Irvine banker JoEtta Brown has often played the role of liaison between social causes and corporate America.
The American Dream Coalition begins offering incentives this week to help Californians of modest means become homeowners, and Brown has been a leader of the effort.
As community outreach coordinator and vice president of American Savings Bank, Brown, 53, chaired one of two key committees for the Coalition, an alliance formed by 30 banks, mortgage lenders and the California Assn. of Realtors. The Coalition held 359 seminars across the state at which 15,000 people learned about down payments and how to qualify for a loan. Those people will now get incentives such as lower fees if they buy homes by the end of August.
As chairwoman of the Coalition’s education committee, which trained 960 volunteers to set up and lead the seminars, she pushed to get the word out in Southern California to people, especially minorities, who might otherwise be intimidated by the home-buying process.
Brown is one of a cadre of financial executives who are combining their jobs with public service, said Marci Mills, a San Francisco banker who worked with Brown in the Coalition. Unlike after the Watts riots of 1965, when most remedies for social problems were government-based, market solutions are at the heart of the effort today, she said.
The Dream Coalition could also help to jump-start the California economy, said Mario Antoci, chairman and chief executive of American Savings. The participating banks and real estate agents will be competing for new business from the 15,000 seminar attendees.
“Real estate has always led the way out of recession,” Antoci said.
The Coalition was not Brown’s first experience as a negotiator for a social program. She was an adviser to Rebuild L.A. after the 1992 riots, creating a business expansion loan fund. She was instrumental in the expansion of Olive Crest, Orange County’s organization for abused children, into Los Angeles. And she persuaded American Savings to donate $125,000 to the Los Angeles Urban League to train Inglewood bank tellers and loan officers.
“I’m constantly amazed by how well-connected JoEtta is,” Antoci said. “She gets me into the mayor’s office--and they all give her a kiss on the cheek.”
But easy access does not ensure fast action, and Brown concedes that she often gets impatient.
“I have a frustration with systems, society and people that prevent things from changing,” she said. “Working where I do, I see the very worst kind of living conditions. So I take a lot of deep breaths, and I fight over again.”
Said Linda Smith-Gaston, a member of Rebuild L.A. who worked with Brown: “She is a person with a vision, and not everyone shares her vision. . . . Business people tend to work slowly.”
Steve Tragash, executive director of the American Dream Coalition, said he chose Brown to head one of the group’s two biggest committees because “JoEtta showed sensitivity to people.” Also, he said, “this committee is a collection of competitors, and I needed someone with a lot of diplomacy. She kept people happy, kept the program moving and kept a sense of humor.”
Putting people into their own homes has become a crusade for Brown because absentee ownership, she says, is a main cause of the decline of South-Central Los Angeles--the neighborhood where she grew up.
“That’s the key to community,” she said. “If you own a home, you’re not going to be as destructive.”
Home ownership can also lead to entrepreneurship, she said, noting that a large percentage of minority business people who start their own companies do so with home-equity loans.
Brown, born in Kansas City, Mo., was the only child of a single mother. They moved to South Central Los Angeles when JoEtta was 8. She attended Hobart Boulevard Elementary School and Manual Arts High School. Her mother worked as a domestic. The neighborhood then was pleasant and safe, Brown recalls.
However pleasant, discrimination did exist.
A couple of businesses--Carnation Ice Cream on Wilshire Boulevard and the Brown Derby restaurant--did not serve African Americans. “We said, ‘That’s not so important, we’ll just go to another place,’ ” she said.
A turning point was the murder of a friend who had gone to Mississippi to demonstrate against segregation.
“That changed the focus of my life,” Brown said. “I realized I need to take advantage of the opportunities that were offered to me.”
She started college and met her husband, James, during her freshman year, in 1959. They dropped out of school to start a family. Brown took her first banking position--as a part-time teller--to make money to furnish the couple’s new home in Morningside Park. She gave up that job to stay home and bring up three daughters. During those 15 years, she also completed work for a college degree in finance.
The Browns, who now live in Laguna Niguel, have been married for almost 35 years. James Brown, an assistant manager for a Lucky supermarket, speaks of his wife’s determination.
“She’s a perfectionist, sincere, very giving,” he said. “When she wants something accomplished, she wants it done the way she wants. But good fruits have come out of that attitude.”
When she went back to work in 1973, Brown started at American Savings’ Norwalk branch. She became a company vice president and branch manager, positions she held for more than 11 years.
In 1989, when Antoci became chairman of American Savings, he created the community outreach department, partly in response to criticism of the bank’s lending record in minority communities. He hired Brown as an outreach coordinator to keep the bank in touch with the African American community.
Antoci describes Brown as one of his “superstars.”
“It’s important in community outreach to empower your people to probe,” he said. “JoEtta is out in the field all the time, keeping us informed of what the community’s needs are.”
Under Antoci’s leadership, the bank has opened branches in the Crenshaw district and East Los Angeles. A Watts branch is under construction. By 1992, American Savings had become California’s top mortgage lender in low-income neighborhoods.
Despite the distance covered, Brown sees her journey as being far from over. When she drives through South Central Los Angeles, she says, she asks herself why are there no shopping centers, no restaurants for family outings. And where are Chuck E. Cheese and Baskin Robbins?
“They say they’re negotiating with the city,” she said, “but I would question what takes so long. Don’t they realize they can make money there?”
Company: American Savings Bank
Position: Vice president and coordinator for community outreach and urban development
Background: Joined American Savings Bank in 1973 as a part-time teller. Served as vice president and branch manager in the Norwalk branch for 11 years. Was project manager for Rebuild LA’s Business Development division for one year.
Organizations: Los Angeles Urban League, Black Business Assn., United Way, Orange County Human Relations Commission, Ralph Bunche Elementary School Mentor Program.
Credentials: Attended Mount St. Mary’s College and Los Angeles City College, participated in UCLA’s Certificate MBA Program.
Personal: Married, three children
Quote: “People don’t know that there is a lot of affordable housing here in Orange County. It’s hidden. Each developer is required to set aside 10% of the project for affordable housing. Next to those beautiful homes, you’ll see condos for as little as $97,000 to $120,000.”