Recently at Heron, we have risen to our feet in a renewed effort to launch everything we have—money, people, connections, values—at our mission to help people help themselves out of poverty. Even after millennia of attention being drawn to the issue (see all major religious texts), poverty is stubborn. And so it takes effort to make a change, a shoulder pushing against the wheel of inevitability that pervades attitudes and approaches to poverty.
I have had four jobs and an extraordinary amount of opportunity in my time at Heron. Taking on “Capital Deployment,” the unification of Heron’s grantmaking and investment activities, I relished the synthesis of twenty years of education and experience in investing, economic development, and writing. I feel an enormous amount of gratitude to the institution for its stalwart dedication to low-income people and communities; to the board for its constant and worthy vision; to my colleagues, especially Clara Miller, for the creativity and enthusiasm that are pushing Heron to the limits of philanthropy; and to the on-the-ground leaders I have met through Heron. It has been a true privilege to follow your inspired and dogged work.
When I started at Heron almost fourteen years ago, I was still reeling from the loss of my mother and the death of my young husband. I spent a fair amount of time wondering, “Why?” It’s a baffling question but impossible to ignore in moments of deep grief. Traveling the South as a Heron program officer, meeting grantees and the people they served, opened my eyes in a new way to the beauty of hard-won joys, love and fellowship that come from people working together – building a house, lending an ear, sharing a meal – even in the face of adversity.
I had a steep learning curve on community economic development and nonprofit organizations. The trips I took to Ruleville, Mississippi or Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico served not so much to check up on the groups, but rather as an opportunity for people there to teach and guide me about the real-world conditions they faced. We recognized on both sides that the personal, tactile experience of meeting in their backyard would enrich our relationship and also make real to a white collar worker from New York City the hard work of economic development that creates lasting change for families and a communities when done with care and persistence.
The events of 2008 threw us back on our heels. The financial crisis and subsequent great recession wiped out many of the gains in closing the wealth gap that we thought we had made. We at Heron could see that many of the thousandsof families who had become homeowners with the help of nonprofit partners survived the collapse. They benefited from a high-quality process of homebuyer counseling paired with affordable homes and responsible financing to create a more resilient home ownership experience. Unfortunately, larger market players had the scope and resources to reach millions, leaving over 12 million Americans on the road to foreclosure.
Now that the dust has settled, we know that the wealth many American households had on paper in their home equity and retirement accounts stood on the weak foundation of easy credit and low interest rates. The wealth was a mirage, and the harsh reality we’re left with is that it will be impossible to make it up in wages because of the decades-long erosion of workers’ income by capital that invests so much more efficiently in technology.
The world has changed, and I’ve changed with it.
Since I’ve been at Heron, I’ve done good work; the foundation has done good work; the organizations we’ve known have done excellent work. And yet the poverty rate has risen by almost 3 percent. Median wages have gone nowhere since 1970 despite increases in business productivity. There has got to be another way to change this economic game in which there are many more losers than winners.
Conventional thinking says that the system of business and profit has only so much to do with people and society, with us. I see it differently. I see the work of business and enterprise as being inherently social. The companies in our economy provide needed goods and services, jobs, and sometimes innovation. We can help them grow and thrive by taking our savings and investment and backing people who have the desire and potential to create value for their customers, the company, and their investors. There is tremendous social utility in investing.
Ignited by this belief and joined in it by Heron colleagues and many others, I’m launching the next phase of my career. My work at Heron has convinced me of the value of opening up impact investing to more than just institutional investors, and so I’m building a business that will empower millions of us to invest, like Heron, in companies and organizations that live up to our values.
When I joined Heron, I was a young widow, emerging from months of crippling emotion, and it has taken me time to realize that there is no helpful reason, no neat explanation for why bad things—poverty, inequality, widowhood—happen to people. Confronting the dark depths of the human experience, what do I do? What do we all do?
We keep going. We pursue life. I’m now remarried and have two young children. My family, colleagues, and many of us all over the world believe that we must fight against the complacency that says there will always be poor people because there always have been. We help each other, and we take a new tack to find a solution. We help each other to make the world a better place because it needs all of us.
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