Fixing the Future: Hope for Jobs?

11/18/2010 11:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The economy does not have to be the way it is right now. If you didn't believe we were in trouble before the financial tornado hit in 2008, you probably do now, regardless of your political leanings and the outcome of the elections. How many times a week has a friend or family member run out of a job or into un- or under-employment?

One response is to put a new coat of paint on the old economy, maybe even fumigate it. But who is trying something fresh; experimenting with ways the economy can better serve more people and be less prone to getting destructively out of whack?

This summer, I took a road trip, along with a camera crew, to explore economic experiments going on along Main Street America to see if they offer a path toward prosperity. For good measure, my team and I also tried to lower the environmental impact of our road trip. Plus, we kept an eye out for the benefits and costs of eating local, staying local, and generally doing business local. It was a challenge indeed - note to television crews: attempting to pack film gear in a shared Smart car may be worthy but it's futile.

On my great American adventure, I traveled from Maine to Washington State, from California to Minnesota, and from Texas to Ohio - visiting local communities that are working to re-engineer their future and making progress in sustainable, local job creation.

In Bellingham, Washington I find a thriving community where people have pulled together to grow local jobs, using local resources and have knit together a community that is happier, healthier and more prosperous. Pioneering CEO Keith Carpenter at Wood Stone Ovens has found a way to deliver his products at a reasonable cost without outsourcing the work to China. Committed to growing local prosperity, Carpenter is now able to pay his workers decent wages and provide health care, without sending jobs offshore. I meet many more entrepreneurs like Keith on my journey.

In North Dakota, I discover Bremer, a for-profit bank with over a hundred branches in the region, which has presciently stayed away from the sub-prime mortgage mess. By sticking to their policy to lend locally and then actually work closely with loan recipients to make sure they pay back on schedule, Bremer has built and banked local prosperity while some other banks were imploding or collecting hand-outs. Capital tends to stay regional, both in the bank's lending practices and in its philanthropy. Profits are given back to the communities they serve as charitable grants.

In Portland, Maine I meet Richard Rockefeller, a physician from a famous family, who has set up Portland Hour Exchange, a time bank where community members swap services in a cashless system. From ditch-digging to legal services, each Exchange member does work for others and in return. I donate an hour of weatherizing a house and in return get a sailing lesson on Casco Bay. The owner of the house he weatherized conducts mental health therapy in exchange for health care. And so on and so on. An added benefit to all of this is the IRS has determined this toe a system of "friendly favors" and therefore not taxable.

In Austin, Texas, I visit Yo Mama's Catering, a cooperative of women who are part of a national movement to build and train cooperative groups. I witness their trials and triumphs as they collaborate to make a better future for themselves and their children. In Cleveland, Ohio, I follow the work of a group of co-ops that have combined to scale up to the size of large businesses, part of a national trend. Asset-building is an important principle here: systems that encourage people to build up a long term stake that can bring stability and resilience to a household.

The people I meet along my journey are working Americans who are pioneering solutions right now, built on American values of commonwealth, shared prosperity, fairness, wellness, sustainability, and creativity (try this interactive map to see and add sustainable initiatives where you live.)

My journey culminates in a one-hour NOW on PBS special called Fixing the Future, which airs on PBS stations starting today, November 18th at 9 pm (check local listings).

Watch a preview of the show below.

Watch the full episode. See more NOW on PBS.

Also check out these cool animated shorts that our team put together to take on three key questions that arise when folks think about reengineering the economy. Here's one that focuses on jobs:

Watch the full episode. See more NOW on PBS.