Exploring Power, Privilege, and Opportunity in Our Communities and at the San Francisco Fed
January 14, 2020
“Walk into the lobby of our San Francisco office, and you see a sign that says, ‘Our work serves every American and countless global citizens.’ I want people to think about how the work we do every day affects the spectrum of people outside our walls, privileged and disadvantaged, so we can continuously affect better outcomes,” says Bina Shrimali a senior researcher with the San Francisco Fed’s Community Development team.
Shrimali is known for exploring issues of inequity and inclusion in our local communities and at the Bank. Her family background underpins her passion for her work. Although she grew up in a nice neighborhood in Danville, California, the Bay Area native always wondered about how economic and social opportunity reached some people but not others.
“My family has a unique story, which has significantly influenced my research. My parents met in the United States in Louisiana in 1969, when my dad was in an engineering graduate program. I feel like they wouldn’t have met if they were in India because their families were from different social classes and social circles. My mom’s family is upper-middle-class from Bombay. My paternal grandfather was a peanut farmer, and my father is the eighth child out of nine from a farming family,” she says.
With support from his older brothers, Shrimali’s father moved away from their village after seventh grade, the highest grade at the local school, to live with relatives and pursue his education. Later, as an adult, he accompanied a family friend to get a U.S. Visa. That visit encouraged him to consider getting a Visa himself.
Even as a child, Shrimali would compare the life she led with those of her first cousins—on both sides of her family.
“My brother, sister, and I were always aware of how lucky we were to grow up in a very safe and well-resourced neighborhood. Our schools were terrific. It was a given that we would go to school and go to college. Our parents put those expectations into our minds, and we knew they’d support us. My father sponsored his nieces and nephews to stay with us to help improve their chances at a better life. They would get jobs and work together to achieve a better life. I would think, ‘Why do I have all of these chances? Why do my cousins on one side of the family have them, but my cousins on the other side don’t?’ I didn’t think it was fair,” she reveals.
Shrimali thinks of her father as having luck on his side, as he took advantage of a series of random opportunities to achieve success.
“He ended up with a Visa, studying in the United States and Louisiana, because a series of people said, ‘Maybe you should consider it.’ I always think, there’s so much potential in the world and so many people like my dad. You hear stories about people who don’t have the chance to fulfill a calling or achieve their full potential. Trying to understand and right those factors has always been my driving force,” she says.
As an undergrad at UC Berkeley, Shrimali studied economics and English. Her first job out of college was at a benefits consulting company. That’s where her career began to take focus.
“One day, I was crunching numbers and realized that businesses hired us to figure out ways to pay fewer taxes. I started asking, who has access to this information? Why is the system set up this way? I decided that if I was going to continue doing data work it should be in the service of good,” she says.
Shrimali joined AmeriCorps and started teaching asthma education in Oakland, California, working directly with community residents for the first time. Her work in Oakland communities continued from there for nearly a decade. That experience continues to shapes her perspective to this day.
“Oakland is less than 30 minutes away from where I grew up, but the resources in these two communities are completely different. Working in Oakland, I realized that it’s almost like we have two Bay Areas: one where people have chances and one where everybody is trying but systems are failing them. It’s not about choices. A lot of talented people don’t get opportunities because they face racism or hiring challenges, or their schools are not adequately resourced,” she says.
During this time, Shrimali attended UC Berkeley to obtain her masters and doctorate in public health. Through her graduate studies, which focused on social epidemiology, Shrimali continued to discover how local inequities impacted all health outcomes and life expectancy itself. The intersection of opportunity and health remains a driver of her research interests. “All health outcomes are patterned on economic well-being. In order to achieve a healthier and more productive country and workforce, we have to address the social and economic inequities in our society.”
Shifting systems and creating a pipeline for people to participate in the full vibrant economy of the Bay Area is a dream for Shrimali. The lack of affordable housing, long commutes, and even student loan debt come into play.
“You look at the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a policy responding to discrimination in housing, and there’s a history of housing policy that’s created places of exclusion. Neighborhood disinvestment has a long legacy that continues to impact people’s outcomes, the racial wealth gap, and access to opportunity,” she says.
Shrimali cites San Francisco’s recent housing trends as an example.
“Housing is a main driver of someone’s opportunity, but in the San Francisco Bay Area we don’t have enough housing to meet demand, and new construction is far from economic centers. A lot of people are moving further away and driving in. More time commuting means more time away from the family, additional childcare costs, and interruptions of quality of life. When children have to move a lot, it sets them back in school. There’s literature linking poor mental health outcomes to children who experience displacement. When people have to move further away from each other, the resiliency of the entire community is interrupted,” she says. “A harder thing to measure is what it means for somebody to feel like they can’t stay in a place they consider home. That’s a really visceral feeling but one with important implications for health and well-being.”
Today Shrimali is known for her community-focused research, including the implications of the housing crisis on family health, student loan debt in the Bay Area, and the effectiveness of anti-displacement strategies in Silicon Valley.
“At the San Francisco Fed, our community development team works together to respond to things we hear from around the District. We want our research to match the issues that matter to community development practitioners in the areas we serve,” she explains.
Shrimali often directly partners with organizations in the communities she’s researching.
“I’ve always been a collaborative person, and any project is strengthened by having various perspectives. In choosing my research partners, I’m drawn to people who are curious and ask unusual questions. I know that they’re going to push me further. I also feel it’s important for research to be grounded in the experience of people who know the place, to ensure the research is both practical and actionable,” she explains.
For example, she worked with the San Francisco Treasurer’s Office of Financial Empowerment, a leader in addressing financial security and families, to surface local trends in student debt.
“What’s interesting is that California has lower student debt rates than other parts of the country, and the Bay Area is even lower, but these numbers mask local disparities. Some communities in Oakland, Treasure Island, and Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco have extremely high levels of delinquency and default. The thing about student debt is that it’s really difficult to discharge. It doesn’t go away with bankruptcy,” she explains.
The impact of carrying student debt can be particularly harsh for people who do not have a safety net.
“College is such an important vehicle for social and economic mobility. But if your family is hit with a financial shock or illness, you could end up with a debt that harms your credit score, which can affect your ability to find housing or employment. Quality educational institutions won’t just take tuition. They provide support to help people complete their courses and find employment that enables them to pay off their loans,” she says.
Exploring factors that influence power, privilege, and opportunity is a practice Shrimali supports internally at the San Francisco Fed as well. When the Bank decided to launch an Inclusion Alliance, she applied, and was chosen as a founding member.
“I’m not an inclusion and diversity expert by any stretch. As a community development researcher, my first inclination is to go deep into the root causes of inequities, rather than focusing on workplace strategies. So that’s the perspective I bring to the Inclusion Alliance,” she explains.
The employee-led group helps the organization define, develop, and initiate new practices that nurture an inclusive work environment. The idea is to continuously ensure employees feel heard and valued while creating spaces for authentic conversations.
Encouraging employees to talk openly and honestly about issues closely tied to personal identity is a challenge. To help start the dialogue, Shrimali led two workshops on identities, race, power, and privilege. The workshops focused on how everyone has both privileged and disadvantaged identities, the root causes of exclusion in society, and how these issues manifest in day-to-day interactions and in the workplace.
She wasn’t sure how they would go over.
“It was uncomfortable at first, pushing us to have potentially hard and uncomfortable conversations. I wasn’t sure how our workshops would be received,” she shares.
She had no reason to worry. The lunch-and-learn sessions were well-attended and received overwhelmingly positive feedback. So much so that in 2019, Shrimali’s peers honored her with an E3 Award in 2019.
“Being recognized for my work in the Inclusion Alliance felt incredibly gratifying,” she says. “It’s an indication that although these conversations hadn’t happed openly before, it’s not because people aren’t up for it. Developing a forum and having support from senior leadership means so much.”
Of course, Shrimali doesn’t spend all of her time thinking about intense social issues.
“I enjoy spending time with friends and family, reading, action movies, and Masterpiece Theater-type stuff. I love exploring San Francisco with my family and being a tourist in our city—riding cable cars with my kids and walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, which is one of my favorite places. I also do a lot of sewing in early fall. My close friend (since fourth grade) and I have a tradition of making Halloween costumes for our kids. We start early and it’s an undertaking, but it scratches that creative itch for me.”