Recently I was honored to receive the Ned Gramlich Award for Responsible Finance during the Opportunity Finance Network (OFN) Conference in Denver. To be recognized by the national association of investors dedicated to aligning capital with justice was a humbling experience—one made more so by the courageous legacy of the late Federal Reserve Bank Governor in who’s memory the award is given. Ned Gramlich was one of very few people at the time to warn publicly that irresponsible mortgage lending practices would likely lead to financial crisis.
Of the seven Gramlich award recipients; I am the first person of color. This fact is material because it allows me to speak from a vantage point that is particularly salient at a time when diversity and the economic divide in America are both greater than ever before.
More than at any time in recent memory, economic justice is at the forefront of the domestic policy dialog. A report by the bond ratings agency Standard & Poor’s cites rising income inequality as a drag on economic growth. Several prominent economists have documented the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. Nowhere are these issues more pronounced than in Mississippi, where 47 of the state’s 82 counties are designated as persistently poor. In these counties, 20 percent or more of their populations have been living in poverty over the past 30 years. For the first time since the early part of the 20th century, there are more children of color in the state of Mississippi than white children. At the same time, 52 percent of black children in the state live in poverty compared to 19 percent of white children. Closing this gap is in the interest of all residents, regardless of their race.
In Mississippi, football reigns supreme, from Friday night high school games through Saturday tailgating. And these days, with two of the top-ranked college teams in the country, at times it seems little else matters around here. While sports provide a temporary escape from reality, it also offers great metaphors for life, a fact quite effectively illustrated in the football movie Remember the Titans—particularly with regard to issues of diversity, inclusion and working together for the common good.
One of the most impactful lines in the movie comes after the team has imploded because no one is working together. Julius, the star black player, confronts Gary, the all-American white team captain, saying that the white players won’t block for the black players and that he’s going to look out for himself, not the team. When Gary says that is the worst attitude he has ever seen, Julius retorts, “Attitude reflects leadership, captain.”
Attitude reflects leadership. What kinds of attitudes permeate our community development organizations? What kind of leaders are we? Do we really understand our markets? Are we as innovative in developing diverse teams and leadership in our organizations as we are in putting together financial transactions? Or do we give up too easily when our natural networks don’t immediately give us the results we want? Are we going to accept the fact that prime lending for white mortgage borrowers has surpassed pre-recession levels, while prime mortgage loans for black borrowers is 1/4 of where it was before the financial crisis—and it was shamefully inadequate even then? Are we practicing what we preach?
Nearly 50 years ago, in his final presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King Jr. asked the question, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, and put forth this impassioned call for economic justice:
“Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.”
It's up to each of us to make this vision a reality. It's up to leaders to ensure diversity, inclusion and equity for our communities and our organizations. We must turn the mirror to ourselves and ask, “Are we, as leaders in social justice, doing enough?” Attitude reflects leadership, and positive social change depends on leaders who are committed to the long, uphill climb to a country that truly provides opportunity for all.
(Photo credit, Sam Levitan © 2014)