Chuck Matthei and the Connecticut roots of CDFIs
Loan by loan, the Hartford Community Loan Fund (HCLF) moves toward its mission to help the city's low-wealth residents benefit from affordable, just financial services. Though its focus is Hartford-specific, HCLF is part of the larger story of community development financial institutions (CDFIs), a network of financial intermediaries inspired by such wide-ranging influences as the Civil Rights Movement in the rural South and Gandhi's theories of village economics in the countryside of India. But this national and international movement of innovative community-based economic systems also has roots right here in the Land of Steady Habits.
Land Trusts and Loan Funds
Connecticut was the home base for much of the work of Chuck Matthei, widely considered the "Johnny Appleseed" of the CDFI movement. As a young man, Matthei was a Vietnam War draft resister whose conscience was formed by his participation in the Black freedom struggle. In the late 1960s his activism brought him to the Committee for Nonviolent Action farm in Voluntown, Connecticut. There he studied a practical nonviolence based on Gandhi's social change philosophy. Rather than engaging only in isolated acts of protest, Matthei learned how to develop alternatives to social structures that result in the exploitation or oppression of certain segments of the population. In Voluntown Matthei worked with visionaries for the burgeoning community land trust movement, leading to the founding of the first community land trust in 1967, which secured long-term access to land for low-income descendants of sharecroppers in Georgia.
"Grafting a Conscience on the Capitalist"
Matthei continued to explore alternative economic initiatives as executive director for the Massachusetts-based Institute for Community Economics (ICE), the organization which in 1985 convened the gathering that would become the CDFI trade organization Opportunity Finance Network. Through ICE and later through Equity Trust (an organization he founded in Voluntown), Matthei helped sow the seeds for the creation of dozens of community loan funds in the northeast and throughout the U.S. A compelling communicator who invited both rich and poor to the table, Matthei was determined to rally corporations to exchange a sole orientation toward profit for a more transcendent goal of a greater community good. Addressing the burgeoning loan fund community in the 1970s, Matthei stated, "it's somehow our job to graft a conscience on the capitalist..."
By the time Matthei died in Voluntown in 2002 at the age of 54, his legacy included land trusts and loan funds across the country. His vision continues in his adopted state at the Hartford Community Loan Fund, where every transaction and every relationship combine to move toward the vision of a more inclusive prosperity.