OFN’s Lisa Mensah Amplifies CDFI Message at 2022 National Interagency Community Reinvestment Conference

Sacha Adorno

What were you doing at the start of the pandemic and what role did your organization play throughout the pandemic?

This question kicked off the closing plenary of Reimagine, Reinvest, Rebuild, the 2022 National Interagency Community Reinvestment Conference held online from March 15-17 and sponsored by the Federal Reserve Banks of Chicago and San Francisco, the Federal Reserve System Board of Governors, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and the Officer of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Plenary moderator Anna Alvarez Boyd, who serves as the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System’s senior associate director for research, analytics and engagement, posed the question to panelists Lisa Mensah, OFN president and CEO, and Melissa Jones, executive director of Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative (BARHII), a network of public health departments and others.

Mensah and Jones took us back to when COVID-19 sparked a global health and economic crisis. OFN and BARHII each approached the crisis as first responders — OFN in finance and BARHII in public health — listening to communities and tailoring responses to what communities most needed.

Said Mensah of OFN and its members, “The roots of the CDFI movement really helped us as we worked over the last two years. We’re a group of lenders that has always been about moving capital to where it is most needed. We had an original vision that we wouldn’t just be responsible managers of capital, but we would also call the country to conscious. [An industry founding father] Chuck Matthei said, ‘We must join the Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz managed to put brains in a scarecrow and a heart in a tin man. It is our job to graft a conscience on the capitalist. This pandemic gave us Chuck’s moment to call industries and partners with money to conscious.’”

The conversation threaded from there through the innovations developed and lessons learned for each organization and their networks since March 2020. Mensah looked to the three waves of the pandemic for CDFIs: financial first response with loan accommodations and other relief solutions for CDFI clients; federal partnership when CDFIs outperformed larger banks as Paycheck Protection Program lenders; and new industry allies as corporations looking to invest in proven tools for rebuilding communities during the pandemic and in reaction to America’s long-overdue racial reckoning. 

The panel closed with a reflection on what reimagining must happen to build communities and what leadership in this moment and for the future looks like.

On the question of leadership, both panelists had powerful visions:

Said Jones, “I think of leadership and the great resignation… One way to understand it is that people are choosing what they want to do next. An interesting thing for us to think about as leaders is what kind of leader do I want to be, knowing we need all kinds of leaders… and am I positioned to be that where I am right now? If you aren’t… what’s the right place for you to maximize your potential.”

Mensah added, “The word I’ve been reflecting on that I think is so important for leaders is ‘committed.’ We need to stay committed to the fight against inequality and for inclusion in a country where it’s possible. We can’t let this crisis’s passing dull our sense that leaders need to stay this course. At all levels — local leaders, political leaders, leaders of nonprofits — this can’t be a fad… We need to be committed. That’s the watch word. It’s an honor to lead, and we can’t lose the thread of let’s get this done. It’s a time for holding on to what works.”

Mensah closed with a call to double down on community reinvestment, including a meaningful revision of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and a welcome to new CDFI partners: “I hope what we’ve learned in this pandemic is to go deeper. CDFIs are one big route to helping us do that.”

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