Guest author: Lane Fury, Northwest New England Loan and Outreach Officer with the Cooperative Fund of New England
Photographed: Esteban Kelly of Anti-Oppression Resource & Training Alliance and the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives leads the CFNE board and staff in a training on the racial wealth gap.
As a millennial with a passion for social justice, I was drawn to the community development financial institution (CDFI) industry because it was born out of a policy change to build greater inclusion and equity in the finance industry, acknowledging that excluding low income people, racial minorities, and other marginalized groups from the financial services market was a problem that needed addressing.
But is it really as easy as that? Is it just a matter of creating and capitalizing community-focused financial institutions?
Without diminishing the decades of tireless work that CDFIs have done to lend in low income communities and communities of color, it can’t be denied that income inequality and the racial wealth gap are as prevalent as ever. For example, in Boston, an economic hub of New England, a 2015 study found that the city has the highest income inequality in the US, with the top 5% of people earning 17.8 times more than the lowest 20%. The region’s inequality crisis has a strong racial component, as white Bostonians own median assets worth $247,500 compared to just $8 for US-born Black Bostonians.
I work for the Cooperative Fund of New England (CFNE), a CDFI-certified non-profit loan fund that was established in 1975 to address the unmet financing needs of cooperatives including housing, consumer, worker, and producer co-ops. In addition to Boston and some of the country’s most racially diverse communities, the region is also home to Vermont and Maine, the two states with the highest percentage of white residents in the nation. Founded largely by food co-ops in rural northern New England, CFNE has historically had a predominantly white staff and board.
CFNE sits in the intersection of the CDFI movement to expand access to finance and the cooperative movement to democratize enterprise. While we are proud and inspired to be doing this work, having recently reached over $30 million in assets and $53 million in loans funded, it also means that CFNE must acknowledge and confront the histories of racism in both the finance industry and the cooperative movement.
The co-op model has the potential to create and expand asset building, decent jobs, healthy food access, affordable housing, and good education opportunities in any community. Cooperatives like the Black farmers’ cooperatives established in the pre-Civil Rights era southern US were and are used to effectively meet various needs in communities of color. But while the cooperative movement has grown significantly in our region, due to a host of barriers co-op development in New England’s communities of color has historically been limited.
Over the past years, CFNE has noticed an increase in cooperative development efforts coming out of communities of color. CFNE is taking this opportunity to examine and evolve how we function to both advance racial justice and to support these new opportunities to foster cooperative growth in our region. We are doing this by identifying policies, procedures, and practices that we can change to advance racial equity, as well as building new partnerships and outreach strategies while staying within our core programming of providing financing and technical support to co-ops in our region.
Some of the key steps we have taken as an organization over the past three years include:
Engaging in ongoing board and staff training on racial equity and inclusion topics including the racial wealth divide and how to create an inclusive board.
Revising CFNE’s mission to explicitly include racial equity as part of our core work.
Establishing a Racial Equity Task Force made up of staff and board members, which continues to meet monthly to make recommendations to the board for internal training and to guide outreach and networking in communities of color. The Task Force has held 12 meetings with people of color who are leading co-op or community development projects to identify where CFNE can improve and partner.
Drafting and publishing a racial equity statement.
Developing and approving an ambitious three-year strategic plan including goals to: increase lending in communities of color; improve diversity on our board; and meet the growing demand for co-op development support from low- to moderate-income, immigrant and racial minority communities.
Receiving approval for grant funding to: hire bilingual staff; expand dedicated capital pool to support strong applicants with insufficient collateral; and launch loan product for co-op development projects that need financing to cover costs in pre-revenue stages before they are eligible to access our traditional products.
Presenting at the Opportunity Finance Network Opportunity Fellows’ first meeting earlier this year to share about CFNE’s racial equity efforts and cross-pollinate with the Fellows.
We can’t claim causation, but the combined efforts of our staff and board, partners and borrowers, have correlated with progress in our lending as we doubled our portfolio of minority-controlled co-ops from $1.6 million to $4.8 million between December 2015 and December 2017.
This work hasn’t always been easy, and we have focused on some key lessons along the way, including the importance of patience, partnerships, maintaining flexibility and engagement, and avoiding mission drift. We still have a long way to go, and we continue to be inspired by the many organizations in our CDFI community grappling with similar questions. We love hearing about others’ journeys to incorporate a racial justice lens into your mission and how you’ve gotten to where you are:
How do you ensure that the communities you serve are represented on your board and staff?
Have you changed your underwriting practices to eliminate bias?
Do you offer loan products and technical assistance services that might better support communities of color?
One of my favorite metaphors I have heard among organizations working toward racial justice is “equity means everyone is invited to the party, inclusion is when everyone is asked to dance, and liberation happens when everyone has a good time.” I look forward to seeing you at the party!