Celebrating the birthday of a nonprofit you founded doesn’t have the same nostalgia-soaked feeling as your own birthday: rather than the bittersweet recollections of childhood, this celebration has the bracing feel of adulthood. I was 24 on February 10, 2009, when I filed Capital Good Fund’s articles of incorporation with the state of Rhode Island (incorrectly, it turned out; I later had to have an attorney re-file them). A young adult, in other words, 75% of the way through a graduate degree program at Brown. I don’t associate that time with the sweet innocence of youth, but rather with the excitement and confusion of finding my way, of ending my long academic career and embarking on the next long phase of life—work. So while on my birthday, November 14, I think about the passage of time, the aging of myself, my parents, and my friends, on February 10 what dominates my mind is intellectual and moral evolution—how I got from there to here.
2009 feels like a world away. Barack Obama had just become president, a fact that I had allowed to relax my moral tension, as though having a charismatic man in the Oval Office was in itself a solution to climate change or the other things that kept me up at night (apparently I wasn’t the only one to feel this way; how else to explain him receiving the Nobel Peace Prize simply for the fact of having become president?). This is not to say that I had ceased to worry about the future of the world or injustice, but that compared with this anxiety-riddled moment—Trump as president, the planet on fire—it was an idyllic time, a time during which the future was filled with possibility.
To trace the path from those halcyon days—graduation, starting a nonprofit, Democrats controlling the House, the Senate, and the White House—to today is a strange task. Yesterday, when I told my dad that Capital Good Fund was turning 11, he said, “Wow! The time has flown by!” To which I replied, not for me, it hasn’t! It has been a long and winding road. For the first few years, my inexperience and naïveté nearly put an end to the organization; at one point, our business loan portfolio had a default rate of over 25%! Compounding the problem was that my bipolar disorder was still being incorrectly treated as depression; my wild ups and downs did not lend themselves to thorough business planning. (For nearly all of 2010, I would work fourteen-hour days without getting tired; unfortunately, this was also the time during which I attempted our spectacularly unsuccessfully group-lending pilot modeled after Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Then the mania broke and I spent another year barely able to get out of bed, which meant that by 2011 we had an imploding loan portfolio, an uncertain business model, and a CEO seemingly incapable of thinking clearly enough to figure out what to do.)
Something I have discovered about myself over the years, however, is that what I sometimes lack in planning I make up for in persistence: for all the times that I’ve thought or even talked about quitting, I’ve never seriously considered it. Not when the portfolio was imploding and we had no business model. Not when we nearly ran out of money and had to lay people off, or the multiple times we came close to running out of money. Not when we have had staff turnover. Not when we faced the myriad ups and downs and mishaps and frustrations of being a fledgling company. Persistence, when added to passion, insight, and wisdom, is the secret ingredient, not to success necessarily, but to the possibility of success (anyone who discounts the role of luck in success is trying to ascribe to themselves powers that do not exist). You know how we managed to bring in a record $3.3 million in revenue in 2019? Every single workday, and I mean literally every day, I have a list of people to call, email and write. And I don’t just reach out to them once or twice: if I have reason to believe that the person—program officer at a foundation, loan officer at a bank, high-net-worth individual—is worth pursuing, I will follow up with them once a week until they tell me to buzz off or agree to a call. Then, after the call, I will continue to follow up; and if they tell me “now’s not a good time, check back in a year,” I will check back in a year, and in 13 months, and 13 months and two weeks…This persistence has the net effect of increasing the probability of good things happening, but not of guaranteeing them.
That’s one kind of persistence, without which it is impossible to sustain a nonprofit financially. But the greater persistence is spiritual, the absolute refusal to let go of the mission. If you have an idea with legs and a product or service that is needed by the community, that you believe in, and that has impact, then every day you have to pursue that idea as passionately—no, more passionately!—than Coca Cola tries to sell you sugar water. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve doubted that consumer loans are worth the trouble, or that financial coaching is an effective means of addressing poverty. But what has sustained me is a deep-seated knowledge that no quotidian vicissitudes can shake: the knowledge that what we are doing is right and good and just.
And so each day we advance the work. Days with little loan volume, or a personnel problem, or a loan default, or a grant denial are bad days, but somehow we must believe, must trust that if we get back to work there will be days on which we finance 15 loans and secure a grant and hire a new amazing employee. Not all on the same day; most days are just so-so, which is part of the challenge: in social justice, time is our most important tool and enemy. For injustice is urgent: we are morally obligated to remedy it now, yet justice comes slowly. That tension plays out in time—the struggle to marry prudence to passion and expedite the birth of a better world, which in reality is not a single event but a constant process of renewal and reversal, light and dark doing battle, life and death doing their cosmic dance. What we hope to do is to nudge things toward the eternal light of justice. That’s our calling and our task.
Capital Good fund is eleven and I am thirty-five. We have over $10 million in assets and $5 million in loans outstanding to our borrowers; a $4 million budget; 33 full-time employees; six offices in five states; a 95% all-time repayment rate on $10 million lent out to nearly 5,000 families; national recognition; and an exciting plan that calls for us to grow to a $90 million loan portfolio by 2024. On a personal level, I am extremely happily married; have a wonderful thirteen-month-old son and an adorable Beagle; own a home and car that have been financed with affordable, low-interest loans; am financially secure; have had nearly 30 poems published; and am doing an MFA in Poetry Program. In short, while the past eleven years have been rocky, personally and professionally, things have finally come together in a way that I could only have dreamed of all those years ago.
None of this is to say that there are not great headwinds awaiting us. For one thing, the state of the world, especially when it comes to the Trump Administration’s increasingly dictatorial actions and the ever-worsening climate crisis, often overwhelms, if not erases, the aforementioned good tidings. Nor is it guaranteed that Capital Good Fund will continue to do so well—funding might dry up, our loan portfolio might degrade, the regulatory landscape night change. I am left to wonder how am I to feel about growing a relatively small nonprofit when Democracy seems to be on its last legs. How do I raise a child, celebrate his milestones and delight in his growth, when our collective futures are so threatened by environmental catastrophe? The most common answer is that we must all do what we can—“think of the good you are already doing!”—but that feels like an easy excuse for inaction, or not enough action. As Capital Good Fund reaches new heights of impact and growth, I find myself questioning whether or not I should, at least until the election in November, focus more of my efforts on ensuring that Republicans lose the White House and the Senate. After all, if they remain in power, none of the work I do will matter: they will continue to gut the social safety net, erode civil liberties, loosen regulations, and install right wing judges who are pro-rich and pro-corporate, which is another way of saying anti-those-who-are-not-powerful—our clients, our mission.
Just as I have had to be indefatigable to get to where I am today—overcoming mental illness and numerous setbacks and detours in my professional life—so must we be implacable in the face of evil ascendant. This is the time for resistance, not resignation; determination, not despair. It turns out that no one was ever going to save us or bring forward a just world: not Barack Obama, not Muhammad Yunus, not some politician, musician, poet, activist, or business leader yet to emerge. No, it was always going to have to be all of us, working together with love, compassion, controlled anger, wisdom, righteousness, and determination.
By the time Capital Good Fund is 15, in 2014, I expect us to have a $90 million loan portfolio and generate 100% of our revenue from earned income, therefore freeing us from dependence on grants and donations. More broadly, it is my goal that humanity will have taken action on climate change concomitant with the scale of the problem, and that the cause of justice and freedom will once again become ascendant. How do we get there? The same way we get anywhere hard: relentlessly, recognizing that it is neither easy nor guaranteed to work, but working nevertheless. For our collective futures depend on this kind of hopeful action. I don’t mean here the bumper sticker hope of the Obama campaigns, but rather a hope described by Vaclak Havel, the Czech playwright and dissident who became the first President of the country after its liberation from Soviet domination. In Disturbing the Peace, he said:
“. . [T]he kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us, or we don’t. . . . Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. . . .
Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpromising the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” 
Such are my thoughts on this auspicious day and during these dangerous times.