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OCC official: We want to be diversity role model for banks

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Carry yourself with dignity so that you may earn respect.

I learned that lesson growing up in rural North Carolina in the '60s and '70s from my mother, the principal of my high school, and my father, a minister who marched for civil rights as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

They were examples of what African American leadership and service meant, and they inspired me to a life of public service. They also prepared me for the reality that, as a woman of color, I would encounter bigotry and ignorance in the course of my life. Those life lessons proved valuable personally and professionally.

I chose to stay in North Carolina to pursue my dream of becoming a lawyer. I believed that path would allow me to address persistent racial and economic injustices.

As a student in the early '80s at Wake Forest University, where African Americans were a tiny fraction of the population, I was told when seeking help from an instructor, to ask someone of “my own kind.” Those words shocked me, but I was undeterred.

I engaged that moment with dignity — although it was not met with respect. And I realized the truth of another childhood lesson: I would have to work twice as hard to get half as far.

Following Wake, I chose North Carolina Central University Law School, a historically Black school and my father’s alma mater. NCCU had a great pass rate for the bar. More importantly, the dean, the instructors and other students looked like me. I was supported, challenged and pushed — hard.

I carried myself with dignity, and there, it was met with respect. I became part of the moot court team where we had great success — not among small schools or just other historically Black colleges and universities but against the big-name schools and Ivies.

We were coached to argue without notes, a respected tradition of NCCU law with no safety net to catch us. Looking back, I recognize this was preparation for the relevant life lesson — twice as hard, half as far.

In my third year during a career fair, I discovered the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. honors program and became the first African American admitted to the program. I joined the FDIC after earning my law degree with honors from NCCU in 1987 and began a 33-year (and counting) career regulating banks. I began at the FDIC, then at the Office of Thrift Supervision and now at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

During this time, I have seen progress in our country, in banking and in federal service. Yet I still see too few people who look like me in board rooms, in senior leadership positions among federal agencies and among international bank supervision leaders.

In those settings, just as in the nearly all-white classrooms of Wake, I am still among the very few women, and almost always the only woman of color.

That fact bestows a huge responsibility on me to represent other women, particularly women of color with the dignity to garner the respect we deserve. I am proud and humbled to have the opportunity to be an envoy for my gender, race and nation, demonstrating that there is strength in diversity.

As the head of bank supervision policy at the OCC today, I work with many talented and diverse women and men to ensure that the federal banking system operates in a safe, sound and fair manner.

For me, fairness is not a sound bite. It is a rally cry that my heritage obligates me to work toward. Bank supervision offered me an opportunity to fight inequality in a system that is fundamental to the livelihoods of all Americans — aligning, unexpectedly, with my career goal when I went into law. Fair access is built into the mission of the agency I serve by statute. I take this charge to heart. Unfairness stings in visceral ways.

We have a purpose and responsibility to model the kind of people we hope others become, through our work and behavior. That is why I have dedicated my career to breaking down the structural barriers that prevent some from being afforded dignity and respect that accompanies full and fair participation in the financial system.

It is why I am proud to associate my parents’ name with modernizing the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, to promote lending and investment in underserved communities. And also, supporting an OCC venture called Project Reach to tackle stubborn systemic issues that shut people out of a system that has bestowed wealth and benefits on others.

Few might have imagined that a Black preacher’s daughter from rural 1960s North Carolina would someday be responsible for shaping the standards for the largest banks in the world and community banks across our country.

At such a heady moment in our history, when social unrest continues as a consequence of too many people being excluded from or underserved by our financial system, I feel a special obligation to use this extraordinary opportunity to work toward making things fair for all.

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Diversity and equality OCC Gender discrimination Racial Bias Employee relations Employee roles
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