By Ellis Carr, President and CEO
This has been a year of reflection and introspection for me. In 2017, Capital Impact Partners, a national Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), had its best year since our founding in the early 1980s. We implemented new programs and innovative products to unlock opportunity for underserved communities across the country, and, I am proud to say, deployed record volumes in support of economic, social, and racial justice – and have continued that critical work in 2018.
Despite our recent successes, our accomplishments sometimes feel hollow given the growing wealth gap, wage stagnation, and continuing racial and social injustice. Many Americans, including some of my own family, feel that opportunity is out of reach.
As I reflect on 2018, I remember another year that marked great change for the country and had lasting implications for how we as a society ensure that all residents have access to equity and justice under the law.
2018 marks the 50th anniversary of three key events that were instrumental in the civil rights movement. In 1968, the Kerner Report, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, and the Fair Housing Act required Americans to examine their actions and reconcile them with their belief in freedom, justice, equality. These historic events showed a potential path for a more inclusive and prosperous America for all, but as I look back, I find myself asking: How much further along are we as a society than we were 50 years ago and what can we learn from the past in order to create a more just and equitable future?
Reflecting on the Kerner Commission Findings
Racial tensions rose in 1967 and built into riots that spanned the nation. As a result, President Lyndon B. Johnson convened the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (known as the Kerner Commission for the commission chair) to determine the exact causes of the unrest. Their 426-page report stated plainly that “racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which had been accumulating in our cities.” The many “ingredients” listed in the findings included:
- Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education, and housing which resulted in communities of color being excluded from the benefits of economic progress;
- Lack of investment creating deteriorating facilities and unmet human needs, especially focused in areas of growing concentrations of impoverished Black communities;
- Crippling poverty impacting the younger generation and enforcing failure;
- Police brutality in the form of harassment and physical and verbal abuse; and
- The frustrations of powerlessness and alienation felt by these communities.
Investing in foundational social services like education creates opportunity for generations.
Several important policy recommendations were put forward to address these issues, including creating more and better jobs, expanding education and ending school segregation, providing pathways out of welfare, and ensuring affordable and safe housing. In addition, the commission addressed other key issues such as police interactions, criminal justice, and even media portrayals of Black Americans.
Especially critical was the underlying theme that change in communities must not be made solely from the outside, but that “people within them should have a voice.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. praised the approach, noting that it was a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.” However, just two months later, Dr. King, the leading crusader for social and racial justice in the United States, was assassinated.
Affordable housing is a critical element of financial stability; the Fair Housing Act promised low-income families the chance at shared prosperity.
As a shell-shocked nation mourned and tried to begin picking up the pieces, there was a glimmer of hope. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Fair Housing Act) was passed to outlaw housing discrimination and foster integration.
These pivotal moments in our history had an immense impact on the nation, informing what should be our responsibility to each other. The right to affordable housing, quality education, and health care. The right to safe and prosperous communities. The right to full privileges for all under the law. The right to equitable opportunity.
50 Years Later – Where Do We Stand?
Without question, those momentous events have led to gains for communities of color. There is a recognition and tolerance of the innate civil liberties of people of color. People of all races can share the same spaces, hold the same jobs, go to the same schools, live in the same communities, but our society remains deeply racially divided.
I am struck, however, by the list of underlying issues originally put forth by the Kerner Commission. If someone read those to me without the historic context, I could easily imagine that they were referring to issues that so many of our communities face today.
Continued prejudice has solidified the systemic practices that have denied equitable opportunity to countless individuals. Wealth creation, job opportunities, quality education, and affordable housing are still out of reach for many. Issues of police brutality abound. Political discourse and action has continued to be exclusive, furthering barriers to success.
Groups – particularly people of color – are only marginally better off than 50 years ago, and are falling far behind white Americans at a faster pace than ever. The wealth gap between white families and their Black and Hispanic counterparts has more than tripled in the last 50 years, according to Federal Reserve data and census data.
Black men fare worse economically than white men, even if they are raised in households with similar incomes and are educated similarly. Most women of color face a double disparity: having lower socio-economic outcomes than men, compounded by a racial identity that has much lower socio-economic outcomes than their white counterparts, even though women’s graduation rates tend to be higher.
Economic inequity also comes in the form of discriminatory consumer and credit practices. Many communities of color have few banking options, leaving space for predatory lending practices. When banks offer services to individuals of color, they are often less affordable, with higher fees and less flexibility.
Investing in creating vibrant communities through social services like affordable housing reduces the barriers that low-income individuals, often people of color, face.
Affordable housing is limited across the country, regardless of race or location. A particularly high burden falls on minorities, who have higher percentages of low-wage work and whose savings are less robust than their white peers. Outright policy discrimination like redlining has consigned minority families to “the ghetto,” recognized by the Kerner Commission as urban spaces of entrenched poverty and acute social disorganization, creating involuntary segregation for people of color. Not only do our “ghettos” still exist, but they’ve expanded well beyond our city limits.
Add to this systemic disinvestment the epidemic of mass incarceration – in which prisons constitute ghettos of another kind – and the structural stripping of wealth and opportunity reaches its peak. Nationwide, there are 44,000 federal, state, and local barriers to reentry into society for returning citizens, including housing, employment, finances, and civil liberties like voting rights. The costs of these barriers are heavy, including diminished long-term accumulated wealth, devastated health outcomes, and eroded relationships.
If this is not the world that we want, we need to ask ourselves the hard questions. For us to be great – better than the day before or 50 years prior – we need to take time to reflect, to learn from what has happened, then and now. We need to think and act differently.
Asking Important Questions to Forge a Path to Shared Prosperity
The solutions laid out by the Kerner Commission are critical to maintaining a strong economy and peaceful coexistence. When all people living in America have the ability to succeed, everyone prospers.
As leader of a mission-driven organization, I believe that it is imperative to consistently question our strategies and tactics and explore what will best serve marginalized communities. If we are going to accelerate the pace of change, we need to start by asking ourselves:
- Why have we not seen more social and economic progress during the last 50 year?
- Have we become too complacent, too siloed?
- Are we too focused on organizational success, rather than broader societal advancement?
- How can we support a broader public policy agenda that creates opportunities for more Americans?
After 50 years, many Americans feel like the promise of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Kerner Report, and the Fair Housing Act have not been fully realized. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that we develop sustainable solutions that move us from a dream deferred to a promise realized.
Each year at Capital Impact Partners, we host an offsite, where all staff comes together to discuss successes and challenges in our work, and strategizes how we can continue to commit to the communities that we serve for greater social impact. This year, we held our offsite in our backyard: Washington, D.C. Being a mission-driven organization, we also sought to live out our values and be “of” our Washington, D.C. communities by getting out from behind our desks and serving those who need the most support.
Gentrification and greater income disparity are just some of the barriers to success that impact low-income, underserved communities across the District. Healthy food access is certainly one of them. Healthy food is vital, promoting our overall health, making it possible to be productive at work and in school, and benefitting healthy and dignified aging in community. Without healthy food access, individuals cannot thrive. According to Capital Area Food Bank, 700,000 residents in the Washington Metro area are at risk of hunger; comprising 16 percent of the region. Compounded on top of hunger are companion issues like heart disease, undernutrition, and obesity.
This year, we volunteered at Capital Area Food Bank, a nonprofit helping residents in our nation’s capital access healthy food. Each year, they provide 540,000 meals to individuals who may otherwise go without. Capital Area Food Bank’s work to support the health of District residents through healthy food directly aligns with our mission, and we were honored to serve with them.
In addition to volunteering with Capital Area Food Bank , we visited investments that we are making in disinvested District neighborhoods. Terrace Manor is a well-known case in Washington, D.C. The 2.2 acre, 61-unit affordable housing property in DC’s Ward 8 was allowed to fall into disrepair by its previous owner, leaving many low-income families in unlivable conditions including extensive mold and physical safety issues within buildings. It sits within the Congress Heights neighborhood, which is isolated from downtown D.C. and has historically been disinvested, with high poverty rates. Capital Impact and partners are enabling the redevelopment of the property, which will create more than 168 units of housing for low-income residents living below 50 percent of the Area Median Income. Additionally, we are proud to have been selected as fund manager for the District’s Affordable Housing Preservation Fund, enabling us to expand our investments in affordable housing across the city.
We also visited the new headquarters of Martha’s Table. Located in the Fort Stanton/Hillsdale area at The Commons at Stanton Square, Martha’s Table works to address poverty by increasing access to quality education programs, healthy food, clothing, and family supports through a variety of innovative methods. Originally located in downtown Washington, D.C., the organization relocated its headquarters to one of Washington, D.C.’s lowest-income, highly marginalized areas based on community needs. The organization thinks broader than food in reimagining what is necessary to support communities. Its “Strong by 8” strategy focuses holistically on early childhood development, the type of innovation needed to address systemic inequities holding back too many of our communities.
Through our support of The Commons – which is also occupied by Community of Hope and an affordable housing complex – Terrace Manor, and other investments across the city, we are committing to empower our communities to break the barriers that hold them back from opportunity and success. Look through our photo essay, which gives a glimpse into our day.
Interested in knowing more about our day getting out into our Washington, D.C. communities? Watch this video to share in our journey.
Non-perishable goods are vital in any pantry, especially for families for whom food is scarce. By supporting healthy food programs like Capital Area Food Bank, Capital Impact supports transformative change for communities that have seen historical disinvestment.
For families across the District, healthy food access can be a struggle. The goods that Capital Area Food Bank coordinates support the health of thousands of Washington, D.C. area residents.
Combatting disparity within District communities empowers marginalized individuals and creates a path to shared prosperity. A pillar of Capital Impact’s work, healthy food is a vital element of a successful future.
Affordable housing in the city is limited. Residents of Terrace Manor endured years of neglect, leading to unsafe living conditions in the affordable housing complex. Due to the conditions, residents were relocated and the building boarded up.
To preserve affordable housing for residents of Ward 8, Capital Impact and partners are investing in the redevelopment of Terrace Manor. Investments like these can help create community stability and provide individuals with one of the most vital resources for success: housing.
The services available at Commons at Stanton Square serve an essential function, providing the residents of the Fort Stanton/Hillsdale community and Wards 7 and 8 with education, healthy food, and housing, removing barriers to success for marginalized individuals and families.
Quality education is critical to driving brighter futures for children and their communities. Martha’s Table uses a “Strong by 8” strategy, which focuses holistically on advancing early childhood development. Through the age of eight, children go through a critical formative period that lays the groundwork for future achievement.
Build with community needs in mind, the new headquarters of Martha’s Table includes ample space to hold community events.
Along with education programs for children up to second grade, Martha’s Table’s new kitchens provide healthy food for community members. Not only are education and healthy food important…
…so is quality time for exercise. The state-of-the-art playground at Martha’s Table gives children the opportunity to stretch their legs and learn from play.
Capital Impact also tool time out to acknowledge our staff members’ commitment to our values. At our offsite, we celebrated “Inclusive,” which anchored the activities of the day.