Griffith, Mark Winston and Louis, Errol T. 1962–
Mark Winston Griffith and Errol T. Louis 1962–
Bankers, community development professionals, writers
Mark Winston Griffith and Errol T. Louis do not look or sound like stereotypical bankers. In fact, the cofounders of the Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union in Brooklyn, New York, have been dubbed “the hip-hop bankers,” for their appearance, their language, and most of all for their attitude. As Louis told New York Newsday, “We are of that generation. We do a lot of what hip-hop music does.”
During the credit union’s commencement ceremony, Griffith, who is recognizable by his shoulder-length dreadlocks, told his audience, “I’d like to begin by giving props to all my credit union homies in the house who’ve been dropping loud science from jump, by giving a shout out to all the bankers and funders from money-makin’ Manhattan, and by saying peace and givin’ ’nuff respect to … the entire Central Brooklyn posse. Peep this: We’re ’bout to take it to ya face.”
Roughly translated, Griffith said: “I would like to begin by showing proper respect for all my friends from the credit union who are here tonight—the one’s who guided and encouraged us from the beginning—and to the bankers and funders from the financial capital of the world, Manhattan. I would like to acknowledge all those who have supported The Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union. Look out [detractors], we’re on the way!” Indeed, these bankers may not look or sound conventional, but they are as conversant in the language of Wall Street as in the hip-hop lingo.
The Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union represents “the front line in a new movement” begun by Griffith and Louis, say the two young, politically knowledgeable, and far-sighted African American activists. In a way Griffith and Louis represent what Griffith has called “a new generational consciousness,” the evolution of the Civil Rights movement into a new form. As Griffith said in Emerge magazine in 1994, “We’ve taken this whole idea of self-help and self-empowerment, the ideals of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and sort of respun them, expressing our own present-day reality across those themes. Taking some of the old and some of the new to come with a brand new sound, so to speak.”
To help revitalize their community, Griffith and Louis opened the Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union in the spring of 1993, as part of the Central Brooklyn Partnership, a group of community development organizations
At a Glance…
Born Mark Winston Griffith, February 6, 1963, in Brooklyn, New York; son of Vernon W. and Joan N. Griffith. Education: Brown University, BA, 1985; University of Ibadan, Nigeria, MA, 1988; attended Columbia Univeristy, 1993-94.
Griffith served as chief of staff to assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr., New York City, 1985-87; assistant director, Crown Heights Neighborhood Improvement Association, 1989; founder and executive director, Central Brooklyn Partnership, 1989—; held several other community service positions. Louis served as associate director, National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions; development director and chief technical advisor, Central Brooklyn Partnership; board member, National Association of Community Development Loan Funds. Together, Griffith and Louis cofounded the Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union, 1993.
Addresses: Office —Central Brooklyn Partnership/Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union, 1205 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, New York 11216.
Griffith created in 1989. Griffith is the credit union’s president, and Louis is its treasurer and manager. Housed in a building formerly owned by a bank, it was the first community development credit union to receive a government franchise under the Clinton administration.
With growing assets of $2.2 million, the credit union offers checking, savings, check cashing, direct deposit, low-interest loans, CDs, and money order services to its 1,000+ members in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, and other areas of central Brooklyn. A nonprofit, democratically-run and cooperatively-owned district institution with a small staff, the credit union not only provides personal loans but also offers counseling, budgeting assistance, and savings plans.
Perhaps most importantly, the financial organization provides the mostly low-income community of African Americans and Caribbean immigrants, previously virtually ignored or abandoned by commercial banks, with the opportunity to invest and reinvest in their community. Griffith hopes to move beyond the central Brooklyn area, increasing the credit union’s membership by several thousand and its assets by several million.
“People in the traditional banking community question our background, but I am convinced it has helped,” Griffith told the New York Times. “We do not represent business as usual, and we bring a certain freshness.” As Griffith told Contemporary Black Biography during an interview in 1994, “I think it’s too convenient to say that you’re affecting change from within the corporate machine. I wouldn’t feel comfortable in that environment. I need to get the dirt under my fingernails. I need to be right there.”
“They don’t seem to grow weary. They always seem on the upbeat,” Kenneth Gulley, an associate who ran the Mid-Brooklyn Community Economic Development Corporation in 1991, told Abby Scher of City; Limits. Clifford Rosenthal, the executive director of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions in New York City, where Louis formerly worked, told Scher that Louis had the “blend of idealism and pragmatism” essential for doing work in New York City’s public service sector. Aside from these personality traits, both men have a proven track record of community and economic development experience. Griffith’s and Louis’s credibility is enhanced by their liberal arts education and their familiarity with the neighborhood and its significant African American and Caribbean-immigrant population.
Both Griffith and Louis come from families of Caribbean-American descent and have parents who worked for the city of New York. Born on February 6, 1963, in Brooklyn, New York, to a mother who is a native of Jamaica, Griffith makes his home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, near the credit union’s office in a building owned by his parents, Joan N. Griffith, an administrator for the fire department, and Vernon W. Griffith, an artist and former truant officer for the board of education.
The modern version of a Renaissance man, Griffith majored in English and Afro-American studies at Brown University, and received his bachelor’s degree from Brown in 1985. Three years later he earned his master’s degree in Nigerian poetry from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. During 1993 and 1994, Griffith studied sociology and business at Columbia University on a Revson fellowship, a non-degree program for people who have proven to be leaders in their community.
Louis was born on August 24, 1962, in Harlem, New York, into a family with ancestral roots in Trinidad. He was raised in New Rochelle, New York, by his father, Edward J. Louis, a retired New York City police officer, and his mother, Tomi (Hawkins) Louis, a bookkeeper. He graduated from Harvard in 1984, received his master’s degree in political science from Yale in 1989, and has been living in Crown Heights in Brooklyn while writing a doctoral dissertation on the role of credit in urban development.
Though they left New York City to obtain degrees at Ivy League universities, Griffith and Louis chose to return to their communities and become a part of them. When asked whether they thought educated blacks should come back to their communities, Griffith told New York Newsday, “I think it is the right thing to do,” while Louis said he saw his return as an opportunity. Griffith told Contemporary; Black Biography, “I’ve always felt comfortable here. This is an exciting place to be. It’s alive, it’s vibrant, there’s so much potential. I never saw it as something that was necessary to escape but always found strength in it.”
Blending their concern for the black community with their interest in freelance writing, Griffith and Louis have written articles over the years on a wide variety of topics. Their pieces about ancestry, rape, jazz and computers, activism, campus racism, affirmative action, black politicians, community development, banking, and credit unions, have appeared in such publications as American Visions, City Limits, Essence, M Inc., Smithsonian, New York Newsday, and Black Enterprise.
Griffith also worked for a neighborhood improvement association in Crown Heights and for a Brooklyn assemblyman, Clarence Norman Jr., while Louis served as an associate director of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions in New York City. About his previous years as a Brooklyn community development professional, Griffith wrote in City Limits, “I have tasted the disillusionment and cynicism that many [directors of community development organizations] speak of.”
Griffith continued: “It’s more than a simple matter of grassroots burnout. When city and state funding agencies oppress organizations with overwhelming bureaucratic obligations and severely restrict input on community planning, it’s easy to start believing that your role is simply to uphold a government-subsidized status quo.” The alternative, he argued, is to create neighborhood institutions independent of city and state funding. “To many, the choice may seem ludicrous,” he wrote. “How can a low income community actually build and thrive using its own resources? The way I see it, there’s no other choice. It’s simply a matter of following the legacy handed down to me by my family and environment.”
In a sense, Griffith is following in the footsteps of his family. As he wrote in City Limits, “My parents, uncles, and aunts were involved in what is now an integral part of Brooklyn lore—the Ocean-Hill Brownsville decentralization battle, the Model Cities program and summer academy, and countless other black consciousness struggles and war-on-poverty programs…. I vividly remember the palpable sense of determination and endless possibility that pervaded the air…. We were poor, but with a blue-print of the future tucked away in our back pockets….”
After New York City’s biggest minority-owned bank, the Freedom National Bank, failed in 1991, Griffith and Louis began doing research on the lending policies of banks in their neighborhood. They discovered that the amount of deposits made by area residents far exceeded the amount banks were willing to loan to them. “For every dollar they took out of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, they gave back one penny in home lending,” Louis told the New York Times. With the results of their research and the backing of community activists, Griffith and Louis went to the banks to challenge what they found to be unfair practices. They knew they had won their argument when those banks made deposits in the credit union and reinvested in the area.
The credit union has since received deposits and commitments of monetary assistance from banks, including Bankers Trust, Chase Manhattan, Chemical, and Republic National. And it is not alone. Following the 1992 Los Angeles riots, credit unions have sprung up in economically depressed areas in Los Angeles; Omaha, Nebraska; and Denver, Colorado. Like the one in Brooklyn, they have also received charters from the Clinton administration.
“Being a [black] entrepreneur in New York City is really tough,” Louis told New York Newsday. “In many cases, it makes more sense to get a civil service job that comes with a pension and other benefits. There’s this aura around business ownership, and having made several loans now to local businesses, I think much of that myth-making has to be looked at very carefully. On the other hand, there is a lot of entrepreneurial activity here. It may not show up in the statistics, but a lot of people [are] driving cabs, a lot [are] street vendors. We get calls every single day from people selling perfume door to door, or baking cakes, or doing family-based day care.”
Louis has stated that his definition of success for the credit union did not just mean opening it and educating many people about it or even acquiring assets of ten to fifty million dollars. Rather, it meant bringing people in the African American and Caribbean communities together, people who will help the credit union to remain financially stable and provide its next generation of leaders. The institution has begun working with youngsters in the community, teaching them how a credit union works and how to save and manage their own money.
“Working with kids is the investment that we need to make if we plan to make an impact on the local economy in this neighborhood and on the social and political environment in which we live,” Griffith stated in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography. “We have to begin an education process so that they will know how to run an institution like this and become financially literate and assume a leadership position in this community. We’re trying to plant seeds now and harvest them later.”
Above all, Griffith told Charlayne Hunter-Gault on the Mac Neil/Lehrer Newshour in the fall of 1993, “If [people] can come away from being a part of the credit union knowing that institutions like this are very possible and whether they be economic institutions or political institutions, that we do have the power to, as I say, reinvent ourselves … I think whatever success comes about… is going to be more intangible than tangible. It’s going to be a psychological rebirth. That’s what we’re really looking for.”
City Limits, June/July 1990, p. 20; October 1991.
Crain’s New York Business, October 25-31, 1993.
Emerge, February 1994, p. 13.
Newsday (Melville, NY), May 29, 1991; October 7, 1991; December 23, 1993.
Newsweek, May 18, 1992, p. 34.
New York Times, April 25, 1993; February 10, 1994.
Additional information obtained for this profile was obtained from “Conversation: Banking in the Hood,” Mac Neil/Lehrer Newshour, PBS, November 8, 1993, and a Contemporary Black Biography interview with Griffith on June 10, 1994.
—Alison Carb Sussman
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