Change is all around us. People change, times change. The community development work we do is geared to effect change – in politics and business, the quality of someone’s life, in a neighborhood or school, or of a mind. But what makes us change? Maybe it’s a convincing argument, a book we read or film we saw. Maybe it’s the experiences we have that make us change.
Tanya Wolfram knows how a single experience can redirect one’s life. Wolfram started her career as an elementary school teacher in North Carolina. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in education, she spent her days shaping young minds. In 1997 she left her job to do missionary work in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for one year. She volunteered at a local community center, working with poor children and families. When she returned home in 1998, she didn’t go back to teaching. Instead, she enrolled in the public policy graduate program at Duke University.
Why the change in direction? Of her Buenos Aires sojourn, Wolfram recalls, “The most rewarding aspect was working with the families in the impoverished community and recognizing that, for the most part, they were just families trying their best to make it and to make a better life for their children despite the obstacles.”
“I got to see the great disparities in the society firsthand. I lived with a very middle-class family who happened to live in an upper-class neighborhood and I would jog around the presidential retreat. I worked in a neighborhood that had begun many years before as a squatter neighborhood. It was always muddy or dusty and it was a neighborhood where if they didn’t know you they would rob you. (I witnessed one with a sawed-off shotgun.)”
“Unemployment was high, drug [use] and alcoholism rampant, and police brutality a problem. I used to see kids from the neighborhood begging on the streets near the highway and on buses and trains. Economically, unemployment at the time was around 17 percent (it went much higher soon after), and the people were poor. We knew that for some kids the afternoon snack we provided [at the community center] would be their only meal of the day. But, it was also a community where kids played, families looked out for each other and people laughed.”
Wolfram’s experience in Buenos Aires helped her gain a clearer perspective on the world’s economic disparities, including those in the United States. A spark ignited in Wolfram. She wanted to be a part of a larger cause, one that would have a systemic impact – well beyond the children and families of one community in Buenos Aires. After graduating from Duke in 2001, Wolfram took a job as research director with Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina (CRA-NC), a nonprofit organization in Durham.
CRA-NC has established itself as a leader in CRA advocacy and the fight against predatory and payday lending, and has played a key role in shaping the attitudes and policies of North Carolina’s banks toward CRA and community development. Through bank merger challenges, CRA-NC has secured agreements totaling hundreds of millions of dollars in mortgage, small business and community development lending. CRA-NC played a national role in helping to shape federal CRA policy: its founding president, Irvin Henderson, who is also the founding chair of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, substantially influenced the development of current CRA regulations.
CRA-NC uses research, education, community mobilization, media, direct action, regulatory challenges and legislative advocacy to advocate for changes in the lending practices of financial institutions and to promote wealth building for underserved communities. CRA-NC monitors the activities of these financial institutions and of federal regulators and conducts advocacy with the banks to ensure that they are lending to, investing in and serving all, including low-income and minority, communities.
As research director, Wolfram conducts qualitative research as well as policy and data analysis to determine how well banks are meeting the letter and the spirit of the Community Reinvestment Act. And she writes policy papers and regulatory comments on community reinvestment legislation and regulation.
Wolfram has also developed an interest in another area – media advocacy. CRA-NC produces videos to educate on and promote specific messages, and to use as empowerment tools for community organizing. Wolfram particularly enjoys participating in CRA-NC’s video productions and fondly recalls rapping in “Payday Lending: The Musical” as one of her crowning achievements. She has developed a reputation for playing the “evil” characters in CRA-NC productions.
Wolfram finds CRA-NC to be a “fun place to work” and appreciates the organization’s team approach. She also finds the work challenging, especially taking on the billion-dollar financial institutions. She says, “Though CRA-NC is very effective in what it does, it is sometimes overwhelming to try and change policy, practices and cultures of large institutions that have many more resources than we have.” Despite these challenges, Wolfram finds taking on large corporations and industries exciting. And in spite of CRA-NC’s small staff and its significantly fewer resources, it still manages to make big, if not immediate, changes. “We do have an impact. It’s affirmation that every voice counts. We are a four-person shop, and we are very effective and understand that those changes may not happen overnight. But sometimes it does feel like we are the ‘voice in the wilderness.’”
Wolfram’s motivation to make her voice heard in the “wilderness” stems from her faith and her values. She relies on both to “stay focused on speaking the truth to power, even if you don’t cause immediate change.” It’s worth noting that both her faith and her values require a certain level of commitment, which she has in abundance. It was her commitment to helping others that took her to Buenos Aires, something she highly recommends. “I feel it’s so important to go out and find new experiences and broaden your perspective. It’s not so much about what I gave to them – very little, in the scheme of things – it’s more about what I learned from the experience and how it changed me.” It is also her commitment to helping others have a better life that drew her to CRA-NC and keeps her there still.
The year-long experience in Buenos Aires taught Wolfram a lot about herself and about others. “I learned that most people want the same things in life – security, love, opportunity, a chance for their children to be better off. I learned that while I enjoyed working to make a difference on the individual level, I could do only so much in that capacity. As a result, I became a believer in working to make a difference through systemic change. I also learned the value of taking risks.”
Systemic change and taking risks are important aspects of CRA-NC’s work. In 2002, CRA-NC obtained a CRA commitment from a small North Carolina bank that had a bad record of lending to minorities and low-income borrowers. It was a significant victory for Wolfram. Through CRA-NC’s efforts, she was able to take part in changing the culture and perspective of a growing bank at an important time in the bank’s development.
In just two years she has been involved in hugely successful efforts that resulted in Citigroup changing its pricing policy, which saved borrowers more than $5 billion; leveraged millions of dollars in community development investments from banks through advocacy and organizing; stopped a major payday lender, Check ‘n Go, from buying a bank; and halted some bank–payday partnerships – notably Brickyard Bank, First Place Bank and First Bank of Delaware. But Wolfram isn’t dwelling on her successes. She continues to focus on the hard work ahead. “I think that we have had a number of accomplishments in the payday lending fight, in making our voice heard. But until we influence the FDIC to end the bank–payday partnerships, the battle is not over.”
As Tanya Wolfram learned from her experiences, her life teaches us. Far more than a voice in the wilderness, she shows us how we can and should make our voices heard, how to wed our values to action and create real change through organizing and advocacy.