E93: EFOD Impact: Aligning Financial Support with Community Wellbeing

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

This is the final podcast in a five-part series focused on Equitable Food Oriented Development, a growing movement to promote food projects and enterprises as vehicles for building community wealth, health and self-determination. With us today are two leaders in this movement: urban planner Rudy Espinosa, the executive director of inclusive action for the city in Los Angeles and community activist and organizer, Camryn Smith, the founding member of Communities in Partnership, the Grassroots Organization in the old East Durham, North Carolina.

EFOD Impact: Aligning Financial Support with Community Wellbeing

Interview Summary

So the movement as it's called is a systemic approach to wealth building through community projects. So let me ask, how would you each describe your vision on how EFOD can best be advanced and how do you feel of EFOD can be pathway to lasting and sustainable change in the community. Camryn, why don't you go first.

I think the beautiful thing about EFOD is that it is being led by specifically people of color who have been directly impacted by food issues. For most of our cultural dynamics, we are very circular in how we view the world. EFOD is not just about food; that it's about healthcare. That it is about over policing, under policing. That is about education, that it is also about housing and that it is about entrepreneurship and job development. It is even about the tech boom. Looking at how everything is intersectional with each other and understanding that communities of color, specifically those who have been intentionally divested from that we have the tools, we have the knowhow, how to rebuild and take care of ourselves. And I think EFOD is a way forward in decolonizing that language that we use and those mentalities and those structures that we've created that have actually built and upheld the system of inequality that we're currently experiencing today. I see EFOD as a way of educating people, of having a wake-up call, so to speak and also challenging the business as usual, those that have the power have become comfortable, to challenge in ways to be who we say we are because oftentimes I think we believe a narrative about who we are in this nation. That when you look at what we do and how we operate—it is a very different identity that we have versus the one we want to portray. I challenge us to use EFOD as one of the multiple tools being created by communities who've been intentionally moved to the side, and silenced, and marginalized. I challenge us to basically reclaim our humanity as a nation and to reclaim some sort of moral compass, so we can move forward with some thread of integrity of caring for every single person and every life, so that everyone can have what they need to thrive.

And Rudy?

EFOD is trying to plant seeds, no pun intended, of the practices that we think can really support community in the brilliance that exists in community. And I think people can help spread EFOD by learning about it, by connecting with organizations like Camryn's, and learning about the approach, but not only learning. I think it's also about doing. And the more that we can raise our voices together and demand that the industries that have arisen in front of us—the industry of CDFIs and the industry of philanthropy, or even the industry of the nonprofit sector—that we demand that, hey, we're losing sight of the goal here. And the goal is to work ourselves out of a job. The goal is to eradicate poverty, and to eliminate racism, and to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to prosper. So, I think that that's a good way to spread EFOD.

Now related to this issue are what are known as CDFIs, community development financial institutions and also foundations and philanthropy can be an important set of players here. Can you see them shifting their practices to make capital more accessible?

You know, I will say that related to CDFIs, I may have a heretical perspective. Full disclosure, my organization just applied for CDFI certification, so if the treasury is listening, I hope they don't, you know, judge our application.

So Kelly, I feel like the CDFI industry has lost its way. And I think that generally speaking, a lot of CDFIs have become part of the problem. They become an extension of the financial institutions that have kept capital from us. The examples that I hear often is the cumbersome process to get capital from a CDFI, from, you know, some of the more traditional CDFIs. And I think what happens is that over time as an organization gets bigger, you get more money, more problems and you start to realize that these institutions forget that that they were created as an alternative to the mainstream banking sector.

And they become in existence to protect themselves. I've heard even recently with this pandemic that's going on, a CDFI saying, ‘well, you know, we have to help people. We also have to make sure that we're protecting our systems.’ You know, my view on that is that that's not the purpose of what you're doing. The CDFI movement was meant to be a movement, not an industry where we are here just to protect ourselves and protect our paychecks. You're trying to get capital out to people and we are here to facilitate the brilliance that already exists in our neighborhoods. I think that there's an opportunity to change that and that I hope that this pandemic reveals, you know, much more of how we can get capital deployment in a faster way and there's a lot of hope for CDFIs.

That's why we want to participate in that work because we want to demonstrate a different way. Philanthropy can also help though, Kelly. And I think that from my experience, working on this loan fund for Inclusive Action, philanthropy has stepped up. We've had funders that have stepped up when banks didn't want to lend to us to, to seed our loan fund. Philanthropy came in and said, hey, we'll give you a program related investment. We'll help you out. Let's put some resources behind that because we see the value of this. And what I would hope is that philanthropy also recognizes that their role is to work themselves out of a job. And so, that also means not being afraid to spend down endowments and to take risks. Because I think sometimes I see some of our funding partners also become really risk averse. And they're worried about protecting what they have as opposed to getting resources out to people and working themselves out of a job. And that's really the bus that I'm on is like, we need to work ourselves out of a job because we have a mission and let's accomplish this mission and then find something else to do.

Camryn, what are your thoughts about how institutions like CDFIs and philanthropies can help out with these things?

I 1000% agree with what Rudy has just stated. The biggest issue that I have with CDFIs is their ability to receive grants and to be in competition for philanthropic dollars with communities who actually know what's best for themselves. And oftentimes, the CDFIs have the infrastructure, they have the staff, they have the capacity, they're a finely tuned machine and engine this running, it just kind of runs over communities. And so when small community organizations like myself go to major national funders to get our initiative just to get it off the ground, from a community rooted perspective, oftentimes they lead us back to the CDFI that's in our community. Because that's where the money has been going. I have an issue with that because if that system worked, we would not be experiencing the huge disparities that we experience right now. And so I would challenge CDFIs, to make Rudy's point even more valid, to kind of come alongside of communities and to decolonize their construct and how they actually operationalized business. Because I think in a lot of areas, they have become part of the problem. I think they are trying to kind of pivot, but there's some difficulty because when you've been doing what you've been doing for so long, you create systems that you lean on and that make people feel comfortable and secure in those systems who have the access and power.

But on the flip side of it, yet again, their own data is telling them what they're doing isn't working. And for philanthropy to reach out, number one, to hire program officers that actually, they themselves have been directly impacted—as Darren Walker from Ford Foundation said at Duke a few months ago—and have a very clear conversation about how the money came to be in the first place. And to realize oftentimes, from our viewpoint, we cannot separate our privilege and our access and our resources from the historical context in which that was created. So having a very clear conversation of understanding that people of high wealth and privilege often do not know what's best to remediate the issues of communities that have been impacted by the very system that they've benefited from. And so, having those conversations and being bold and brave. It's not because we want all the wealth to come into our communities. What we want is for everyone to thrive. We want everyone to be strong. We want everyone to have everything that they need and we have more than what we need to make that happen in the United States. It's just that there's a very small percentage of people who are dictating that. And often, they lack the capacity and the intellectual knowledge and the know how to do it. And again, the data is proving what I'm saying to be crystal clear, because if we were doing such a wonderful job and moving in the right direction, we would not have the deep disparities that we have.

Rudy, would you like to comment on this?

I really agree with what you're saying, Camryn. And I find it like really odd that we forget the history behind this work and the origins of these institutions. Like, literally capital was stolen from us. And what we're asking for is just that, you know, can we just have it back please? And so, I find it so odd when CDFIs and even philanthropic partners, essentially hoard the resources in some way. When the intention and the history of this is like, no, this money was taken from us and you have to give it back to where it should go—as opposed to creating systems to decipher, well, I don't know, are you worthy of this grant? Or, I'm not sure if you're too risky to take on this loan. It's just, I don't get it. My team and I always kind of go back to the history of this because it grounds us into the purpose of this work.

Rudy Espinoza is the Executive Director of Inclusive Action for the City and an urban planner with a passion for neighborhoods, entrepreneurism, and financial empowerment. He specializes in designing and managing place-based initiatives, identifying profitable investment opportunities in low-income communities, building private/nonprofit partnerships, and training the working poor to participate in the socio-economic revitalization of their neighborhoods. Rudy holds a Masters Degree in Urban Planning from UCLA and a B.S. in Business Administration.

Camryn Smith is a proud resident of Old East Durham and a community activist & organizer. She has been serving in place-based development work for over 18 years both stateside and abroad. Camryn is a founding member of Communities In Partnership, a grassroots community organizing and education group based in Old East Durham. As Executive Director, she oversees and assists in developing community-based education processes, community development, and implementation and organizing for addressing policy and systemic inequity for communities of color and materially poor peoples within Durham. Camryn’s focus centers around social determinants of health and the intersection of economic development, gentrification, displacement and housing, and food access/justice.