Researching my last two blogs involved flipping through dusty archives of the DISCLOSURE newsletter that I started in the summer of 1974 and then edited for 85 issues. There were many “From the Roots” interviews over a decade. It’s time to revisit that format and share a “From The Roots Today” interview.
I served on the board of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition [NCRC] for over 20 years with Hubert Van Tol. His son Jesse Van Tol has worked for over 8 years at NCRC and was promoted this week to Chief of Membership & Policy. Congrats to you Jesse!
We come to appreciate many colleagues from our professional careers. When we’re lucky, some of them become good friends. Here’s some background on one of the best “Traders in Hope” I can claim as a friend: Hubert Van Tol.
What was your first exposure to economic justice?
As a young boy, I sometimes rode along with my father when he went to do his banking. He drove about 30 miles past other Iowa towns and across a state border to a tiny bank in the little town of Fairview, South Dakota. When I asked him why he didn’t just bank at any of the banks that were closer to home, he told me that during the Great Depression, unlike the other bankers, the one in Fairview had not foreclosed on any of the farmers who banked there, and so he was sticking with this bank. That impressed me.
How did you get introduced to CRA in Memphis?
I was working as a weatherization program coordinator for New Memphis Development Corporation when the position as executive director of the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center came open in 1985. I was determined to make the Center’s work as much about justice as it had been about peace. I had heard something about the Community Reinvestment Act [CRA] and my work in the weatherization program had opened my eyes to the problem that people in the African American neighborhoods of Memphis had in getting housing loans.
Among other people, I invited Shel Trapp and Tom Fox of National Peoples Action to come down to train us about how to use CRA. Our organization’s attempts to have a meaningful conversation with bankers about these issues had gone nowhere until we actually used the provisions of the CRA to prevent Leader Federal, a large Memphis Savings and Loan, from opening a new branch because of their lending record in low and moderate income neighborhoods. I remember that their underwriting policies at the time said that they didn’t lend “in areas of incipient decline.” After the story of Leader Federal’s denied application hit the news, most of the bigger banks in the area suddenly wanted to talk. The power of organizing and using the available tools of leverage was made real to me.
Can you share reflections on your rural work?
Rural means different things depending on which part of the country you are in. Through the Midwest and down to Texas there are many community banks, some of which do a very good job of meeting the needs of their communities. Some are set up to provide financing for friends and friends of friends of the owners; but there are banks in almost any decent sized town. Knowing this taught me that when rural banks in towns of 1,000 people manage to stay in business, there really is no excuse for large urban neighborhoods to be devoid of bank branches. Other poorer rural communities get much the same treatment as low income urban neighborhoods; they are not served well by a corporation which is driven to seeking the highest possible rate of return. The poor rural areas and the poor urban areas can all support a bank; just not a bank which has shareholders demanding the highest rates of return.
Describe your current work at PathStone Enterprise Center?
The businesses we’ve provided loans to in the past year are a pretty eclectic group, 36 of them within 100 miles of Rochester NY. We lent a county employee the money to buy a small tractor for his part-time stone masonry business that he hopes to take full-time when he retires shortly. We’ve loaned money to a startup micro-brewery and a small business making light weight, new technology kayak paddles. We lent to: a specialty food store that needed to buy glass front freezers; a start-up gluten free bakery; and a day care center that needed construction financing for a new building. We made a start-up loan and then provided working capital to a flooring installation foreman who wanted to start his own business; even a loan to help a used car salesman move to a new building. The only thing they all have in common is that they were unable to get financing from conventional lenders.
Many NCRC members know you as Jesse Van Tol’s father. Please tell us about your family.
Our family of five children mostly grew up in Memphis, although Jesse and his younger brother Jan, were still quite young when we moved to rural Wisconsin. We all had to work together and make every minute count, especially when Lois decided to go to Medical School and I was running a non-profit on a non-profit salary. Jesse was an extrovert in a family of introverts; someone who was always looking for the next adventure. We’ve been fortunate to have been able to raise five wonderful children; all critical thinkers and free spirits in their own individual ways.
Followers may expect by now each blog to end with lyrics from my playlist. Here’s a song I discovered recently while visiting Hubert & Lois:
History books are filled with stories
That tell us when but never why
And though we can’t find all the answers
We still can keep the hope alive
People say that it’s too late now
The time to change has come and gone
But I believe there is hope now
Hope to change and carry on and carry on
There Is Hope Robbie O’Connell © 1999