WASHINGTON Nov. 19, 2014 (CDFI Connect) — Janis Bowdler, senior program director, Global Philanthropy, JPMorgan Chase, talks today with CDFI Connect about diversity, inclusion, and equity.

At the OFN Conference in October, you kicked off the opening plenary, which focused on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in the CDFI Industry. Why is the topic so important?

The issue is important to me personally and to JPMorgan Chase from a business and philanthropic standpoint. Prior to joining JPMorgan Chase, I spent 10 years at National Council of La Raza, working to close the national racial wealth gap, and before that, I was in community development. So I have a long history of working on social justice and civil rights issues, and I really believe that CDFIs play a role in advancing equity. For JPMorgan Chase, equity is a priority throughout our business lines and as we think about how to approach our grant making strategies. Jamie Dimon [JPMorgan Chase CEO] himself talks about how important equity is to the firm.

Can you share some of the general feedback you received at the Conference to the equity discussion—what were the responses you heard?

People were energized. After the plenary, and, in particular, after the luncheon where Mark [Pinsky, OFN president & CEO] spoke and really set equity as a priority for OFN and the industry, I engaged in  a series of conversations  on how CDFIs can advance the equity agenda. People I spoke with wanted to be part of the solution, to rise to the challenge. They talked a lot about what they are already doing within their organizations and communities—they are thinking about the issue from all different angles. Later, I led a panel on collaboration among CDFIs and equity came up again. The panelists—Julie Gould from Mercy Housing, Calvin Holmes from Chicago Community Loan Fund, and Ceyl Prinster from Colorado Enterprise Fund—talked about what it means to be a minority- or woman-led organization and the importance of collaboration in providing mentorship and growth in skills and scale.

I also had a dozen or so meetings, and equity was part of the conversations—people were really excited! The opening plenary definitely set the tone for the rest of the conference.

What role can CDFIs play in realizing racial equity? And what role does equity play in social, economic, and political justice?

CDFIs are essentially financial bridges, delivering capital using market principles to places where markets don’t venture for any number of reasons. They’re built to get capital into disinvested areas. So they play a role in advancing the equity agenda, literally and metaphorically, by building community wealth and community assets. Not only are CDFIs doing work that benefits borrowers, but they’re also community institutions that are vanguards of this mission for decades to come. If we’re to create sustained economic and racial equity, having these local anchors in disinvested communities is critical to this generation and future generations. We need institutions that will be here today and tomorrow. CDFIs dig in; they become self-sustaining; they stay committed to the mission. They will continue to be the bridge to greater economic opportunity for so many people who are disenfranchised or underinvested, which is significant, as well, in the broader social justice agenda. 

Why is diversity a starting point in creating equity, but not, ultimately, enough if we’re to realize true justice?

This is an important question. If we focus on diversity alone, then the risk is that we’ll end up with symbolic representation. What we’re looking for is full participation in the broader systems in which CDFIs work, whether it’s education or healthy foods or others. Stopping with diversity ignores the valuable contribution that everyone can offer; it lets the dominant status off the hook. Inclusion is about participation and contribution, and it’s the next, necessary step in realizing equity. And to achieve full equity, we need to make sure we’re taking a systemic approach and involving and including all communities—people of color, women, those who are differently able, LGBT— from the beginning. This is everyone’s responsibility— whoever has dominant status has to move beyond just diversity to make sure we’re being as inclusive as we can.

At the Conference, you announced that JPMorgan Chase is investing $550,000 to jumpstart OFN’s analysis and implementation of collaboration and equity strategies. Tell us about that.

This really started with a conversation I had with Mark and the OFN team in late spring about where OFN was with these issues. At the time, I said that we all know the field, frankly, is not as diverse as it could be…or needs to be. I didn’t realize that I had touched on something OFN was already thinking about. The room became electric. Everyone started talking about how critical the issue has been to OFN. Mark said that OFN really needed to step up and take a leadership position. That dovetailed well with where JPMorgan Chase was with our thinking so there was a lot of synergy—and we are proud to be the first to fund this equity work. But, it’s a big tent—I hope a lot of other funders come in as well.

JPMorgan Chase recently made a $100 million investment in the City of Detroit. What does this support look like and how do CDFIs figure in?

CDFIs feature very prominently in our community development philanthropic strategy. Working with them reflects what we are as a bank that thinks about market principles and innovative approaches to driving more investment into low-income and moderate-income communities. It’s also smart philanthropy—our grant dollars can leverage much greater impact and investment when we’re working with a CDFI. Grants then have a multiplier effect on the ground. For a lot of reasons CDFIs are great partners for us.

Looking at Detroit, it needs an intersection of market and philanthropy—someone to take a calculated risk to redevelop neighborhoods and infuse capital at the ground level. Our approach is to support an organization already moving into Detroit—Capital Impact Partners, an Arlington, Virginia based CDFI—and give them the resources they need to build their pipeline. At the same time, we’re investing in homegrown talent—Invest Detroit, also a CDFI—to help them build operations. We think there is a lot the two can accomplish together. One brings resources to town and the other has intimate knowledge of the market and brings that market intelligence to the work. We hope this is a catalytic investment that not only transforms Detroit communities, but also secures these two organizations as community stewards well beyond our investment.

Your work in Detroit is just one of the many ways JPMorgan Chase shows its sustained commitment to helping CDFIs solve the entrenched—and emerging—challenges that low-income and underserved communities nationwide face. Can you tell us about other innovative ways you support CDFIs?

Community development is one of Global Philanthropy’s key focus areas—one where we are really growing and sharpening our focus. We’re lucky that JPMorgan Chase maintained its philanthropic commitment throughout the great recession, and never backed away from—and in fact stepped-up—giving. We are able to leverage that commitment in different communities. A recent example is the launch of our CDFI Collaboratives program, which invested $33 million in seven CDFI collaboratives. We challenged the CDFI field to think about a community development problem that they can tackle through partnership, to look at how they can achieve scale and tap different capital resources by working together rather than solo. There were so many creative responses—it was very exciting to see all of the strategic thinking coming out of this field. A lot of small and mid-sized CDFIs had already been thinking about growth strategies and this gave them an opportunity to do more. It also offered smaller CDFIs led by women or people of color, which are 13 of the 23 CDFIs involved in this initiative, to plug into larger organizations for mentoring. That I know of, this approach is the first of its kind. I see it as a step toward inclusion…toward equity. I’m excited to see how it will unfold.

More information: Watch Bowdler’s speech at the OFN Conference opening plenary and the plenary conversation about Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity. A frequent contributor to Rooflines, the Shelterforce blog, she also recently posted about Advancing Economic Opportunity Through Diversity.


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