Community Dividend

A conversation with ... JoAnne Lewellen, former Community Affairs Officer, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

Community Dividend spoke with JoAnne Lewellen about the Community Reinvestment Act, the evolution of the Community Affairs program during her tenure with the Minneapolis Fed, and the program's accomplishments in the Ninth District.

Published August 1, 2001  |  August 2001 issue

After 15 years of service to the Federal Reserve System, Community Affairs Officer JoAnne Lewellen recently left the Minneapolis Fed. Lewellen joined the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in 1986 as an examiner in Consumer Affairs and Trust. She transferred to the Minneapolis Fed in 1988, where she was promoted to manager in 1990 and assistant vice president and Community Affairs Officer in 1993. Lewellen has a bachelor's degree from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, and a law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Shortly before her departure, Community Dividend asked Lewellen about the Community Reinvestment Act, the evolution of the Community Affairs program during her tenure with the Minneapolis Fed, and the program's accomplishments in the Ninth District.

Community Dividend: You became the Minneapolis Fed's Community Affairs Officer, or CAO, in 1993. How has the community development scene in the Ninth District changed since then?

JoAnne Lewellen: Throughout the Ninth District, there's much more discussion around regional policies than a few years ago. The focus used to be very locally based, so this is a big change in how we view issues and how change is implemented.

Another change I've seen over the last few years is that people are starting to look at community development in a more holistic way. Organizations are trying to learn about multiple issues in their community that may have an impact on their specific work. Therefore, they're increasingly aware of factors that affect economic conditions in their community and how these factors are interrelated. Community development is more complex under this kind of model, but it should produce results that are sustainable.

I also see an increasing emphasis on small business development throughout the District. Communities are putting less emphasis on seeking big business and are focusing on nurturing small businesses, including start-ups, within the community.

CD: What was the Community Affairs program like in 1993, and how has it evolved?

JL: The Community Affairs program has changed significantly since then. In 1993, we had less than two full-time staff members and we now have more than five. Community Affairs has more visibility now, since we started the program from scratch and built it up. Bankers and community groups have always been receptive to information on community development programs, but we have had to overcome an overall lack of knowledge of what we do.

CD: Community Affairs has developed initiatives for three program areas in the Ninth District: the Twin Cities and other urban areas, rural areas and Indian Country. What are some of the most significant contributions Community Affairs has made in urban and rural areas?

JL: For the Twin Cities, our convening ability is significant. There are many organizations and active government partners in the metro area, so the challenge is getting the right people together to talk about specific issues and to learn about the programs available to address them.

In rural areas, we've been providing information that can't be obtained elsewhere through the Community Dividend, training and banker roundtables. Given the smaller number of rural-based organizations, developing partnerships with existing rural development organizations and creating ties to expand their activities is our main objective. This can be crucial, because many rural areas seem to be struggling with how to define and sustain themselves.

CD: Much of your work has focused on community development in Indian Country. What are some of the most notable Community Affairs accomplishments in this program area?

JL: The knowledge we've gained from working with many of the reservations in our District has enabled us to make these issues visible to a national audience and to share issues and ideas with other Reserve Banks that serve native populations. Identifying global issues, such as financial literacy and sovereign lending, and then assisting with programs to address those needs has contributed to community development in Indian Country. I think the fact that we are committed to building and maintaining relationships with tribes and their members is also significant.

CD: Let's talk about the Community Reinvestment Act. You were Community Affairs Officer in 1995, when the regulations were last revised. What effect did those revisions have?

JL: When I think back to the revisions made to the CRA in 1995, it's clear that they achieved the stated goal of moving examinations to a more performance-based evaluation than before, and it also reflects the ever-changing community development environment in which banks operate.

CD: When the revisions were made in 1995, the federal regulatory agencies agreed to review the CRA again in 2002. What comments do you expect they'll receive during the upcoming review?

JL: It will be interesting to see what kinds of comments are received from both the nonprofit and banking communities. My guess is that they may receive comments on the three tests [lending, service and investments] and their relative significance in the examination process, the geographic focus of the assessment area and possibly on the definition of community development and whether or not it should be changed.

CD: Many new community development tools—such as Community Development Financial Institutions, revolving loan funds and the New Markets Tax Credit Program—have emerged in recent years. What role can the Fed play in promoting these tools and facilitating the development of others?

JL: Our strength is the ability to attract an audience or convene the necessary partners to discuss an issue or a program in an open forum. So providing information and educational programs about the new tools is a good role for us. I also believe that we shouldn't be afraid to provide a forum to discuss the pros and cons of a particular community development tool. If there's a strong view that's critical of a certain tool or program, then we shouldn't be afraid to present that viewpoint. We don't know how organizations are going to use a certain tool, but we can provide them with as much information as possible on the subject and let them make an educated decision as to whether or not it is a good fit for them.

CD: Looking back on your time with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, what accomplishments or initiatives are you especially proud of?

JL: For me, personally, I'm proud to have used my knowledge about the diverse issues of the Ninth District and its communities despite the large geographic area and dynamic environment in our program. Within the Federal Reserve System nationally, I'm proud of providing leadership in Community Affairs in the early use of the Internet for distributing information, and in strategic planning by directing the formal assessment of our working environment at the national level.

I'm most proud of building the Community Affairs program. You can't accomplish much of anything without an established program, and we've been able to build ours from scratch and sustain it over time.

Given our limited resources and a constantly changing environment, it's a real challenge to maintain our knowledge base and determine what role we can play while operating within our mission as part of the Federal Reserve System. I'm proud of the fact that we've met that challenge by increasing the visibility of the Federal Reserve Bank in the community development arena and providing intellectual leadership in Indian Country that has elevated those issues to a national audience.

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