Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A bank unlike any Charlotte has seen

Is there room in Banktown for a lender willing to finance the dreams of entrepreneurs living below the poverty line?

A civic-minded group of local business executives remains $1 million short of its goal to establish a Charlotte version of the world-renowned Grameen Bank of Bangladesh.

The sooner they get that money, the sooner they can bring to Charlotte the micro-credit concept that won Grameen founder Muhammad Yunus worldwide admiration and the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize:

You can make a small business loan to people who are poor and expect it to be paid back, with interest.

The public had the opportunity to see this idea explained in a documentary, “To Catch a Dollar,” which was shown Thursday in uptown Charlotte’s Epicentre Theater. The film features Yunus and personal finance expert and TV personality Suze Orman.

Yunus, a professor, established the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 1983. He got the idea after loaning small amounts of money to poor basket-weavers in the mid-1970s. Replicas of the bank now operate in more than 100 countries.

In 2008, supporters brought this idea to the United States, opening Grameen America in Queens, NY. That organization now operates branches in Brooklyn, Upper Manhattan and Omaha, Neb. It is preparing to open two more in Indianapolis and San Francisco.

Charlotte’s organizers have $1.5 million of the $2.5 million they need to open Grameen Charlotte, which will operate as a nonprofit. They expect to assist 3,500 borrowers in the first four years.

Borrowers targeted are below the household poverty line of $22,050 a year. In 2009, that amounted to 14,500 households in Charlotte. Applicants undergo a financial training program before being approved for a loan of up to $1,500. Loans are repaid over six to 12 months.Grameen America reports a repayment rate of 99 percent.

“The nice thing is, this is ready to go,” said John Lassiter, a former city council member, mayoral candidate and businessman who co-chairs the Charlotte effort and helped lead an informational session at Whitehead Manor this week. “Once we have the cash in hand, they have a branch manager who is ready” to come to Charlotte.

Their biggest gift to date has been $500,000 from Wells Fargo, followed by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation ($450,000), the City of Charlotte ($230,000), the Leon Levine Foundation ($100,000) and the Ginter Foundation ($100,000). Gifts from individuals total $71,500.

People can also choose to invest in Grameen, in $1,000 increments. Those investments are repaid in five years at an annual interest rate of 1%.

For more about the Grameen Charlotte campaign, contact co-chair Sara Garces at or campaign committee member Joe Mynatt at

Reach Rick Thames at or 704-358-5001.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Congress, spend a weekend in D.C.

Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to congratulate members of Congress who return to their home districts each week.

Sure, it sounds virtuous. "I don't stay in Washington any more than I have to," the line often goes. "I'd rather be home, keeping in touch with the people I represent."

But a couple of veteran observers say this commuter mentality contributes mightily to the animosity and gridlock that keeps Congress from working together for the good of the nation.

Bob Beckel and Cal Thomas co-write a column called "Common Ground" for USA Today. Beckel is a political liberal, Thomas a conservative. The pair were in Charlotte last week to speak to the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club.

They are funny as a pair, the political odd couple. Their put-downs fly as freely as you'd expect on any political talk show (here's a taste from another appearance). But they are deadly serious about their friendship beyond politics, and they make a point of showing that to their audience.

One problem with Washington, they say, is that nobody goes out of their way anymore to build bipartisan friendships. Our elected representatives fly in on Tuesday, vote on bills they often haven't read, then fly out again on Thursday.

There was a time when politicians lived in Washington. They mingled socially, met each other's spouses, talked about their children. They got to know one another as human beings and, in the process, found that common ground. This sometimes led to a common courage to find solutions to the nation's problems, despite their differences.

This notion at first struck me as quaint, if not naive. Could the problems of Congress really be helped with a few more backyard barbecues?

But we all know the penchant people have for demonizing other people who are not like them, people that they don't actually know. In grade school, it leads to bullying. In grownups, it surfaces as ugly episodes of racial and class prejudice.

So, why should we expect anything but a pathetic outcome when politicians wall themselves off from their political opponents? The opponent equals the enemy, someone to be despised and ridiculed. Is it any wonder that each party would rather run the country aground than be caught crafting a compromise?

Of course, they act this way in part because they think this is what voters expect. And that was a parting point from Beckel and Thomas. Change won't come first in Washington. It has to start in places like Charlotte.

Seek out someone you disagree with politically and start a conversation, they said. Keep talking until you understand why that person holds those convictions. Find out what you have in common and find ways to build on that.

It's fashionable these days for members of Congress to hold "town meetings" in their districts. Often, these end up as partisan affairs, bordering on pep rallies. I'm imagining a town meeting of a different kind.

Our representatives are invited to appear together, Democrats and Republicans, alike. The audience consists of pairs of people already having conversations about their political differences -- already seeking common ground.

Would the expectations of that audience be different? Would those voters say, "Sure, go ahead, work with your political adversaries for the sake of the nation?"

Of course, one conversation, or even one town meeting, won't provide enough cover for a politician to safely cross the line and talk. But we have to start somewhere.

Your members of Congress need a new role model if they are to break out of this cycle of destructive politics. And that role model is you.

Reach Rick Thames at or 704-358-5001.