From paralegal to banking for the poor….making a difference

I work as a CRA Officer in a local bank on the Central Coast
of California. The “CRA” stands for “Community Reinvestment Act”.
Essentially, this is a law which states that banks must lend out money
to the same communities from which it receives deposits. Many years
ago, banks used to discriminate based upon where you lived. That is,
if you lived in the traditionally poor section of New York City (e.g.
Harlem), then you would have virtually no chance of getting your
mortage loan approved. The CRA law makes sure that no bank decides
that a certain community is not discriminated against on the basis of
race or income. OK, that’s the long explanation… So why am I in this
position?

I’m not really sure, actually. But it has been a long road ever since
I first graduated from college back in 1992. At that time, my only
aspiration was to get a “Wow!” job — a job that paid tons of money,
was oozing with prestige, and where my parents could be proud of me.
Little did I know that I wouldn’t get one of those positions that I
wanted so badly. Instead, I received only ONE offer from a law firm in
New York City. So I took the position of Paralegal because: 1) I had
no other options, and 2) I wanted to understand exactly what a lawyer
did (apart from the characterizations seen weekly on L.A. Law!) To
make a long story short, I absolutely hated my experience there. I
made very little money, I had to work a tremendous amount of overtime,
and the only ones who received any of the prestige were the lawyers
themselves. More than that, I felt that being a corporate lawyer was
one of the most tedious, boring jobs one could ever undertake.
(However, I still have respect for some other lawyers,
specifically district attorneys and public-interest lawyers.) After
that 2-year experience, I told my friends and family that they could
shoot me if I ever became a lawyer, because if that ever happened, my
life would be over anyways…

My next job was probably the one that changed my life. Being so
disillusioned with the corporate world, I decided that I would do
something that would help others. Being a Christian, I felt like I
could make a difference by serving the local Christian church in other
countries. So I took a job with an organization in Mexico City.
Though the original contract was for two months, I loved it so much
that I ended up staying for 14 months! Essentially, I was placed in a
local Mexican family with whom I lived, ate, and played. My actual
work consisted of supporting the pastor in his efforts to minister to
the Mexican youth. So everyday, I would be out in the streets forming
relationship and friendships with all of the teenagers and college-age
people I could meet. In the process, my broken Spanish became just
about fluent. I never thought that would be possible, but anything’s
possible if you just immerse yourself in a foreign land for more than a
year… When I returned from Mexico in 1995, I had this
great urge to do something that would truly impact the community in a
positive way.

Since I had been an Economics major in college, I figured that there
might be a way to help out poorer communities while using my financial
knowledge. Lo and behold, God provided a contact for me, and I ended
up working for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York as a CRA Examiner.
We would be sent all around New York and New Jersey to investigate
banks. If the banks were doing a good job with lending to both poor
and rich, black and white, then we would give them a good rating.
However, if the banks were not responsive to their communities’ needs,
we would give a harsh report and penalize them. The job was an
excellent way for me to gain exposure to the banking system and also to
the Federal Government. Unfortunately, my experience with government
jobs has taught me that they should usually be avoided at all costs.
For some reason that I cannot define, government jobs drain all the
passion and motivation out of a person. That is probably why there are
so many complaints with people who work at the DMV or the Social
Security office. Anyways, after getting some good experience, I left
that job after two years.

I moved to California after getting married. And that is where I
finally ended up in my present position (also through a miraculous
contact). It is interesting to get the perspective from the “inside”
of a bank — to really understand how loan decisions are made. I have
a reasonably good boss who works hard at being a mentor (although his
communication skills leave a lot to be desired). What I most enjoy
doing is helping the bank become more involved in the local community.
There are many needs, even in the somewhat prosperous community that
the bank serves. For instance, there are non-profit community
organizations that serve the local homeless population and also
lower-income Hispanics — these organizations are always in need of
loans to support their charitable work. But obviously, a bank is not
in the business of just giving their money away. So the challenging
part is finding creative ways to give them loans that they will
eventually be able to pay back. In this way, everyone wins: The
community’s poorest citizens are helped AND the bank earns decent
interest on the money.

Though this job pays me well enough to meet all my expenses and save
for the future, and though it can be quite rewarding sometimes, I find
myself yearning to trade this position for something even better. I
don’t really care about the money, because I trust that God will give
me what I need. But I want to be actively working in poorer areas
(even Third World countries) to help them gain economic footholds, from
which people can escape the cycle of poverty. If I could pick my dream
job, it would be as a Micro-Enterprise Lender — someone who lends very
small amounts of money to groups of individuals, in hopes that they
will use the seed capital to start their own successful businesses,
like sewing or food stands. In this way, I am not just giving people
money, but I am encouraging them to take charge of their future. It’s
like the proverb: “Give a man a fish and he can eat for one day; teach
a man to fish, and he will never be hungry for the rest of his life.”
OK, OK, so I garbled that proverb a little bit. But you get my
meaning. I hope that this entry encourages all to use whatever talents
or resources you may have for the benefit of others.

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