Genma Holmes is investigating the precarious relationship between Tavis Smiley and Wells Fargo, sponsor for Smiley’s State of the Black Union (SOTBU). This post is the third in a series of posts about Smiley written by Holmes, available to read on her site Genma Speaks.
By Genma Holmes
Everyone is in uproar about Wells Fargo employees calling loans to black mortgage holders “ghetto loans” and the disdain they showed for the customers they made the most profit from. But the media, especially black media, has been very silent about the role Tavis Smiley played in helping stack this ill fated deck of cards that has plagued the black community in several major cities.
When Mr. Smiley first partnered with Wells Fargo in 2005, he was a teacher of economic empowerment and assembled seminars around the country as the keynote speaker for wealth building. Press releases filled every major news outlet inbox and black newspapers were infected with faxes stating Mr. Smiley’s desire to teach the principles of home ownership as the key for breaking the cycle of poverty in the African American community.
All this knowledge was given at no charge to trusting black folks. This was the golden ticket to obtaining the elusive piece of the pie via Mr. Smiley’s recommendations. Surely the intentions of all involved were pure and Mr. Smiley had vetted Wells Fargo thoroughly. Or so we thought. My granddaddy would say often, “Be wise when someone wants to give you something for free, there will be a price to pay later.”
Here’s what Mr. Smiley and Wells Fargo said in 2005 according to a widely circulated press release:
WASHINGTON, Aug. 25 /PRNewswire/ — Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, the nation’s leading originator of home loans to ethnic minority customers, has joined forces with talk show host and author, Tavis Smiley; and several financial affairs experts to provide free Wealth Building Strategies Seminars in eight cities across the country, including Washington, D.C. Additional seminars featuring other popular panelists also will be offered in 12 more cities, nationwide …
“African-American households had $656 billion in earned income in 2003, an increase of 3.9 percent over the previous year*,” said Jackson Cosey, senior vice president of emerging markets, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. “The Wells Fargo Wealth Building Seminars will teach attendees the best route to make their income work for them over time through homeownership, investments and credit improvement while simultaneously helping them plan for their financial futures” …
“All families dream about home ownership,college education, world travel and more but may not know the best steps to becoming financially independent,” said Smiley. “I am thrilled to be a part of the Wells Fargo Wealth Building Strategies Seminars tour because I truly believe this event offers attendees the fundamental tools they need to make their dreams a reality.”
The Wells Fargo Wealth Building Strategies tour is just one of many initiatives that showcase Wells Fargo’s commitment to its customers and the African-American community. Other programs include the African-American Business Services program which supports economic development in the African-American community and their Afro-centric branch designs which reflect the local African-American community and celebrate its heritage. (Source: Wells Fargo/PR Newswire)
Mr. Smiley stated he was “thrilled” to help black folks achieve their dreams but now that many of them have found themselves in a nightmare, where is he? Has he spoken out against the “ghetto loans” statement by Wells Fargo employees? Has he demanded accountability that he touts must be part of helping President Obama be the best President he can be? Has he applied that same scrutiny to Wells Fargo now that their sins of omission and commission have been exposed by their employees?
Mr. Smiley’s messages are often woven with Biblical terms to give his messages of empowerment a spiritual halo; so I will take a page from his book, has he washed himself in hyssop to amend for his leadership initiatives with Wells Fargo that has caused financial harm to people of color? Was he aware of their ‘good intentions’ from the start? Has he and the Smiley Group sent out press releases to denounce the actions of Wells Fargo that have been highlighted in the media over the last few weeks? There are hundreds of releases on the web announcing his decision to help black folks dreams become a reality from 2005-2008. Shouldn’t he address their present nightmarish economic plights as vigorously?
We should not be shy about asking these questions of Mr. Smiley. But why is black media afraid to question one of their favorite sons about the role he played promoting Wells Fargo to the African American community? Could it be they are part of the problem as well? I am keenly aware of the balance between the news and advocacy and recruiting advertisers and sponsors but we should not be ostriches when it comes to a story of this magnitude. For those who used Mr. Smiley’s conferences/events as promos to keep themselves in the mainstream media eye as “leaders” of the African-American community, they are eerily quiet on this subject. Many are giving the vibe that this is not their problem. Not only is this their problem but a problem that was sold to the community by many of them lending creditably to Wells Fargo by their participation at the SOTBU organized by Mr. Smiley. Mr. Smiley’s events were promoted heavily on black radio stations and pushed to the African American community by the very media that has become silent. Many books, DVDs, and future speaking engagements as well as branding of black folk friendly products, like Wells Fargo loans, were marketed to attendees of these conferences.
Many of SOTBU featured speakers are protest initiators and apology demanding enthusiasts. Where are their statements on this subject? Wells Fargo is still a sponsor of Mr. Smiley’s events and he maintains a link on SOTBU website to their mortgage department? My PR training of yesteryear is still valid today; separate when your brand is being tarnished by another. Mr. Smiley’s continues with his Accountability Tour and black folks are still flocking to them without asking him to be accountable. We seem to love the oki-doke. Why do we play dumb and ignore the obvious?
Mr. Smiley has done media interviews since the revelations of Wells Fargo employees’ statements and not one media personality has asked him about his ties to the Wells Fargo. Shouldn’t the public demand answers from a so-called leader about his financial partnership to a company that practiced such grievous actions? If Mr. Smiley was white, this would be front page news and a black radio tour would be ongoing for months by his cohorts that pranced on SOTBU’s stage. Baltimore, MD was one of the first cities on his wealth empowerment tour. Will anyone cross reference his list of past attendees with those who have foreclosed properties now? Inquiring minds would like to know.
This is a larger symptom of an age old problem with black folks. We justify the actions of ego-driven, self-appointed helpers of the downtrodden with this verbiage “let’s not touch God’s anointed.” It is reminds me of the gospel shows on BET, the hypocrisy smacks you right in the face. Again, for the record, this is not a personal attack of Mr. Smiley, but stating facts which are not being addressed.
When the NAACP filed the lawsuit against Wells Fargo, I questioned the SOTBU sponsorship in several posts in March and April. It is June and Mr. Smiley still has not issued a public statement. The community of color that he has taught to “enlighten, encourage and empower” is waiting. If he was white, the cries would be shouted from the roof tops. For too long, black folks have allowed our very own to pimp and sell us on the auction blocks to the lowest bidders without consequences. Wells Fargo used one of our own to profit from our trust of that individual. Mr. Smiley was not the only avenue Wells Fargo used to get their acid laden loans in the black community hands. As Wells Fargo’s employees stated last week, part of their marketing strategy included preachers of mega churches. Surprised? Why? What better way to get to the sheep than through those who claim to be shepherds. As for Mr. Smiley, he allowed his influence to be used to peddle nonsense to the very people he claims to love so dearly, yet he continues to promote his Accountability Tour. That is the definition of absurdity.
What’s that sound I hear from the media? Being a pest control operator, I know it all too well … crickets.
Update: Link on Mr. Smiley’s website regarding Wells Fargo:
Previous posts about Tavis Smiley and Wells Fargo and sources:
Genma Holmes is a mother, entrepreneur, writer, activist, philanthropist, model, actress, speaker, political watchdog and lover of all things news. You can read more of her work at Genma Speaks.