Inspiration thrives on purpose and urgency. David Bowers’ masterly oratory illuminated that point last month when he officially opened the pitch event for the Housing Affordability Breakthrough Challenge, energizing the room as finalists vying for grant dollars prepared for their moment on stage.

An ordained minister, Rev. Bowers is vice president, Mid-Atlantic Market, and senior advisor, Faith-based Development Initiative, for Enterprise. In a small auditorium at the National Building Museum, he gave a rousing speech that underscored the finalists’ “courage and commitment” and the importance of their steadfast pursuit of housing solutions, no matter the outcome of the event.

“As Rev. Bowers referenced, most of our time is spent heads down addressing very challenging problems,” said Matt Pritchard, president and executive director of HomeStart, one of the 16 finalists in the innovation challenge, made possible with the Wells Fargo Foundation’s support. “To be around a group of people who are so committed to the same level of justice and grace is really good for the heart and mind.”

As we announce a new cohort of Breakthrough Challenge winners this week, we share excerpts of Rev. Bowers' remarks, below, and a link to the recording of the full speech. 

Infinite Possibilities, Finite Time

Humans have the ability to do so much and be so many different things. And yet – the clock is ticking. From the day we are born our time is running out. For all that may be possible to imagine and dream and create and do and be, each breath we take brings us closer to the end.

I know this reality all too well. When I had to bury my brother in the same cemetery where I buried my parents, I had to buy a plot. And they only came in twos. They asked who was going in besides my brother. I said, well since I’m paying for it, you better put my name down.

Then they tell me the headstone has to be done for both now. Whaaaat? Yes. So I have a picture on my phone of the gravesite where I will be buried with a headstone with my picture and name, date of birth, and a dash. All it is waiting for is a body and a date of death.

For me it is a reminder that my run on this planet is limited. My time in this form and fashion is limited.

So what is the takeaway?

Redeem the time. Make the most of each moment we are alive. Dream big. Love hard. Work for justice. Fight for what is right. Do things that bring beauty to the world and to others. Have transformational aspirations!

Know Your Role, Play Your Role

One of the biggest challenges we have in our industry is small thinking. We are confined to the limits of what has always been done, cursed by what a professor of mine called “the sin of pragmatism” and bound by a scarcity mentality.

I applaud all of you for looking for ways to go beyond what is and looking at what should be and what could be.

Recently, after his team was booed by fans, New York Giants’ offensive tackle Evan Neal said, “Why would a lion concern himself with the opinion of a sheep? ... The person that’s commenting on my performance, what does he do? Flip hot dogs and hamburgers somewhere?”

There was much hullabaloo over the comments on sports talk shows, and he soon issued an apology.

It reminded me of another one of our great challenges we have in our field. There is not enough open and honest conversation. Mr. Neal made the mistake of saying out loud what he was really thinking. He sees himself as a lion. In the animal kingdom lions are predators. Strong. Rulers of their land. Sheep are prey. Weak and in need of protection.

Challenge and change thinking and systems. You are all innovators. You are doing that.
David Bowers, Enterprise Community Partners

We all need to know our role and play it. At times in our lives we may flow between being a wolf … or the sheep … or the shepherd.

Let me offer for your consideration – those of us in this line of work, any line of work where we are actively trying to help people, especially people who may have fewer resources or power in the sense the world sees it. We are playing a shepherd role.

Make No Mistake: There are Wolves

A role to look out for folks, to help them live safely and realize their full potential – while being protected against the wolves in our world. And make no mistake. There are wolves.

They show up as individual people and individual acts. They show up as mindsets that would keep some people down and exclude them from opportunities. They show up as systems that literally are designed to work for some and against others. Some will refer to broken systems. Another point of view is that the system is working exactly how it was intended to work – benefit a certain group of people at the expense of others.

There are wolves in our midst. Sometimes they get caught. Sometimes they get exposed. Sometimes they get punished. But often – they go unchecked. Whether the individual or corporation or the unjust system is at play, we live in a world where wolves prey on what they perceive to be sheep.

We need to ask ourselves, what role are we playing? In our jobs. With the work we do. Are we a wolf, a sheep, or a shepherd? Acknowledge the role and then play it.

If we are to be shepherds, I offer from the lesson of Jesus that we must be more than hired help. We don’t own the sheep but to have maximum impact, this must be more than a job.

It should be a vocation. A calling. Perhaps in our modern day work context, being willing to “give our lives” for the sheep may mean a willingness to devote our time and energy wholeheartedly with courage and conviction. Only then will we not wilt in the face of the wolves. We won’t run off.

We won’t allow our righteous indignation to be silenced by a grant or an invitation to a gala or a seat on the board. We also won’t be run off by someone saying, “no.”

Pressing Past the Resistance

When we play our roles as the good shepherd we are looking to press past the resistance of status quo thinking, the threats of being seen radical or too pie in the sky. Past the apathy and indifference that allow us to live in a world of so many frivolous pursuits while so many of our fellow citizens languish with constant struggle and daily traumas and slights.

And be mindful – if we are at the gate and supposed to be watching out for the sheep – if we don’t play our role but continue to stay in the position – that is when the okey dokey can happen and sheep get snatched because we were not playing our role.

Folks ask, how could that happen? Wasn’t the shepherd there? Alas, co-opted and fell asleep at the watch.

As good shepherds, we have to be vigilant and courageous. Fight for just appropriations levels by the public sector. Work to increase investments by the private sector. Engage philanthropy to deploy its capital more aggressively, justly and creatively. Invite and challenge businesses and foundations to see the deployment of their capital as investments in the common good that may have a wide range of returns – traditional and non-traditional.

Group of people standing up and applauding, with gray seats in the foreground.
Audience members give David Bowers a standing ovation after his opening remarks at the Housing Affordability Breakthrough Challenge pitch competition.

And in some cases, challenge them to see their investments as reparative justice. Challenge and change thinking and systems. You are all innovators. You are doing that.

A good example is 2020 Housing Affordability Breakthrough Challenge winner Center for NYC Neighborhoods. Their Underwriting for Good innovation is working to expand access to credit by looking beyond traditional metrics of credit worthiness to increase access to homeownership for BIPOC families in New York State.

They’re using alternative credit data to demonstrate borrowers’ ability to repay a home mortgage. They are working to do what I like to call “build it into the code”: embed this into how folks do business every day.

This is the role we are called to play. Let’s play it! We are not called to be a muddling people. Go along to get along people. Passive and scared people.

If the wolves in our ecosystem sense that, the folks that will rob and cheat and steal and discriminate and lock folks out of opportunity will go hard. We must do the same.

Show Up Rain or Shine

What you do matters to people. So show up – rain or shine. The work you do every day matters.

Recently, the 100 Black Men of Greater Washington recently held our kick-off cookout for this year’s Saturday Leadership Academy mentoring effort. We work with 7th- to 12th-grade Black boys across the region.

After a sunny week, rain came on Saturday morning. Some parents and students were asking the night before, will the event still take place? Our chapter president is a former Marine and the mentoring committee chairman spent 20 years in the Army, so I knew the answer. As a founding member of the chapter, I was asked to share a word with the assembled group. I did so just as the rains had subsided and folks were taking off their ponchos.

In a city where thousands of young Black boys and men have been murdered in the last 20 years, a city where 64% of carjackings are committed by youth, we can’t afford to let some rain deter us. It doesn’t deter the shooters and the carjackers!

When [people are] homeless [they are] homeless rain or shine. When folks are being denied mortgages – rain or shine. When folks can’t find affordable rental housing – rain or shine. When not enough of the right type of capital is available to make a transaction work – rain or shine. When the planet suffers because of climate change – rain or shine.

Please, please, please – play your role – rain or shine.

You spent hours working on a grant application for money that would provide critical support to help you do your work, or scale an idea… and you got denied. Keep showing up rain or shine.

Once again you have to organize folks and show up to educate elected officials on the needed land use changes that promote equity, or higher budget levels for affordable housing, or improvements in the efficiencies of permitting and approvals – keep showing up. Rain or shine.

Here we go again, having to pull together eight layers of financing to make this deal work to provide sorely needed safe and affordable housing – and the underwriters are giving us 99 hoops to jump through.

Keep showing up rain or shine.

It is hard to find funding from the government or foundations to pay for the critical services you are providing to residents who have experienced trauma and rejection and apathy and bias.

Please – keep showing up. Rain or shine. Keep showing up. Celebrate the wins, kick the dirt on the losses, then buckle up and keep at it.