b&b200: Housing, education, finances, and community: the African American Financial Capabilities Initiative

The African American Financial Capabilities Initiative is sponsored by Prosperity Now’s Racial Wealth Divide Initiative. Their website describes the motivation for and goals of the program:

“The Racial Wealth Divide Initiative at Prosperity Now believes the people closest to racial economic inequality are also best positioned to address it. It is estimated that it will take 228 years for Black Americans to reach the level of wealth White households enjoy today. Individual behavior is often seen as the cause of this racialized wage and wealth divide. However, there is compelling evidence that racial economic inequality is primarily the result of long-term investment in some communities and a lack of investment in others. The African American Financial Capability Initiative aims to reverse this trend.

“The stark racial economic disparities are a wake-up call to the Northwest Area Foundation and a call for fresh thinking and new investment. In response, the Foundation committed $4.35 million over three years to Black nonprofits in six cities within its footprint and to Prosperity Now to provide technical assistance to the participating organizations. The Initiative brings together six African American communities of practice (CoPs) to collaboratively develop and implement innovative, community-centered financial capability pilot projects. This development model also aims to highlight promising practices that address racial economic inequality developed the communities most impacted.”

In this episode we interviews three of the six participating Communities of Practice. (Catch next episode to see the remaining three.)

In Seattle, Leon Garnett, COO of Byrd Barr Place, Michelle Maryweather, President of Urban League Metro Seattle, and Ed Prince, ED of WA state commission on African American Affairs, are working to undermine gentrification. In the 1970s, the Central District of Seattle was 40% Black. Now, it’s 17% and dwindling. Housing prices have skyrocketed: both rent and property tax if you own. People are driven to homelessness, and Garnett, Maryweather and Prince are working to create an example of Land Trusts, owned by the African American community, which would allow permanent security of housing within communities. 

In Des Moines, Teree Caldwell-Johnson, CEO of Oakridge Neighborhood, gathered comprehensive data about the areas of need in the community. She publicized a “Tale of Two Cities” with widespread economic growth across the city, and a widespread lack within the African American community. She focused on Community Development of Financial Institutions to spread awareness of resources and education to the community.

In Portland, Melissa Hicks, Program Director for Stability and Empowerment of Self Enhancement Inc., and Andrea Debnam, Manager of Resident Services for Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, identified a systemic–and until recent decades legal–exclusion of African Americans from opportunity. Hicks and Dabnam focused on housing stability as a cornerstone for increased stability and potential prosperity.

Episode Highlights:

Leon: I think the most pressing need that we’re dealing with right now is just the displacement of Black people from Seattle, especially from the Black district in Seattle. Back in the 70s we were 70% Black in the central district, right now its about 14% and dwindling quickly.

Michelle: The housing prices have skyrocketed. Not only that but property taxes increased tremendously as well. So even if you own [you can’t afford it]. Just this year our property taxes went up something like 17% in one year.

Ed: The largest racial group that’s homeless are African Americans.
Michelle: While we only make up 7-8% of the population we are about 40% of the homeless population.

Leon: It’s gonna take a radical solution. We know that programming, education, income alone is not going to affect–it’s not gonna close the wealth divide. So we’re gonna have to do some really radical things all at one time.

Terri: What one economy, which is what we’re calling the racial wealth work in Des Moines, has done is to paint a face on the African American issues that arise as a result of individuals living not only in generational poverty but the impact of institutional racism on people of color living in our community.

Terri: I think the natural tendency for people when you begin to lift up sort of all of the disparities that exist is for people to suggest that, well, I’m not responsible for that. That’s personal responsibility. That’s making the wrong choices. That’s people not doing what they’re supposed to do, and as we all know that’s not the issue. As often as we create opportunities for people to do things, we need to recognize that this idea of institutional racism and the implication of that over time and circumstances has created almost a net negative for a certain part of our population.

Melissa: Portland actually is a racist state. It was built sort of as a white-topia back in the 1800s and …it really was well documented, in the state’s constitution, the racism that certainly does exist in this state.

Andrea: It is quite difficult living in this city, in this state, particularly when once upon a time it was against the law. We were not even allowed to be here you know.

Melissa: In the 2000s the constitution was ratified to take away that language that it was illegal for people of color, specifically calling out African Americans, to live in the state. We definitely had sundown laws, and there were billboards across the state, especially as you head into eastern Oregon saying ‘Don’t let the sun go down on you,’ so that if you were a person of color and that sun goes down, your life is in your own hands at that point.

Melissa: Recognizing that housing right now, and I know it’s a crisis across the country and across our state, but housing for low income people, not just people of color. But for African Americans, because of what we just talked about with the racism being pretty prevalent, affordable housing right now is probably one of the biggest needs that our community is facing. Both of our agencies have housing programs and are really trying to figure out how do we address this need, knowing that when our families go out into the communities to try to find an affordable two-three bedroom apartment, that its not happening. And we have multiple situations where families, a single mom with four kids, are living in their car. And they’re moving from parking lot to parking lot. And they’re starting to actually make…there have been some churches that are getting involved that are making their parking lots a safe space for people to park their cars overnight. And they’ll have a staff person at least awake and present to make sure people don’t get broken into or harassed by other people, and as long as they move before 7am, it’s a safe space for them to go to. …What we know about our community is that you’re not gonna go sleep under a bridge or honestly go to a shelter because of how you’re going to be treated by other people in that shelter.

Andrea: You always know you’re doing the right thing when you get people going against you. So we know we are doing what we need to do.