Calls coming last week from Oxford, my hometown, suggested that the mood of local residents was shifting toward disgruntlement as they waited to hear if John McCain would show up for the presidential debate. They expected a payoff for all of the inconveniences they had endured in silence up until now: increased traffic congestion, temporarily blocked streets around the university, too few parking spaces near the activities and, worst of all, too few tickets to get into the main event. If the debate did go off as promised, voter backlash would be part of the retribution. But the university would not go unscathed, either.
Oxonians, as we call ourselves, have often felt like handmaidens for the university rather than an honored host community. Tradeoffs were deeply imbedded into the consciousness of local residents as they learned to cope with what it means to live in a university town when the school has a bigger population and greater payload than its own city.
"We are always picking up behind the university, while it drops its clothes everywhere like our returning cousins from the North who take advantage of our hospitality," a friend once remarked.
My friend, unable to find a good job in a timely manner, often blamed the university for keeping wages suppressed and awarding the better paying jobs to out-of-towners. What good is change if our lives remain untouched, she argued. I liked her barometer for measuring change. It was a real B.S. sorter. All you had to do was ask if the change taking place is making a real difference in the lives of those affected by ithow simple is that?
I would love to have an opportunity to sit in front of either one of the candidates for two minutesjust two frigging minutesand state the case for microenterprise development. For me, that could make a difference.
You see, part of what I do is advocate on behalf of tiny, small businesses that we call microenterprises. I was an original charter member and now am the executive director of Mississippi Microenterprise Network Association, a nonprofit organization that promotes self-employment as a poverty alleviation tool and economic-development strategy. Technically, a microenterprise is a business that begins with less than $35,000 in startup capital and is operated by an owner with fewer than five employees. However, many microenterprises are operated by sole proprietors who may earn a living as consultants, artists, shoemakers and the like.
I love my job. But it frustrates me that while 86 percent of all businesses in Mississippi are basically microenterprises, state policy favors the other end of the continuum. It is a policy that harks back to the Depression era when the state initiated the concept of junior colleges and industrial recruitment as a means of kick-starting the economy. Yet smokestack industries are notoriously footloose. To improve their bottom lines, such industries will often leave a town before the paint is dried or the bond is paid off on their custom-built facilities. When small communities with fragile tax bases are left holding the bag this way, it takes decades for them to recover, if they ever do.
For the most part, I am an independenta "purple" voter living in a "red" state. Imagine what could happen in a state with more than 200,000 businesses, most of them tiny, if such business owners say, and mean, that the only candidate that deserves our vote will be the outside-the-box thinker who can come up with ways to make health care affordable and regulations manageable for tiny small businesses and nonprofits. Imagine what would happen if this group saw themselves as a formidable voting bloc with the power to sway political platforms toward more favorable taxation of homegrown shops that's normally reserved for outside recruitment.
Let's face it. Small towns and inner-city urban neighborhoods are not likely to become the site of your next Nissan plant. However, no small town or local neighborhood is without artists, crafters, computer gurus, auto detailers, child-care providers and others who improve the quality of our lives by doing what they do best.
My friend's assessment of Ole Miss' preference for hiring out-of-state applicants for its better-paid positions are almost analogous to the state reserving most of its industrial incentives for out-of-state industries that bring their highly paid corporate executives with them while the lesser paid positions go to locals.
The change that could make a difference is to re-examine our policies of benign neglect toward tiny ventures and replace them with similar growth incentives as we give those who are more likely to abandon us for greener pastures when the economic chips are down.
We really do need to think local. And mean it.