Wednesday, November 08, 2006

(Part II) A Conversation with a Houston Institute: Mark Lacy

Let's start with the upcoming roll out of What is the significance of this event?, which is called Texas Community Advocate, is part of an initiative for localism. I was thinking about the issues of local business, arts, and media pretty seriously while living on Lexington Street. I've studied the economics of broad ownership versus limited ownership since then and wanted to incorporate that into the mission of Houston Institute for Culture, because of the cultural and social benefits of diversity in business ownership, arts and media. Today, in addition to a cultural literacy mission, the organization is emphasizing a social innovation mission. Problems we hear about today are serious and complex, but at the root of many of them is limited distribution of wealth and ideas, and the lack of opportunity that results. Growing numbers of working poor feel they have little opportunity for self determination and their possibilities are limited. People can gain control in their communities simply by being more supportive of the businesses and arts in their communities. The Texas Community Advocate website will show people in Texas communities how diversity of interests and greater circulation of money in the community will raise standards in the community and eventually produce a similar effect in neighboring communities that currently may not have much local ownership, producing safer and more satisfying environments. Another modern reality that necessitates thinking about localism is energy. People need to buy locally produced agriculture in local markets for a range of environmental reasons and cost-effectiveness, as well as reduced conflict in foreign lands over energy and labor.

So while you are broadening your scope of influence, the message remains Think Locally and Independently. I was just reading an article in this week's New Yorker that deals with these issues with a focus on water management. There's an effort in India to get farmers to diversify from the main two crops rice and wheat which take tremendous amounts of water. It's actually amazing how simple some of the solutions are but they aren't being acted on. For example, in India if the existing piping system was corrected (meaning fix the leaks) and the initiative to collect rainwater was broadened (which is a fairly inexpensive and straight forward task),they would pretty much solve their water problems. Instead they drain aquifers and are slated to build more than a thousands dams in the next ten years. I can just picture the advocates for the sensible solutions that are ignored pulling their hairs out in frustration. The cause is noble but what is it exactly that you intend to do to accomplish your objectives? And what tangible goals have you set for the short term, intermediate and long range future?

Many people are looking at local solutions to many problems. And people know of many sensible solutions, yet the same mistakes keep being repeated. I believe it is because of the economic imbalances, where local civic leaders look to one big investor or big government agency to come and solve their problems, rather than looking at community solutions. I call it the "home run solution" syndrome, where a city council imagines all of its problems will be solved if the town can lure a big company to bring jobs, or have a successful sports team, or attract tourism by creating a park or festival. Income for communities has come to be thought of in the same way it is to individuals; that is: money is earned and money is spent, but in a community, the success of it is based on how many times people in the community transact the money. Too many communities don't circulate wealth; it comes and it goes. For a town like Schulenburg, the money that goes to a business owner in Houston, or a bank in New York, may be circulated more times in that community, meaning it is not only accumulated in a distant place, but each dollar may benefit that community several more times on average than the community where it came from. And then, to make matters worse, it seems the more wealth is concentrated, the more difficult it is for individuals or recessing small town governments to even have the resources to solve problems or provide for the needs of the community.

Communities throughout the history of the world have always existed on the market, where people use their productivity and creativity to gain the things they need or want, and the benevolence of members of the community to help those that fall behind or face serious hardships, but today it seems people who are in positions of influence have made it an all or nothing debate: all capitalism, or all welfare. They have people convinced that anything a local government does for its citizens should be private or otherwise we are in danger of becoming a communist nation. The problem is that as a few achieve astronomical standards of wealth, there is a greater need to provide for people who cannot afford food or medicine. You can move poverty around and relegate greater numbers of working poor to places outside of gated communities, but eventually the most successful people and businesses have to strive for greater social responsibility or their own quality of life will fail. I think everyone would rather see broad opportunity come back to communities across the nation and continent than bankrupt governments trying to figure out how to convince the wealthy to be more charitable.

As for goals, there is no way that our small organization can change the habits of people in all of Texas or even in Houston. We have to influence the consciousness of a few people in many communities, who in turn influence more people in their communities. The key is getting the message to people by email, Internet, public service messages on radio, and maybe even television at some point. We need many more people to feel responsible and advocate for positive changes in their own communities. The success will be based on how many people recognize the importance of improving their local economies and how many magnify the effort by speaking with others, forming local associations, or posting fliers.

It isn't a political activity to encourage people to support local businesses; in fact all politicians regardless of party affiliation should be encouraging their communities to do this if they really care. So we should not experience much resistance to delivering the message. Small market radio stations should see the value of offering the public service messages. Musicians and artists should very clearly see the value of communities that are interested to support diverse interests in their local communities. And many communities still have efforts to keep the Main Street businesses alive. So, our goal is to deliver the messages and the tools to share them. We will work on it for two years in Texas with English language materials and then include Spanish language materials, though Spanish-speaking communities are still very good about supporting local businesses. We will work to make it a national campaign with the website once we gain more experience on the state level.

Your original group, the Houston Institute for Culture, organizes concerts workshops and an annual camp for inner-city youth. Will Texas Community Advocate do likewise or is it strictly about promoting the idea of local focus? And why doesn't it seem (to me anyway) incongruous that while HIC/TCA promotes localism, you are also very much about international cultural awareness?

Several people have suggested to me that we should be building two separate organizations. Houston Institute for Culture is very much about pluralism and internationalism, while Texas Community Advocate (which will ideally be operated one day by a group within HIFC that is a center for localism) is about local economics and community action. I just think we have to define an institute for culture better, as well as what is meant by “for culture.” Culture is the way we understand our lives and the influences on our lives. Of course people often think it is limited to leisure activities. But a broad definition includes formal education, family history, media influences, economic situation, everything really. Commuters and people who work in corporate environments are part of cultures with learned behaviors. Examining our condition and taking a proactive approach to making a better life, however they see that, is important for every person. So we have a variety of educational projects, service projects and research projects. Educational projects tend to be the events we offer; some are arts related, while others are focused on social issues. Service projects are somewhat reactionary. Last year I took a few volunteers to New Orleans to help paint schools and clean up neighborhoods. We had previously been there (before Hurricane Katrina) conducting research about the Mardi Gras Indians, and the Sicilian influence in the traditions of New Orleans and the Houston area. Whether it’s Reynosa, Galveston, Fredericksburg, or Lafayette, the research always leads to the need for communities, regardless of their international origins, to have their own cultural identities and opportunities for local ownership. It makes sense that the service projects should be more proactive in those areas.

Some people in Houston are the owners of national and international companies, bringing great wealth to the area, but the city truly benefits from tremendous broad interests because of its diverse ethnic and international populations. Without the broad social and economic activity created by so many varied interest populations, this would not be a good place to live. Some places in Houston are terribly bland and uninteresting, but nearby there are usually vibrant communities with reasons to keep going forward. Most people don’t think about the value of traditions unless they think about being without them. One professor working on futuristic technologies described space travel with such exuberance, but somehow I thought of all these people dressed in uniforms, facing forward in their airline seats, and I had to ask him if he though there would be ballet folklorico in space. It hadn’t occurred to him. I never look forward to things being the same wherever I go as they are where I came from, but Americans have achieved this with overwhelming results, whether they are the owners or the ones who determine what color to paint walls in franchises all across America, or just the customers who like things that way.

A society with diverse interests is important for all kinds of quality of life reasons. One of those is economic diversity and opportunity. On the local level, diverse interests are important for economic possibilities. People in one community may be interested to support a variety of furniture stores selling Southwest furniture, Japanese furniture, American Colonial, Postmodern, Antique, and so on, resulting in fairly broad economic activity. But the community will not benefit as much if all its interests are found in one store, or if limited ownership from outside the community caters to very limited interests. This is true of music and art, as well as everything found everyday in the home or workplace.

It is a funny paradox today because there are many sources for broad interests and yet American interests have been so streamlined. I think it is only because people are creative and prone to be bored that many independent artists and businesses survive, even if it is getting more difficult.

More to come! More photos more talk. All photos associated with this series are Mark's and under his full ownership.


bethany said...

i wonder if the HIC could annually give out "cups" for outstanding community involvement in the ways you talk about.. people would be honored to get the HICcups

Kilian said...

That's good Bethany. I think it's a good acronym considering the localism of their goal (think hicks, but in a self-effacing humorous way).