Nonprofit Sector

Stories That Bridge Divides

September 14, 2021

As a first-generation immigrant, it was deeply ingrained in me that, in America, we are all equal, financial mobility is possible, and anyone from any background can change the course of their life if they only want it enough. I grew up in Queens, New York, with kids from similar working-class immigrant families. Our parents worked long, arduous hours – often on their feet – to send their children to college so that they could secure high-paying white collar or professional jobs. As the classic immigrant story goes, financial security is the goal; we just have to work hard enough and assimilate to break into the illustrious world of prestigious titles and corner offices. 

It wasn’t until my first corporate internship in college that this narrative started to unravel. This internship at a multinational bank was my first exposure to white collar work (before this, I had not known a single person who worked in an office), and to people from a vastly different background. My colleagues grew up in wealthy suburbs; their parents had similar professions and their families had generational wealth and personal connections. The experience made me question all of my assumptions about access, opportunity, and merit. The wealthy, white people I was working with were not smarter, more educated, harder working, or more deserving than my neighbors; they merely had more resources to begin with.  

Around the same time, I started learning more about our country’s history, and the systems that continue to exclude large segments of our population (people of color) from having the kinds of opportunities and financial security afforded to my (overwhelmingly white) colleagues at the bank. I learned about how redlining, Jim Crow laws, and the exclusion of Black veterans from the GI Bill had stolen generations of wealth from Black Americans. I also learned about how my family was only able to come to the U.S. because of the civil rights movement of the 1960s; a year after passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which made discrimination against non-European immigrants illegal. I was able to get that corporate job that put me on the path to upward mobility because African Americans fought for everyone’s right to be equal. 

Yet, what brought it all together for me wasn’t facts. It was stories. It started with Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing, which is about a family living over seven generations from 18th century West Africa to present day United States. The book begins with two half-sisters in 1763 Ghana – one who marries an English colonizer, the other who is sold into slavery. It tells the stories of their descendants’ lives: one family who remains in Ghana, the other who lives through the antebellum South, Jim Crow, convict leasing in Alabama, the Great Migration, and the “war on drugs,” ultimately ending up in modern-day Harlem.   

“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

Once I finished the book, I searched online for articles, trying to process the story that I had devoured in a couple of days. And then I found it – right there, on the American Psychological Association website: The Legacy of Trauma. Of course, I thought to myself. Why hadn’t I put it together before?  

Most of what I read about intergenerational trauma wasn’t new to me. Yet there was something about reading one family’s story in Gyasi’s novel that made it all click in my mind. Reading the story and getting attached to the characters turned something I knew intellectually into something I felt deeply. It was one thing to learn about how slavery in the South effectively continued until 1941 through the convict leasing program. It was another to read about “H,” a character in the novel who was born a slave on a plantation, freed after the Civil War, then sentenced to work in a coal mine after being falsely accused of “looking at a white woman.” 

The reality and consequences of intergenerational trauma were reinforced through the stories I encountered visiting the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. The museum educates visitors on racial inequality in the United States, from enslavement to mass incarceration. The museum is powerful, presenting the pain of hundreds of years of injustice through photos, interviews, and short documentaries. Newspaper advertisements of vacation properties that boasted swimming pools, tennis courts, and white staff and visitors only. U.S. Army signs for separate bathrooms for white and Black soldiers. Jars of soil from every place where a Black person had been lynched.   

I watched videos of living families telling the stories of their grandfathers or great-grandfathers who had been lynched, and how those traumas continue to affect their lives. One man’s daughters recalled how he frequently left the family to live abroad, and it wasn’t until years later that they found out that he was only six when his father had been lynched. He has been trying to escape ever since. Another video told the story of a woman who discovered that her grandfather, a wealthy landowner, was lynched for “talking back” to a white man who was trying to underpay him for his crops, and his whole family was driven off their own property. A beloved father, hundreds of acres of rich farmland, generations of security and wealth – all stolen from them.  

While we often only think of trauma as emotional pain, the financial trauma caused by systematic inequalities can be just as deep, painful, and long-lasting. Our history and current reality of racial injustice is rooted in economic exploitation – from slavery to segregation, to today’s racial pay gap. We like to believe the narrative that America is the land of opportunity, but that is not the case for so many Americans of color who are underpaid, who lack financial safety nets, whose homes are appraised at rates lower than those of their white neighbors.  

After generations of being denied access to opportunity and capital – of being told that they’re not good enough, trustworthy enough, creditworthy enough – it’s no wonder that many individuals and communities of color don’t trust financial institutions. As a CDFI, NFF recognizes the inherent power imbalance between us as the holders of capital and the community-based organizations we work with. We are taking steps not only to educate ourselves on intergenerational financial trauma, but also to adopt trauma-informed practices in our work. In our lending practice, we recognize that our current or potential borrowers may have had negative experiences with lenders who questioned their ability to manage their own organizations. In response, we are striving to be more transparent about our practices, communicating clearly about why we collect the data that we ask for and how we use that data. Even as a mission-driven lender, so many of the practices we use to determine “creditworthiness” are rooted in institutional lending conventions – conventions with long histories of racial trauma. We are starting to question these conventions, challenging ourselves to do things differently and write a new financial story.  

As relative newcomers to this country, my family doesn’t bear the burden of generations of financial trauma. But having worked as a lender at a traditional financial institution and at a CDFI, I have witnessed that trauma in clients. I know that changing our approach to lending will be a long process, and that we won’t always get it right. But I’m excited that NFF is taking action to recognize the generations of trauma caused by our financial systems, and to advance justice in our corner of the lending world.