Dear Bill (age 38),
When you began doing anti-poverty work in New Bedford, Mass., you saw “the system” as the problem all too often. The so-called trickledown from the larger economy never really lifted many boats in this old seaport city. Eventually you built a network of more than 100 New Bedford microbusinesses, run by people who loaned each other money and offered moral support in peer groups. Fishermen, mechanics, dollhouse purveyors and hot dog restaurateurs are getting credit – even though none was creditworthy, according to the bank.
But something was wrong; something didn’t quite make sense. How could you be using the tools of capitalism to undermine the rules that the system had erected to protect itself? As the critic from the Chamber of Commerce said,“Five-hundred-dollar loans are lunch money, and lending in groups is kind of like socialism, isn’t it?” Somehow this must all make sense, but you were missing big pieces of the puzzle.
The irony will never be lost that it will be in New Hampshire – land of“Live Free or Die” and the right wing icon William Loeb – where the answers to your questions will be found. You will join the community economic development master’s program at then-New Hampshire College and immediately find yourself immersed in a great, extended family of community activists and leaders from Wilmington and Atlanta, from Nova Scotia and Iraq, and from Ethiopia and Boston.
The synapses will start snapping; the many questions will turn into fascinating answers. You will learn that community economic development uses business strategies, such as the small business loans of your New Bedford program, to create participation, equity and sustainability at the neighborhood level. When you finish you will have earned a Master of Science degree in CED and also the knowledge that you are not alone in imagining that a better world is possible.
And now, 15 years after those days of uncertainty, you are flying over the red ochre expanse of the African continent. The microenterprise development experiment you were a part of in New Bedford has blossomed into a movement that touches the lives of more than 100 million people all over the globe. You are on your way to Johannesburg to build a network of fellow seekers and activists who in fact are “the system” and wield the tools of capitalism to create trickle-up opportunities for poor communities that share much in common with New Bedford. This path will seem far-fetched to you in 1994, but the pieces of this intricate puzzle of your life will all fall into place, trust me!
William Maddocks, age 53
Director, Microenterprise & Development Institute
Contact William Maddocks at email@example.com