John Taylor, the President of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC), proudly told me that NCRC’s Annual Conference is among the most diverse gatherings of individuals across the country that are connected to the civil rights movement.
As a newcomer this year, I was struck by the professional diversity of the conference: a critical mass of advocates, organizers, community developers, academics, administrators, and bankers and regulators, all on one upmarket hotel floor.
It was energizing to watch the hodgepodge of economic justice devotees convene to share lessons and advance their common cause. It was also fascinating to watch its different factions—the squeaky wheels and the well-oiled ones—navigate their inherent tensions.
Some of the interplay felt familiar: for instance, an optimistic panel on asset-based community development morphing into a less comfortable discussion on cultural development and gentrification.
And some felt more distinct. After a session on successful state and local policy campaigns, a gray-haired gentleman—familiar from local events—asked a pointed question on curbing the insidious revolving door between banks and regulators. When a regulator who was also a former banker spoke up from the back of the room to defend her ilk, the collective response was non-oppositional. Instead, the discussion turned to how critical it is for community groups to make an effort to work collegially with banks to reach common goals. The first gentleman then admitted to also being a former banker, which elicited laughter. “It’s okay,” one woman said. “We forgive you.”
As its attendees struck balances and occasionally butted heads, NCRC seemed to be conducting its own balancing act: on one hand it offered a polite welcome to bankers and placed their full-page ads in its 60-page conference program; on the other, its inner activist intermittently—and very publicly—held their feet to fire. The appearance of Thomas Curry, Comptroller of the Currency, was a prime example.
Curry took his platform at the conference’s Friday luncheon to talk about the importance of protecting seniors from fraud. The audience applauded at the appropriate pauses. Then Taylor joined him on the stage, note cards in hand, and immediately began to shell him with questions on his plans to reform the Community Reinvestment Act: expansion to credit unions; redefinition of boundaries; integration of a “low-satisfactory” rating; reform to the aforementioned revolving door. Curry deflected each question with little finesse; Taylor finally relented. (I later learned that this exchange is a bit of an annual routine.)
In a panel that afternoon on strategies for CRA reform, former NCRC staff Josh Silver was up in arms. “After hearing the Comptroller of the Currency,” he said, “my main thought is street protest.” Silver would later receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from NCRC and, before regaling the audience with a hearty rendition of “This Little Light of Mine,” gave a rousing speech advocating for CRA modernization as a game-changer for social equity. If Curry will not reform the CRA, Silver said, “we will!”
The CRA panel itself was full of vigor. It was also highly technical: subjects included assessment area reform, improvement of performance context analysis, and fixes to regulatory websites. It was all very informative, yet it also was a reminder of how difficult it is to reconcile the professional specialization needed to effectively broach CRA reform and the populism needed to infuse it with broader urgency.
NCRC does work hard to strike this balance: trainings, research, technical assistance, campaigns, etc. Taylor pointed out to me a number of local and national CRA-related successes that resulted from the hundreds of meetings and public comments of NCRC members. He also informed me that NCRC has more lawsuits open against banks than any other organization in the country.
But “the 21st century approach,” he told me, “is to go in and sit with these banks and to show them what the economic opportunities are in our neighborhoods.” He added: “It all can be done in a very pleasant way until that fails. And then the nuclear option is always available.”
The CRA is, of course, dead center in NCRC’s wheelhouse. But the conference also included a far more ambitious call: the advancement of a new, broad-based social front. Voting rights. Campaign finance reform. The reclamation of bamboozled working class Americans to a unified progressive movement.
Reverend William Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP, began the call with a Friday morning sermon. Barber told us that “we are in the embryonic stages of a third reconstruction.” Through state movements, he preached, we can restore the voting rights act and beat back the Tea Party. He ended by evoking Martin Luther King: “How long will voter suppression tactics work? Not long, if we mobilize en masse, and vote en masse, and litigate en masse!” The crowd returned to the hallways buzzing.
That evening, Taylor made another call in the same spirit. He spoke of former Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, whose legacy includes both a how-to guide for corporate America to overtake democracy and a Supreme Court decision to permit corporate campaign contributions. Yet the average American does believe in fairness, Taylor told us. He urged us to uproot Powell’s legacy—to begin an organized, well-funded progressive movement to change the dialogue and reclaim the white working class.
Taylor elaborated on his message to me: “We’re not going to change [the country] with another sign-on letter, or another forum on C-SPAN, or at conference like NCRC’s. We’re going to change it one mind and one conversation at a time, supported by a purposeful strategic plan to get out there and really influence the conversation so that working poor people really understand what will allow them and their families to have a decent income, a roof over their head, a clean environment.”
NCRC, he said, is looking to build on the energy of the conference and become a catalyst in this social movement—“to utilize our members wherever possible to have an influence.”
The People and Places Conference that also occurred last month, which has been discussed on Rooflines (here, here, and here) also had ambitious ends, albeit a different set of means and a more restrained, self-reflective tone. The participants overlapped to some extent. If the nation is teetering on a true social movement—and if the organizations and networks that are part of the dialogue together have true catalytic power—I would be interested to see if and how these alliances would interface with one another.
I would also be interested to see how the big banks would respond. Could they continue to be engaged while being fought in this way? Or would such a turn of events become, in effect, the nuclear option?
(Photo credit: NCRC on Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)