The racial wealth gap in the United States is a wide and persistent gap between the median household income of different races – most greatly visible between Black and white households. The country’s history of systemic racism has weakened Black Americans’ ability to achieve economic security. With financial services systems and policies built to keep communities of color out, four Aspen Global Leadership Network Fellows are stepping up to find a way in. The key? Revitalizing Black-owned banks.
By bringing together their diverse expertise from across the legal, nonprofit, financial, and government sectors, Fellows Ashley Bell (Civil Society Fellow: a Partnership of ADL and the Aspen Institute), Yolanda Daniel (Finance Leaders Fellow), Lauren McCann (Civil Society Fellow: a Partnership of ADL and the Aspen Institute), and Tishaura Jones (Rodel Fellow) collaborated to launch the National Black Bank Fund and Foundation (NBBF).
At the center of their impact is their relationships: to one another and to other bold leaders who are literally putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to commitments made on centering diversity and equity in business operations. The group was recently awarded by the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth and the Aspen Institute with an inaugural Global Inclusive Growth Spark Grant for their innovative work.
Listen to this episode of the Value of Leadership to learn why nurturing Black-owned financial institutions is so closely aligned to the success of Black communities, how NBBF shepherded a $30 million deal with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, and what it takes to step into the arena and join the fight for racial justice in America. To learn more about the National Black Bank Fund and Foundation visit blackbankfund.com.
At the Aspen Institute, we believe leadership comes from those whose motivations are grounded in values and whose actions are rooted in purpose. That all sounds nice, but what does a values-driven leader actually look like? How does ‘leading with values’ change their day-to-day decision making? How do they react when they’re tested with a challenge? And how does it make them a better leader than the next person?
We ask our Aspen Global Leadership Network Fellows to look inward, to understand themselves, to challenge their thinking. In the new podcast, “The Value of Leadership,” they’re ready to get vulnerable with you, and share mistakes made, lessons learned, and how the values they’ve honed in on are expressed in their actions when faced with challenges. So, if you’ve ever questioned why you’ve done something that way you did or are trying to dig a little deeper and tap into your own values – tune in and learn from leaders who are doing just that.
The Value of Leadership is a podcast from the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Global Leadership Network (AGLN). AGLN’s mission is to develop authentic, high-integrity leaders. People who are committed to proactively confronting societal challenges, individually and collectively, in order to create a more just, free, and equitable society. And Fellows are putting their values to work all across the globe. To learn more about the network and the work of our Fellows, visit agln.aspeninstitute.org. And explore more episodes of the Value of Leadership here.
Ashley Bell: I was watching with my son and daughter the, you know, “Jingle Jangle,” which is a great little Christmas movie about a Black scientist who was the smartest person in the world.
You know, he invents talking robots and he teaches people how to fly. And I watched the entire movie and said, wow, this is an all-Black cast. Like, this is amazing. They’re doing a Christmas with an all-Black cast.
And my son points out, he said, “Dad, there were two people that weren’t Black in here. One was the policeman and the other was the banker.” And I think the imagery that we even show our kids, that even when we can dream that African American can be the smartest person in the world and they could invent things that fly. We couldn’t imagine that the person that gives them the loan to start that business could be an African American. So the imagery is important.
Samantha Cherry: Thanks for tuning in to “The Value of Leadership,” a podcast where we connect with Fellows in the Aspen Global Leadership Network. Leaders from around the world as they get vulnerable, share lessons learned, mistakes made, and how the values they’ve honed in on are expressed in their actions. I’m your host, Samantha Cherry.
The racial wealth gap in the United States is a wide and persistent gap between the median household income of different races. Most greatly visible between Black and white households. According to the 2016 census, the median net worth of non-Hispanic white households was $143,600. The median net worth of Black households, only $12,920.
This gap is built on a history of systemic racism. With financial systems and policies built to keep people of color, particularly Black Americans, from achieving economic security. While history has kept communities of color out, four leaders are finding a way in. The key? Revitalizing Black-owned banks.
Equipped with a bias toward action and an opportunity to leverage their individual expertise across the financial, legal, government, and nonprofit sectors, four Aspen Global Leadership Network Fellows– Ashley Bell, Yolanda Daniel, Tishaura Jones, and Lauren McCann– launched the National Black Bank Fund and Foundation, organizations known as NBBF, to nurture Black-owned banks and, in turn, close the racial wealth gap.
Today, you’ll hear from four members on the founding team on why investing capital into Black-owned banks is so closely tied to the success of black communities, what a historic thirty-five million dollar loan with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks means for these institutions, and what it takes to step into the arena and lead in the fight for racial justice.
To understand the solution, we have to understand how we got here. Here’s Ashley Bell, Civil Society Fellow and founder of the National Black Bank Foundation and Fund, to explain.
Ashley Bell: I think for a lot of people, when they assess some of the measures that are being put forth, whether it’s in a public space or private sector, measures dedicated to creating more equity, economic equity, in this country. Many times it can be taken out of context unless you have a full understanding of the history and how we get to where we are so that we understand that the choices that we make when it comes to how we all choose these financial services have impact.
The NBBF wants to make you know, all Americans, you know, aware that those decisions can be impactful and how they can be a part of closing that racial wealth gap in this country.
It starts in the very beginning of emancipation at the end of the Civil War. The Freedmen’s Bureau was created by statute. The Freedmen’s Bureau was created in order to provide economic education and upliftment of freed slaves and those initial new Americans believed in a federal government program. That was a Freedmen’s Bureau bank and the Freedmen’s Bureau bank, by statute, prohibited newly freed slaves, that are now Americans, from having credit. So the bank did not have a credit apparatus. It only would allow savings.
And so it was understood then by those who wanted to make sure that the African, that was now an African American, would not be on equal footing. They denied him access to credit. And credit is like water, you know, it is necessary for a community to grow. And at that original outset, even the savings portion of the Freedmen’s Bureau, became a tragedy for African Americans.
Frederick Douglas ended up becoming the first Black bank president, President of the Freedmen’s Bureau. He realized by the time that he was asked to take it over by leaders in Congress that it actually has squandered all of the savings of freed slaves in this country and actually wiped out over 50 percent of all the wealth of those newly freed slaves when the bank had to close.
I think then, since that moment, there was a cultural disconnect and a distrust in African American community of financial institutions that have been passed down since the 1860’s. We still today see those same challenges when we look at what happened with COVID-19.
When COVID-19 happened, I was working in the federal government at the time at a small business administration. And when you saw COVID hit, and you saw the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) roll out, it was unequivocal across all major news and reports that African Americans, specifically, were having a hard time applying for the original PPP plan because it forced them to go to banks to get relief.
60 percent of African Americans are either unbanked or underbanked. Unbanked meaning they don’t have a banking relationship and underbanked meaning that they may go to a check cashing place or some facility that charges some really high interest to get access to their own money, virtually making it very expensive to be poor in this country.
So with that, you know, you had a nation of new entrepreneurs that are far removed from slavery but all of the African Americans that were denied access to the PPP program, they all had the same response. They asked, “Where’s the Black bank, where can I go and get a financial decision made about the future of my business, future my family, my community, my nonprofit, where I don’t feel like my participation is based on race?”
And when they all retreated to Black banks, Black banks were willing, they were just not able because they lacked the capitalization and the necessary tools. And so out of that frantic rush from African Americans from California to New York to find a place to get relief through the banking system, I think there was a general surge across the country of leaders, of African American leaders and our leaders, to say, “This can’t happen again.”
We can’t have a generation without financial institutions that can withstand immediate needs in times of crisis and I think that this pandemic illuminated what started with the Freedmen’s Bureau and has run through the course of history and landed with this new generation with a new challenge, but a very old story with the Payroll Protection Program.
Samantha Cherry: Finance Leaders Fellow, Yolanda Daniel, a senior financial executive in the financial services industry, shared with us how Black-owned banks are in a unique position to bridge this broken trust.
Yolanda Daniel: When you talk about proximity and your ability to make a difference, when you talk about understanding the needs and the challenges of those communities, it’s really through Black banks who have, like, a nexus in our communities, as well as their proximity to the issues helps them to understand, you know, not exclusively, but certainly have greater purview to what the issues and challenges are.
Banking is about relationships, right? Many Black banks were started out of just the need to serve the community, not exclusively, but a lot of it was about social action. So, the challenges of Black banks have been driving the capital and the investment and making sure that they can sustain the needs of the communities that they serve.
So when you’re under-capitalized, you can’t drive innovation. You don’t have an app for your bank that makes it easy to bank with you, you know? So the challenge has been really undercapitalization and their ability to serve their marketing clientele in a way that’s meaningful, but also their clientele being able to have access to jobs and employment and roles in which they can to drive capital to those banks.
Samantha Cherry: It’s important to note that in 1976, there were more than 50 Black-owned financial institutions across the U.S. While in 2021, there are only 18. Why?
Ashley Bell: If you talk to a normal community bank that may not be Black-owned, probably about 60 to 70 percent of their loans are mission-based in the area where they’re located but Black banks, that’s about 90 to 95 percent on that.
So the reason that you had 50 black banks over 25 years ago, and now you only have 18 is because Black banks represent many times the people who this is their last resort. So their portfolios are full of Black churches, Black nonprofits, Black, small businesses.
So when the economy takes a downturn, every single time the economy is taking a downturn in this country, African American employment has been at the highest because they’re the first to get fired and the last to get hired.
And when they do, so goes nonprofit commitments, so goes, you know, the small businesses that were depending on those folks with good jobs in that community to support these businesses. And they get hit hard. And when their clientele gets hit hard, the bank overall gets hit hard. So every time there’s a downturn, we lose Black banks.
Samantha Cherry: Rodel Fellow and NBBF board chair Tishaura Jones has seen this play out in her city of St. Louis, where she has been the city treasurer since 2013, and is currently running for Mayor. She shared with us how this lack of investment has impacted St. Louis.
Tishaura Jones: St. Louis is troubled at the moment. We are one of the most hyper-segregated cities in the country. We are home to what’s called the Delmar Divide. And the 99 percent of the people that live North of Delmar, including myself, are African American. And it has not been invested in decades. It has the highest crime and the poorest outcome. And the Black bank that we did have was North St. Louis, North of the Delmar Divide.
And we have to do the hard work to repair this decades-long policy of disinvestment in Black neighborhoods and what better way to do that than to put institutions in neighborhoods that they can trust like Black banks. And so as I look at, you know, possibly becoming Mayor, this is one of the things that I’ll be able to bring to the table. My experience as Chair of the National Black Bank Fund, my relationships across the country, and being able to leverage those relationships to bring more resources and programs from my city.
All of the inequities that have been laid bare in the year 2020 were the perfect environment for programs and institutions like this, to be able to push back and say, “Hey, you know, if you really want to make a change and make a difference and give a shot in the arm to the African American community, then invest in banks because that’s the way to cue the racial wealth gap.”
Ashley Bell: I think that what we tried to solve with the National Black Bank Foundation was we know that capitalism works, it just needs to work better for everybody. We wanted to take a free-market approach to help Black banks become competitive so that they can grow and prosper in a free-market system and that the communities where they’re located and the people that they serve can also benefit from said system.
Tishaura Jones: Right now Black banks don’t have access to this type of capital and because they are shrinking, many of them are struggling. Giving black banks access to Tier 1 Capital is going to then allow them to lend that money into the community and really be a shot in the arm for homeownership, for capital needs, for small businesses.
So we are trying to give them technical assistance to be able to build their business up to be more like, you know, the regional banks that we see in communities across this country.
Samantha Cherry: With Tier 1 Capital from the National Black Bank Fund, a direct investment in these financial institutions, they now have the ability to underwrite loans that require significant credit, something that these historically under-capitalized institutions have never been able to do. And an action that ultimately shows the potential strength these banks have when well-resourced and working together.
With this capital, the NBBF team sees an opportunity for corporate America to literally put their money where their mouth is when it comes to centering diversity and equity and its business decisions.
Ashley Bell: I think it begins with having a deeper conversation with Corporate America about putting the resources where they say that values reside. So what we offer is an opportunity for any corporation, any foundation who wants to talk about diversity and inclusion and creating equity and working with these underserved communities to not leave out the most important sector of our economy, which is financial services.
When you talk to someone about supply diversity and you talk to anyone who has a role of supply diversity at any major corporation, They’ll tell you that they spent quite a bit of time working with minority businesses and vendors who want to do work with them. But I guarantee you this, none of them will tell you that they have conversations with Black-owned financial institutions about doing business with the corporation.
What the Black bank foundation wants to do is help banks answer that call to extend out their goals of supply diversity to include the very banks that they use to promote and grow their businesses and corporations.
Samantha Cherry: And as Yolanda said.
Yolanda Daniel: Banking is about relationships, period. It’s about relationships. And if you’re not in the high school or colleges with the current bank president, the likelihood that you’re going to get the corporation’s deposits is relatively low.
Samantha Cherry: Last summer, Ashley attended a racial justice March with Thad Sheely, COO of the Atlanta Hawks. This moment, with their relationship at the foundation, led to something historic.
Ashley Bell: I’ll tell you, the idea started when we were marching post-George Floyd, I had my son and he had his two kids and we were marching Downtown Atlanta after George Floyd. And if it was not for Thad Sheely who’s, you know, white kid from Youngstown, Ohio and, you know, it’s one of those what Thad said, “You know, what happens at the end of the march? I mean, what do you do then?” The marches must lead to change. And the march must end with a strategy, with a conversation around how we create the change that we want to see.
And that brought to the table the Atlanta Hawks and the story city and the cradle of the Civil Rights movement and said, if you could put together a plan with these Black banks, I’ll let them compete. And that’s all we could ask for.
The biggest thing is being able to get some wins in a couple of key sectors of our economy to show that Black banks can compete. Again, at high levels. What we want to show is that the highest levels of corporations that lead important sectors of our economy with those treasurers and, you know, the leadership saying, “We’re not going to be an industry that makes most of our money off of people of color and not think about the institutions that they depend on.”
And that’s why we go after sports. I mean, sports makes money off of Black bodies and Black talent every day. And we feel as though the very communities, where many of these players come from, they depend on these institutions, these Black banks. That’s where their church, their tithes that they give 10 percent to the Lord has held in these Black banks. It’s where HBCUs keep all their funds to promote the education of the next generation of African Americans. It’s where your nonprofit banks, the small businesses, the barbershop banks.
These are important institutions and they represent the collective economic will of millions of African Americans and giving them an opportunity to compete is what we think you’ll see in the very near future in many different industries. We just have to be a different kind of woke, a deeper level of consciousness.
If we don’t speak up and ask, “Are we allowing minority banks to compete for our business? Or are we going to the same folks over and over again?” I guarantee you that the folks that manage the money will say, “Well, those banks are big enough to do these deals.”
What we’ve done to put black banks into that conversation is that we, using the Hawks transaction as an example, we were able to bundle them together more than 12 of the remaining 18 owned black banks into one larger bank. And by doing that, they’re able to compete with larger banks. And so now there’s no more of an excuse. You can’t say, “Well, those banks aren’t big enough to take down this deal,” or, “Well, I can’t let those banks lead because they don’t have any experience doing that.”
So, these banks, when given an opportunity to have a major corporation like the Atlanta Hawks allow them to compete for their business, that’s a loan that they would never see. They would never get a loan that good and it wouldn’t be a part of the conversation. So it was a rally of mutual interest. They said for all of you who are looking for a good loan to balance out all of the more risky loans that you do on behalf of our community.
This gives you a chance to balance out your books so you’re not living on the edge and for every dollar of revenue that they made from the Atlanta Hawks deal that is called Tier 1 Capital and can be multiplied tenfold back into the community. And I think that’s where really rallied the troops.
So then not only could Black banks pull together resources to take down a multimillion-dollar deal, but they also led that deal, which means that they weren’t given a piece of the pie, they were the pie.
Black banks led a major transaction with a sporting franchise from top to bottom. Never happened before. But I think that is the blueprints and we hope will echo through Wall Street that Black professionals around this country are rallying to their support and we will help them compete in a free-market system.
And that’s the part we’re not afraid of. The issue is letting us compete and will these corporations allow Black banks to compete for their business. Will they have the courage to allow Black banks to lead their transactions. I mean, this is our best chance in modern history to really bend that arc of justice a little bit further. And we can do that through creating sustainable financial institutions and underserved communities that can offer the goods and services that these families and these small business owners need to compete.
And so this is a rallying cry and one that I’ve been honored to share with my fellow Aspen Global Leadership Network Fellows. And all of us felt this pain to go across the country, you know, during the pandemic of African Americans that were fearful that they would lose their nonprofits to serve the children of our communities, the churches that we go to worship shutting down, the businesses that we patron and closing their doors, and the families that need those businesses not having those opportunities. All of that went around this country.
And those of us that are in the current of those calls for assistance just so happen to also be a part of the Aspen Global Leadership Network and we rallied together and then we realized that the connectivity that we have with Aspen definitely allowed us to leverage relationships to help pull together an even broader coalition to meet a challenge that we think we were in a perfect position to take on.
Samantha Cherry: Fighting against centuries-old systems takes a team with a variety of talents and skill sets. After hearing about NBBF through Ashley, Civil Society Fellow Lauren McCann saw an opportunity for her to leverage her networks from a lifelong career in philanthropy and joined the rallying cry. Now, she’s serving on the board.
Lauren also recently left her position as Vice President at Stand Together Foundation to start her own consulting firm that works with philanthropists and nonprofits focused on equality, justice, and solutions that empower underserved populations and heal deep division, objectives that are very much in line with her work with NBBF. Here’s Lauren on what pushed her to step up:
Lauren McCann: As a white woman I, you know, I’ve been involved in the last several years in philanthropy on issues of criminal justice and racial justice. And frankly, my work in the last six years with Stand Together really opened my eyes to a lot of these issues. And I think in this last year in particular, I felt a calling personally to challenge myself in how can I go deeper in this work? How can I really understand the consequences of my actions and my behaviors and be held accountable to living my values in action.
We’re at an inflection point in our country, and the murders of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and others created, you know, what has been called the Great White Awakening in our country. And, in some ways, it elevated what has always been below the surface and into conversation and boardrooms and churches and family dinner tables. And it was an important reckoning that was happening where people are asking themselves, “What can I do differently? What can I do to live my values and action? How do I change the systems that I might not have realized I was contributing to?”
I started to get calls from other philanthropists saying, “Well, how are you investing in racial justice work? How can we collaborate? What are the opportunities you see at the table?”
Samantha Cherry:We asked these leaders what keeps them going through this challenging work and what they share with their fellow Fellows on the NBBF team.
Tishaura Jones: One of my values is equity and how do I use my position to achieve that for my community. And being treasurer, I’ve been able to do that by bringing financial institutions to the table and asking them to do more. Pushing back on these institutions that have continued systemic racism in our country, in our region for decades. Policies like redlining and being predatory when giving out loans still exist. So we need to use our influence and make sure that equity exists for not only people of color and African Americans but everyone.
This work is so important to me and I see the long gain, right? And so because this work is so important to me and it’s something I’ve been working on in my current position as treasurer and see this as something I can work more on when I become Mayor, I have literally told my staff that hey, this time every week for our working group meeting is blocked off, it’s untouchable. Because this work is so important to me, it’s as important as taking care of my kid because I have to set an environment where children like him and my unconceived grandchildren can thrive in this country.
If we meet all of our goals, then we see thriving African American communities with businesses and all of the commercial infrastructure that they need to thrive. We see that the racial wealth gap is not just 10 times anymore between Black and white families, that maybe it’s down to five or two or eliminated and we see a march towards the kind of equity that the Founding Fathers of this country said that they wanted when they started this country, you know, hundreds of years ago.
Lauren McCann: I think Ashley is a bold thinker and he’s someone that takes action. You know, he’s started many organizations before, he has a very accomplished career. And when he puts a marker out there, he goes for it and he’s fearless and, you know, an actionist, somebody who’s just propelled by action. And that kind of energy is really contagious and I like to be around people who are action-oriented.
And so working with him has been awesome, you know, it’s been like holding onto a rocket ship a little bit. You know, he had this idea. He brought people together with complementary capabilities from all the industry sectors that touch this model and this concept. He assembled a really good team of other Fellows across the Aspen Fellowship and an exceptional board.
Ashley Bell: What ties us all together? I don’t think it’s just me. I think Yolanda, Lauren, and Tishaura all have an intense bias towards action.
We’re not the type of people that can talk about a problem and you know, pine about it and then let it sit. We all immediately started thinking about what we could do to connect the dots, to make this happen.
We got to ask those tough questions and we have to be willing to take that extra step to know it’s not going to be convenient at first but you have institutions like the National Black Bank Foundation that are helping corporations figure it out. If you’re going to have a way of letting minorities compete for business. It doesn’t cost you anything, you’re going to make these decisions anyway.
But your double bottom line, if corporations are looking at meeting that double bottom line, that is how we truly can change the economic landscape of this country, close the racial wealth gap, and tell the kids that we talk to every day you truly can be, you know, anything you want to be.
I was watching with my son and daughter the, you know, “Jingle Jangle,” which is a great little Christmas movie about a Black scientist who was the smartest person in the world.
You know, he invents talking robots and he teaches people how to fly. And I watched the entire movie and said, wow, this is an all-Black cast. Like, this is amazing. They’re doing a Christmas with an all-Black cast.
And my son points out, he said, “Dad, there were two people that weren’t Black in here. One was the policeman and the other was the banker.” And I think the imagery that we even show our kids, that even when we can dream that African American can be the smartest person in the world and they could invent things that fly. We couldn’t imagine that the person that gives them the loan to start that business could be an African American. And so the imagery is important.
The next generation needs to see us at least try. And I think by ignoring this glaring evident fact of this gap that we have in economic wealth in this country, can only be answered by those who are truly woke and conscious. And again, it’s not arms, it’s just let Black banks compete and let the market system play out as it should. The truth is that now minority banks, specifically African American banks, can compete and they can do it at the highest levels.
Samantha Cherry: The National Black Bank Fund aims to invest $250 million in Tier 1 capital with Black banks by 2025, enabling banks to then invest 2.5 billion in new loans in communities of color. To learn more about the National Black Bank Fund and Foundation, visit blackbankfund.com.
That’s it for this episode of the Value of Leadership. The Value of Leadership is a podcast from the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Global Leadership Network, AGLN. AGLN’s mission is to develop authentic high integrity leaders. People who are committed to proactively confronting societal challenges individually and collectively in order to create a more just, free, and equitable society.
And Fellows are putting their values to work all across the globe. To learn more about the network and the work of our Fellows, visit agln.aspeninstitute.org. You can subscribe to the Value of Leadership wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you to Fellows featured today: Ashley Bell, Yolanda Daniel, Tishaura Jones, and Lauren McCann.
Special thanks to Jennifer Vogt, Kat Godfrey, Leta Tremblay, Phil Javellana, Colby Hartburg, and Samantha Cherry for making this episode possible. And thank you for listening.