November 29, 2012
By Rahfin Faruk
“I don’t want to use a credit card, and I can’t go to a bank.”
This was the first statement that Dallas sculptor Heather Ezell made to me. She, like many other West Dallas residents, lacks access to traditional financial institutions.
Usurious payday loan companies and money lenders dominate West Dallas’ financial landscape. Even when local entrepreneurs have viable business plans, they are unable to gain access to capital.
Ezell’s plan is an innovative one. Already the sculptor behind a successful art business — she has been commissioned for many national works — she wants to start a workshop to train other local area artists to sculpt.
“When I was interested in sculpting, I couldn’t find anything local. I had to go all the way to Italy to learn how to sculpt. It was very expensive and time-consuming,” Ezell said to me in our first conversation at her West Dallas art studio.
Although she already has demand for workshops, she doesn’t have the necessary financial capital to buy supplies — tools, clay and electrical equipment.
Access to capital is a critical problem facing West Dallas, even after the opening of the Margaret Hill Hunt Bridge and the start of the Trinity River Project.
As someone who grew up in the suburbs, I knew little about Dallas beyond this: A city with little resource and geographical advantages became a national leader in technology and energy. What Dallas’ popular narrative often excludes is its uneven development — a relatively underdeveloped south and a resource-rich north.
As an SMU student who first learned about these issues in an honors class that discussed the history and current state of the city, I decided to get involved about a year ago.
At first, I started making trips to community centers and nonprofits in West Dallas. Then I started getting to know the local food treasures — fresh brisket tacos on Singleton and fried chicken livers at Mama’s Daughters Diner.
Along the way, I discovered that West Dallas was a hub for cultural and social capital. It has a diverse population and even more diverse ideas.
West Dallasites I spoke to understood the needs of their city. They were fearful of the effects of outsider-initiated development and the potential for gentrification.
Many West Dallasites I spoke to thought the best way to save the uniqueness of their part of the city was to turn their ideas into reality. But that’s where the lack of access to financial capital comes in. Risk-averse banks are afraid to give money to “unproven” entrepreneurs with limited or bad credit histories and fewer assets. Banks, especially after the housing crisis, use very specific criteria to give out loans.
“It’s frustrating. I can’t do anything to improve my situation,” a student at Pinkston High School in West Dallas told me.
This was when I decided that I had to do try to do something — no matter how small. I decided to launch a microfinance initiative, Green Riba, which would exclusively focus on West Dallas.
With the help of a Big iDeas grant from SMU’s Provost Office and advice from many faculty members and students, my simple idea came to action.
Microfinance has changed the world. Whether it is the lives of millions of women in rural Bangladesh or an artist in West Dallas, small loans can have huge impacts. Because of a unique business model that uses profits from a small T-shirt and supplies company we run solely for the purpose of subsidizing Green Riba’s loans, we do not charge our borrowers any interest.
If Green Riba gives a $2,000 loan, it expects $2,000 back — no more, no less. At the beginning of December, it will give Heather Ezell a $2,500 loan so she can begin teaching aspiring sculptors.
But Green Riba is only a small fish in the sea. West Dallas needs more financial institutions and initiatives willing to give its entrepreneurs a fighting chance.
Entrepreneurs like Heather will determine the future not only of West Dallas but also of the collective city.
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