On April 9, the Students & Alumni of Color at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School honored me with the Edward P. Bullard Award. I was deeply grateful, and shared this message with my peers.
Thank you so very much. It means a great deal to me to receive this award.
I remember organizing the 2nd symposium back in 1996.
The number of attendees at that event may not have been as great as today’s. But I remember feeling the same energy and excitement over the wonderful opportunity to step back from our busy student lives and meet with alumni – to hear their stories, to learn from their experiences, and to gain some perspective about our own experiences here at the Wilson School.
And now we’re here, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Students and Alumni of Color coming together. And for that we owe Ed Bullard and Jeffrey Prieto and John Templeton and all the MPA students who organized these weekends a great deal of gratitude for their vision and hard work that got us here today.
Soon after I got the call from Renato Rocha and Gilbert Collins about the Bullard Award, I reflected back on my experiences here and how they shaped my career and ultimately my life.
Thankfully, I was able to forget all the painful and sleepless nights from working on econ problem sets or writing five-page policy memos or cramming for this or that exam. I’m really super thankful that my brain was able to erase all those memories so that I could focus on all the good stuff.
I’m sure all alumni in this room can say the same, right? Well, fine — I’ll speak for myself.
But earlier today I walked into a Bowl downstairs – and for the first time I did not get nervous. My heart rate didn’t go wacky, my leg didn’t get restless. Really. After 20 years I was able to just sit back and enjoy being here at Princeton. (Yeah. It took me that long to get over it.)
Thinking back on my life, I was able to trace much of my current work at the Mission Asset Fund to what I learned here at the Wilson School.
Professor Uwe Reinhardt, for example, he opened my eyes to the horrific injustices of people falling prey to predatory lenders in the financial marketplace. His class was about financial management, which was a little boring and dry. But in his subtle way, he would insert stories in his lectures about how lenders manipulate loan terms to load borrowers with extra fees and costs. I remember feeling disgusted over how easy it was to rip people off – and angry that lenders could get away with taking people’s hard-earned money with impunity.
Reinhardt’s stories allowed me to see finances not as dull but rather as a social justice issue that could materially improve people’s lives.
And there’s Professor Alejandro Portes. He taught me a very important lesson, one that is actually the cornerstone of Lending Circles, a program that we offer at the Mission Asset Fund to help hardworking families build and improve their credit.
Portes taught me to see and appreciate the incredible economic activity that happens informally.
We see it all over the world. The street vendor selling tamales on busy street corners. Or the day laborer working odd jobs.
He showed us that what the street vendors do, the economic activity they generate in the informal economy – while invisible, it is still very similar to the economic activity that happens in the formal economy. It’s not less than, not criminal, not inferior, but the same – with the only difference being that economic activities in the formal economy have laws and regulations to protect and secure and make them visible to the broader economic systems.
Our clients – largely unbanked, low-income Latino immigrants – have a time-honored tradition of coming together in groups to lend and borrow money from each other. In Mexico, these are known as tandas or cundinas, and they go by many, many different names throughout the world. These loans are informal, based largely on trust.
But nobody really knows about them except the people involved. Nobody knows that participants actually pay these obligations first, before anything else. Really, the financial industry has never appreciated the fact that tandas are a phenomenal financial vehicle – helping participants manage the intense income fluctuations in their lives.
Why is that? Because tandas are informal, taking place outside of the financial systems.
They’re invisible. But at MAF, we changed that.
We created a process to make this activity visible by getting people to sign promissory notes, allowing us to service loans and report payment activity to the main credit bureaus, Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. And thereby we’re helping our clients start a credit history and improve their credit scores.
The program works. In 2014, Gov. Brown in California signed a law recognizing lending circles as a force for good. So, as you can imagine — and I can say this in this room of full of fellow policy folks – getting a bill enacted into law is pretty cool. I was excited.
I was proud of myself for getting this done!
I was flying high as a kite when this happened. But In time I realized that this achievement was no accident. You see, I’m the product of the Public Policy & International Affairs (PPIA) program, a program dedicated to increasing the number of students of color in public service.
I did my Junior Summer Institute here, at the Wilson School in 1994. And because of that experience and support and people I met, I was able to see myself here at the School as a full time student, getting an MPA, and building a career in public service.
It was no accident. I’m doing exactly what this program was designed to accomplish.
Through the years, the PPIA program has built an incredible cadre of professionals of color, working in public service. It’s wonderful. We can see it in this room right now. Look around.
It’s incredible to see a room full of beautiful and talented and passionate people dedicating their careers – their lives – to public service. Half of MPA students of color come through the PPIA pipeline.
But when you consider the enormous problems we face as a nation: from the lack of public trust in our institutions and leaders; to the appalling inequalities from wealth to income to educational opportunities; to the disenfranchisement of millions of people from electoral process; to the devastating effects of climate change… well, you know we can go on for hours listing all the issues we face as a nation.
The point is that there are not enough professionals of color in public service confronting these issues.
I look around this room and I’m amazed with everyone here. But frankly, I don’t think that there’s enough of us. There is simply not enough people in the trenches that come with different perspectives, different ideas, different life experiences that can add significant insights to solutions to our nation’s problems. The number of people in this room, quite frankly, should be double or triple.
While I love that the Wilson School has made these weekends a tradition. I think the time has come for the School to do more. The status quo is simply not acceptable anymore. We need to double down and widen the pipeline. We need more students of color getting exposed to careers in public service. We need more students graduating with MPAs. We need more professionals of color working to create the America we deserve.
As you know, the urgency on this issue is not new.
Many times, we’d talked about diversity and inclusion and getting more students of color in this School. But to me it hit home last June. I was getting ready for work the morning of June 18, listening to the news about the horrific massacre of nine people in Charleston South Carolina. The shooting happened the day before, during an evening prayer service at the AME Church.
The senior pastor of the church, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney was among those killed. I was stunned.
Rev. Pinckney was a PPIA fellow – we did the Junior Summer Institute program together. He went on to become a State Representative in South Carolina, and later State Senator. He was only 41 years old when he was killed. He did so much at such a young age. Apparently, he was shot dead to ignite a race war. But his death was the impetus that finally took down the Confederate flag in South Carolina, that shameful symbol of racists.
While in the Bowl earlier today, I looked over to where Clem use to sit, remembering his easy smile and deep voice. We spent 10 grueling weeks in those bowls over the summer of 1994. And just thinking of him there, in that room, for at least a moment, it brought me hope. Hope that our lives’ work in this world can be truly consequential.
We need to remember Clem and honor his life.
In my view, he is a true example of what it means to live life in the Nation’s Service. America needs more people like Clem. And I believe the Wilson School has the responsibility and obligation to do more to find and train the Clementas of the world so that we can have a real shot at solving our nation’s problems.
Photographs by: Katherine Elgin Photography