Mariah McKay and SIMBA | Women Owned Spokane | Spokane Photographer
I met Mariah shortly after the 2016 election. I think by then we had seen each other in similar circles and events but never formally met. When I met her, I immediately knew she was a force to be reckoned with. As a community leader and business owner, her intent is to make an impact. While Spokane carries a reputation for being a small town, it is still a growing city and when you can walk into a room and mention Mariah’s name and multiple people from different circles and walks of life know who she is, you know she is making a change.
It just seemed perfect that she was one of the first people I interviewed for my project, Women Owned Spokane.
SIMBA and How It Started
<>At Reed college I thought I wanted to go into the STEM fields. I wanted to study biochemistry and molecular biology. My vision was to get my PHd in Biochemistry and then do Law school at night and become an Intellectual BioTech Property Rights attorney. I wanted to work for a non-profit pharmaceutical company. I wanted to take research that hadn’t been seen to fruition and transfer the intellectual rights to a non-profit pharmaceutical company to try and bring medicine to market.
I managed to graduate, a rigorous program. But I burnt out on Science. I had this vision, and I’m not into visions, but I had one to come back to Spokane and start a youth center out of the basement of my very unusual church which is the Unitarian Universalist Church. My minister is also an atheist and while there are Christians that attend that church it is not dogmatically Christian. I came back and fire codes prohibited the Youth Center from being opened. And there was an industry-wide hiring freeze in the Pharmaceutical Sector. So I was like, well, I worked really hard, I’m kind of burnt out. Let’s take a fun job.
And so I enrolled in Americorps and worked downtown at a Radio Station. That’s where I learned the City of Spokane is different… There were many diverse communities here, many diverse subcultures in arts and music. And people had so much potential. Maybe in a larger market or different environment, they’d have a larger audience for the creative work they were donating to the public through the radio station. It just fascinated me how a city that is so beautiful and has all the right ingerdients, why do we feel like we’re behind or struggling or we’re an undesirable place?
That was ten years ago so a lot has been overcome but the history is still there and the challenges are still there. And even as people are moving back to Spokane, and bringing back their businesses and their exposure to the world, not everyone is moving back. There are very talented people of color who are fleeing Spokane cause they couldn’t find an audience for their gifts. Or there were all kinds of toxic work environments that demoralized them and they didn’t want to continue to beat their head against a wall.
There are people on the outside of Spokane, someone I spoke to yesterday actually, who I mentioned our Co-Housing program too and she said, “I just assumed Spokane is not an option for us because my daughter is 13 and she’s queer and I don’t want her to have to face discrimination in the school system.” So the struggle is still real and we still have a ways to go to be an inclusive and egalitarian city, a modern global city.
What I love about Spokane is our deep regional roots and our history that is unique because of our geographic isolation. We do have a lot of indemic families here – I’m fourth generation Spokanite. So there are a lot of relationships that make collaboration possible that would be more difficult in a larger city. So how do we become a small world city? There’s little sparks here and there… The University district, researchers around the world coming here doing cutting edge work.
So I fell in love with Spokane. But I still wanted to use my degree. I worked at a biotech Engineering firm for nine months but it wasn’t a great fit. It didn’t use my skills and I was the only single young woman in the company and they teased me for being left leaning, for being a vegetarian. I was approached inappropriately by senior sales staff on work trips. I was glad to be laid off and I got into community development where I learned grant-writing and communication skills. I helped organize Sustainable September which is a month long festival of environmentally minded events in different areas. That’s actually where SIMBA started to begin for me.
We had a green business theme for part of the Sustainable September festival and we had a Green Business brunch kickoff. And 300 people showed up. The keynote speaker was Michelle Long, the founder and former executive director of BALLE (The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies). She and her then-husband started Sustaunable Connections which is a Business Association in Bellingham that appealed to businesses doing cutting edge green-business practices, socially responsible hiring and management practices and really wanted to build a vibrant local inclusive economy. From that work she realized communities across the country were interested in having a seat for that work.
So she created BALLE which helped bootstrap other business alliances into existence. She came to Spokane and local business owners were inspired and they chipped in money to start a Spokane BALLE chapter. Unfortunately that was two years after the recession hit and people were going broke left and right. There’s very little grant money and state budget cuts were devastating non-profit organizations implemented around enrolling people in healthcare and green energy production. Youth development, Childcare. And so the two people who stepped up to co-chair this committee couldn’t find work and had to leave Spokane at the same time. Work stalled out. Business owners were too busy to create a whole other non-profit on top of that.
Being an independent business owner is incredibly demanding. There’s incredible competitive pressures in the market place today that there didn’t used to be. We didn’t have Amazon to compete with. We didn’t used to have Wal-Marts in every tiny town across the whole country. Media has changed and the marketplace has changed. And if you’re an independent business owner just eeking it out, it’s all you do. It’s brutal. There are other businesses that have other business models that allow more flexibility, I don’t want to over-represent the challenge. But it is difficult. People who aren’t in business under-estimate the challenge because they’ve never lived it.
For the last eight years there’s been nothing. And meanwhile, BALLE moved. Co-founders got divorced, she moved to Oakland. BALLE is now a philanthropic training grounds to educate foundations on the importance of investing in the new economy movement. A lot of donors think, oh you’re a business group you don’t need a grant. We’re supposedly profit-making. But what they don’t realize is we’re trying to create a whole new economic structure. We’re trying to popularize the notion of a triple bottom line which is a framework in which a business accounts for it’s impact on the environment, people and communities just as much as it accounts for how much money it makes and when it comes in and how to optimize profit. Three P’s: People, profit, planet. Some people are even talking a fourth “P”: Policy/Governance. Is your business run democratically? Do workers have a chance to influence the direction of the business? Is it a worker-owned cooperative?
There isn’t a group in the entire Northwest that has become a business membership-based center for that kind of expertise and thinking for that alternative grassroots-level development. So instead of trickle down economics, we are promoting trickle-up economics. It’s a very different perspective on what is needed for a vibrant economy that preserves opportunity for people to actually be rewarded for hard work and to preserve a meritocracy. Right now our meritocracy is broken. You could work very hard and still live in poverty for the rest of your life and it’s wrong. We just haven’t looked at it square in the eye. It’s so easy to change the topic or get distracted in the root of the inequality in terms of wealth accumulation.
So yeah, we want to come at economic development and policy change that brings more people in rather than make a small portion very very rich. So it’s about economic justice, social inclusion, and having the local ownership to create a Spokane that is the best version of itself. So we aren’t a cookie-cutter rubber stamped, another every other American city along the highway with the same strip-mall.
It’s also about environmental survival and trying to re-engineer our relationship to the natural world in a way that helps people see the imperative of living within our material needs on the planet. Which right now we are living beyond our means. Last I heard every year we consume 4.6 times the natural output of the globe. We are drawing down on our principle in terms of forestry, minerals, and all these things. And that’s not sustainable. Our population is fueled by the use of fossil fuels, literally by oil, and we are heading towards nine billion people on the planet and if we’re going to avoid mass suffering and conflict, we need to start taking the reins of our trajectory and find alternative ways. That’s going to require a lot of growth. Our governments are not there. It’s a delicate difficult scenario we’re in. I’m young enough to have to live with the consequences of what comes but old enough to have a notion of how to approach the problem. We bring people together and work-together to find solutions.
What are some of your biggest obstacles?
It’s one that’s melting with every passing day. But we’re doing something very new to this region. We have great examples of this work in cities all around us. BBPDX (Business for a Better Portland) is our contemporary and it’s an example of our work down in Portland. Seattle Good Business Network is our version of us in Seattle. But in Spokane, because we’re out in our own dog-leg here in the Northwest, people don’t understand. “What’s the triple bottom line? Are you trying to be a chamber?” No, we’re not a chamber, we’re a business and consumer association.
How would you define SIMBA?
So SIMBA is the Independent Business and Consumer Association of the Spokane, CDA metro region and we seek to create an environment in which independently owned businesses can thrive. That has brought opportunities for social inclusion and environmental responsibility that meaningfully addresses historic inequities in the way wealth is distributed throughout society.
How does one join the alliance?
We have two types of membership. One for businesses, one for individuals. For businesses, there are three options, three levels of membership on a sliding scale. The more resources you can contribute the more benefits you get from SIMBA’s network. There’s five different categories of benefits. Direct marketing support, customer development, technical assistance, advocacy, things of that nature.
A lot of businesses, especially green businesses that maybe have a product that’s new or that has an environmental design element to it… people don’t know why they need it. People have to care about the environment to want to buy that product. All the business can focus on is selling the product. They can’t educate the world on making that link. For example, this fall we’re doing a soft launch on a Buy Local campaign called “live Local” and we’re telling folks, if you just shift your budget, 10%, to buying locally, look in our member directory and see where you can find it locally, that would bring millions of dollars of economic activity back into our region that would otherwise be shipped off to headquarters around the world to line some executive’s bucket. Some of those companies are publicly traded so it’s about shareholder value rather than community reinvestment.
Whereas if you’re shopping at a local business, smaller businesses tend to employ more people per unit of economic activity. They also donate a lot more to local philanthropic, like the local soccer club for example, than these giant corporations. Because they have local decision making authority, they can be more reflexive and more responsive to community needs. In some cases it may take more time to find the deals but a lot of times, local service providers beat multi-national company prices. So we’re educating people on that.
We meet monthly on the third Tuesday from 6-7:30 pm and we rotate different business locations. It’s totally free and people are welcome to come and learn and discuss and get oriented. We want to talk to people about things like time-poverty. When people don’t have time to look for deals, then we’re on the hook to look for Amazon which undermines the whole notion of a free market. It’s a dangerous place for our community. Yes there are conveniences but what are the costs of those conveniences to the whole system?
To learn more about SIMBA, check out Spokane Independent Metro Business Alliance.
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