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Community and Belonging in 2019: Expanding Ideas of "Home" and "Local"

When I was 2 years old, my parents divorced. It was the beginning of an ever-splintering identity for me. Starting at that point I had two homes; my mother's and my father's. I felt loved and belonged in both places. Then I moved with my father from Detroit to Dayton, Ohio when I was 7. So I now had two hometowns as well. Friends in both places. History and experiences. Connections and allegiances split evenly between them. Much later I moved to the Bay Area, finding my place in Oakland in 1999. I have lived there more or less ever since.

So, where am I from? Where do I belong? Detroit, where I was born, lived for the first 7 years, and visited as family my entire life? Dayton, where I lived the rest of my childhood into formative early adulthood and still have family? Or Oakland, where I have lived longer than anywhere else by a long shot, where I was married, started my businesses and had most of my success in life? I've always struggled to answer the question in a way that was satisfying and honest.

Similarly, when we started Highwire I lived a mile away from our first shop in Rockridge. My business partner Eric lived on the east side of Lake Merritt. Rich in El Cerrito. Our roastery is in Emeryville. Where is Highwire from? We said "Oakland". Why? Because this is where our people were. Most of our employees and customers. Our daily interactions. Where we put almost all of our energy and spent almost all of our money. We identified with the underdog nature of Oakland, as we felt like we were up against long odds to succeed against much savvier and better-funded competitors. We felt like we belonged, and were part of what was happening. It felt true and right.

Then in 2015, we expanded. To Berkeley, to Albany, to the Ferry Bldg Farmers Market in San Francisco. Suddenly, we had communities and concerns that involved each of these places. Where are we from, Oakland? Yes. But it was suddenly more complicated in many of the same ways I was experiencing personally.


Economic reality means many of our employees can no longer afford to live in Oakland. Many of our customers commute to our stores from elsewhere. For personal reasons, we have two valued employees who left California and started new lives in Oregon and North Carolina. We chose to support them and redefine their roles to allow for this. I myself purchased a home in Ohio to be closer to remaining family and to try and make a difference politically. I dream of Highwire in Dayton all of the time.

I still spend most of my time in Oakland, and it is “home”, but it cannot fully be my home as it does not contain all of my people. I will always care deeply for the city and its people. I still want to be a part of solving its many challenges and what makes it such a great city. But home is where I try and improve things. Where I want to make a difference. This is Highwire's defining purpose; to find ways to use a coffee business as a force for good. And that's much bigger than the boundaries of any one city. So we try and grow into this understanding; its responsibilities and its challenges.

Over time, this has come to mean getting to know and support customers as far away as Dayton, Ohio. (Yes, we sell beans in the Gem City!) Or as local as the wonderful Laurel District in Oakland. We know them and root for them. We work for and cheer their success, their happiness, as well as their enjoyment of our coffee. When we know people and where they are, they become part of our story. Our community, and at times, our responsibility. They become part of our collective effort to make the world a better place in the ways they can. This covers much more territory than wherever we happen to be living at any given time.



So I'm trying on this definition of home to include where my heart is, to include all of my places, all of my people, and all of their struggles, happiness, and successes. To work to belong in these places and do right by these people (including you). It's huge. And I have to say, I have found it more satisfying than my previous definitions of “local”, “home”, or "community" allowed or thought possible.

With gratitude,

Robert

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