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Report from People and Places Conference

June 8th, 2017 by Richard Thal

Richard Thal, Executive Director of the Jamaica Plan Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), joined close to 20 of his colleagues from the Massachuasetts community development field in Arlington, Virginia at the 2017 People and Places Conference.  Below is his letter to "JPNDCers," which is an excellent recap of the conference.

A special thanks to Richard for granting permission for the publishing of his letter.

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Dear JPNDCers:

As we plunge into JPNDC’s celebratory month of June. I am writing to report back on the national People and Places Conference that I attended in DC this past Wednesday through Friday. This conference, the second of its kind, built on the groundwork laid by the inaugural event in March 2015 and was honchoed by the same four groups that came together two years ago to build a grassroots coalition of people working in our field across the country: NACEDA, the National Association of Community Economic Development Associations; NALCAB, the National Association of Latino Community Asset Builders; CAPACD, the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development; and the National Urban League. In an attempt to incorporate a more spiritual element of our work, this year a fifth co-sponsor joined - the Network for Developing Conscious Communities.

As you probably won't be surprised to hear, there was a big swing in moods at different points in our gathering. We learned about the impressive work that groups like JPNDC are doing across the country and also about looming threats to policies and programs that provide resources to low- and moderate-income people and to help create a fairer and more just society.

Some of this good work entails one-on-one efforts that help improve (and sometimes transform) individuals and families' lives.  Like JPNDC, more organizations are focusing on helping people build their financial capability, for example working to help low-income people and recent arrivals understand about credit and build their credit scores. Groups are developing initiatives to provide credit builder loans for people with no (or bad) credit histories. The national Credit Builders Alliance (which we joined in early 2016) has launched a pilot program to help organizations figure out how to count rent payments toward people's credit scores.

As we learned from one of our keynote speakers, Richard Cordray, the Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, changes in federal policies over the last six to eight years have had a very positive impact. Since it started operations in 2011, CFPB has recouped $12 billion dollars for 29 million consumers and has levied $600 million in fines against financial institutions guilty of deceptive and discriminatory practices. In addition, it is estimated that changes to the laws governing credit card disclosure practices have saved people $16 billion in "gotcha" fees. As they say, that ain't hay!

Unfortunately, even though Director Cordray was too polite to mention it, his agency is under attack. Numerous people in the administration and the Congress have railed against the CFPB and the US House of Representatives will be considering legislation in the coming days that could curtail or eliminate the agency's activities.

At different workshops and through conversations with our compatriots from around the country, we learned about several examples of groups building strong grassroots coalitions to win impressive policy victories at the local and state levels. The Center for Community Change tracked 39 referendum campaigns across the US last fall where voters were asked to raise revenue to increase spending on affordable housing. Our side emerged victorious in 32 of the 39 campaigns, including in different venues in California that require 2/3 of the voters to vote in favor. In the largest campaign in the country, in Santa Clara County where $950 million was at stake, the engagement of residents of affordable housing spelled the difference between success and failure in reaching the 2/3 mark.  Hundreds of residents were trained as speakers at public events and as organizers to mobilize thousands of their neighbors to go to the polls. The number of resident voters pushed the campaign over the top.
 
Over the last several years, people in our field have been trying to think more critically and creatively about how we can build public support for efforts to improve the lives of the people we serve. At workshops, meetings with legislative aides, and informal conversations the same theme was sounded repeatedly- while it’s important to know the facts and figures, what matters most are the stories of individual human beings. For instance, when discussing changes to immigration policy, nothing is more powerful than hearing how those changes will affect the lives of individuals and families. When advocating for more funding for creating and preserving affordable housing, it’s far better to focus on the need and the people involved than the amount of money or the number of “units”. 
 
Last Thursday afternoon about 15 conference attendees from Massachusetts met on Capitol Hill with staffers representing 9 of the 11 members of the Mass. Congressional delegation, all of whom are generally supportive of the work of groups like JPNDC. While they had some specific suggestions about legislative issues that we need to emphasize more, they stressed that it is particularly helpful to their bosses if we can share individual stories. Not surprisingly, the legislators have found that showing the human impact of public policies is a more effective way of persuading some of their colleagues who are not as supportive than more abstract policy arguments.
 
For many of us, this is not a new point, but I always find it helpful to get regrounded in remembering what our work is about. And, at a time in our nation’s capital when the value of our work is under attack, it is more important than ever to celebrate the dedicated and determined people working all over the country to create what Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as “the beloved community”.

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