Guest columnist Maisy Sylvan: Unsung heroes of social progress

Published: 6/14/2021 6:12:24 PM

Earlier this year, I interviewed eight progressive cafe owners across Hampshire County as part of a graduate school research project. Through ethnography, I sought to explore the ways that social progressivism and small-business ownership interact. I also posed questions about if and how the pandemic affected business owners’ ideological purviews. What resulted were long phone calls and Zoom sessions about humanity, adaptability and how we navigate the sociopolitics of space and place.

It quickly became apparent that for progressive small business owners in the Pioneer Valley, social progressiveness is more than a political stance — it inheres in their ways of living and manifests in their businesses. From sliding-scale menus to compostable cutlery, small businesses in the Pioneer Valley have been integrating progressive ideals into their business models since long before social impact entrepreneurship became en vogue. And unlike many “socially conscious” Green Companies and B Corps, the Valley’s small and micro-businesses fundamentally challenge corporate capitalism and monopoly power through their localized nature and scale.

The cafe owners I spoke with framed progressivism in terms of their commitment to the greater good and the wellbeing of others, which ultimately informed many of their operational, managerial and physical business design choices. Many pointed to relying on locally-sourced, organic, and fair-trade ingredients, which supports the local economy, minimizes transportation-related environmental degradation, and promotes healthier and safer food consumption. Other business owners discussed safe and inclusive work environments, using their space for political organizing, and long histories of donating to progressive causes. Most attested to paying their employees above Massachusetts minimum wage, which at the time of my research, was already the third highest in the country.

Amid the largest wave of small business bankruptcies and closures since the Great Depression, many of my interviews were deeply imbued with expressions of fear and anxiety; impressively, they were also colored with selflessness and hope. Most of my interviewees reported that the pandemic reinforced their progressive values, pointing to the need for a better social safety net and characterizing 2020 as a time that implored us to be “as generous as possible.”

I started this project in search of answers about the politics of a wrought economy and 2020’s Zeitgeist of precarity, but what I found was far more honest and compelling. In the Valley, progressive small business ownership serves as a lesson in living by our values, which is one of the defining characteristics of our community; it is the reason that many of us choose to live here, to pour ourselves into the Valley and in turn, to let it fill us with the knowledge of how to live kindly and conscientiously. This project taught me that loving our community means supporting our small businesses, and that is the lesson that I want to share.

Maisy Sylvan is a graduate student in Master of Science in Social Policy 2021 at the University of Pennsylvania.

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