Harvest of Peace: The White Dog Café

It was 20 years ago, in January 1983, that I hung blue and white checked curtains in the front windows and opened a tiny coffee and muffin shop on the first floor of my house at 3420 Sansom Street in Philadelphia. Back then, I had never heard of "fair trade" coffee, "sustainable" energy, or a "living wage." I just wanted to have a cozy place that made people happy. After the coffee and muffins came soup and sandwiches, and then entrées cooked over a charcoal grill in the back yard where we had set up an assortment of old lawn furniture for diners. With no advertising budget, I went over to a busy intersection and handed out flyers with my two little kids. Then we would hurry home and look in the backyard to see if any customers had come. We are thankful that some did!

People have often asked how I became a social activist. One of my first discoveries was that there is not enough time in the day to separate one’s interests in making the world a better place from running a business. For reasons of time management, I began looking for ways to address all the issues I cared about through the business, and found the possibilities limitless. I discovered that combining personal values with my work was both personally rewarding and professionally profitable—one could do well by doing good. Furthermore, I realized that separation of making a profit from doing good has led to the world’s worst problems—environmental collapse, inequality of wealth, and war.

Recently, I read in the Earth Charter the concept that once basic needs are met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more. I think that can be true of businesses, too. Though there were opportunities to start additional restaurants and continue to expand the business, my attention was drawn toward making the White Dog Cafe be more—more that just a job or just a place to eat. When we work together to make a living, what else can we accomplish? When we come together to dine, what else can we do? How can the very act of doing business—of buying and selling—create more meaning for those involved? By staying small, we have focused on building fulfilling relationships with our customers, with our suppliers, with our community, and among each other.

In the early days, I directed my efforts toward simply staying in business, but after a few years, when it finally looked like we were going to make it, my attention turned to things other than mere survival. I began sending out flyers announcing events on issues of public concern, and just as I had once run home to see if customers had come to dine in our backyard, I waited anxiously to see if anyone would respond. Would customers come for a dinner talk about welfare reform or the plight of our public schools? Would they sign up for a trip to Central America to see for themselves that U.S. weapons were being used against civilian populations? Or to Vietnam to challenge the economic embargo? Or to the barrio in North Philadelphia and the inner city of Camden to dine in "sister" restaurants? Or to Georgia to protest the School of the Americas? Or to Amsterdam to witness an alternative to the U.S. War on Drugs? Or to Washington, D.C., to try to prevent the war on Iraq? Yes, our customers came, and kept coming. It’s what we do collectively that makes a difference, and doing it together is such fun!

Though my primary motivation as a social activist has been to stop war, I have come to realize that the greater power is in being pro-peace. The work the White Dog Cafe does every day to build a just and sustainable economy is our greatest contribution to world peace. When we buy from local family farmers who raise produce organically and animals humanely, rather than from corporate farms that are destroying local communities around the globe, we contribute to world peace. When we buy 100 percent of our electricity from windmills rather than from unsustainable sources, we are contributing to world peace. When we pay employees a minimum of a living wage, rather than the shameful federal minimum wage, and buy fair trade products made by workers elsewhere who are paid a living wage, we are contributing to world peace.

Envisioning a world finally at peace, I see little need for weapons because there is equitable access to the world’s natural resources. People are working in harmony with natural systems and living in self-reliant communities, where there is local food and water security, and local sources of sustainable energy. Schools nurture individual creativity and talents, preparing each student to make a unique contribution to the community and to a local economy that serves the basic needs of all citizens. Diverse cultures trade globally with one another in the products unique to their regions and exchange in music, art, dance, and athletics, expressing their joy in living. Collective global consciousness that all life is interconnected, spiritually and environmentally, guides all institutions—government, education, health, and the economy.

When we have peace in the world, when we have achieved Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for a "Beloved Community," it will be when we have built an economic system that is not about greed, but generosity; not about domination, but partnership; not about fear and conformity, but freedom and creativity. If there is one message of the White Dog Cafe on the event of our 20th birthday, it is to say that business, and what each of us does to make a living each day, is a means for expressing our love for the world. When every meal we serve, every nail we hammer, every stitch we sew, every word we write, every seed we sow, every product we buy, contributes to the good of all—then we will reap the bountiful harvest of peace on Earth.

Judy Wicks

Judy Wicks, a parent of two children who attended Friends schools, is president of White Dog Enterprises, Inc., http://www.whitedog.com. She is the co-founder and co-chair of both the local Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, http://www.sbnphiladelphia.org, and the national Business Alliance of Local Living Economies, http://www.livingeconomies.org. She is also the co-chair of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, Pa. Chapter, http://www.sensiblepriorities.org.