Turning Adversity into Opportunity: How We Can Advance Economic Justice Today

Last Wednesday, the music of D.C.-based a cappella group SongRise (featuring Prosperity Now’s Melissa Grober-Morrow) kicked off the 2018 Prosperity Summit on a high note with a performance of Sam Cooke’s classic song, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

That set the mood for the following plenary, “Turning Adversity Into Opportunity: How We Advance Economic Justice Today.” An audience representing 48 states and Canada listened to Prosperity Now President Andrea Levere lay out the big challenges the asset-building field now faces and the bold agenda we need to respond to them.

She mentioned three particularly damaging setbacks. We lost all major federal programs that facilitate and match savings for low-income people. An aggressive tax law was passed that increases inequality even more than our already regressive tax code. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has returned over $12 billion to consumers harmed by predatory financial practices, is being hollowed out by its new leadership.

What do we do in the face of this adversity? First, we need motivation, which is just what Shenell Thompson gave us when she took the stage. In an impassioned speech, she told her story of how the deaths of Black men at the hands of police officers traumatized her son. His tears broke her, and she became emotionally, professionally and spiritually exhausted.

She soon realized that it wasn’t enough for her anymore to just comply with the systems given to us—have other people open the doors and invite you to the table. It was time for her to open her own doors and buy her own table. That led her to establish Brick by Brick Consulting, which works to address disparities affecting communities of color and marginalized groups. By creating new opportunities for justice, she hoped she would never again hear broken voices like she heard from her son.

On that note, Andrea Levere described what you can achieve with the right motivation, even during trying times. She listed Prosperity Now’s recent accomplishments, such as growing the Prosperity Now community to 25,000 members, growing our seven networks from 4,000 to 11,000 members and having a network of 77 community champions in 42 states. 

Prosperity Now has also led the way for important legislative victories. Funding for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program increased to $20 million and was made permanent. The Refund to Rainy Day Savings Act, which helps families build emergency savings at tax time, was introduced in Congress this summer.

Prosperity Now has released important resources this year to help advocates, policymakers and practitioners in our field. The Municipal Policy Blueprint serves as a guide to having conversations around building equity at the local level. Our Financial Coaching Program Design Guide is the first guide in our field to establishing financial coaching programs. And in this year’s Prosperity Now Scorecard, we used comprehensive data on financial health to question the narrative that the brunt of bad choices lie on individuals, rather than those who enact policies that perpetuate inequality.

Looking to the future, Levere was proud to announce that Prosperity Now will launch its eight network, the Medical-Financial Partnership, to find solutions at the nexus of health and wealth. Prosperity Now is also launching Fair Shot 2020, a new campaign to mobilize our field towards giving all families an equal chance at prosperity.

But we can’t do this work alone. To learn what different sectors think, we heard from a panel of leaders in the nonprofit, government, private and philanthropy sectors. Across the board, the panel emphasized the importance of finding solutions by shifting our focus on communities, both bringing out and bringing in ideas to improve financial well-being.

For Bill Bynum, CEO of HOPE, this approach has shifted how his organization carries out its work to build assets in poor communities: by going to communities, asking what they need and starting the solutions process from there.

Napolean Wallace, Deputy Secretary for Rural Economic Development and Workforce Solutions at the North Carolina Department of Commerce, echoed this sentiment, saying that to serve smaller communities we need to flip the model of attracting big business and pray good things happen on its head. Rather, he said, we need to ask: What specific investments do these communities need?  

Listening to partners on the ground gets results. Anne Marie Burgoyne, Managing Director, Social Innovation at the Emerson Collective, shared how running a philanthropic grant open to a wide array of community solutions led to applications from 80% of Emerson Collective’s grantees. Jamie Kalamarides, President of Prudential Group Insurance, noted how working with partners led to the introduction of an innovative workplace plan helps people build emergency savings.

After taking stock of our challenges and charting a course for the future, we were ready to branch off for the afternoon sessions and apply the big ideas of the opening plenary to our various niches, and, of course, the next two days of the Prosperity Summit.

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