Blurry by Design: Public Matters on Social Enterprise

Before and after pictures at Yash La Casa and Ramirez Meat Markets highlight the colorful, graphic approach Public Matters takes to transforming not just the look but the overall concept of what a corner store can be.    <br />
Before and after pictures at Yash La Casa and Ramirez Meat Markets highlight the colorful, graphic approach Public Matters takes to transforming not just the look but the overall concept of what a corner store can be.

Public Matters' Market Makeover is a comprehensive strategy for addressing the "grocery gap" in "food deserts," areas that have limited access to quality, healthy food; an overabundance of fast food; and alarmingly high rates of chronic conditions related to poor diet.


I have twice had the great fortune to work with Public Matters, and both times received an education in their strategic adaptability. The first time was in 2011, when Public Matters was one fourth of the collective producing Out the Window, the first-ever video art intervention by Los Angeles youth and community-based artists on Los Angeles Metro buses for Metro riders. L.A. media arts organization Freewaves coordinated, UCLA's REMAP (the Center for Research in Engineering, Media and Performance) developed the technical capacity, and Echo Park Film Center and Public Matters provided the youth-generated content. The videos are tremendous, reflecting on L.A. in uniquely personal, yet distinctly socially minded terms. Public Matters East Los Angeles class' videos about life in a food desert are particularly powerful. You'll find the students' learning through creating, and even their becoming social actors, to be totally tangible -- media art's great capacity for engaging individuals in questions of identity, participation, process, and context brought to brilliant pedagogical bear.

None of this is a mistake.

What might appear as movie-making serendipity is, in fact, Public Matters' M.O.: a potent combination of health education and nutritional advocacy, civic engagement and leadership development, and the injection of creative expression and art-borne critical thinking.

No surprise, then, that I wanted to see more of Public Matters' work. And so last fall I asked Mike Blockstein and Reanne Estrada if I might be their Roosevelt High School classroom intern through the 2012-13 school year. They welcomed me graciously; only noting the curriculum that year would eschew digital video production for more "traditional" media and programs to publicize Ramirez Meat Market and Yash La Casa Market to the local community. Simply, what matters to Public Matters is the public. As such, the social enterprise takes up whatever scheme that best serves Proyecto MercadoFRESCO's (and Market Makeover's) larger goal: greening the East Los Angeles food desert. Public Matters' methods? They're more fluid, so one year's digital film production gives way to the next's determinedly lo-fi (but no less creative), great inter-market competition, Smackdown!, complete with cooking demonstrations, family activities, raffle prizes, and big fruit and veggie costumes.

For Sue Bell Yank, Public Matters' small size, social enterprise model, and artists' penchant for versatility coalesce and undergird its instituent art practice. Moreover, it serves as the link between itself and its various partner agencies that would be unlikely interrelated without the social enterprise's stewardship. Public Matters exists at the nexus of a networked collaboration involving research universities, corner storeowners, high school students, and their local communities. Yank explains that Public Matters' "boundaries between art, public health, social benefit are fluid, and labels of convenience for different situations," underscore how an organization so small manages to negotiate its partners' apparently disparate institutional agendas.

I'd like to take this a step further. Public Matters' artistic ethos doesn't just facilitate engagement with apparently different institutions. It further encourages productive outcomes from the meeting of otherwise contrary institutional logics, or the larger belief systems and standards that shape agents' behaviors and organizational processes. That is, in social enterprises we find two sets of logics: that of the market and of the social movement. The former set comprises the laws of supply and demand, and the faith that competition breeds innovation. The latter set upholds active, participatory democracy for social, often distributive, justice. On the face of it, these logics are a kind of oil and water mix. Even scholars struggle with the social enterprise's "double bottom line" of profit and social benefit, leaving us with a surprisingly normative and teleological literature. Most scholars privilege the social motive, but many disagree about the market's precise role, leaving us with an all-too familiar binary that either champions capitalism's promise of emancipatory innovation, or dismays its vampiric effects on democratic society. Authors tend to emphasize the "why's" and "how-to's" rather than the every day "how's" of social enterprise, thus missing out on vital opportunities for critical analysis and understanding. The literature provides us with little nuance, and an underlying sense that market forces eventually overwhelm forces for social change.

Public Matters, by contrast, is all nuance and eager flexibility. Where the literature evokes a sense that the social and market agendas can't be any more than parallel, fixed in their relationship, Public Matters keeps these institutional boundaries intentionally fluid, ambiguous. So when I say Public Matters is "blurry by design," I mean it keeps the boundaries between the market and social movement logics vague and changeable, resulting in a practice wherein the whole genuinely is greater that the sum of its parts. Throughout its pedagogical art practice, Public Matters resists the delimiting effects of assigning one logic's ultimate predominance over the other, and instead generates novel outlooks, practices, and opportunities.

Before and after pictures at Yash La Casa and Ramirez Meat Markets highlight the colorful, graphic approach Public Matters takes to transforming not just the look but the overall concept of what a corner store can be.    <br />
Before and after pictures at Yash La Casa and Ramirez Meat Markets highlight the colorful, graphic approach Public Matters takes to transforming not just the look but the overall concept of what a corner store can be. 

In the classroom, Blockstein and Estrada continually refer to Ramirez Meat Market and Yash La Casa Market in terms of both institutional logics. Namely, they emphasize how these markets are small, struggling local businesses, and with distressingly low profit margins. Additionally, they teach the students that the introduction of fruits and vegetables to the inventory is unlikely to do anything significant to their bottom line. The market owners' participate in Proyecto MercadoFRESCO not because they expect a dramatic windfall, but because they want to provide their neighborhoods with healthier food options.

This lesson came into clear focus in November 2012, when both stores were broken into over the same weekend. The students wrote and signed cards for the storeowners expressing their sorrow and solidarity, but one of the students wondered if the class could not do more. With that, Public Matters scrapped the rest of the semester's curriculum and within a day initiated a voucher program exploring the relation of market practicality and social movement ethics.

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Estrada designed green "veggie bucks" vouchers, each worth $5 of fruits and vegetables for exchange at the stores, and each student was assigned twenty-five vouchers to sell between then and winter break. The teachers made it clear that each student was effectively responsible for $125, and so while no one would be penalized for not selling all their vouchers, everyone must put in a clear effort and show of support to the storeowners. Blockstein explained, "[I]t's getting them the money ... but we want to let them know people out there in the world support what they're doing." The ideal project would be something that conveyed to the storeowners from anyone who presented a voucher, "I believe in what you're doing.... We're not raising a gajillion dollars. We're doing this as a token." For the artist-educators and their students, monetary value shifted -- more important than recovering the damages from the break-ins was assuring the storeowners that the class and community residents stood with them in gratitude for bringing healthy foods to the area.

It was an ad hoc social enterprise activity, led by social enterprise Public Matters, within the larger context of the corner stores' small enterprise. During the classroom discussion about the nature of the activity, one student asked if limiting the vouchers to fruits and vegetables might be too narrow. She pointed out that most people, namely the students' fundraising prospects, eat chips and soda, so maybe the vouchers should cover those, as well. Estrada, asserting the preeminence of the project's social agenda, said, "I hear what you're saying, but this is a fundamental question about the mission. Do the ends justify the means? ... Is it worth it to bend on our principles? We don't think that they do." In another class discussion the student who prompted the voucher project initially, suggested implementing a two-for-one deal with the vouchers since that would increase sales. Blockstein and Estrada agreed that would be a great idea in most cases, but not this one. Applying a rebate to the voucher would diminish not just its face value, but also its meaning. Simply, the mission mattered more.

The class' curriculum typifies Public Matters' "both-and" pedagogical attitude. Teaching what Blockstein and Estrada characterize as "essentially a community leadership class," Estrada likewise uses social movement logic-esque language describing the curriculum as, "contributing to their personal growth, their transformation, their identities as civic beings." These ambitions can easily be stated in market-based terms, too. The assignments increase the students' human capital and marketability for their post-high school careers. Each project centers on civic-minded and creative activities the students can transfer to collegiate and professional settings. The wisdom of the voucher fundraising project wasn't just that the teachers could instruct the students about the market and mission. Rather, in doing the fundraising, they strategized and prospected in the classroom, and sharpened their speaking skills. The students learned about the four tiers of prospects (from "gimmes" to "longshots") and sketched out the four stages of their "pitch." Blockstein and Estrada emphasized that prospecting and public speaking are useful skills, particularly for college and employment applications. They stressed the pitch as an opportunity for the students to find their "voice," the source of real communicative power. It's one thing to ask a loved one or stranger for $5 for a voucher to help out a couple local markets. It's quite another to explain you're asking because at least one person in your family suffers from diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure; that you'd like that prospect to join you in supporting small and vulnerable markets whose owners have assumed financial and potentially personal risk to be local sites for food justice.

As so the benefits of being blurry by design. We find in the voucher fundraising project -- indeed, any Public Matters program -- recognition of the social movement-market binary, and a fluid engagement with it. By embracing adaptability, Public Matters achieves a larger set of goals, rather than just one. I propose Public Matters' artistic DNA provides it with this particular capacity to negotiate the contrary logics that so much of the social enterprise literature struggles to reconcile. "Why struggle?" Public Matters wonders. Instead, do and have fun with it.


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