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Hudson Valley Creates Careers in Community 

Good Work Institute and others set new models for work

click to enlarge Isaac Green Diebboll speaks to participants of the Good Work Institute’s Sullivan County tour on July 14, 2016.
  • Isaac Green Diebboll speaks to participants of the Good Work Institute’s Sullivan County tour on July 14, 2016.

Matthew Stinchcomb left his digitally-driven job at Etsy to focus on local work, forming Good Work Institute in 2015. Now, it and other Hudson Valley organizations are forging a path of careers in community.

In January 2018, Amazon announced 20 finalists for its second corporate headquarters competition, focusing primarily on larger cities in and around the East Coast. New York City and Newark are among the candidates to land the $5 billion construction job that would bring 50,000 tech workers, meaning more infrastructure, schools, and residential projects. The Hudson Valley is not a finalist.

But if you ask Matthew Stinchcomb, that's perfectly fine.

"We need to shift away from that thinking, that an Amazon corporate headquarters is good for your community," says Stinchcomb, the executive director of the Good Work Institute. To him, we should instead be thinking about how to invest in our communities as they are right now. "Given our current ecological crisis and our financial crisis—in the sense that we have a completely unsustainable financial system—what's really going to matter is community and trust. So how are we going to cultivate that in place?"

Because of the Good Work Institute and a growing number of organizations across the Hudson Valley, the region is in a good position to lead in a new kind of way of doing work. That work is no longer 9 to 5 and separate from the home and it's no longer primarily concerned about how much money is on the table, but with more what impact it will have on our communities, both hyper-locally and regionally.

The Power of Place

If you ask local visionaries, the Hudson Valley's economic landscape is and has always been closely tied to its physical character. The region was originally considered attractive for Dutch settlers because the Hudson River offered a route for fur trading. When the British gained control of the region, they took advantage of the region's abundant farmland. Plus, the region's proximity to Manhattan means being a part of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world and taking advantage of that market.

As an example, a 2013 report by Scenic Hudson on the Hudson Valley's food production found that the region's farms serve 90 percent of GrowNYC Greenmarkets. A cultural demand for fresh food has placed more emphasis on farm-grown produce and locally raised meats; in turn, the Hudson Valley remains the primary source for these products. A 2015 New York State report on the Hudson Valley's significant industries reported a 27.1-percent increase in food manufacturing jobs from 2009-14 and projected a 23.1-percent hike in those jobs from 2012 to 2022.

These new jobs are being created because the Hudson Valley's physical character allows for this growth. We're not talking about bringing in another industry previously foreign to the region; instead, we're embracing what we already have.

Hawthorne Valley Association is a testament to this philosophy. Incorporated in 1971, the Harlemville-based nonprofit has let its 900 acres of farmland lead its strategies. Produce from the land feeds children at its Waldorf school, while those students experience the farm as a classroom setting. The farm also serves the association's CSA program, farm camps, farm store, and markets in New York City.

In 1999 Hawthorne Valley began production of kraut, taking cabbage grown on the farm and turning into fermented goods sold at local markets. It created the for-profit subsidiary Whitethorne LLC and, with $1.56 million in loans from RSF Social Finance, in 2017 began constructing a larger production facility in Hudson.

click to enlarge art-of-biz_hva_farm-work.jpg

The kraut expansion shows Hawthorne Valley has found ways to grow without compromising its original mission of preserving local agriculture through education and production. Executive Director Martin Ping says while Hawthorne Valley itself may not be a model, the philosophy behind the organization's mission—do what you can with what you have—seems to be prevailing.

"I would consciously shy away from "model," because it's not something that you can take up and place somewhere else because everything is place and people centric," says Ping. "But as far as maybe something that is illustrating a pattern that you can replicate, I do see it showing up in different ways, different parts of society and economy. And I think that it's natural that it would, because we've gone through this really interesting period of our time"

That "really interesting period" concerns the advent of technology, and along with it, the temptation to access pocket technologies and retreat into distraction, away from real human connections. According to Ping and other regional leaders invested in localism, this shift to community-focused work offers an opportunity to forge relationships with our neighbors.

"I think that people are, generally speaking, hungry or longing for connections. Because I think that it's our natural state, that's what we all want on some level," says Stinchcomb. His Good Work Institute originated from Etsy, a business model that thrived in the digital space. One of the original employees at Etsy, Stinchcomb became a vice president there and devised a digital platform that aimed to change how business was taught. But Stinchcomb envisioned building "community in place," or a future where, say, producer and consumer could exchange over coffee at a local cafe, then share skills in collaboration. He asked to be cut loose from Etsy, while the company provided him startup capital to birth the Good Work Institute, which launched in 2015.

Working Locally

The Good Work Institute values what can be done in the local community. Forget relying on a corporation to save the day; instead, focus on your local assets and the skills of your neighbors. In 2016, it launched its first Hudson Valley fellowship program, connecting several dozen regional entrepreneurs and leaders. The institute breaks the larger group—which meets over three multi-night immersions at places like the Omega Institute and Hawthorne Valley Farm—into smaller cohorts based in local hubs (Kingston, Poughkeepsie, Hudson, Newburgh) to devise and execute projects aimed at benefitting their more targeted areas. The idea is to strengthen localities with plans that reflect a goal of regional sustainability, focusing typically on what the physical character of the area provides residents.

Stinchcomb cites the development of the Kingston Bee-Line as an example of a project that the Good Work Institute would promote and support. The Bee-Line, a proposed initiative of the Hudson Valley Bee Habitat in partnership with Kingston Land Trust and the YMCA Farm Project, includes the installation of solitary bee habits, created by local artists, along the Greenline, Kingston's network of urban trails. The plan also proposes the creation of gardens along the trail where bees can pollinate, plus workshops about bee conservation. Hudson Valley Bee Habitat cofounder Emily Puthoff was an institute fellow in 2017-18, graduating in March.

The fellowships are the first step for the institute; now, it's looking to provide a home for action through Greenhouse Kingston. Scheduled for a fall 2018 launch, Greenhouse Kingston—which will occupy the former Girl Scouts Heart of the Hudson office on St. James Street—would provide development space for projects like the Bee-Line. The project is still in development and Stinchcomb calls the facility "an experiment," but it could host community programming and provide space for aligned organizations. What he does want at Greenhouse is an environment geared toward "building a future rooted in trust and equity and mutualism" where work is about improving the community first, and not just bringing in money.

In Rhinebeck, Helene Lesterlin envisions the same future, but through a more traditional coworking space. CO, which is set to open in June, will be a hub for creative and ambitious people wanting to collaborate on projects. "It's a need that's unmet in the Hudson Valley," says Lesterlin about coworking spaces. She sees the Hudson Valley as an attractive place for people who eye a high quality of life and wish to improve the world by starting with their place of residence, and she believes coworking spaces like CO can be hubs for activity that leads to real improvement. "We can be a magnet for entrepreneurs. For future-facing companies, it's 'How do we create the world we all want to live in?' It gets utopian but I think it's real."

Lesterlin hopes the state shows a commitment to hyperlocal business efforts through subsidies or tax incentives, with a proven example of the latter being the START-UP NY Program. March Gallagher, CEO of the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley, which facilitates philanthropy for businesses, organizations, and individuals, agrees that untangling the state's regulations web would help. She adds she has seen other states try to pull jobs out of the area because of the high cost to do business in New York, based primarily on the state's high cost of living.

But she agrees that more people are thinking about localism, citing a long history of local businesses deeply rooted in the region, like Rhinebeck-based Williams Lumber and Adams Fairacre Farms, based in Poughkeepsie. What they and organizations like Good Work Institute have in common is that they're devoted to improving their communities, whether through sponsored projects or providing support for initiative development.

So, says Gallagher, "I think we are on our way to becoming a model" for a new way of doing business. And it's mostly because those doing the hard work locally have decided that it's best to focus on location and their neighbors.

On May 8, Chronogram Conversations will host a talk and panel discussion on "Sustainable Entrepreneurship: A Model for Thriving Local Economies" at the Tavern at the Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck. Good Work Institute founder Matt Stinchcomb will deliver opening remarks. Powered by AT&T.

For more on sustainable work in the Hudson Valley, read our feature on community-supported agriculture from April.

The original print version of this article was titled:
"How Do We Want to Work? New Models in the Hudson Valley"

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