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Meeting Communities Where They Are: Rethinking Risk for Equitable Impact

This post is part of a series on LIIF’s commitments to racial equity. For more on our journey to becoming an anti-racist organization, read “Deepening LIIF’s Commitments to Equitable Communities.

LIIF has been on a journey to deepen its commitment to being a responsible capital partner that invests in initiatives working to reverse the persistent and deep inequities faced by communities of color, with an intentional focus on Black and Latino communities.

As an immigrant from Mexico, I recognize our communities have unique histories, but share similar economic and social conditions – both in terms of inequities and also achievement in income, education and entrepreneurship, to name a few. The power of our solidarity and coordination is limitless, and LIIF is committed to being an ally in this fight.

In our field of community development, we often hear organizations say they are “meeting communities where they are.”  Too often this has meant imposing paternalistic so-called solutions to fix perceived deficits in communities, such as focusing on individual behavior instead of on the systems intentionally designed to limit our advancement. What meeting communities where they are needs to mean is that organizations partner with communities of color and low-income communities to bring our communities’ own solutions to fruition.

LIIF is focused on being a part of this change. Most recently, we are expanding our work from technical assistance to more flexible underwriting guidelines, which are currently being piloted through our Black Affordable Housing Developer Initiative; and we are partnering with community-led developments in the majority Latino Coachella Valley in rural California.

Communities of color and low-income communities are innately creative and resourceful – and take deep risks daily to survive. To truly meet our communities where they are, community development financial institutions (CDFIs) – including LIIF – must match this level of investment by leaning into and pushing back on traditional notions of risk. We must be as creative and resourceful with our field’s and organizations’ platforms and influence. We have a lot of power to advance change in the capital and political systems in which we operate. We cannot claim to be allies unless we utilize that influence.

Becoming a True Ally for Impactful Change

Through our FY21-24 strategic plan, LIIF has committed to prioritizing communities of color and to becoming a fully anti-racist organization. To guide the organization in this journey, we have identified four principles to being an anti-racist organization and outlined the goals to keep us on track.

This work is deeply personal to me because of my experience of being a Latina and an immigrant in this country. Despite any of my or my family’s gains in education, income or otherwise, like other people of color, we still experience systemic racism and limitations on our advancement daily.  For example, our lack of inherited generational wealth to lean on for education or homeownership leads us to debt or holds us back altogether, we are financially responsible for our elderly parents who have no retirement savings, and our personal and professional networks still keep us most at risk for Covid-19 infection.

Foundational to making the systemic changes needed to truly reverse inequities for communities of color is our first principle: “Seek out, listen to and respond to the voices of communities and people of color.” This is the “why” behind LIIF’s strategic pivot and also the “why” of my transition to LIIF just over a year ago.

Re-Assessing Risk

I made the decision to join LIIF as its Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) to contribute my deep commitment to the organizational mission, my lived experience of serving and fighting for Black and Latino, and low-income communities, and my first-hand experience of creatively navigating the very systems our organization seeks to address.

Low-income people, people of color, and immigrants have uniquely transferable skills into community development and equity work that cannot be taught in an academic setting. Leading LIIF to lean into and reimagine risk is not theoretical for us. In many ways, people of color at LIIF and in the community development field have been training for this our entire lives.

From an early age, like most immigrant children, I was exposed to more than my non-immigrant peers. I always knew that my family were immigrants and that we were undocumented. I knew not to speak English when we passed through border inspections because they would know we were not tourists. I knew that my parents and siblings went to work at 5 a.m. and sometimes did not make it home until 10 p.m. I also knew that because of our status, there was always the risk that they would not make it home.

I also knew how fortunate I was. My parents and five older siblings sacrificed and pitched in to ensure we had our basic needs met and emotional support. One of the lessons I remember most was in 1992. I was 9 years old and can recall sitting in a large conference room in downtown San Francisco. We were told that our family’s application for legal permanent residency was complete, but due to the long waitlist, it could be years before our case was heard. I recall my mother asking if there was any way to expedite the application; the attorney said no. My older brother asked what were to happen if during this time, any of us were to be apprehended by la migra? The attorney explained since we had a joint application, it would put all of us into deportation proceedings, which would bump us to the front of the line for a hearing. As the conversation turned to another topic, my brother suddenly asked: Does the same apply if I turn myself in?

Only our attorney was shocked at this question. Brainstorming creative workarounds to overcome challenges was our way of life. She advised my brother to not do this. There was a heavy risk that he would be deported immediately and that it would all hinge on the discretion of the officers in the moment. While yes, it would bump up the rest of the family, there was a risk he would be left in Mexico, forced to leave behind his American college education he was close to completing and the future opportunities that would come with it. That yes was all it took for my brother to catch a Greyhound bus to the southern California border, walk into the border patrol office and request to be apprehended.

This gargantuan risk paid off in our favor: my brother was cited and released at the border by incredulous officers. We appeared together before an immigration judge a few months later, and we were all granted legal status. Since then, we have been able to live our lives with more ease, but not without struggles.

I offer this story as just one example of the many hurdles my family, like so many other families of color, immigrant families and low-income families, must work to overcome and the great risks we take. So many times, even our mere existence risks our livelihood – whether we are an undocumented immigrant or a Black man stopped by the police. No matter how many hurdles we overcome, it does not put us in the clear. The unfair reality is that our communities consistently face deep inequities when it comes to housing, economics, education and – as we’ve all seen most recently in the pandemic – health.

Latinos, Black and Indigenous people are exponentially less likely to be homeowners or have generational wealth, more likely to face housing and economic instability and be infected or die from Covid-19. This is not because of inferior personal choices or behaviors of ours, but rather the systemic inequities and racism we face daily.

Yet still, we continue to show up for ourselves and others, demonstrate great strength and resilience, and make advancements despite these inequities. Imagine if these inequities didn’t exist. Some are threatened by this possibility, but true equity for all would greatly benefit our country. CDFIs must take on more actual risk and push back on perceived risk to truly meet communities where they are.

Filling Our Gaps

This is why LIIF is investing in sponsors and developments that we may have previously deemed “too risky,” such as the SEED School of Los Angeles, which is a boarding high school that will provide students experiencing homelessness or foster care with career readiness in transportation infrastructure, STEM and the humanities.

More broadly, to institutionalize this and guide us, we are developing a new impact framework that will guide our lending and programmatic decision-making with a focus on advancing access, improved outcomes, and power and agency for people and communities of color.

If LIIF and our field are truly committed to fighting for racial equity, reversing systemic inequities and being allies to communities of color and low-income communities, we have an obligation and a responsibility to both take on greater risk and to challenge notions and policies of perceived risk associated with our communities. We are proud of what we have accomplished in the past 35 years, but LIIF has more to do. We’re working to engage in new partnerships with organizations that align with, can inform, and will lift this racial equity work.

Interested in partnering? Let’s talk:

Racial Equity