I was introduced to Dorothy Day by reading her autobiography in January 2018. As I placed the book back on the shelf, I began thinking about what my newfound appreciation for justice and community could look like within the context of my individual circumstances.
My mom and I began to discuss the possibility of opening a store together. At first the idea left me uninspired, but then I remembered how Dorothy wrote about work and how important it is to people’s dignity. I also thought about my passion for local food and farming that I had acquired living near Asheville, North Carolina in college.
Four months later, I was writing a business plan, applying for grants, and seeking out suppliers for Tazewell Co. Mercantile. The shop would become a locally focused food and gift market with the goal of sourcing inventory within 500 miles of my hometown of Richlands, Virginia.
One of the themes of Dorothy Day’s life had been her commitment to what she called “personalism.” To her, this meant believing — and then living out — the reality that we all belong to one another, and are therefore responsible for each other’s welfare. I had head-knowledge of this prior to my experience at the shop, but for it to take root in me, I had to cement it within me as a core value through practical experience.
A local economy that serves neighbors
I wanted to bridge the gap, both economically and philosophically, between consumers and farmers in southwest Virginia. I had abstract and lofty, impractical goals. If people could see the faces behind the people growing their food, I felt sure they would sense a deeper connection and responsibility to their neighbor — and by extension, their community.
My neighbors were so resilient and talented — if my shop could help make farming a viable way of life for them; or turn a hobby into a career; or allow a sick person to have access to unprocessed, whole foods, then it was worth it. As I met with farmers, artisans, and craftspeople, I became even more convinced that this commitment to the local economy, especially local food, was the path for me.
After spending so much time walking with Dorothy through her books, it should have occurred to me that this experience had much more to teach me than I had to teach my community. Going into a project with the goal of changing people’s minds, habits, and beliefs was setting myself up for disappointment.
I discovered I had much more to learn than to teach. After a little over a year at the shop, I had to make the difficult decision to walk away and hand it over completely to my mom. Childcare was becoming too stressful, I wanted to spend more time writing, and focusing my energy mostly on the local food portion of the business was unfortunately less than lucrative and my debts were mounting.
The lessons I expected to learn during the process revolved around business and professional skills. While I did acquire a few more skills in those areas, I found myself reflecting on lessons on community more than others.
A local economy that honors labor
While I had the shop, I developed my own brand of the personalism that Dorothy Day introduced. One aspect I discovered is that awareness and thoughtfulness matters. Truly honoring someone’s livelihood requires more than just purchasing the cheapest version of something they produce (although sometimes I know that is necessary). This way of living requires intentionality — it involves educating myself and then thoughtfully considering the processes involved in bringing food and other goods into my life. Essentially, it means asking myself, “Whose work is honored or demeaned by this purchase?”
One of my favorite Wendell Berry quotes is, “Eating is an agricultural act.” There is so much more involved in the process of sitting down to dinner than people typically acknowledge. For instance, an ear of corn is planned out in a farmer’s mind months before the soil is tilled and the seed is planted. It is watered and nourished and kept free of destructive insects. It is waited upon patiently, tenderly, and purposefully. When it is picked, it is sold with pride to a distributor and displayed for customers. It is then sold again to a customer who then prepares it and shares a meal with his or her family.
The dedication and faith of the farmer, the honesty of the distributor, and the thoughtfulness of the consumer all contribute to the potential of this process being full of life (financial health for the farmer and distributor and physical health for the consumer). Recognizing how entangled our lives are is overwhelming and humbling and also encouraging.
A local economy built on interdependence
Through reflecting on the process of working closely with farmers, artisans, and craftspeople, I realized just how intimately we belong to one another. I can see how my own financial, emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing are intertwined — but they are also entangled in the wellbeing of my neighbors.
This connectedness extends far beyond the more obvious economic connection that was at the forefront of my mind when I managed my shop. Every purchase I made from a supplier enabled them to buy food for their family; each customer who purchased from me enabled me to do the same. I believe this interconnectedness speaks to a relational reality that was often, at least in my life, overlooked.
I have come to the conclusion that buying locally, sustainably, and thoughtfully is very much a practice and belief in community — it is a form of solidarity. It builds relationships that go beyond the superficial because everyone becomes interdependent, just like in a family.
One of the most practical ways I can care for my neighbor doesn’t involve anything grander than purchasing a locally knitted baby blanket or fresh beef from the local cattle farm. I now view my purchasing power as a sacred responsibility that has the capacity to spread hope, just like Dorothy.