Stacy Mitchell is the co-executive director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a national nonprofit that advocates for dispersal of economic power and for community control of everything from energy generation to composting and waste management. The institute is headquartered in Minneapolis, but Mitchell runs a small regional office out of Portland. We talked about everything from buying local foods to the growing power of the big box stores and why she moved back to Maine.
MAKING THE GRADE: Mitchell grew up in Portland and attended Hall Elementary, Lincoln Middle and then Deering High School. She headed to Minnesota to attend Macalester College in St. Paul. Was she an economics major? “I studied history, and labor history, which was about studying economic history.” She attended just one economics class and realized it wasn’t for her. Mitchell was more interested in studying social change, including the Civil Rights movement and early environmentalism. “I wanted to know how the economy distributes power and what are the ways that can change.” When she wrapped up her degree, she was still on the fence about what to do with it. Research and analysis? Graduate school? She took an internship at the Minnesota Historical Society. But she also considered activism, working for a while with Minneapolis’ Central Labor Union Council. “Ultimately, both those paths weren’t quite satisfying. Academic research felt removed from the real world, or a lot of it did, and the activism didn’t have enough of the deep research and intellectual work I wanted to do.”
MIND MELD: She joined the Institute for Local Self-Reliance as a research assistant and felt she’d landed at the right place to explore her interests in politics and advocacy and organizing. She’s been there ever since. Had she grown up in a political household? Not particularly, she said. “Certainly my parents voted and were active in their church. But they weren’t involved in particular campaigns.” She does remember an elementary school project she did on gender oppression, although that terminology wasn’t quite in her fifth-grade vocabulary. She was also struck early on by the oxymoron of “clean coal.” “I don’t know where it came from, but I have always been driven by an interest in the way the world could be sustainable and economically just.”
WORKING FROM HOME: In 2001, she and her husband started looking for a way to get back to the Northeast. “Our driving motivation was wanting to be where nature loomed large.” While they were poking around in the Northeast, they stopped in Portland. “We kind of looked around and were like, here we are, back in our hometown, and this place is great.” The city she’d grown up seemed on the cusp of a rebirth. “One of Maine’s great strengths is that there are people who love being here and found ways to invent businesses and jobs and create an economy where they can employ themselves.”
WE GET IT: Mainers are pretty self-reliant, right? Yes, Mitchell says. And while she’d been used to explaining the concept of local self-reliance to puzzled people in the Midwest, in Maine, the response was different. “In Maine it was like, oh yeah, we need that.” Meaning, we’re independent by nature here? “We understand that we are not at the center of where economic and political power is headquartered. It’s very easy for us to be marginalized by large corporations and the powers that be.”
AUTHOR, AUTHOR: In a small state (populationwise) that’s out of the way geographically, jammed up here in the corner of the United States as Maine is, it matters even more that the state builds economic resilience, she said, and promoting locally owned businesses is a big part of that. Mitchell is not a fan of big-box stores, as you might imagine. She wrote a book “Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses.” Is one of those true costs a bigger carbon footprint? Yes, she said. “We know that it is vastly larger than a neighborhood, Main Street kind of (shopping) model.” Big-box stores tend to have a regional draw. That means people drive farther to run errands. Moreover, the efficiencies that allow cut-rate prices on some goods, as we’ve come to expect from big-box stores, are only possible because of incredibly efficient – and long-distance – supply chains. One out of every $4 Americans spend on food is spent at Walmart, Mitchell said. “When they are that dominant that means they can dictate.” It also means they don’t need local growers and producers of food, for instance.
BEST BUYS. NO REALLY: It’s also become increasingly hard for Americans in recent decades to break out of the big-box mentality as consumers, she said. Like assuming the big stores are always cheaper. “There is a psychic space that the big stores occupy by virtue of their marketing budgets,” she said. “A lot of people assume that if you want to get the best deal on an appliance you will get it at Walmart. When in fact, Consumer Reports has found that the best deals are at an independent.” Ditto for local pharmacies, she said.
AMAZONIAN: You might have seen Mitchell on CNN recently, talking about the research she’s done into Amazon’s massive (and growing) power. She and a colleague produced a report called “Amazon’s Stranglehold.” The giant retailer is everywhere. And nowhere, locally. “Amazon employs nobody in Maine. They are exerting this invisible undertow on our economy as dollars leave our state, and they are not providing anything in return.” Free and fast shipping is great in the short run, but as she points out, where is the tax base? She’d like people to think about other options in spending. (Mitchell is one of the founders of Portland Buy Local.) It can help to shop locally. “But don’t do that to the exclusion of calling your member of Congress, or writing a letter to the editor, or engaging your neighbor.”
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: