• Supporting Local Economies through Sustainable Food: A Bike Tour of New Orleans with Confluence

April 11 2017
April 11 2017
Confluence Practitioners Gathering 2017_101 copy

 

 

Jeff Rosen is the Chief Financial Officer at Solidago Foundation, and a Board Member of Confluence Philanthropy.

 

 

 

Most of us, when asked to stop and think about it, are by now aware of the pervasiveness of metaphorical thinking. But in the normal rush of events, we often see straight through metaphors, unaware of how they refract perceptions. So it’s probably important to pause once a month or so to pierce the illusion that we see the world directly. It’s good to pause to appreciate how flexible and tenuous our grip on reality actually is.  To be aware of metaphors is to be humbled by the complexity of the world, to realize that deep in the undercurrents of thought there are thousands of lenses popping up between us and the world, and that we’re surroundedat all times by what Steven Pinker of Harvard once called “pedestrian poetry.” David Brooks, “Poetry for Everyday Life,” New York Times – April 11, 2011

 

Many thanks to Lisa Renstrom, the Confluence Board Chair for cajoling me into the role of “sweep” on our inspiring bike tour during the field trip portion of the recent Confluence gathering on March 14, 2017. The sweep serves as the last rider in the procession, there to make sure no one is left behind. As I mulled this odd role, I found it interesting to reflect back on the length and breadth of our field’s journey, to envision how much work there is left to do, and to draw parallels to this big trajectory, metaphorically, via a 7.2 mile bike trip.

Starting at the Hotel Monteleone, Barrie Schwartz, our most awesome local guide, handed us our route map. Folding the map neatly and putting it into my shorts pocket, I was reminded that, invariably, at every impact investment gathering, someone cautions (metaphorically), “If we don’t know where we are going, all roads look good to us.” That cautionary proverb also calls to mind a John Candy moment in the 1980s almost cult classic, Planes Trains and Automobiles. As he and Steve Martin race unwittingly along the wrong side of a highway late at night, a well-intentioned motorist, driving in parallel on the right side of the highway, frantically warns them, “You’re going the wrong way.  You’re going the wrong way!” Finally comprehending, a sleepy Steve Martin advises John Candy, ‘He says we're going the wrong way,” to which John Candy replies, “How would he know where we're going?”

So, trusting in our pocketed routes, we donned helmets and climbed astride steel framed, and seemingly cinderblock reinforced, single speed bikes. We careened out under cool, clear skies onto the busy streets of downtown New Orleans. And, of course, just like the nascent days of philanthropic impact investing, the first few blocks were unnervingly fraught with challenge. We were met by potholes and jersey barriers, physical manifestations of the very metaphors we use to describe our work. Traffic buzzed uncomfortably close by and all around us, analogous to the way that our early voices felt overwhelmed by the field of traditional investors. Alone in this heavy traffic, we bumped along on rough and uneven streets; even the most experienced riders among us uncomfortable on these plodding, top-heavy bikes. As we came to busy intersections, our large group fragmented, like the field of impact investing itself. Those of us who hadn’t used coaster brakes since Schwinn and Raleigh were the only known bike brands found ourselves slowing and braking awkwardly, as many of us did with our nascent steps and missteps in our early PRI and MRI days.

Jeff on bike

Then, as we moved through downtown, we arrived at our first bike lanes. As the group biked through unfamiliar neighborhoods, speckled with colorful, recently renovated buildings, experienced riders grew accustomed to the group’s slow (but admittedly steady) pace. At a casual pace, it was a bit easier to meet those whom we hadn’t met and to chat with those we did know, invariably sharing our peer to peer perspective on our work around impact investing and the state of the field.

For our first stop, we visited Roux Carre, a semi-permanent pop-up market. The market features early stage, local food businesses, showcases visual and performing artists and serves as a destination hub for a neighborhood, still in a post-Katrina effort to define its own path. While we had the good fortune to feast on the incredible local cuisine, we had the better fortune to hear the inspiring stories from the ambitious participants and deeply committed partners of this project, designed to boost the local resiliency of the neighborhood through food and the arts. Emery Sonnier at the Link-Stryjewski Foundation described their passion for empowering youth and their multiple strategic efforts, including support of the entrepreneurs who were being incubated all around us and the Youth Empowerment Project we had passed. We heard from community partners as well as funders, dedicated to a full system approach to community building, weaving together a practical vision from seemingly disparate issues, ranging from farming to talent searches.

Roux Carre

Sated on multiple levels, we left and biked several miles along urban stretches, certainly amusing residents with our odd procession.  Now more familiar with our trusty steeds, we made steadier time, as we made our way to Propeller, an understated, self-described force for social change.  Led by an honest presentation from Propeller’s ED Andrea Chen and Board Chair Linda Usdin, we heard a humble, compelling story from an agency looking at the multiple layers of capital required to build out the next generation of social entrepreneurs.

This story clearly resonated with the tour, as it spoke to both the deep personal transformation of the engaged entrepreneurs and the role that philanthropic partners have played in supporting this work. We got a first-hand look at outcomes from multi-layered philanthropic activity. The long term philanthropic partners to Propeller have offered multi-year strategic grantmaking, PRI and MRI strategies. Andrea Chen, Propeller

Then it was back on the bikes for the last few miles of the ride. As we circled back, we left the rush hour traffic and picked up the Lafitte Greenway, where the pedaling was easier and the risks felt mitigated. We crossed through a variety of neighborhoods, offering another view at a wide swathe of New Orleans, ranging from tree-lined neighborhoods to relatively desolate industrial parks.

The greenway ended, depositing us back at the edge of the French Quarter, where, as in many honest tales of impact investing, the unforeseen occurred. As the first half of the group pedaled casually back to drop off their bikes, the rear, including the sweep, possibly distracted by the raucous mob that was waiting outside of the Saenger Theatre to watch The Price is Right, found ourselves biking past our destination, back into the heavy downtown traffic.

Aided by people who were far more helpful than Google maps, we were put back on course.  We returned a bit sunburned, a bit road bumped and a bit more knowledgeable about this unique place. If the metaphor to impact investing were to hold, and parallel our current state, we would have returned with a replicable model and a communication strategy for sharing our experience with others. But in the end, we just wound up with a really cool experience and some new bonds, all of which add up to a bit of ‘pedestrian poetry.’

 

Bikes

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