Founded in 1992, the Greenlining Institute describes itself as “a multi-ethnic advocacy, research, leadership development, and public policy organization whose ultimate goal is to increase the role that low-income and minority Californians play in the civic arena in order to create equitable policies and improve quality of life for all communities.” It views increased political activism by those demographics as the key to positive social change.
Greenlining’s name is a play on the word “redlining,” which refers to the now-illegal practice whereby financial institutions once identified (with red lines marked on a map) certain geographic areas wherein they were reluctant or unwilling to make home and commercial loans because the default rates on such loans were exceptionally high there.
From its earliest days, Greenlining viewed the practice of redlining not as an economic necessity dictated by the realities of the marketplace, but rather as a manifestation of deep-seated racism in the banking industry — particularly in light of the fact that the neighborhoods shunned by banks tended to be populated by a high concentration of low-income, nonwhite minorities. To combat this perceived epidemic of race-based discrimination, Greenlining pressured banks to go against their better judgment and to make loans in those high-risk neighborhoods.
Greenlining was co-founded by John Gamboa (the organization’s current President) and Robert Gnaizda (its current Policy Director and General Counsel). As young men in the 1960s, both embraced the “social justice” ideas of the Catholic activist Dorothy Day and the community-organizing tactics of Saul Alinsky. In 1971, Gamboa and Gnaizda together launched an informal “Greenlining” coalition of churches, ethnic organizations, and civic groups composed of California’s black, Asian, and Latino populations. Their mission was “to combat employment, lending and service discrimination by financial institutions and regulated utilities in California.” Their modus operandi tended to be highly confrontational, in the tradition of boycotts, loud demonstrations, and protest marches.
1977 saw the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a federal law that outlawed redlining and required banks to extend credit to undercapitalized, high-risk borrowers in low-income, mostly-minority areas. The Act also established extensive government oversight to monitor how well banks were complying with its mandates. With CRA providing a legal framework within which to agitate for its traditional objectives, the Greenlining coalition adopted less confrontational, and more legalistic, tactics for pressuring banks to follow the new law.
In 1979 Gamboa and Gnaizda formally established a “Greenlining Coalition” of activists. Thirteen years later, this Coalition became the Greenlining Institute (GI).
The year of GI’s birth, 1992, was also when Los Angeles was ravaged by violent riots sparked by the acquittal of four police officers accused of having beaten the infamous Rodney King the year before. The riots left 58 people dead and caused $1 billion in property damage, particularly in L.A.’s nonwhite, inner-city neighborhoods. When these areas were left in a state of economic wreckage from which they were slow to recover, Gamboa and Gnaizda excoriated Los Angeles-area banks for not making more money available to African-Americans and Latinos who wished to rebuild the ruins. Warning that if bank executives did not mend their ways (in accordance with CRA requirements), GI vowed to use its considerable leverage to make their lives miserable.
Any bank wishing to expand or to merge with another must first demonstrate that it has complied with all CRA requirements. Final approval for expansions or mergers can be held up or derailed entirely by complaints — however frivolous or unfounded — where “community groups” like the Greenlining Institute accuse a bank of having violated the CRA. By threatening to bring forth such allegations, GI has been able to negotiate CRA commitments of more than $2.4 trillion from America’s financial institutions (from 1992-2008).
GI further intimidates banks into compliance by threatening to bring lawsuits and negative-publicity campaigns accusing them of racist and anti-immigrant lending practices. Such tactics — which GI says are designed “to empower communities of color and other disadvantaged groups” — commonly result in “agreements” that companies negotiate simply to avoid the massive legal expenses and the damaged reputations they would incur as a result of GI attacks.
GI’s tactics vary according to the circumstances. Sometimes, rather than accusing banks of racism, the organization argues that a bank’s failure to make loans in poor areas is, above all else, a lost financial opportunity that ultimately hurts the bank even more than it hurts the would-be borrowers.
Whatever the approach, GI sees itself as an organization engaged in a “tenacious struggle for justice” that “aims for nothing less than a paradigm shift across California’s movements for justice.”
Another of GI’s major projects is its “Democratizing Philanthropy” (DP) initiative, which states that philanthropy must be “utilized effectively,” following principles of “responsible foundation asset management,” in order to facilitate “win-win partnerships between communities of color and philanthropic foundations” — aiming ultimately to create “a fair, just and democratic society in which communities of color and other underserved groups” are not forgotten. In other words, GI seeks to dictate exactly how public agencies, major corporations and private foundations in California must apportion their charitable donations.
As GI associate director Orson Aguilar put it, the goal is “to make sure that foundation dollars are reaching our communities so that we can be active decision-makers, discussion-makers, that we can be voters, that we can influence the democracy that we live in. So that’s basically what we’re asking for, equal opportunities, equal dollar amounts.”
Toward that end, GI in 2008 helped craft and promote Assembly Bill 624 (AB 624), a measure that would have required foundations with more than $250 million in assets to disclose not only the race and gender breakdown of their trustees and staff, but also the numbers of “business contracts” and “grants and grant dollars” they award to groups “specifically serving African-American, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, Caucasian, Latino, Native American, and Alaskan Native communities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities; and other underrepresented communities.” Moreover, the bill contained language requiring “that foundations include the number of grants and percentage of grant dollars awarded to predominantly ‘low-income communities‘” — a term that was not operationally defined by the legislation. The implication underlying these mandates was that grantmakers were, by nature, insensitive and indifferent to the needs of minorities and the poor.
The California Bar Association’s Non-Profit and Unincorporated Organizations Committee charged that AB 624 was “intrusive to the personal affairs of board members and staff of foundations,” and that it was “in conflict with constitutional rights of privacy.” The Committee explained that if the bill were to be implemented, “foundations may seek to maintain ethnic and diversity ratios that would then deter them from making grants that would adversely affect such ratios, even if such grants would be in furtherance of their charitable mandate.” The Randolph Foundation’s Heather Higgins agreed with that assessment.
Democratic Assemblyman Joe Coto, chairman of the Latino Caucus in the State Assembly, was AB 624’s official sponsor, introducing the bill at the behest of GI. On January 29, 2008, the California State Assembly passed the measure on a strict party-line vote of 45-to-29, with every Democrat voting for it and every Republican voting against it.
But on June 23, Coto abruptly withdrew the bill just as a State Senate committee was about to consider it. His reason: ten major foundations — among which were the Ahmanson Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, the California Endowment, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Weingart Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation — had announced their decision to give millions of dollars to the sorts of advocacy groups that GI favored. They had concluded that ultimately it would be simpler to yield to GI’s demands, than to do battle in both a court of law and the court of public opinion.
Less than a month later, however, the Greenlining Institute was already making demands similar to those it had sought to enact by means of AB 624. On July 17, 2008, GI testified before the House Financial Services Committee and asked that every financial institution with $1 billion or more in assets be required to provide data by race, ethnicity and gender for all small-business loans by 2011. Congressman Barney Frank expressed his optimism that such legislation would be introduced and passed sometime in 2009.
GI also administers such programs as:
Consumer Protection: “Greenlining’s legal advocacy is policy-focused and strives to protect and promote the interests of California ‘s vulnerable communities. For example, Greenlining’s Advocacy team has created projects in such areas as: microbusiness development, increasing diversity in the legal profession, small business technical assistance, alternative energy … environmental justice, technology access and educational pipeline programs.”
Bridges to Health: This program seeks “to promote policies that empower communities of color and other disadvantaged groups in the benefits of good health and healthy environments.”
Diversity in the Health Workforce: “In California, there exists an alarming shortage of diversity in the health professions. Given the growth of California’s minority populations—and their corresponding need for culturally and linguistically appropriate health care—this shortage signals a serious threat to the health of the population. [This] program works to increase diversity in a variety of health professions …”
Access to Care: This project aims “to provide a voice for and engage low-income communities of color, who are disproportionately affected by inadequate health coverage, to participate in the process of advocating for … universal and affordable health care coverage for all Californians.” The project endeavors to “ensure equity of responsibility based on financial resources,” meaning that people who earn money and pay taxes will cover the health-care expenses of those who do neither.
Higher Education: This program is devoted to “the pursuit of a more accessible, diverse, and affordable California public university.” Says GI: “Since the implementation of Proposition 209 [which outlawed affirmative action in California’s public sector] more than a decade ago, the public university in California has become far less diverse. The University of California has especially seen rapidly-diminishing inclusion of African American and Latino students…” To increase public support for race- and gender-preferences, this Higher Education initiative uses student leaders on thirty campuses statewide to spread its message via such Internet websites as MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube, which are very popular with young adults.
To disseminate its worldview among young people, GI in 1996 established its Greenlining Academy which “works to develop the next generation of multi-ethnic leaders and informed community members … and provides opportunities for them to acquire skills and build vital social networks that will enhance their effectiveness as future social justice leaders.” In 2007, this Academy trained more than 100 people. Its programs are tailored specifically for high-school, college, and graduate students; recent college graduates; and recent law-school graduates.
Working with an annual budget of $3.7 million (as of 2006), GI employs a staff of 18 people whose work takes place in the organization’s Berkeley, California headquarters. That headquarters also hosts approximately 40 California-based associations, churches and civic groups, most of which represent nonwhite minorities.