• Amir Kirkwood President & Chief Executive Officer

As I think about what Black History Month means to me, I’m moved to reflect on what has become my vocation, community development finance, expressed through an appreciation of my professional community of CDFIs. My journey to leadership evolved through my own career-building efforts and through the guidance and support of Black leaders who shaped the field and continue to push it to new heights. “More Than a Moment” – a callback to our 2022 Learning Exchange theme – captures why their leadership and wisdom have been critical to my path.  

My experience in the field started in Chicago during the mid-90s – before I knew what the acronym CDFI stood for. Fresh out of college, I had the opportunity to work for a nonprofit housing developer, the Chicago Dwellings Association. I was truly blessed to have supported one of our board members, the late Milton Davis, who was one of the original four founders of what would become Shorebank. Shorebank’s depository, South Shore Bank, was the model used by the Clinton Administration as they sought to create a network of community development banks servicing low- and moderate-income communities. This came to fruition as a part of the Riegle Community Development and Regulatory Improvement Act of 1994, which created the CDFI Fund. A graceful man, old enough to be my grandfather, Mr. Davis embodied the professionalism of a banker with an unyielding commitment to serving community.  

In addition to Mr. Davis, I met an energetic native of East St. Louis, Calvin Holmes, who had just joined an organization called the Chicago Community Loan Fund (CCLF). Calvin was and remains passionate about the impact that CDFIs can have to change the trajectory of disinvested communities. I eventually left Chicago for New York, taking a position lending to CDFIs at Citigroup, and in 2010, I reconnected with my old friend at an Opportunity Finance Network Conference. I was happy to witness the fruits of Calvin’s investment in the field as he had transitioned to his current role of Chief Executive Officer of CCLF.    

In New York, I advised and financed CDFIs, first at Citigroup and then at Next Street and Amalgamated Bank. With each step of the journey, there were Black leaders who were guides, mentors, and most importantly, co-conspirators in using capital to drive economic change. While at Citi during the heart of the financial crisis, I learned from the brave and direct advocacy of Lori Chatman, who leads the Enterprise Community Loan Fund, and Bill Bynum, who founded and leads Hope Enterprise and Hope Credit Union. Both Bill and Lori led organizations that leaned into the complex challenges of poverty and the nuanced politics of race that lie underneath CDFIs. I would watch not only the actions they took, but how they used the power of communication to ensure maximum impact.    

My lifelong career internship took a unique turn in 2019, when Lisa Mensah, then CEO of Opportunity Finance Network (OFN), honored me by asking me to become her Chief Lending and Investment Officer. Joining OFN required my family to relocate from New York to the DC Metro, a significant change given how settled we were at the time. For my career, the change was equally significant in that I was now “over the wall” from banking CDFIs for Community Reinvestment Act purposes, to becoming a true advocate for our field – no turning back! I would not and could not have made this change without trust in Lisa, who embodied the fearlessness necessary to advocate for the field during what was becoming one of the most challenging periods in modern American history. CDFIs were now being recognized as “first responders” that developed innovative solutions to the economic and health distress caused by the COVID pandemic, racial inequities exposed by the murder of George Floyd, and a deeper realization that climate shocks, like crime, disproportionately affect residents of low-income, rural, indigenous, and communities of color.  

This period also saw Black-led CDFIs assert the significant role they play in advancing the work of the field and ensuring that equity is central to how we raise and deploy capital, build underwriting platforms, and develop future leaders. To that end, I was able to observe the leadership of Lenwood Long, Calvin Holmes, Inez Long and others as they formed the African American Alliance for CDFI CEOs.  

And, for so many of us in the field, regardless of race, gender, or age, there is Donna. 

Donna Gambrell is at the center of the story in my journey. I had the opportunity to learn from her during her days running the CDFI Fund, as Chair of OFN and the Alliance, and as CEO of Appalachian Community Capital. Intelligence, humility, trust, and determination are all traits she embodies, and we gain from her commitment to our work. I count myself lucky to have her as a mentor. 

If my cup has been filled by leaders who have advised and mentored me, I am equally excited to stand shoulder to shoulder with peers today, and hopefully something I’ve learned will add benefit to their path. I cherish my conversations with Aisha Benson of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, Ellis Carr of Momentus, Blair Duncan of UMEZ, and Dan Betancourt of Community First Fund. I was so proud to see Harold Pettigrew succeed Lisa Mensah as CEO of OFN. And he made the right move by elevating Dafina Williams to Chief External Affairs Officer. I am thrilled to see John Holdsclaw launch Rochdale Capital and Jodie Harris take the helm of PIDC. And like so many of us, I celebrate Arlo Washington, as he grew a business working with formerly incarcerated individuals into People Trust. 

There are so many stories of Black leadership to lift in my chosen profession. As a result, I am sure I have missed a few important partners. I take great satisfaction in knowing that I can be a part of a field that embraces Black leadership and allows for authentic representation to guide its work.

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