Ajamu Kitwana lived in two places growing up: First, in Chicago’s South Side where he was exposed to violence and poverty and next, in a suburb of Maryland, where he was not.
“They were two completely different worlds,” recalled Kitwana, vice president and director of Community Impact for ESL Federal Credit Union.
He sees a comparable situation when it comes to those living in Rochester and the nearby suburbs.
Such a disconnect continues to drive disparities, Kitwana noted.
“I believe the racial wealth gap is a key differentiator that sustains the legacy of racism and perpetuates it,” he said.
Kitwana was one of several speakers at Action for a Better Community’s 2023 Signature Conference earlier this month. It is a continuation of the organization’s social justice work.
The conference was held on Jan. 12 and 19 virtually; an in-person awards breakfast at the Memorial Art Gallery was held on Jan. 26.
This year’s conference theme, “Empowerment, Equity & Accountability … the Journey Ahead,” is an acknowledgment that there is a significant amount of work to do — including economic and social justice — to achieve equity for all people.
The conference included panel discussions made up of state lawmakers, local legislators, and leaders in the banking, health care and human service industries.
Topics included reducing health disparities; empowerment through DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) and education; and equity: closing the racial wealth gap and accountability: everyone can do something to create a greater Rochester.
Jerome Underwood, president and CEO of Action for a Better Community, said systemic racism created — and continues to maintain — the racial wealth gap.
“Equity is the foundation of justice,” Underwood said. “To close the racial wealth gap we need deliberate, focused action by many.”
The closing of the racial wealth gap panel was moderated by Simeon Banister, president and CEO of the Rochester Area Community Foundation.
In addition to Kitwana, the panelists were:
- Beverly Fair-Brooks, vice president and regional community reinvestment officer at M&T Bank
- Brennon Thompson, analyst, fair housing policy and programs at the National Association of Realtors, and
- Robin Wilt, Brighton Town Councilor and licensed real estate broker/owner of Transcontinental Properties LLC.
When Wilt was growing up, her parents told her she would have to work three times as hard to earn half as much as her white counterparts.
She is working to change that in both of her professional roles, noting an overlap between real estate and government.
“There is a correlation between who controls the land and government,” Wilt said.
Wilt, who co-chairs the Black Caucus of the Greater Rochester Association of Realtors – noted that Blacks are massively underrepresented in both sectors and more needs to be done to increase that representation.
The panel also discussed a recent report by the state Department of Financial Services that included findings of continued racial disparities in mortgage lending practices in Rochester.
The department found that in Rochester, where 23.9 percent of the population is non-white, “on average lenders make 11.32 percent of their loans to borrowers identifying as people of color, less than half of what would be expected based solely on population make-up.”
M&T continues to work on improving its services and products for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), largely through community outreach, Fair-Brooks noted.
“We cannot forget to listen to the voices in the community,” she said, adding such efforts can also help build trust.
A focus at M&T is on offering mortgage products that ease the homebuying process and are less confusing, Fair-Brooks added.
Additionally, M&T is currently working with The National Association of Minority Mortgage Bankers of America (NAMMBA) toward certification as an accredited social impact lender, she said.
ESL also helps more people become homeowners, Kitwana said, including offering first-time homebuyer grants for eligible Black and Latino homebuyers.
When it comes to addressing inequities, awareness and action are important steps, he said, but added it is just as important to let people know about such services for the efforts to work.
Thompson said closing the racial wealth gap is not something one group can tackle alone.
“It’s something we all have to solve,” he said, adding that one’s zip code plays a significant role in many areas of one’s life, from economic and educational status to health.
Thompson – who previously worked for the Greater Rochester Association of Realtors – said the Rochester community is proactive by working to solve the challenges, largely through a collaborative effort.
“Getting people to the table to engage is so important,” he said.
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