Susan Witt may run an organization that talks economics, but her frame of reference is literature. That's why on a visit to the E.F. Schumacher Society here, where she serves as executive director, the conversation revolves around stories.
Economic systems are the goal, but it all starts with people and their stories, including hers.
In 1974, British economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, author of "Small is Beautiful, Economics as if People Mattered," asked an American colleague, Robert Swann, to set up an organization here in the United States, and 25 years ago, the E.F. Schumacher Society was born.
Today, housed in a modern rustic wood and glass building on a hilltop off Jug End Road, the E.F. Schumacher Society is alive with visions of small, local economies.
The rooms including a library of 12,000 volumes that belonged to Schumacher quietly hum with the activity of a small team of interns, volunteers and four staff.
Swann died in 2003, and Witt, who worked side by side with him from the beginning as a business and life partner, carries on his vision and works on new ones.
The programs they started include micro-credit loans and local currencies, to name a few; but before getting to talk about those things, we sit outside on a shady patio and talk about how local economies came to be Witt's life's work.
It all started with heroes. She was a literature teacher long before she began thinking about monetary systems. Working at the High Mowing School, a private secondary school in New Hampshire from 1972 to 1977, she taught literature as a study of heroes.
But her students at High Mowing weren't satisfied to learn only about the heroes of the past, the heroes of ancient or even more contemporary literature. Where and who, they asked, are today's heroes? She didn't know the answer, so says Witt, "I asked all of my friends." She asked psychologists, sociologists and artists.
Then, in 1977, she inherited $10,000 from her grandfather.
"It was twice my annual salary," she said.
So she decided to take the two years that the gift would support to learn and write about modern heroes. One of her friends urged her to look at the modern businessman or woman, but that idea didn't seem quite right, so she continued casting for the right catch.
At some point, she realized there might be some truth to her friend's idea: The modern businessman, after all, deals with the classic conflicts, between the temptations of greed, despair and distraction, and treating people or workers well, making deals with integrity and obtaining and managing resources responsibly.
How does he stay his course?
It's not easy, she says, and if, indeed, he runs a business as if people mattered, he is a modern hero.
Witt wasn't content just to think and write. She wanted to find a group of people or an organization that was dealing with the economy in this way.
One day in 1977, while still living in New Hampshire, she heard a radio interview in which Robert Swann, then director of the Cambridge-based Institute for Community Economics, talked about such things as local economies and community land trusts. She had heard an interview with him about community land trusts 10 years earlier, and his ideas had resonated with her then as they did again on this day.
So she decided to give the institute a call.
"When I called they said, 'What can you do?' I said, 'I have an M.A. in English literature; I could put your card file in order.' They said, 'Our card file is a wreck.'"
So she went. After a short time, it turned out that Witt's ability to write, speak and tell stories became as valuable as her organizational skills. Her life was off on a new path.
She quickly became integral to the organization, which was well known for its expertise on community reinvestment and community land trusts.
In 1974, during the fuel crisis sparked by the Arab oil embargo, Swann invited Schumacher to visit the United States. It was then that the economist asked Swann to set up a sister organization here.
Swann did so in 1980, the year he and Witt came to the Berkshires to help a local group set up a community land trust in South Egremont and were talked into staying on.
Witt became one of the leaseholders at an unusual community that is based on common land ownership. The land is held in trust by a group, and individuals own the buildings. Through an inheritable and renewable 99-year lease, the trust, according to Schumacher literature, "removes land from the speculative market and facilitates multiple uses such as affordable housing, agriculture, and open space preservation."
"There is no incentive to sell," Witt says, "The idea is to create permanent homes, not investment property."
Swann and Witt left their work at the Institute in Cambridge, and set up full time here in Egremont, the Schumacher Society's new and permanent home. Since that time, besides the Jug End Road community, they have helped to develop Forest Row in Great Barrington Swann was also an architect a neighborhood with a similar ownership/leasing arrangement.
"I came kicking and screaming," says Witt of the move to the Berkshires. "I liked living in Cambridge."
Soon she appreciated this place too, and felt great affection for what she calls "the quality of thought," especially how citizens work to solve their own problems, not relying completely on the government.
With more tax money leaving the county and going to Boston than coming back, the citizens here, theorizes Witt, have learned to develop ways to be self-reliant, and at the same time, to cooperate to find their own solutions.
She adds that in the Berkshires, "A rich cultural life leads to an independence of thinking."
The legacy of agricultural work here also makes people self-reliant and rooted to the land, she notes. Old timers have told her about how they returned home during the Great Depression to places where they could chop wood and grow their own food.
Witt is concerned with the idea that consumers must work to shape their local economies because the global economy, while here to stay, is not the best way for communities to survive healthfully.
She believes strongly that the consumer is the first point of action in establishing a healthy local economy. The consumer must say, for example: "We want applesauce; what are the conditions that we can create so that you can produce it for us?"
Conditions might include assistance with financing start up costs. Or, conditions might be a contract to purchase a certain amount of local product.
Witt and the folks at Schu-macher believe that local currencies are another way to encourage people buy things locally. A major project of the society is to launch "BerkShares," a local currency that would be accepted by participating businesses and would, they say, boost the local economy.
Chris Lindstrom, who is working on that project, came to the organization with the idea that an international conference on local currencies would be an important step in raising awareness. Witt agreed, but since she didn't have the funding or the time to organize it, she suggested that he might do it.
In June of 2004, some 300 people from around the world gathered at Simon's Rock College, to talk about local currencies. Two weeks ago, Lindstrom organized a major fund raiser in Westchester, N.Y., to establish a program in which a local currency would be circulated in stages in the Southern Berkshires. The project was reported on in the Wall Street Journal.
Lindstrom, a Simon's Rock alumnus who originally came to the area to attend college, talked about Witt in terms of "her style."
She is "incredibly committed" to her work, and at the same time is able to keep the organization running, he said.
Elizabeth Keen of Indian Line Farm in South Egremont has also been affected by Witt's vision, commitment and passion. Years ago, Witt was one of the authors of a booklet called "A New Lease on Farmland" which talked about partnerships that would keep farmland farmed, rather than simply preserved but not farmed. In order for land to be actively farmed, farmers need equity, and they need affordable homes nearby.
What are the conditions, the authors asked and answered, to allow farmers to "farm with their heart and soul."
Witt gave the booklet to Frank Lowenstein, director of the Nature Conservancy in Sheffield. When a big piece of farmland in Egremont was about to come on the market in 1999, Lowenstein remembered the ideas from the document and together with Witt, this time acting as the director of the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires, the two worked to make it happen.
They involved Keen and her husband, Alex Thorp, who would own the buildings; the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires which would own the land; and the Nature Conservancy which would hold the conservation restriction.
The Thorps have been running Indian Line Farm since they bought, moved into and fixed up the farmhouse.
Some of Witt's can-do spirit may come from her mother, she says. A Latin and French teacher and single mother of two in Greenwich, Conn., she was a model of an independent woman who didn't let difficulty keep her from accomplishing her goals.
In addition to her work at the Schumacher Society, Witt is the administrator of the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires.
In 1992 she was elected the first woman president of the Great Barrington Rotary Club. She is on the board of the Great Barrington Land Conservancy and the Fund for Affordable Housing, both of which she founded.
She is also an advisory board member of Legacy Banks, a locally owned and managed bank; of The Orion Society, publishers of Orion magazine; and WAMC, Northeast Public Radio.
Nationally she serves on the advisory board of the Business Alliance for Local Living Econ-omies (BALLE) and she is a founding board member of the newly created Intermediate Technology Development Group/US.
With all of this experience, her vision is simple: It includes a life where the sweater she wears is made from the wool of the sheep from a nearby farm, the food she eats produced by a farmer in her town or the next, and the wood of her table harvested from a local or regional forest.
With her hearty laugh and a quickly familiar toss of her head, her style engages the visitor while she shows her unusual hilltop domain, the E.F. Schumacher Society.