For Laura Arce, joining MAF feels like a homecoming.
Her new role as a member of MAF’s board of directors brought her—in a symbolic sense—back to the Bay Area, where she was born and raised. For years after college, Laura had spent time elsewhere: on Capitol Hill, in Beijing, working for government agencies or small consulting or even big banks like Wells Fargo, where she currently serves as a senior vice president of consumer banking and lending policy.
But in 2020, when COVID-19 upended everyone’s lives, Laura had a startling epiphany.
“I realized I was missing my roots,” she says. It wasn’t just because Laura couldn’t simply board a plane ride back to her hometown anymore. It was also because her professional career was borne out of the personal—and it was time for Laura to reconnect with her own origin story.
Laura grew up in a Mexican immigrant family in Oakland.
Her parents were nonprofit workers, and she spent a lot of her elementary school years hanging out around the Spanish Speaking Unity Council, a community resource center where her father worked.
Laura cites her father as one of her biggest influences. That’s partly because of the early affinity for community work he instilled in her, and partly because of the fact that, as a child, she often witnessed the ways her own family was excluded from the financial mainstream. Her own grandfather didn’t trust banks. Every time he paid for a bill—phone, water, anything—he would take the bus downtown to its respective office and pay in cash.
“That cost him a lot of time and extra effort. But he did it all of his adult life,” Laura says. It was risky to carry so much cash at once, but her grandfather would rather place his faith in dollar bills than a banking institution. Stamped receipts were carefully saved, and a passbook savings account was rarely touched.
This process seemed “normal” to Laura until she started college at U.C. Berkeley. While Laura’s grandfather was saving stamped paper receipts and letting his bank account gather dust, Laura’s classmates were using credit cards to “magically” pay for their books and supplies. While her roommate’s parents mailed checks to their landlord, Laura was responsible for her own bank account. She was stunned at the incongruities between her experiences and her classmates’.
All these differences were like lightbulb moments for Laura. “Who’s unbanked, who’s banked, who has credit, who doesn’t. There are clear disparities across race, ethnicity, income levels, even geographies,” Laura says. And her family lived at those intersections.
“Even in my case, where I had parents who were educated, and grandparents who had kids who could help them—they were underbanked,” Laura says. “They were outside of the financial mainstream.”
Laura’s position on MAF’s finance and audit committees is a way of honoring her roots.
“I decided I wanted to take everything I learned and built,” Laura says. “And I wanted to be engaged again in more community-based work.” Her role is the kind that marries a certain philosophy Laura has about closing the banking gap for people of color systematically excluded from financial services—like her grandfather.
“It’s not going to be one easy button that we all can press,” Laura says. “It’s going to take the private sector stepping up, and it’s also going to take public policy that supports those goals, as well as the effort of groups like MAF, who are willing to be out there and take more chances.”
And while Laura intends to bring her public policy and private sector backgrounds into board conversations, she’s also hoping to learn from her peers. “I’m excited to be in these meetings and hear all these conversations about how we address really challenging problems,” Laura says. MAF’s work as both a “national leader” and a community-based organization is the kind of perspective she wants to bring to her work outside of MAF, whether it be in government agencies or big banks.
That’s partly because Laura feels a responsibility. Throughout her career in the private and public sectors, Laura has often been one of the few Latina women in the room. “Part of my expertise is also my personal experience,” she says. Not everyone Laura has worked with has grown up in an immigrant community. Not everyone has had family members who didn’t speak English, or who didn’t trust banks. Not everyone will ask, “What are the parts of the communities that are left behind and not being served? And what can I do?”
But Laura will. “I represent that voice,” Laura says. “It’s really important to me, and I take that very seriously.”