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Martin Eakes
Self Help

Durham, North Carolina

Interviewed by Lynn Adler
Producer of Faith, Hope and Capital

Under the leadership of Martin Eakes, Self Help has helped thousands of unbankable people become home owners. Now he's challenging commercial banks to pick up the ball.

Read a portion below or go to a printer-friendly page of the full interview.

ME: I grew up during desegregation in the South, and it really was the factor that shaped me. I grew up in a community that was predominantly black, on the south side of Greensboro. The hometown where I grew up had always announced to the world that it was one of the more progressive Southern towns, in terms of race. When the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was first announced, that city announced that it would be the first to comply.

But, like lots of other Southern city, it took many, many years before that actually got implemented. It was really when I was high school that the public school that I attended began to desegregate. Having grown up in a community where my friends were unable to do the things that I could do, always struck me as being morally corrupt, and still does. Basically, we had a very naive vision that we wanted to do good in the world and not much clarity beyond that. That's where we started from and we bumped our noses on every single stone in the road that could be bumped on.

When Self Help first started we were interested only in starting small businesses. We felt like jobs were the key piece that would make a difference for most poor families. And, it took us——we were very slow learners——took us maybe five to six to seven years before we came across what I call one of the key facts of Self Help. That fact is the disparity of wealth between black and white. Now, I knew this personally, growing up in a predominantly black community, but I didn't know it in an intellectual way.

What we found really startled us and made us angry really. We found that black families, and minority families in general, have an average net wealth of about $4400. Well, you can say that sounds not so bad, until you then hear that the average net wealth of white families is $44,000. That's basically an 11 to 1 difference between black and white. That one factor translates into every single other dimension of economic life that you can imagine.

We then found that 60 to 70 percent of the wealth of both families, white or black, was held in the equity that people own in their home. We ended up, not because we cared about shelter per se, but because we found that for minority, and rural and women entrepreneurs to have the kind of stake to get started in a business, they had to first be able to own a home. So, we became preachers for the importance of owning a home.

Really, I still think, there are two legs that any kind of economic justice stands on. One looks at wealth, the other looks at knowledge. Unfortunately, in many ways in this country, we are unwilling to talk about either, about wealth or knowledge. I believe you can measure a civilization by how well it creates opportunity for its bottom half. You don't have to worry about the top half. The top half will always find its own opportunities because it has wealth. So, for us, becoming involved in home ownership was the single way of trying to undo the legacy of slavery in North Carolina.


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