A conversation with Rebecca Adamson of First Peoples Worldwide
Rebecca Adamson, an indigenous economist, is Founder and President of First Peoples Worldwide in New York. A leader, activist, and ground-breaking Indigenous woman, Rebecca has a distinct perspective on how Indigenous Peoples’ value and economic systems can transform today’s business models. She holds a MS in Economic Development from Southern New Hampshire University, where she has also taught a graduate course on Indigenous Economics within the Community Economic Development Program. Rebecca has worked directly with grassroots tribal communities, and nationally as an advocate of local tribal issues, since 1970. She started First Nations Development Institute in 1980 and First Peoples Worldwide in 1997. Rebecca co-authored The Color of Wealth, published in 2006.
Rebecca will facilitate a table conversation at EcoLogic’s 2015 fall benefit, “Turning the Tables: Nurturing Resilience” on October 1. At her table, she will be leading a discussion focused on exploring the concept of Enoughness: Restoring Balance to the Economy. Get a sneak preview of what she will be talking about at dinner here!
What will you be talking about with the guests at your table?
I want to talk about why if we don’t reform the economic system, we will never save the planet. Most of my work has been using indigenous principles from a subsistence economy and taking indigenous wisdom to reform our Western economy. But we need to get a handle on what true sustainability is. You can’t have these exponentially growing economies and sustainability; we have to emphasize sustainability over growth. I want to put the economics stuff I’ve done more into the framework of climate change and talk about what it’s going to take for us to get where we need to be.
We keep chipping away at this thing – we get carbon, and after carbon, we get methane – but we can’t keep going at it like that. It’s not going to work. Even divestment from fossil fuel is not going to work because it’s the animal industry that’s producing more than the fossil fuel industry. Analyzing these little factors is not enough to understand the interrelated pieces. What connects all these factors is the economy, and that’s the lens I use.
Tell us a bit about your professional background and your experience regarding Enoughness.
Well I think it started from who I am as an indigenous person. For example, one night I was up in Alaska sitting in front a campfire, and one of the hunters brought back a beaver for supper. We’re getting ready to grill it on the fire, and as you may know beavers mate in pairs for life. Some of the young kids had gotten their guns out and were about to go down to the river because the other beaver was looking for his mate. But instantly, everyone else in the village said NO NO we have enough! This is enough! This is all we need. And that just really struck me because that principle is almost unheard of in today’s economy – the idea that people can have enough.
My formal profession started when we created the first micro-loan fund in the US for the Lakota Fund on the Pine Ridge reservation. What we saw among the borrowers was the desire to have a business to a certain stage, and then it was enough. They did not want to grow the business. We were going up against the values of the several other micro-lending organizations that had taken off when the bandwagon rolled out, and there became this standardization of profit where growth was the key indicator. But, our borrowers didn’t have these goals. Their goals changed to meet a need in the community which is a very smart entrepreneurial goal and the basis for entrepreneurialism. Once the local businesses reached a point where they had grown their business to “enoughness,” the borrowers quit. These were fascinating responses to putting a Western and a subsistence economy together. My whole life has been exploring this and trying to understand our economy.
What led you to develop such a passion for this subject?
I continue to be amazed at how we hold the economy as sacred in this culture. If you need a job, move to where the economy produces those jobs instead of questioning what kind of jobs is our economy even producing? We lost sight of the purpose of the economy: to provide food, clothing and shelter for households. We’ve lost that completely. The economy is so value-laden, and we believe this lie that it is value-neutral. There needs to be a really serious explanation of the values in this system.
Our economic system is just a game! It’s like baseball, golf, football – why do we hold this as sacred – it’s not even a premise that’s been proven! Here’s the belief system behind our current system: we’re a bunch of individuals with insatiable appetites and scarcity of resources. That belief system is a paradigm of fear and cutthroat competition. We believe we have to accumulate our resources before our neighbor does because we’re going to run out. We see ourselves as individuals – that we aren’t related in any way to others or the larger world – it’s such a fallacy! You can turn and look to your partner and you can think of umpteen things that humans have done just because they are human and they care, and we are all connected. So why do we operate from this belief? Why do have an entire system that drives us on a belief that’s not even valid?
What are some of your current projects relating to restoring this balance?
Looking back, one thing I did in the early 2000s had to do with looking at the distribution in the financial markets. Building on the micro-loan work we had done, we worked with the government to pass legislation on community development and financial institutions. I’m on a mutual fund’s board and I really took it to the market and made a case to our shareholders that poor people were credit-worthy and we could take one percent of our portfolio and use it to invest in low income loan funds. We got a phenomenal response. They voted unanimously and wanted to go up to five percent in low income loan funds! Now, the entire mutual fund industry is involved and there’s more than a billion dollars going into low income loan funds. All this came from my starting point of a principle of distribution and reciprocity – we had to get these resources flowing to all parts of the economy and all parts of society.
What I’ve really been doing now is looking at this market that is so-called value-neutral and trying to insert values to reward good companies and penalize bad companies. The focus of that work is to define the materiality of social impact. When these companies move in and set up and thousands of men move in and start raping and kidnapping and sex-trading the women and children, that is social impact more toxic than any chemical released in the environment. The hardest place we get hit is cumulative impact, you can’t nail a single company down when there’s ten of them in the same area with high dense activity really stressing out that ecosystem, there is no liability regarding that cumulative impact. We’re trying to find a way to get this into the market as material risk, which then will drive the cost of capital, and when capital goes up companies will respond.
What do you think you can learn from discussing this topic at our event?
I’ll be sitting at a table with people on the front line of being able to add to the social impact and I can begin to tease out the overlap between social and environmental impact. I believe they are inseparable, two sides of the same coin. So I’m going to learn a lot in a practical, on-the-ground sense of the kinds of things that we need to look for. We started collaboration with some academics that were setting up four sites in North Dakota, Alaska, Louisiana, and West Virginia where we’re trying to do citizen science and set up portals where the citizens will be weighing in on both the environmental and social impacts. We want to do a bottoms-up matrix because we’re tired of the top-down stuff. So this table at the event will be like a miniature experiment of that.
What is the number one thing you would like the people sitting at your table to walk away with at the end of the night?
There is so much to be gained by taking control of our money. Our political leadership is a joke. I don’t think we’re going have much by way of that kind of leadership. Governments sell out and there’s so much government corruption across the world – I’m not just picking on us. We are coming down to a point where we need to tackle the 800 pound gorilla in the room and that’s the economy. And the way to do that is through our money. We need to be much more sophisticated in organizing how we’re going to affect the markets, because the leaders aren’t listening to us, the courts aren’t ruling for us, and if they do rule for us, the leaders don’t implement it anyway. So it’s a bad cycle we’re in right now. Citizens’ power is what can make the change.
In your opinion, how do you think small organizations like EcoLogic can make a difference in the world?
I think we have to change the mindset of “too big to fail” to “too big to succeed,” because what’s actually going to succeed are the smaller NGOs like EcoLogic that are really connected to people. All these top-down approaches are so misguided because you’re not really involving the people that are impacted. So, I think EcoLogic is in a really key nexus of being the right size to have dramatic impact. EcoLogic can change the dialogue from either jobs or economic growth to creating a space where the economy of a community can grow with hope while improving the environment.