American public must be re-educated to be mindful of the consequences of its economic transactions. “We need to think about what we are supporting by looking for the lowest prices,” says Wicks. “When we buy, we need to ask ourselves, how is my spending dollar going to affect other people and affect the environment?”
Level the playing field legislatively. Wicks would like to see subsidies and tax breaks funneled to local businesses instead of to large, already-wealthy corporations. She offers as an example the sustainable agriculture movement, which she believes is hindered by the large subsidies the government gives to big agribusiness. “We need to change legislation to promote green economies and local living economies and stop giving subsidies to large corporations to compete with local stores,” she says.
An example of how legislation could help, she says, would be the legalization of hemp, which would reignite the textile industry in the Northeast. Hemp used to be the primary source of the textile industry in Pennsylvania, she says. One reason hemp may have been banned, she suggests, is that it is a relative of marijuana family, even though it is not smokable. The second and likely more important reason, however, is the pressure from the cotton lobby in the south, which does not want to see a competitive fabric make inroads on its market share.
Buy local. Wherever possible, she says, people should buy local food, either through farmers markets or by signing up for CSA, community-supported agriculture, where people buy shares of the produce grown on a local farm.
Or people can grow their own. Wicks cites a growing movement to transition suburban lawns into family gardens.
People should also be signing up for renewable energy where it is available, despite its additional cost. And they should be finding out what the options are for local investment — for example, in food-processing plants and renewable energy businesses. Finally, people should be cutting back on their own carbon emissions by walking, riding bikes, and taking public transportation where they can.
Wicks graduated from Lake Erie College with a bachelor’s in English and fell into the restaurant business “by accident.” Starting as a waitress at Restaurant LaTerrasse, she served as its general manager and partner between 1974 and 1984. She started the White Dog Cafe in 1983 as a take-out coffee and muffin shop on the first floor of her house.
Over time the restaurant added meals and a liquor license, and the Black Cat store, which features local and fair trade crafts. Now the restaurant and store sit in three adjacent Victorian brownstones near the University of Pennsylvania. Early on Wicks added the signature programs that make the restaurant unique. “I realized I could use the restaurant as a vehicle for social change,” she says.
She started doing educational programs on progressive issues, including drug reform, community arts, foreign policy, and the environment, and she offered community and international tours and a film festival. “I always considered education to be a product of White Dog, along with the food and service,” she explains.
The trips she organized to Nicaragua, Cuba, Mexico, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Vietnam, and the Middle East explored the effects of United States foreign policy. Wicks also established a local sister restaurant program that promotes minority-owned restaurants in Philadelphia and Camden, and a mentoring program that introduces inner-city high school students to the restaurant business.
In 1970 Wicks co-founded the Free People’s Store, now called Urban Outfitters. She also co-founded and served as president of Synapse Inc., a non-profit publishing company, and was editor and art director of its publications, the Whole City Catalog in 1972 and 1974, and the Philadelphia Resource Guide in 1982.
Coming to see herself as an elder whose time might be better spent in writing and speaking for the causes she believes in, the 62-year old Wicks sold her business in January, although she remains a minority partner. But she did not sell the restaurant’s name. Instead she licensed it back to the new owners with a social contract that outlines the business practices they must adhere to if they want to use the White Dog name — for example, they must buy from local farmers and continue to use renewable energy, including solar hot water for the dishwasher.
Looking back over her life as an entrepreneur, Wicks sums up her own business philosophy, which is distinctly not the traditional mission of simply maximizing profit. “Obviously you want to make profit,” she says, “but money is more of a tool. Business is about relationships with people and nature. I am always integrating into my decision process concern for the long-term effects of decisions on people and on the environment.”