Novermber 19, 2014
Forward Community Investments hosted a community conversation Nov. 21 at Olbrich Botanical Gardens on the role community finance and investing can play in advancing equity in our communities.
Above: (L-R) Donna Gambrell, former head of the U.S. Treasury Department's CDFI Fund; Lisa Peyton-Caire, Assistant Vice President for Diversity, Inclusion & Wellness at Summit Credit Union and Founder of the Foundation for Black Women's Wellness; and Erica Nelson, Director of the Race to Equity project.
“Reaching a New Paradigm: A Community Conversation on Advancing Equity Through Community Funding” featured a panel discussion on the interconnectedness of economic and racial equity, community outcomes, and funding. The panel included Donna Gambrell, former head of the U.S. Treasury Department’s CDFI Fund; Lisa Peyton-Caire, assistant vice president for Diversity, Inclusion & Wellness at Summit Credit Union and founder of the Foundation for Black Women's Wellness; and Erica Nelson, director of the Race to Equity project.
The panel was facilitated by Wyman Winston, executive director of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA). The panelists tackled many different topics including the connection between money and equity; how financial resources can be deployed to achieve equity outcomes; and the importance of approaching community development through an equity lens.
“We do have research at our disposal that says that if we do not develop the capacity for individuals and families and communities to develop thriving systems, infrastructure, ownership, [and] business in their communities … we will see families stacked under a myriad of disparities and gaps over time and over generations,” Peyton-Caire told the crowd “It’s not that we don’t know the challenges, but the methods we use to deal with it — though well-meaning — have by and large not resulted in widespread change or transformations in communities of color.”
As project director for Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’ “Race to Equity” report, Nelson outlined alarming disparities between whites and blacks in Dane County. “While we don’t have the exact numbers for wealth and savings, it’s safe to say that this, too, is significantly limited with virtually little wealth in African American community and little savings and therefore no cushion for a family in crisis and entering into poverty. What we learned from the report is that the disparities between African Americans and whites here [in Madison] are some of the greatest in the United States,” Nelson said. “We found here that the County has an economy around highly skilled jobs that required networking to get in the door and for many communities of color who don’t have the networks that the white community has here, it’s really hard to get in the door in terms of employment and moving up.”
Forum host Forward Community Investments (FCI) is a statewide Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) based in Madison. For 20 years, FCI has provided the tools organizations and investors need to connect their communities to a just, equitable, and sustainable future. Since 1994, FCI has provided loans totaling over $50 million for projects across the state
Gambrell is the longest-serving and first African-American woman to be appointed director of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI Fund). During her six-year tenure from 2007 to 2013, she helped increase economic opportunity and promote community development investments for underserved populations and distressed communities across the country.
“I do think we are at a stage in this country where we have to look at our values and say, ‘What do we want to do as a community and as a country?’ and ‘Where are those values in terms of our commitment to equity?” Gambrell told the crowd. “We really have to figure out how we become more of a part of the community rather than being a part from the community. I think that right now the country is in a very precarious position.”
Gambrell said that the income gap has grown even wider and that the distance between the haves and have nots has increased significantly over these last few years in particular. “I think what you see again are communities that are literally hanging by a thread,” she said. “Some have slipped from the thread and fallen into the abyss of poverty in such a way that it will take generations to get out of —if ever at all.”
Gambrell went on to say that we are a country of capitalists. “Money is king in so many ways as we look at solutions,” she said. “But it can’t just be money; it has to be the involvement of all of us who are willing to step up to the plate who are willing to say, ‘What is my role? What is my responsibility?’ Whether I’m a lender or whether I’m a community leader or someone in academia … what is my role to make sure that we lift the community up together?”
Under Gambrell’s leadership, the CDFI Fund experienced significant growth and launched a number of new initiatives targeted to underserved communities, including the Capital Magnet Fund, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, and the CDFI Bond Guarantee Program.
“In many ways, I think there are far too few CDFIs in this country. How do we link CDFIs with other institutions in the neighborhoods? I think there’s opportunity to do more,” Gambrell said. “There has to be a way for small institutions to pair up with larger entities that have the financial resources that are working in concert with the community to look at not only the credit needs but the equity needs."
“I began my career very much in the financial regulatory environment,” she added. “I was particularly interested in a little law called The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) that was passed in 1977. That act really talked about ways in which the banking community needed to look at its community. It emanated from redlining that was happening in Chicago neighborhoods.”
Three decades later, she said, we are still grappling with many of the same issues.
“In many ways, CRA has lost some of its potency because the community is not at the table,” Gambrell said. “If you don’t have the community at the table, you lose a piece of the solution to the problem because you’re not really hearing their voices. CRA really talked about the needs of all the communities including low- and moderate-income populations. I think we really haven’t come as far as we need to [in] really meeting those credit needs.”
Gambrell talked about aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and how it affected her. “I went down to Louisiana because I saw what was on the news and wondered how we as Americans can let this happen,” she said. “There are people who not only lost their homes but have nowhere to go. They are walking along the highway trying to find shelter. They are living in a sports arena waiting for help and assistance. It was something that I could not simply tolerate as a person.”
What she saw in New Orleans and Mississippi, she said, was a lack of link between money and equity.
“There was a tremendous amount of resources coming into the states both from the federal and state levels yet there was a lack of conversation with the community,” Gambrell remembered. “In places like the Lower Ninth Ward, where you had a high concentration of people of color and African Americans, there was decision made early on that that community was not going to be revitalized. The grass was going to grow over it — so sorry. The houses that were lost — so sorry. Folks, you’re going to have to find a place to live. Nobody had that conversation with the people who lived in that community and asked, ‘Do you want to come back to this community where you have lived for generations and generations?’ I was flabbergasted by that. It was just a lack of communicating with those people who lived in those communities.”