by Director of Asset Building Programs Lucy Arellano
Family wealth and community ownership are key for political power and, ultimately, a national movement for equity for communities of color who have for far too long been oppressed by systemic barriers. Although we are all so busy doing difficult, impactful work, it’s vital to make time to learn from each other, share our successes, troubleshoot our challenges and, most importantly, to work in coalition across our communities to fight against and change these oppressive systems. This was the premise for MEDA’s June 4th ¡VIVA! Convening on wealth and power-building strategies for immigrant, LMI and POC communities. This impactful day entitled, “Adelante: Moving California Families Forward with Financial Capability” brought hundreds, some traveling a few blocks away, with others joining from across the country.
I’ve been the Director of Asset Building Programs at MEDA for four years, but, like many of you, this is my life’s work. How do I define “this”? This is not just about me; it’s not just about MEDA. This is all of our strengths, identities, histories, oppressions, sacrifices, potential, victories … all rolled into a movement. This is a movement to confront and overcome inequities, and build wealth, ownership and power for our communities of color, immigrant communities and historically low-income communities. Let me say that again: This is a movement to build wealth, ownership and power.
I’ll admit that this theory of change language is somewhat new for me. I’m used to talking about housing, education, career pathways, policy and advocacy, budgets, credit scores and emergency savings. I’m used to talking about strategic plans, client-service agreements, grant outcomes, one-year goals, three-year goals and five-year goals. And, while all important, I have found myself feeling frustrated, disheartened and wondering …
Why are Latinx, African-American, and immigrants’ college graduation rates and entrepreneurship the fastest growing, yet we’re not building wealth at scale?
Why are our credit scores 25 percent lower than Whites and Asians?
Why are women and LGBTTQQIAAP community members even more affected?
Why are we being displaced from our homes at the highest rates?
The “why” is because those with wealth, ownership and power have designed systems to keep it this way. It doesn’t matter how many degrees we have or how many hours we work: We haven’t been fighting apples to apples. At the ¡VIVA! Convening, MEDA’s Chief Executive Officer Luis Granados exclaimed, “Current investment does not match the scale of the problem” and that “Services alone are not enough.” Having built my career in direct services, this has been a tough pill for me to swallow. But it’s true that generational asset building at scale for our communities requires true systems change. It takes an ecosystem to affect this change, and at the core of all of these, it’s us, it’s our parents, our children, our neighbors, our allies.
At the convening, Vice President, Policy & Advocacy of UnidosUS Eric Rodriguez said, “It’s clear when you have power … and when you don’t” and that “Advocacy becomes a vocation because of lived experiences of the poor and oppressed.” This resonated with me because, as I mentioned, this is my life’s work. Yet, I didn’t initially plan it this way. Through my family’s experiences, I came to learn what true generational asset building means, and how wealth, ownership and power-building is the way to achieve it.
My family hails from a small town in Michoacan, Mexico, where my parents didn’t have an opportunity to attend school or make much money, but, like your predecessors I’m sure, they are hardworking, resourceful and risk-takers. Elena Chavez Quezada, of the San Francisco and Chavez Family Foundations, speaks about her own parents as visionaries. And that’s exactly the right word. In 1984, I was a year old, and the youngest of six. My parents decided to pursue opportunity in the United States, and we immigrated to California. We had no financial assets, but we had less tangible ones, and we had each other. It was tough: Until I was about the age of 10, we were undocumented and we struggled financially, linguistically and with navigating systems. During this time, like many of my peers, I grew up knowing and worrying too much for my age. Then-Governor Pete Wilson and Prop 187 were threatening to have me removed from school, and my parents from their worksites. Also during this time, my parents started a business, purchased a home, my five older siblings worked in the mornings and went to school at night, and I had a new baby sister. My family taught me that despite the racist and sexist systems stacked against me, I had a support network that allowed me to do and be anything I wanted. Our trajectory was not without its ups and downs: Our finances were at times a disaster, but because we owned a home, for example, we were able to stay in place. By the time my younger sister and I went to college, my parents were able to fully pay for my education. The wealth opportunities I have as a result of not having student-loan debt is a game-changer. All of my siblings have successful careers and, as a result, my 75- and 80-year-old parents, who have no retirement plans, can live the rest of their lives with dignity. My nieces and nephews have now launched their own careers and studies with not just exponentially fewer barriers, but with wealth, ownership and power that allow them to navigate systems. They have savings and homes, instead of debt and uncertainty. At the convening, Gabriel Villareal, Policy Advocate at Opportunity Fund also shared how his grandfather owned a business in the U.S. two generations ago, and that is how his father and he were able to pay for school and advance their life goals.
When MEDA shifted to focusing on life goals, I asked my parents what theirs were. They were both clear, and their aspirations had little to do with themselves. They dreamed that their future generations could be and do anything they wanted in life. My parents have known what Senior Program Officer, Economic Security at the Walter & Elise Haas Fund Padmini Parthasarathy shared at the convening: “Economic success is a social determinant of health.” Which got me realizing that everything that I enjoy now, my parents began sacrificing for decades ago.
That’s when I thought:
What am I doing today to honor their legacy, and continue this for my future generations?
What are my 10-year plans? My 50-year plans? My 100-year goals?
As visionaries, my parents have suggested tangible strategies, such as instead of just purchasing a home, I begin purchasing apartment buildings and build a real estate portfolio. That instead of vacationing three times a year, I diversify my income and retire early. That instead of advocating to powerful politicians, I help community members and allies get elected. And, most importantly, that instead of just focusing on myself, I invest in others and work in coalition to scale opportunities and support networks for our community. At the core of all of this is, once again, wealth, ownership and power. At the convening, former District 6 San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim spoke about all of these same strategies in a different way. She said that “Organizers must have systems thinking,” “You must influence insiders,” and that “Consistency and persistence are needed, despite many losses.”
I’m sure my history sounds similar to many of yours. I don’t share this all as a testament to my family’s accomplishments; rather, I offer this as merely one example of the many within our community when we’re organized and strategic. Imagine what our community can do in the generations to come by scaling this in an intention way. Some of this may not sound as familiar to you, but, at the convening, Executive Director Roberto Alfaro of HOMEY put it like this: “If these issues haven’t come to your community yet, they will.”
How do we focus on our future together?
How do we scale this work?
How do we work as communities, not just as individuals?
We must be bold and unrelenting. We must use our power and privilege to embrace risk, especially for others who cannot. Think about how much diversity and power sits within our communities and our networks. We must harness this and embed ourselves in positions of power within existing systems. We can then break down and change oppressive systems by simultaneously working from within, rather than just trying to do so from the outside. This takes wealth, ownership and power.
Patrick Lencioni says, “A core value is something you’re willing to get punished for.” What core values are you willing to be punished for? I’m willing to be punished for my community.
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