Dissertation Proposal: Growing a good food entrepreneur ecosystem in Detroit: A network weaving story

Summary

FoodLab Detroit is a community of entrepreneurs who are collectively committed to making the possibility of healthy, fair, green food an accessible and sustainable reality for all Detroiters. Together, we seek to develop individual good food businesses, connect our businesses with one another and with an ecosystem of support, and participate in a broader “good food movement” in Detroit. This insider action research project seeks to understand the process and effects of network weaving, or intentionally building social capital among good food entrepreneurs and their allies (Krebs and Holley 2002). At FoodLab, we believe our network weaving activities not only can support the growth of triple-bottom-line businesses, but also strengthen collective identity, norms and goals, increase the potential for cooperation and collective action around these goals, and promote equity among good food entrepreneurs by equalizing access to social capital.

This phenomenon of entrepreneurship as a good food movement strategy is growing in scale and sophistication across North America, yet there has been little research directly targeted at understanding or documenting the trend. Critics note limitations of entrepreneurial approaches, showing that market-based approaches to food systems change can fail to address or even exacerbate challenges such as food insecurity for the most vulnerable, structural racism, exploitation of labor, and rising global consumption at the expense of future populations (Allen 1999; Allen et. al., 2003; Johnston 2008). Reliance on consumer-driven approaches to change may encourage individualized, depoliticized behavior, direct resources away from structural or political change, or undermine deliberative democracy by moving decisions about agrifood governance out of the public realm into private markets (Donald 2008; Konefal 2010). Yet others suggest that these criticisms can be reframed as an opportunity for organizers to shape entrepreneurship into more powerful form of resistance (Donald 2008; Johnston 2008; Shattuck & Holt-Gimenez 2011; Starr 2010). Social enterprise and organizational scholars point out that building networks or social capital is key to transforming systems or establishing new social equilibriums (Bloom and Dees 2008; Kania and Kramer 2011; MacLeod Grant & Flower 2010; Scearce 2011; Wei-Skillern and Marciano 2008).

The dissertation will integrate longitudinal network analysis and autoethnography within an insider action inquiry approach to address three questions: (1) What kind of social capital exists in the FoodLab community? How might we build social capital to strengthen collective identity, norms and goals, and increase the potential for cooperation, collective action, and structural change over time? (2) How does social capital among FoodLab entrepreneurs vary according to characteristics like race and socioeconomic status, and how does this affect business outcomes? How might FoodLab promote social capital equity and what is the potential effect on the overall community? (3) What does it mean to be a “network weaver” and build social capital? How does power manifest and what are the ethical challenges? What characteristics and skills set a network weaver apart from other kinds of leaders and how are these learned? The overall aims of this research are to develop myself as a network weaver, action researcher, and story-teller; to make FoodLab more effective in fulfilling our mission; and to offer theoretical foundations to guide practitioners, funders, and policy-makers in effective use of good food entrepreneurship and network weaving as tools to build more just and resilient food systems.

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