WHEN I WAS an undergrad at Emerson College 22 years ago, I started a nonprofit called Mass VOTE, which I hoped would change the culture of voting in the state. I hadn’t planned on becoming a community organizer, but during that time I discovered that bringing folks together to help them find their power was a perfect fit for me.
Shortly thereafter, I was hired by Harry Belafonte to work in marginalized communities to reduce youth violence. And that led me to working with gang members. Our intention was to teach MLK-inspired nonviolence techniques to these young people. But while working in that space, I learned much more about the deeper roots of violence in disadvantaged communities.
To put it simply, the role of a gang is to create jobs and a source of revenue in places where safe economic opportunities and resources are lacking. Where you don’t have access to legitimate work and financing, underground economies, often based on illegal transactions, will inevitably thrive.
At some point, I realized that no amount of nonviolent training would address the more profound issues these communities faced. Instead, we needed to link people to resources, low-interest lending, and meaningful work.
And here’s the thing: When you offer gang members a legal way to make money, most of them will take it.
The young people we worked with, for example, wanted to capitalize on the organic food trend. With city support, we helped them acquire abandoned land where they could grow food. Eventually, they opened their own coffee shop called New Harvest.
My two decades of community work highlighted how capitalist structures often leave behind so many people. But I was fighting from the outside, and that limited my impact.
Eight months ago, Richard Marotta, CEO of Berkshire Bank, hired me as a consultant. Marotta wanted to build an authentic network of community banking from Boston to Philadelphia. Marotta, was a leader at KeyBank when the company decided to become intentional about diveristy. He appreciated the benefits it brought to the bank’s culture, and wanted to do the same for Berkshire.
At first, I was unsure how much I would be allowed to challenge banking status quo. I was concerned that my worldview — that systemic change was necessary — wouldn’t be welcome because Boston’s power circles generally didn’t embrace my way of thinking. And I questioned whether Berkshire was truly committed to collaborating with the most marginalized people to understand how a community bank could help close the crushing wealth gap in this nation. Few Americans can handle a $400 surprise bill for an emergency room visit; the wealth gap between whites and minorities nationwide is more than $100,000; and less than three percent of VC funds go to minority businesses.
I also wondered how I would fit into the corporate world. One of the biggest challenges to diversity and inclusion is the fact that we live in a society created by a certain group of people to benefit that same group of people, to the exclusion and detriment of others. Banking as an industry is full of structural and implicit bias. I’ve always been a leader who stood up for those who didn’t have a place at the table. Did Berkshire Bank sincerely care about these folks?
What I found was an organization willing to step into the arena, listen to the hopes and needs of people in the neighborhoods, and meet them where they are. At an event launching Berkshire Bank’s community programming, Marrotta proclaimed, “While I am a product of hard work, I am also an outcome of privilege and I hope to leverage the privilege I have been given to provide opportunities to all.”
It takes courage to recognize one’s good fortune and use it to help others.
Evolved banking can break down barriers to connect all people to capital. Community banks in particular have an opportunity to serve people often overlooked or dismissed by mainstream banks. A bank’s willingness to listen to what people need, instead of what we believe they want, can make a difference in people’s lives.
Good banking also depends on recognizing the systems that have historically taken advantage of communities, and searching for new models that lead to investment in all neighborhoods. That, in turn, will continue to strengthen the region economically, benefiting all those who choose to live and work here.
In short time, Berkshire’s new relationships have triggered a flow of products, services, and capital to those who, for years, have been denied access to basic banking services.
But getting involved with a community takes more than that. Rather than opening more bank branches, or simulating authenticity through coffee shop-like branches, we plan to open community spaces where small businesses and nonprofits can hold events and people can work. A pilot program in Dudley Square will offer the first open co-working space in the neighborhood. This co-working space will include community programming. Berkshire will also offer financial planning services.
Something as simple as offering low interest loans to startups founded by people of color (known as the Runway Project, first developed in Oakland, Calif.) will build strong local economies in a responsible and accountable way.
What Berkshire Bank is doing matches the increasing demand for more responsible capitalism. Young Americans care more about the good they do in the world than profit and expect the companies they work for to do the same. According to a study highlighted in Forbes Magazine, 40 percent of young people have chosen to work for socially responsible companies. They are even willing to take a pay cut to work for a company they believe in. Seventy percent of millennials say they are more likely to stay at a company with a strong environmental agenda.
And this week, against all odds, I officially joined Berkshire Bank as an EVP.
In this political and economic climate, I believe that “going corporate” to help people makes perfect sense. As an old hand in public advocacy, I am hopeful that community banking will help get valuable capital flowing downstream so that all of us, and I really mean all of us, can thrive.
Malia Lazu is an EVP at Berkshire Bank and founder of The Urban Labs.