Next in our Fulcrum Fellows interview series is our interview with Nora Bloch. Nora is a Senior Loan Officer at Boston Community Capital, where she develops and implements new loan products to meet evolving community needs, including acquisition, pre-development, construction and permanent loans for community facilities, commercial economic development projects, healthy food financing, and affordable housing. In this interview, Nora shares the journey that led her to the CDFI world and how the Fulcrum Fellowship has catalyzed a shift in her thinking. Like most Fellows’, Nora’s fellowship challenge has evolved, but the core focus is to rethink her lending practice to achieve more equitable impacts.
Tell us a little bit about your background, and how you ended up in your role at Boston Community Capital.
I never knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I got a liberal arts degree and was a generalist from the beginning, but I was always interested in social justice. It took me a while to figure out how to make that my paid work. I bounced around several nonprofits after college and realized that what I was good at was the back-office, operations part. I might not be the person with the visionary idea, but I can figure out how to make that idea work. Through that, I came to the realization that I needed to go to business school. There are a lot of things that I knew I could learn by doing, but there are things, like accounting, that I needed to learn at school. So, I went to Yale School of Management, where about one third of the cohort there comes from the nonprofit and public sector, and they take a multisector approach to business. While at Yale, I went to a conference and heard about community development finance for the first time—the clouds parted and the sun shone through! —and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Of course, they don’t just hand you your dream job when you figure out what you want to do. But, for the last 15 years I have been truly living the dream as a community development lender, first at Eastern Bank and now at Boston Community Capital.
How did you end up at your current position?
I really learned how to be a community development lender at the last bank I worked at, and I had interacted with lots of folks at Boston Community Capital and knew they did interesting work. BCC rarely has openings though—people tend to stay here for a long time. When an opening came up, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
What challenge have you chosen to focus on in your Fulcrum Fellowship?
My challenge started out as adding an equity lens to our planned loan fund growth. We have a five-year goal of doubling impact and scale, and as we’re getting bigger, doing more loans and expanding staff, there has been a recognition that we need to create systems to think more strategically about how to have the most impact. As I now know through the Fellowship, we are essentially shifting from thinking of our work as a technical challenge to thinking about it as an adaptive challenge. This means we are not just doing transactions, but also being intentional about doing them in a way that has more impact in the community.
I’m working to identify systematic ways to change our lending practice. What can we put into operation, as a part of our systems, rather than just say, “we will think more about X, Y, Z?” I have a job share partner who is focusing on lending in Hartford with me. We are going to try out different ways to shift our lending practice and share how that goes with the rest of the lending team.
What are you learning about what it’s going to take to move your challenge?
The major things I’ve been thinking about are:
1. It’s possible to explicitly focus on racial equity by making general improvements in our practice. We’ve been identifying and recognizing the unspoken systems in which we are working, allowing us to highlight best practices and pinpoint areas we can improve. We tend to think we are just making loans, and, because most of us have been doing this for a long time, we can do a lot of it automatically. We don’t go through a checklist of all the components. I am thinking about how to flesh one out to be clear about what we’re doing. We can then think about what to change.
2. I’ve been thinking about impact in terms of how we can affect a population, rather than just those directly affected by a particular project. We make loans for projects, and it’s hard to say, “our dollars in that project affected 500 lives.” If we had population impact goals, would that change how we are lending and, if so, what else do we need to think about?
3. I’m working on tempering our impulse to just to jump in and fix everything. Systemic change will take time, and is more likely to be successful if we make small experiments, assess results, and then adjust as needed. While my fellowship is 15 months long, this is not a 12 to 15-month project to have the impact at the scale we want.
What have been the most valuable aspects of the Fulcrum Fellowship to you so far?
First off, Marian and Robin’s insights and teaching are invaluable. I have realized that I’m very much a person who thinks about deals at a very technical level. I didn’t know there were different ways to think about deals, especially systems level thinking. It has stretched my brain a lot, in a new way, to think about systems rather than just reacting to events. Marian had a slide about strategic questions and their characteristics, and that slide is now on my wall. I also passed around a slide to my colleagues about how to have a fruitful conversation, rather than go in circles. I will have a wall full of tools I’ve found useful, by the end.
Secondly, I can’t say enough about the partnership and learning from my peer fellows. Those people are amazing! My list of treasured learnings increases after every session.
What most excites you looking ahead to the rest of the year?
I look forward to every in-person meeting so much now! I can’t believe we only have one more meeting. These Fellows have become my comrades in arms, an extension of my work family. I am so interested in hearing about each person’s project and how they’re going and what happened. It’s reinvigorating to be together. One thing I was initially nervous about was the direct feedback that we have the opportunity to get from the entire group, but it has turned out to be such a nurturing and supportive experience. It’s like working through a challenge with a friend—it’s not antagonistic at all, but challenges me to stretch and grow. We are going to have a revolt because we are not going to let this end! '
What is your media diet? (One thing you read/listened to/watched recently, or what you do regularly)
I have to admit that I really love science fiction and fantasy books, especially ones that dig into what it’s like to be a person in the world. I recently read and loved the Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. While driving, I have been listening to the Seeing White podcast.