Video: Jesse Van Tol’s Moving Keynote Speech From The 2023 Just Economy Conference Awards Gala

NCRC Just Economy Conference 2023 —  Recorded March 29, 2023

NCRC President and CEO Jesse Van Tol gave a rousing speech to close out the Awards Gala at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition’s 2023 Just Economy Conference, honoring his late mother in law and drawing connections between the societal ills NCRC works to cure and her amazing accomplishments and tragic passing four years ago.

NCRC video transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. They are lightly edited for style and clarity.

I want to talk to you about a few things tonight and I will not take too much more of your time, but have another glass of wine. Enjoy yourselves. Kick back. No, it’s not it’s not that kind of speech.

So, since 2016, we have facilitated more than $600 billion in commitments through CBAS with banks. Yes, it’s a remarkable accomplishment. And though that’s one of our biggest, most significant impacts, our overall impact has been meaningful and dramatic as well. Just last year, that $600 billion — just last year $205 billion of it came in. That’s investments in low and moderate income communities across the nation from banks like TD and BMO.

We also directly distributed $4.7 million in grants for local capacity building we built or rehabbed nearly 150 homes with plans to build hundreds more. We won a federal court case that will protect housing market data. Our advocacy prompted federal policymakers to draft that new rule to strengthen CRA.

And our research publishing, expertise and innovation helped shape public understanding and prominent coverage in the New York Times, the BBC, NPR, and Bloomberg, and thousands of citations across all media. This year, our growing community development fund will be distributing $175 million in grants to support small businesses in Illinois, that were impacted by the COVID 19 pandemic.

And that’s just a small sampling of what we did last year. You may know us for one thing, because that one thing aligns with your work. But in fact, we do many things. Our portfolio of programs and impact ventures are a unique and powerful mix of research, investigations, media grant making, capacity building training, advocacy, litigation, convening and facilitation, like this conference, all to expand equitable and inclusive access to credit, capital, entrepreneurship, jobs, housing, health, and financial security.

But as large as our impact is, we know it isn’t enough. And we also think that we have just scratched the surface. All of that work and the expertise we’ve developed to do it is the foundation of our next phase.

NCRC is growing and evolving. And that’s why we’re launching today a new five year strategic plan approved by our board of directors earlier this month.

Now, I have been present for a lot of strategic plan launches. They usually start with something along the lines of we have a bold new vision for the future. And for most people hearing an organization talk about a strategic plan is about as titillating as watching Al Gore read the dictionary. Or as watching toenails grow. It’s just not that interesting for most people.

So I’m not going to tell you a lot about the what in our strategic plan, you’re gonna read it online, you can read some of the major goals up on the screen.

It’s more important to me to tell you about the why. And the why is all about the people. NCRC is its people. It’s the board, its members, its staff, it’s all of you.

And I want to tell you a story about one person, someone important to me, that illustrates how our work must grow and must evolve.

I want to tell you about my mother in law. Four years ago, this coming Monday, she died of cancer at the age of 68. And just before she died, I visited her in hospice and my wife Lauren had just shared with her a video the conference from that year where I gave a speech.

And in that speech, I talked about Lauren and Emerson some of you were there for that speech. You heard me give that speech. I talked about where my passion for this work comes from.

And Lauren and I showed her this video. And so I was talking to her she said, “You know it was a wonderful speech, Jesse.” My mother in law said that — she said, “But there’s one thing I really didn’t like.”

Those are the last words you want to hear from your mother in law. Really didn’t like it. What was it, I asked? She was indignant, said:

“You forgot to mention me.”

And so I promised her I would in my next conference speech. But I never got the chance to give that speech in time for her to hear it. And in the meanwhile, the pandemic intervened. So four years later, here it is. This one’s for you Bonita.

So: Meet Bonita. Bonita Williams was smarter than most. Born in Calvert County, Maryland, her family moved to Baltimore when she was young. She was a National Merit Scholar, the first in the group of Black women to go to Lake Forest College in Illinois. And she went on to receive multiple advanced degrees. She got two masters, one in urban and regional planning, one from the University of Pittsburgh, and one in journalism. from Boston University.

She worked in urban planning and as an administrator in the city of Boston, she worked for the OMB. She led volunteer services for Paul Sarbanes’ 1982 reelection campaign.

Eventually, she undertook doctoral studies at Howard University, where she taught computer science for 20 years. Any Howard alums in the room tonight? Let’s test this out. H-U? [AUDIENCE: You know!] See, they know the drill.

And she raised my wife, Lauren, mostly by herself. And when Emerson came, she was a doting grandmother. She spoiled both of them rotten, gave them a wonderful life. And to boot, among all of these accomplishments, she started her own record company. She had varied interests, she did many things.

In other words, Bonita was the epitome of black excellence. She studied harder, worked more, and did more than most people do, in two full lifetimes.

She built a wonderful life. But for all of her academic and professional success, for all of her excellence, it didn’t protect her when she got cancer. And in fact, Bonita had three different types of cancer multiple times in her life, and she experienced medical racism.

The last time her cancer recurred, the doctors didn’t believe her when she told them she thought her cancer was back. And it took months to get her tested, and back on therapy.

And what I have struggled to understand, and what my wife has struggled to understand, is the why. It’s a natural question when you lose a loved one, especially early in life, especially a mother, my wife’s mother. Why did this happen?

Her family had never had a history history of cancer before they moved to Baltimore, but she died of it. And so did her brother. And her sister survived breast cancer.

There may be lots of answers to the question of why. Probably none of them are satisfactory. But here is one understanding that I keep returning to. I want to show you a map of Baltimore.

This is a redlining map of Baltimore. And our research team took this map of Baltimore, the areas in red were redlined areas. Areas in blue or green were not redlined. And they’ve noted some demographic and health statistics. Now, Bonita lived near Druid Hill, a neighborhood that was initially white but became black, surrounded by redlined communities.

Earlier in the day, Jelani Cobb talked about the many different ways in which housing markets were unfair. Her neighborhood experienced blockbusting, while neighborhoods around it experienced redlining. Today the life expectancy in that neighborhood she lived is 70 years. Compare that to white areas that were not redlined where the life expectancy is 86 years.

It sickens me to tell you that Bonita’s age was in line with the life expectancy of the neighborhood she grew up with. Many of the people she grew up with, died at about the same age on average. There’s a reason researchers have found that your zip code is more predictive of a whole range of life outcomes than your genetics. So there’s lots of explanation for why life expectancy might differ in different places. Turns out that racism is toxic for your health.

But one of the reasons surely has to do with the history of the place. And the history of land use policy in this country, we have placed environmental pollutants in black neighborhoods and important neighborhoods, we like locate good community facilities, hospitals, clinics, in some communities and not in others. You can find healthy food in some places, but not in other places. And it is very clear that there’s a relationship between these issues. It’s no accident that many neighborhoods that were red line 100 years ago, today lack resources, and that the health outcomes in those neighborhoods are worse.

And I don’t believe that it was by accident that Bonita and almost all of her siblings got cancer. And we know that redlining and segregation was not just a phenomenon that has to do with banks. Institutional racism means that many institutions were implicated in the creation of the system that we have today, governmental, academic, corporate and medical institutions alike.

Inequality is a system. And our system is one system that exploits people on the basis of the race on the basis of their class, and in many, many other ways, places different value on certain lives over others.

And if you think the system is broken – No. Every system is perfectly designed to produce the outcomes it produces. I’ll say that again, every system is perfectly designed for the outcome it produces.

And this is the outcome it produces. Look at this map: 16 year difference in life expectancy. Depending on which neighborhood you grew up in many different experiences based on where you live. These are the outcomes it produces.

Jelani Cobb also mentioned that people who use the phrase excess death, that’s a euphemism, meaning that but for the fact that they were black, they would have lived.

This system killed Bonita almost 20 years earlier than other people who grew up in other neighborhoods. Now look at her photo, and tell me that that’s okay. Would you tell me that that’s okay? It’s not okay. It’s not right.

Can I hear, that ain’t right? [AUDIENCE: That ain’t right!] Hey, alright. Now, that used to be an NCRC chant, “That ain’t right.”

It’s not right that some people get to live longer, have better outcomes in other ways accumulate more wealth, based on the many different ways in which this system of inequality produces violence against people who live in those neighborhoods.

And that’s why when we set out to write our strategic plan, we knew we had to go deeper, but also that we had to go broader. We have to get deeper into places where we can make a difference. We have to have more impact at the local level. We have to work with our members to transform places, as we transform the lives of the people that we serve.

We have to make sure that that neighborhood that Bonita grew up in in Baltimore becomes a neighborhood of opportunity.

We have to make sure that what we saw in Memphis never happens again. I grew up just 10 minutes from where Tyre Nichols died. And as tragic as that was, we also have to understand that that was not just one horrific incidents of police violence, but part and parcel of a system that commits violence against people, especially black and brown people in all kinds of ways.

Police violence is the tip of the iceberg, not the whole thing. What lies below the surface is bigger and more pernicious. And we have to address inequality comprehensively in both urban and rural places. We have to make sure that we don’t get lost in the smokescreen of racial animosity and division, that we understand that inequality affects us all those some more than others, and that most of us are in it together. We’ve got to go deeper with our work as well.

But we also have to go broader. We work with and work on banks to reverse the effects of historic redlining. But as I said, redlining was not just a banking phenomenon. And as part of our new strategic plan, we will work to drive institutional change, not just with banks, but with all of the institutions that can transform the places where we live, and the people within them.

And that gets to our mission. I hope it’s a message that you will remember and embrace. And it’s crystal clear, we have to make adjust economy national priority, and a local reality. To do that our programs and investment priorities will be refined and laser focused on a set of five goals, going to build the will to overcome economic inequality and racial inequity.

We’re going to organize, train and support a powerful and influential coalition.

We’re going to drive institutions to invest, serve and support the creation of wealth for people in communities with low wealth. And we’re going to invest in impact ventures to build wealth, and assets for low wealth, people and communities.

And finally, we’re going to strengthen our own capacity to achieve and sustain that work.

And we know that’s meaningless talk, unless it produces outcomes on the ground and communities across the nation. And for the people who live in them. None of what we say do or do matters if it doesn’t help close the racial wealth divide and help more people in more communities access opportunities that since the nation’s founding had been distributed on evenly and unfairly, the inequity can’t go on. And that urgency to change course drives our work and our vision to solve America’s historic racial and socioeconomic wealth, income and opportunity divides.

Our belief in the promise of a just economy is audacious, not ridiculous. We are rigorous, not self-righteous. We are pragmatic, not dogmatic. And we are working at a scale of billions and trillions of dollars, not only to reinvest in neighborhoods and families, but to reinvent America and reboot the American dream.

America could and should do more than promise. It’s time to deliver for all and for real. That’s what we’re working on it NCRC so thank you for being here tonight to celebrate how far we’ve come and also for recognizing how much further we need to go. Thank you for joining us in that cause.

And let me end on a message of hope and say this:

There is an America out there that is worth fighting for. For a future where Bonita lived another 20 years, a future where Tyre Nichols is still alive, the kind of future we can be proud to hand down to the next generation.

But we have to go and build it. We have to be persistent and insistent. We have to work in coalition. We have to build each other up, not tear each other down. And that future will be built on inclusion and opportunity for all.

Now I have to address something and here I will channel Auntie Maxine.

I have never used the expression woke capitalism myself. But if the alternative is slept capitalism, then ah, that’s not for me. We can’t keep sleeping while our brothers and sisters get shot in the street. And we can’t keep sleeping while the wealth divide keeps growing and we can’t keep sleeping while we destroy the planet, wreaking havoc on people and communities. We can’t keep sleeping while people are dying far too young. We can’t keep sleeping. And we cannot – I can NOT with this “woke-capitalism” bullshit. No way. You feel me?

Now I want you to join me. Because we have to stand up for what we believe in and we have to do it together. And because this is a team effort, I seriously need to recognize some folks. Far more important than what we do is the who and the how. And the who is all of you, it’s every one of you. And that is how we do it in coalition. That’s who we are. So when I call you out, please stand and be recognized. And please stay standing. If you can’t stand, raise your arms and raise your fists.

I want to celebrate, first and foremost, the NCRC board of directors, without whom this organization would have failed long ago. Please stand and be recognized. And please stay standing.

And as a personal point of privilege, I want to recognize my mom and dad, Lois and Hubert and the people who raised me would not be the person I am. But for them.

I want to celebrate the NCRC staff without whom this organization cannot succeed. They are tireless, please stand and be recognized. And please stay standing. I want to celebrate the NCRC members, without whom we would have no power and influence.

We do it for you, please stand and be recognized. I want to celebrate the NCRC funders and supporters, without whom we would have no resources to have staff and members to support please stand and be recognized.

And finally, I want to celebrate all of you, the future members, the future funders, the future partners, please all of you stand and be recognized, and if you can’t stand, raise your fists. So everybody should be standing. If you’re not standing. I don’t know what’s wrong with you. But I’ll see you later.

Now that I’ve tricked you into standing, I have a little exercise for you stay standing. I’ve gotten jealous of Katy and Bob over the years. Bob as our last board chair, he always had “Roll Tide” and people yell Roll Tide. And then Katie would do O H, I O. So we’re going to start a new chant tonight. And it’s a competition. We’re going to split the room in half. So on this half, we’re gonna say N C. And when you say that this half is gonna say RC and we’re gonna do it three times. And then we’re gonna roar clap and make some noise. And whoever’s louder wins or I need to hear you.

I need them to hear you in the White House. And on Capitol Hill.

I need Bonita to hear you up in heaven.

Here we go. On this side, NC? RC! NC? RC! NC? RC!

And that’s how you fool your audience into giving you a standing ovation every single time. Thank you go have fun. We love you.

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