February 2024

For AFN, Black History Month is a reminder to take intentional action moving toward our vision of equitable economic justice. Over the past 20 years, the growing community of AFN members continues to pursue their strategies to help move us, in community and nationally, toward this shared vision of economic justice where everyone prospers. Such an economy would have systems, supports, and products in place that maximizes everyone’s talent and provide meaningful educational opportunities. Small business and cooperatives would be invested in and built to deliver work that society values; work would be valued for its importance to the worker, the community, and society, not just shareholders; and investing institutions would define their returns by how well they provide capital equitably for entrepreneurs to be successful small business owners with employees in good jobs in environmentally sustainable ways. In that vision, we would be preparing workers to be resilient, to have skills and resources to weather challenges – in other words, to have good jobs providing enough disposable income and benefits to build security and wealth. This vision sounds like a fantasy – until we remember that much of this was a part of the fabric of the country for many Americans in the post-World War II decades.

But we know it was not for all. Systematically, Black, Latinx, Asian, or Indigenous Americans and women were confronted with barriers, if not outright bars, to participating in that economy and becoming homeowners. Even with legal protections eliminating overt legal racism in policy and practice, the legacies of redlining, racial blockbusting, job and education discrimination, and formal disinvestment in neighborhoods of color remained. And the wealth gap keeps growing. Today, the generational economic head start continues to serve many White persons well economically, but certainly not all, while people of color struggle even as progress is being made. The recent Oscar-nominated documentary, The Barber of Little Rock, explores America’s racial wealth gap through the story of Arlo Washington, a local barber with a visionary approach to a just economy through the nonprofit community bank he founded.

The path forward toward the vision still requires reforming or reinventing lending practices, the connection of pay and productivity, tax policy, governmental income supports including Social Security, universal health and guaranteed income, and investments in our children such as baby bonds. These all can be afforded in a growing inclusive economy with public and private will to support economic security and equitable wealth building across generations.

Philanthropy and its grantees remain the sector that can be persistent, patient, creative, and optimistic. Progress in economic matters is relentless and slow-moving, but it is moving forward. Our narrative efforts must continue to make the case as investment produces results.

If the most passive pathway to security and wealth is homeownership, how does that become a wealth builder for persons of color? To eliminate the anti-Black legacy reflected in the ownership rate disparities, a catalytic and often reparative focus needs to be on housing, both preserving and creating targeted ownership toward wealth building.

With innovation and action, philanthropy can align efforts with willing financial institutions, including CDFIs, credit unions, and banks, to strategically make catalytic investments and loans to result in equitable homeownership rates in communities. The goal does not have a single fix but many. It will require

  • Protecting the homes already owned by Black and Brown owners;
  • Clearing title and barriers to ensure inheritance and intergenerational wealth transfer;
  • Providing reparative funds to increase a new buyer’s purchasing power through down payment grants, housing bonds, subsidies to CDFIs and credit unions to lower interest rates, and more;
  • Investing to clear the way to building starter homes in each market, and
  • Exploring land equity or other innovations to make ownership affordable.

We have and will continue to explore these approaches in our briefs, see our Heirs Property and Small Landlord briefs, at our conference, in regions and in network conversations. AFN’s seven issue areas define strategies – all of which are intersectional in whole or in part with reversing the forces causing the racial wealth gap and moving toward economic justice.

I hope to meet you at the AFN Conference and as part of AFN share ideas and your successes and learnings with your peers for the future.