Jesse Van Tol’s Keynote Speech At The 2024 Just Economy Conference

Below are remarks given by National Community Reinvestment Coalition President and CEO Jesse Van Tol on April 3, 2024, at NCRC’s Just Economy Conference. 


Good afternoon! So many of you! It’s a full room, it’s great to be here. And it’s great to have the Vice Chair Michael Barr, a great ally and friend of NCRC, speaking to us here today.

I want to tell you three quick stories about persistence, which is one of NCRC’s core values. And you will see why in a moment why persistence is so important to us.

When I was 18 years old, I almost died. I was canoe camping with friends, high school friends, in the boundary waters – the space between the United States and Canada, in the backwoods — and I went for a little walk away from camp, alone. I crossed the peninsula we were on, to the other side of the lake.

On the way back, I foolishly took a different route, I got turned around. I got confused. After almost an hour of walking, I knew that I was lost. Unbeknownst to me, I had walked the one way that I couldn’t walk, the exact wrong way – I had walked out the one side of the peninsula that had land.

I was exhausted, disoriented, discombobulated. At one point, I got stuck in a bog. I was becoming dehydrated. I drank dirty swamp water.

And that’s when it hit me: my blood sugar was dropping…dangerously low.

You see I am a type 1 diabetic, what used to be called juvenile diabetes. It’s an autoimmune disease. Type 1 diabetics, their body destroys their ability to produce and regulate insulin. And exercise makes you use the insulin you’ve injected more efficiently and that sends your blood sugar downwards.

Low blood sugar causes weakness, confusion, and the shakes. Get low enough and your body shuts down, no sugar left to burn, no energy for essential functions.

This point panic set in. I had no food. The realization that I was going to die in these woods crept over me. I fell to my knees, weak. My head was in a fog. I cried. I prayed…pleaded, really for my life. I grew despondent. I knew in this moment that I was done. That this was it.

When they say your life flashes before your eyes, it’s really true. I had faint images of my life experiences. And then a powerful sense of emotion, a torrent of feelings. I saw my mother…my father… my brothers, my sister, my friends. Not just the moments that we had shared together, but a sense of loss for the future that wouldn’t be coming.

At that point, I stood up. I had to live. To do otherwise would leave a hole for family and friends, the promise of a young life wiped out. I mustered every ounce of strength that I had. I climbed a tree. I spied a path. I found my way and I walked out of those woods that day.

I persisted because I had something that was worth fighting for.

Here’s a second story about persistence:

In 2016, I stood up on this stage along with John Taylor – our founder, who is here today – and with many of you and we announced a ground-breaking Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with KeyBank to serve underserved communities.

Five years after that agreement, we became concerned about their efforts to fulfill the agreement. It became apparent that their lending had gotten worse, not better. We raised concerns about KeyBank’s lending in minority and underserved communities and whether it has kept its promise to be a leader in inclusive home mortgage lending.

NCRC published several reports on KeyBank’s lending, with special concerns raised in certain metropolitan areas, including Philadelphia, New York, Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven. The very footprint that they aquired when they bought First Niragra and announced that community benefits agreement.

Now, it would have been easy for us to walk away. We could have pretended that the CBA had done everything that it was supposed to do. We could have avoided the critique of our own methods. Or we could lean in. And we chose to lean in.

We chose to persist. Because we had something worth fighting for: A better bank and a better community. The opportunity for thousands of people of color to build wealth.

We persisted. And persistence pays off. So I stand before you today to make an announcement, right here at the conference – an agreement to resolve our concerns with KeyBank. And now this is a big deal. Today, NCRC and KeyBank are announcing a $25 million agreement to work together to ensure greater levels of investment in minority and underserved communities.

[Pause of audience applause]

It’s millions. I’ll get to the billions.

As part of this agreement:

KeyBank will provide $17 million in subsidies to fund grants, downpayment assistance, fee waivers, product and branch expansion and marketing, designed to expand credit and assist loan applicants in minority and underserved communities.  KeyBank and NCRC will be independently responsible for allocating $8.5 million each. Each with meaningful input from the other.

KeyBank will provide $8 million to support NCRC’s mission to build a just economy.

KeyBank and NCRC will collaborate on an ongoing basis to continue to improve KeyBank’s lending to minority and underserved communities.

And most important of all, we will return to the table to work in good faith to form a new community benefits agreement with KeyBank, with the potential to channel billions of dollars of lending capital into communities.

Good friends tell their friends when they’ve gotten off track. And NCRC is a good friend.

We will always remain open to partnership and collaboration for those who are truly committed to improving, to those who share our goals, our values and our vision for a just economy.

With KeyBank, we persisted. We had something worth fighting for.

Third story:

We turn to the present moment, a new challenge.…It’s an opportunity to show the financial industry that they cannot undermine economic justice for profit…Not without a fight.

You may have heard that Capital One has proposed to buy Discover.

This is a terrible, horrible, no good very bad idea. I should just end the speech there. Let me say that again: This is a terrible, horrible, no good very bad idea.

And not just because it would create another too-big-to-fail bank…

…And not just because it would undermine competition and raise prices for consumers. It’s also a bad idea because Capital One is a bad actor. “Notorious” might be a better word. Because anyone who’s been paying attention to how Capital One moves for the past couple decades knows this is not a company that our communities can rely on.

We saw that when Capital One bought ING Direct, a decade ago. It made a $180 billion ten-year commitment to communities, that wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. It was a commitment to do more of the same, mostly subprime credit card and auto lending. The one part of the commitment that was good – a commitment to mortgage lending – turned out to be false promise, as Capital One abandoned the mortgage business just a few years later.

NCRC led the charge then, galvanized opposition to their merger, generating dozens of negative news stories, hundreds of comments, and protests of their merger at every turn.

That’s right. You can clap for that.

We didn’t win back then. Not entirely. Their merger got approved.

But we have persisted, because that’s what we do.

Capital One has not changed for the better. Our concerns today were the same as our concerns 10 years ago. Their business model is built around luring low- and moderate-income people into debt that they’ll struggle to pay off.

Half of Capital One’s profits come from fees and interest, which means it comes at the direct expense of people who’ve been unable to repay what they borrowed.

And Capital One doesn’t luck into those revenue streams. It seeks them out – It hunts for them, in the same streets and neighborhoods where we all try to do good work every day.

In the financial press, Capital One is hailed as a leader and an innovator. You know why? Because they’ve led the charge to use big data to precisely identify the sorts of striving families who could really use a credit limit increase.

They identify those people with numbers and computers, and then they chase after them until they sign them up for a card with high-interest rates and stringent fee structures. And that’s all bad enough on its own.

But even worse, Capital One has been identified as one of the banks behind the lawsuit to gut the new CRA rule, joining hands with the American Banker’s Association and the Chamber of Commerce.

Once again, NCRC has led the opposition.

We immediately detailed to the regulators all the reasons this anticompetitive merger cannot be allowed. We came together with strong national partners to demand public hearings on the merger and other key accountability processes.

That opposition led to coverage in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg, POLITICO, and many others.

And we are marshalling you, our members, to make your own voices heard in the public comment process. And we are educating lawmakers about what they can do to ensure that the same mistakes that have been made so often with other megamergers do not get made in this case – other huge deals that made rich executives and shareholders richer at the expense of the communities you and I fight for.

We’ve been in these types of battles before. And too often our government failed to heed the warnings of community groups. Too often the pressure on our government to say “yes” to big business has left them saying “oops” many years later to the rest of us when it blows up in their face.

So now we have to fight that type of fight again.

And this time, this time we can win. Because during that 10 years since Capital One was approved to buy ING Direct, we didn’t just sit idly by. We were persistent. We worked to change merger policy.

We worked to reinvigorate the public interest standards in banking law. We promoted Community Benefits Agreements. Now totaling over a half trillion dollars. And we have enforced them…insisted they be made real, as our efforts with KeyBank shows.

Because of our persistence, Capital One’s deal is on the ropes. And we will continue to fight, because we have something worth fighting for: a banking regulatory system that says no to bad actors, one that recognizes the difference between a legitimate community commitment and a cynical one made just to get merger approval, and then torn up afterwards.

As we look to the future, it’s easy to be pessimistic. Our enemies conspire against us. People we believed to be friends may fail us. CRA is under attack. 1071 is under attack. Just four years after George Flyod, DEI and racial equity are under attack. Our people are under attack.

One of our presidential candidates has even warned of a bloodbath if he doesn’t win. And I for one believe him. We are in a fight for our lives. A fight for our nation. A fight…for a future worth fighting for!

And some days it may feel as though we’re lost in the woods. Headed in the wrong direction. Some days it may feel as though we’ve lost all energy to go on.

And that’s how life can feel for a nonprofit leader, or an advocate, or a change maker, like many of us. Like rolling a rock up a hill. Like an endless walk in the woods. Like we might not get to the mountaintop, not now…not ever.

But remember: it doesn’t matter how many times we get knocked down, it’s only how many times that we get back up that matters.

And remember: We have something that’s worth fighting for!

I want to close here today with a message. To the American Bankers Association. To the Chamber of Commerce. To Capital One.

To any bank that thinks it can pretend to be about racial equity, and then not be about racial equity. To anybody who would turn their backs on serving the community.

We represent the community.

You mess with us: you know we got it!

Let’s try that again!

Mess with us: you know we got it!

Now to some people that probably sounds like a threat. It’s not a threat, it’s a warning. Be careful of us. On that, we must insist.

We will persist. And we will continue. We will stand up and walk out of these woods.

Because. We have something that’s worth fighting for!

Say it with me. We! Have! Something! Worth fighting for!

Thank you!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Scroll to Top