The Walmart closures: A community ‘Call-to-Action’

Two weeks ago the announcement of the closure of 154 Walmart stores in the United States sent ripples of anxiety, if not panic, throughout many small towns in America. Many of the affected communities were losing not just a big box store, but their pharmacist, their hardware store, their optician, their money center, their auto center and most of all – their grocery store. So impactful was this decision on some of these towns that the phrase ‘food dessert’ had crept into their local lexicon for the first time. Up to this point, ‘food dessert’ was a term reserved for the urban cores populated mainly by minorities. This couldn’t happen in middle America, especially in the towns that serve our nation’s farms.

But yes it had; and if the past is any indicator of the future – it’s not done happening yet. It isn’t that these stores themselves are doing that bad because in many communities they have virtually no competition (They wiped out most of the locally owned merchants shortly after they arrived). These store closures are due more to the new worldwide competition Walmart faces in Amazon and their online sales platform. Walmart’s profits are forecasted to decline fifteen percent in 2016 and its stock price took a twenty percent hit in 2015. Something had to give and cuts had to come from somewhere. That somewhere was mainly Walmart Express stores in smaller markets.

Walmart closed

It would be easy to take the conventional stance, one almost unanimously taken by the media. All this misfortune is the fault of Walmart and their heartless executives in their ivory towers far, far away. It’s just another way the rich are sticking it to the hard-working middle class folk in small town America. And of course this position has had no shortage of supporters in the towns affected. Well I suppose there’s some truth to it. But there’s also a lot more to it than that. The deeper we dig, the less we probably want to see.

The core of these problems have roots deep in the evolving sociology of not only the communities effected, but in most communities throughout the United States.

About a year ago I began the blog series, “On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World.” My goal is to create a pragmatic road to societal change through direct civic involvement using the efforts of local businesses and their customers as the conduit for volunteerism. The Norwegian have a word for this, Gugnad: “Unpaid voluntary, orchestrated community work.” I call this Community 3.0.  A year later I’m thirteen posts in with about ten left. This post, catalyzed by the Walmart closures, kind of serves as recap of the first two sections.

The first section of posts, Mile Markers 1 through 6, were called “Rebuilding the Middle Ring.” The term ‘Middle Ring’ was coined by Marc Dunkelman in his excellent 2014 book on the evolution, or should I say the de-evolution of the American neighborhood, “The Vanishing Neighbor.” In his book Dunkelman introduces the concept of the Middle Ring. The Middle Ring is what Dunkelman calls our neighborly relationships. This is in contrast to the inner-ring of family and close friends, and the ever-expanding outer-ring relationships fostered by the digital age and social media.

My first post, Rebuilding our Neighborhoods through the ‘Middle Ring’, was sort of a trip down memory lane growing up in Minot, North Dakota. My neighborhood back then was a functioning Middle Ring where everyone looked out for each other. Not everyone agreed politically, socially and especially in their professional football fandom … but it didn’t matter. It was the neighborhood that matter first and foremost.

Posts Two and Three were more of sociological discussion on what we could do as individuals to rebuild the societal foundation of our neighborhoods and the Middle Ring. Empathy and ‘Shared Experiences’ concentrated on exactly that – empathy. Unless we can put ourselves in others’ shoes (or at least try to), how are we going to expect to overcome our differences and see them as collaborators in the betterment of our communities. 

‘Cross-Pollination’ and Creating your Personal Renaissance takes empathy a step further by suggesting we venture out of our comfort zones and seek out people who are different from us. And instead of being blinded by differences we need to focus on the strengths of diversity and the growth we can achieve through it. One of examples of this I highlighted was my encounter with a homeless gentleman collecting bottles and cans from a dumpster … and especially the insight I gained from him.

In Posts Four and Five I elaborated on what I believe is American’s biggest societal divide – its generational gap and the loss of tremendous resources that fail to materialize because of it. ‘Bridging the Gap’ focused on the problem and ‘The Kernel,’ A Cross-Generational Makerspace Ecosystem was my idea of one part of the solution. Imagine combining the lessons and fundamentals of the past and modernizing them using the resources of today.

In the last piece of “Rebuilding the Middle Ring” I waged war on Silos. Everywhere we have organizations, whether they be public or private, we construct metaphorical silos. We build barriers, maybe for self-preservation and control – or maybe just because we don’t think there’s any other way. Regardless the reason, silos hold us back, individually and as a community. We spend more time excluding than including. Resources are left on the table because of duplication of efforts or just because one group doesn’t know what another group could offer. 

Nature provides a desirable alternative to conventional silo-ridden structure in the plant-based Rhizome theory of societal organization developed by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in the ’60s. Rhizomes feature societal cross-pollinated connections that allow for multiple non-hierarchical entry and exit points. This metaphor has become the organizational foundation that anchors Community 3.0.

The second part of the series, “Buy Local,” Mile Markers 7 through 10 – introduces local business as my conduit for rebuilding resilient neighborhoods and communities. Not all bad that happens to communities can be avoided, but a lot of the damage can be mitigated. The closing of a longterm large employer can happen (such as what we’ve seen throughout the Rust Belt); but a community can also hedge against such a thing by making a conscious effort to diversify through locally owned enterprises. This should be standard practice when times are good and there’s money in public coffers and the community is healthy. Unfortunately few do, thinking the proverbial Golden Goose will forever remain fertile. Such is never the case though.

While it’s bad when communities hit hard times, it’s worse is when the adverse affects are compounded by decisions made by civic leaders that further decimate the area and its local business base. These so-called leaders too often fall for the lies and deceit coming from big box stores and Wall Street chains’ mouthpieces. City and county officials are vastly overmatched in this game of sleight of hand. All they can see is the ‘glam and glitter’ of more jobs in a land of Oz, not the price to be paid getting there and the misleading actions of the ones behind the curtain.  These charlatans’ cries for government help and handouts (a regulation here, a mandate there, and a whole lot of subsidies and tax breaks) is seldom ignored. And in the end our civic leaders have created an alliance with big business. And unfortunately by default, they’ve made their enemies of free-enterprise and our local Main Street entrepreneurs.

This is exactly what happened in those 154 communities throughout America when Walmart moved in. But now it’s even worse because they’ve left with nothing but civic, economic and social carnage in their wake. The Pied Piped has been paid … only in this case – he never even got rid of the rats.

In the last three posts in “Buy Local,” I discuss the relationship between the residents of a community and their locally owned businesses. Even though the title of this section is “Buy Local” – that greatly understates this relationship. To automatically patronize a local business because it’s locally owned may seem like you’re helping them out; but it in fact you may be only enabling behavior that is detrimental to their success in the long term. Buy Local … or maybe not! asserts holding local business to the same standard that you would any other one while “Where Everyone Knows Your Name” actually promotes being a collaborator, by being a set of eyes on the street for your local business community. My intent here is to motivate us as customers to help coach local businesses rise to a higher standard, one that raises the bar to a level so they can compete favorably against the parasitic box stores and chains.

A community where its small businesses are intertwined with their client bases is one that is very difficult to uproot. And when this relationship is taken even a step further into the philanthropic realm via small business civic volunteer hubs, like those in the Community 3.0 model … your community’s defense system will be virtually impenetrable.

All this leads me to the issue at hand and the title of this piece, The Walmart closures: A community ‘Call-To-Action.’ We can all jump on the media bandwagon; play off the jingoism of “our town” and blame anyone and everyone outside our borders. But I can’t see how that is productive though. I can’t see a better future resulting from playing the blame game. We all share in the blame for the effect the Walmart closures have on our communities because we all shared in the foothold they established. While can’t necessarily keep them out (without bankrupting our towns and cities); we don’t have to let our civic officials hand them subsidies and tax breaks. We don’t have to shop at Walmart or any other chains at the expense of our local entrepreneurs. Those few dollars we think we save tend to turn to cents or less when all factors are taken into account.

When these piranhas leave our towns, they don’t leave it untouched; and often those hurt the most are the ones we that granted the most. These are our friends who provide us with what we need … even after hours. No longer can they be taken for granted. Now is the time for us to come together and show we are communities by more than just name, but by spirit – and most of all …. by our actions.

Even if the heartless actions by Walmart don’t directly affect you and your community … you can still use it as a wake-up call. It’s only a matter of time before Walmart or another Wall Street behemoth economically rapes and pillages your community. Use this time to come together and rebuild your neighborhoods and your Middle Ring of community support.

Use this time to decide who your real community is.

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If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.

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You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

 

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