(from left) Christine Drennon Director of Urban Studies at Trinity University, Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4), LiftFund President and CEO Janie Barrera, and Rivard Report Publisher Rober Rivard participate in a panel titled 'Capitalism: A Tool for Social Justice.' at Smoke on East Commerce Street.
(from left) Christine Drennon, director of urban studies at Trinity University, Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4), LiftFund President and CEO Janie Barrera, and Rivard Report Publisher Robert Rivard participate in a panel titled 'Capitalism: A Tool for Social Justice.' Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A county commissioner, educator, and nonprofit CEO on Wednesday said increasing small-business and affordable-home ownership could raise the level of equity in San Antonio, one of the nation’s most economically segregated cities.

More than 70 people gathered at Smoke The Restaurant on East Commerce Street for the discussion, “Capitalism: A Tool for Social Justice,” presented by the Young Professionals Network of LiftFund, the local nonprofit lender to small businesses.

Rivard Report Publisher Robert Rivard moderated the discussion, which included LiftFund President and CEO Janie Barrera, Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4), and Christine Drennon, director of urban studies and associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University. The discussion had been rescheduled due to severe weather conditions during DreamWeek in January.

Small business plays a big role in helping people build personal wealth, realize ownership, and empower their community, said Barrera, the first employee of LiftFund, formerly Accion Texas, when it was established in 1994. The organization has since loaned more than $300 million to small businesses, and has a 96 percent repayment rate. LiftFund has a presence in 13 states and employs more than 100 people.

Barrera thanked corporate community supporters of LiftFund, including Wells Fargo, one of four banks that provided LiftFund with initial loan seed money. Wells Fargo presented LiftFund with a $350,000 check at Wednesday’s event to show its continuing support.

Barrera said such corporate investments help LiftFund and similar organizations support the growth of small businesses, especially those owned and operated by women and people of color.

“We have a 9 percent African-American community in San Antonio, but our portfolio here in San Antonio of African-American businesses is over 13 percent,” she said. “We want to grow that number.”

When Rivard asked panelists how capitalism and socialism, or social justice, could bring about more equity in San Antonio, Barrera described LiftFund’s mission as a combination of “the best things about socialism and capitalism.”

“When I was growing up, everyone was about community giving – making sure people are fed, clothed, and have shelter,” she explained. “But then after doing this work in economic justice, I thought those are great things, but if you don’t have a dollar in your pocket, how are you going to be able to provide those things? Creating a small business, or being a sole proprietor, is a way to do that.”

Barrera said owning a small business is easier than running a large corporation because “there’s more control at the small business level” to adequately compensate employees in the immediate community.

Calvert said developing more affordable housing, disincentivizing further development of high-end housing, and better workforce education are the keys to equity.

“It is not a poor people’s issue, it’s an everybody issue,” Calvert said.

“Will we be a city and county of the past on poverty, education, preservation – all those socioeconomic issues – or will we reinvest in our neighborhoods and our families [so] that we can elevate [ourselves] into the information technology [and] digital, economic future? This is why housing is fundamental for us to get out of our rut.”

Calvert, who said people build wealth by passing on housing investments to the next generation, is leading an effort aimed at more County-supported initiatives to encourage  more affordable housing development.

He led a two-hour discussion about the issue in mid-February, prompting the Commissioners Court to approve a proposal to hire a housing consultant and form a citizen’s advisory committee.

But Calvert and Drennon said the County and City must erase the vestiges of a history of discriminatory practices regarding women and minority home and business ownership. Drennon often writes and speaks about that history in her work.

According to Calvert, San Antonio has a combined 76.9 percent non-Anglo minority population, yet locally, Hispanics have 18 times less wealth than whites, and blacks have 20 times less wealth than whites. At 53 percent, San Antonio’s home ownership rate is more than 10 percentage points lower than the statewide average of 64 percent, he added.

“Part of the history that Dr. Drennon talks about is not just a history of segregated neighborhoods, but it’s also a history of stolen land, taken land, of leaving people behind over many generations, and not allowing people to own land and get ahead in the American Dream,” he said.

In this society, Drennon said, people do not have equal levels of access to job opportunities, education, capital and housing.

Director of Urban Studies at Trinity University Christine Drennon and Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calver (Pct. 4) discuss the topic.
Christine Drennon, director of urban studies at Trinity University, and Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) discuss economic disparity. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“So, what do we do about that? We work within the capitalistic, exploitive system and try to change the outcomes in it. Then we try to change the capitalistic system. That’d be a revolution.”

Local government can help right social injustice by changing the way it does business, Drennon said, lauding two recent City actions. The first was the decision to withdraw San Antonio’s bid to become home to Amazon’s second corporate headquarters – a search that likely would have involved tax abatements and other economic incentives meant for large-scale projects.

The second was the City’s move to temporarily suspend some development incentives that local officials say have unintentionally led to affordability issues with urban-core housing.

“These are two enormous stops by our local government that said, ‘Capital[ism], stop, we’re going to do this on our terms, San Antonio’s terms’,” Drennon said. “[When] that word gets out … people will listen and they will follow.”

Calvert said capitalism can be a force for social change because it provides freedom and empowers people to do good for the less fortunate.

“There’s a lot of value to our ability to have a society that pulls together and raise tens of millions of dollars for hurricane victims or any other cause,” he added.

Barrera said there’s value to both capitalism and socialism. “The difference is in capitalism, you can own something. In socialism, you can’t own anything. The way you break the cycle of poverty is owning something.”

LiftFund representatives said a video of the entire discussion would soon be made available on the nonprofit’s YouTube channel.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.