Ideas + Innovators is an interview series by Amy Kirschner designed to get to know the thinkers and doers who are leading the way to a resilient and positive future. People from around the world connect their thoughts and projects to Vermont and locals use their practice and wisdom to imagine how what we are doing here could have widespread impact. We also get to know the people of our tribe a little better along the way.
Alex Fischer is a queer farmer, bookkeeper, business-owner and community organizer/educator living in Brattleboro, VT. They have been a social justice organizer and educator for over a decade and a bookkeeper for over seven years.
Since moving to Vermont in 2010, Alex co-founded Homo Promo, a queer events promotion collective and (social justice co-work & community space). In 2012, Alex started Open Bookkeeping, a local bookkeeping business with the intentions of creating alternative local economies based on shared values and creative solutions to economic injustices. OBK provides the perfect platform for Alex to bring together skills and experiences in bookkeeping and finance, social justice organizing and business consulting. OBK’s vision includes expanding beyond basic bookkeeping services to change business as usual by building alternative models that toward systemic change and serve the needs of entire communities.
In the Fall of 2013, OBK – along with Just Schools Project, ACT for Social Justice and Vermont Workers Center – opened The Root Social Justice Center in Brattleboro, VT. The Root is a space that works as a collective office by day and is open for the community to use for social justice organizing activities for nights and weekends.
Alex is also currently pursuing a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) in an attempt to create local alternatives to capitalist economies and has been blogging about their adventures at Learn the System You Want to Dismantle.
How does your work increase equality?
In the simplest terms, I am a bookkeeper. I work with small businesses, non profits and individuals to set-up and maintain bookkeeping and financial management systems.
I am also a social justice community organizer and bring the values, visions and beliefs from that work with me to everything I do. I think a lot of people see financial management as something that is only for the wealthy, because they have money to manage. I think it is a really important tool for everyone to understand and can be incredibly empowering.
For example, I talk with my clients about how financial reports are actually a reflection of their values: if you are paying your workers really well, it shows that you value people over profit; if you buy your office supplies and furniture from local businesses, it shows that you support your community. In another example, I am currently working with collectives to facilitate financial literacy amongst members so that everyone can understand financial reports and partake in financial decisions more equally. Finances are really scary to folks and result in a lot of people passing on the responsibility of understanding their financial situation to someone else: an accountant, a bookkeeper, other business owners.
Part of my work is really just about supporting people to empower themselves to take their financial situation into their own hands. In that sense, my work is very much about equality through education and empowerment.
What technology do you feel guilty about loving?
Oh this one is easy! Intuit & Quickbooks. It is pretty much the only bookkeeping software I use because, as far as I know, it creates the best reports. And bookkeeping and financially management really boils down to creating reports that help me you make better managerial decisions. However, Intuit is just such a huge huge corporation. I would really love to start using and offer to my clients more open source software. Please get in touch if you know of any really great bookkeeping resources that are open source.
When you do long term planning, how long is long term?
There are so many kinds of longterm planning that I do! My geographic long-term planning is to stay in the Southern Vermont area forever/indefinitely. And then there is the 5-10 year plan of acquiring land with my queer-family and creating some really beautiful community-based land projects. I have a 6-month plan of getting a dog, which is contingent upon graduating from business school in 6 months. In terms of traditional long-term business planning, I don’t really plan more than a year or two out. I think it’s important to loosely plan into the future for viability: if I stay where I am or grow just a little bit over the next few years is what I am doing financially and personally viable?
As a small business owner with a large capacity for creativity and initiative, I am always dreaming up new and fun things to do in the world.
For instance, after completing my MBA in Managing for Sustainability this winter, I will be launching phase two of my business which will focus on holistic business consulting service and community education platforms. I’ve loosely forecasted out about three years with some tight financial planning for the next year. Anything going further than that just seems foolish to me as everything changes so often. We need to be ready to change with it and, often, having a plan doesn’t go hand in hand with agile management and accepting the things we can’t control.
What question do you ask yourself regularly?
a. Am I proud of myself at the end of the day? A few years ago, I was going through some hard times and realized that at the end of the day, I had myself to answer to. While the context of the question may differ, the content remains the same. I am working at incorporating a sense of gentle compassion into this question.
While I want to be proud of myself at the end of the day, I also want to love myself fully throughout the day.
b. Is what I’m doing staying true to my values of economic justice? In working in the world of finance and business, I often get scared that I am actually just maintaining an unjust capitalist system. Just because I want to be bringing my values and beliefs with me into my work doesn’t mean I always know how to do that best. Things like implementing a sliding scale, working with community-based businesses, worker-owned collectives and amazing social justice organizations are ways that I know I am supporting folks that are changing the world. Still, it is important for me to ground myself in my vision of economic justice and how the work I am doing with small businesses is bringing us all closer to that vision.
What fear have you overcome?
I have worked really hard to overcome the fear that I am not good enough. As someone who has been socialized female and has identified as genderqueer for the last several years, I have often been told – in direct and indirect ways – that I am not good enough, strong enough, smart enough, successful enough. Starting my own business has forced me to come face to face with this fear. When I sit down with new clients, colleagues and collaborators, I have to tell myself that I deserve to have my voice heard, the same way everyone at the table does. I don’t have to be perfect, because that is impossible. I am learning to be proud of myself, the work I do and to think of myself as a leader.
When I can see the creative genius in myself, I am more able to see the same creative genius reflected in everyone else around me.
That is the most beautiful part of overcoming a fear of inadequacy; I have been able to see that fear in others and support their own battle with empowerment.
What is something you don’t understand, that you wish you did?
In general, I have a hard time understanding our current systems of creating safety that are so broken. The prison system is something that is so harmful to people and the planet, to communities that are targeted by police violence and that are incarcerated in order to keep others safe. Prisons don’t make me feel safe; they make me feel sad and angry. Similarly, I don’t understand why Israel is supposed to make me feel more safe as a Jew. I am against the creation of a Jewish state in the name of my safety. I am against perpetuating cycles of violence that have been aimed at the Jewish people over the course of history and are now being enacted upon the Palestinian people. I wish I could understand why these systems continue so that I could undo them. I don’t understand why people think responding to violence with violence is creating safety. And sometimes I think that if I could, then more dialogue could be possible, and with that, more change.
If you had $100 million to do any social change and you were guaranteed to be successful, what would you do?
I would end the prison system and the accompanying police state and replace it with community-controlled restorative and transformative justice systems. Prisons are the worst system we have created as a humans. It is modern day slavery that targets poor people and people of color the most. It strips people of their humanity, dignity and the possibility of living a fulfilling life. It is controlled by a few at the top and has turned into a profit-driven industry, not a community-based system of creating safer, healthier communities. Prisons work to remove from our communities the manifestations of a broken system: poverty, violence, mental health issues, dissent. If I had $100million (though probably I would need a lot more), I would replace the prison system with transformative and restorative justice programs that are being created around the country and around the world. Programs that acknowledge the harm that has been created and works to make sure everyone involve feels safer after it is addressed. Prisons – and the subsequent criminal justice system that holds it up – do not create real community safety. There are programs, processes and methods out there that do. I would love to see them replace the broken systems we have today.
How do your projects help Vermont have a positive, resilient future?
There are three projects I have helped start in the Brattleboro area: Open Bookkeeping, The Root Social Justice Center, and Homo Promo. Open Bookkeeping creates stronger and more financially viable local economies through offering financial support to small businesses. The Root Social Justice Center offers a space for social justice organizing in our area that strengthens the local community’s ties to each other, focusing on racial and economic justice issues.
HomoPromo is a queer events promotion collective that proves living rurally and being queer are not mutually exclusive.
These projects are all so different and yet so similar in that they are all about increasing the visibility and viability of Vermont’s diversity.
Diversity is the foundation for resilience.
If your work is successful how would it affect the average Vermonter?
My work is centered around supporting alternative business models with the hopes of creating anti-capitalist local economies. By supporting these businesses – worker-owned collectives, cooperatives, community-based businesses – I am supporting creating and maintaining resilient local economies here in Vermont. That means more local businesses that support other local businesses; more meaningful work and connection to one-another. It means more empowered business owners and employees. It means more dependency on our neighbors and not on big banks. Over 96% of businesses in Vermont are small businesses. If my work is successful, it means that those small businesses remain successful. In working with worker-owned collectives, it also means retaining the 30-40 year/old population that Vermont has such a hard time of keeping due to lack of job opportunities. By creating their own futures, Vermonters in their 30s and 40s are more likely to stay. Lastly,
if my work is successful, more people in Vermont would be able to talk openly and honestly about money and economic justice.
Can ideas that work in Vermont work in the big city?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. One thing that has been such an important shift for me in how I do business is a focus on collaboration, not competition, with other businesses. To me, this means focusing on ways that I can work with other businesses that are similar to mine in order to better serve our community. I see the accountant down the road that does bookkeeping as an asset, or the bookkeeper who was hired instead of me as a mentor and someone to learn from.
My job as a community-based finance consultant is focused on the success of entire communities, not my single business.
Therefore anyone that can contribute to that larger goal of community economic resilience and viability is an ally in this world, not competition. This focus on collaboration is partly due to the small-town nature of Vermont, the unsaturated small businesses finance sector of Southern Vermont, and the ability to actually meet almost every bookkeeper and accountant in my area. Is it possible to focus on collaboration instead of competition in the big city? Of course. Is it easy? Not really, but what important changes are?
Thank you Alex for your insight and eloquence!
I first met Alex at the CommonBound New Economy Conference earlier this summer. Alex’s passion and vision for community progress and resilience using accounting as a tool jumped out at me. The IRS defines the work I do with the Marketplace as 3rd party-record keeping services….a fancy word for a boutique bookkeeper. So when Alex started explaining Open Bookkeeping, I was hooked and thought “How do I get more Alex in my life?” Radical bookkeeping FTW!
If you want more Alex in your life as a client or connection, contact info is here. Alex is especially happy to work with coops/collectives, community-supported/funded business models, queer and people of color-led businesses.