Nikki Jackson, the head of the St. Louis Fed’s Louisville, Ky., Branch, talks about her role, that of her staff and that of her board of directors. Listen to her describe the “aha moment” when people realize the variety of work that the Branch does, from gathering information on Main Street for monetary policymakers to supervising banks to encouraging community development in underserved areas. Jackson, the child of civil-rights activists, also talks about diversity at the St. Louis Fed, where she is a member of the senior leadership team. This 18-minute podcast also touches on the Branch’s upcoming centennial.
Laura Taylor: Welcome to Timely Topics. I am Laura Taylor, your host for this podcast. With me today is Nikki Jackson, a senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Now, Nikki, you have a unique position. You serve as regional executive of the Louisville branch of the St. Louis Fed, Louisville, of course, in Kentucky. Tell us a little bit about your role.
Nikki Jackson: Well, thanks, Laura, for the question. I've been in this role for almost three years. I have the wonderful privilege of serving as the liaison for the Bank to the Louisville zone, and that covers central and western Kentucky and southern Indiana. We host a ton of convenings on the area of community development, economic education and just general economic updates. I also have the opportunity to speak with a number of business leaders, community leaders, banking leaders, about the economy, and that's so that we can have the anecdotal data that we need to complement the empirical data that's being pulled from our wonderful economists. The data that we pull at the branch level helps contextualize what's happening in the economy, so it's a really cool job. I'm hoping to help people understand the multitude of the work that we do and the impact of the work that we do and how people can better engage with their central bank.
Laura Taylor: Well, you certainly wear many hats, that's for sure. So, Nikki, the Fed has been criticized for lack of diversity among top officials. And Chair Yellen, herself, actually said that she is committed to improving diversity at the Fed. Now, as a black woman who holds one of the highest positions at the St. Louis Fed, what does this mean to you?
Nikki Jackson: It means a lot, especially coming from Chair Yellen. Beyond my role of being a regional executive, or being a leader at the bank, I'm an employee first. And, I, like any other employee want some indication that my employer sees me and validates people who look like me and can understand the cultural sensitivities and the idiosyncrasies that come with me. And I will tell you, in all honesty, I've been a part of organizations before where I felt like I couldn't bring female Nikki or black Nikki to work. There were parts of that that just weren't welcome in that environment. And so, yeah, I've heard the criticism, and I understand the criticism, and I'm heartened though that we are with an organization that is thoughtful and careful about, not just how it responds to that kind of criticism, but what kind of response would be meaningful and impactful and long lasting beyond the words, but really looking at action. So, this industry is a tough one, I think, for minorities, or people of color, black and brown people. It's just an area—finance, the banking systems, it's just not an area where we find plentiful bench strength among minorities, but there certainly is bench strength out there. It's just a matter of being more creative in how we cast the net. And so, it's really great that we're a part of those conversations and, quite frankly, that the St. Louis Fed is really positioning itself to be a part of the remedy.
Laura Taylor: Now, your parents were civil rights activists?
Nikki Jackson: Yeah.
Laura Taylor: Freedom fighters. And you spent much of your time in law school advocating minority issues. Now, does that experience, how you grew up, does that translate into your work at the Fed?
Nikki Jackson: Yeah, it translates to my work in the Fed and how I see my responsibility in really being intentional around broadening the community impact of the Federal Reserve, particularly in communities of color. So, yeah, both my parents are very steeped in the civil rights movement. And as a kid, especially, I guess, because I was an only child, very inquisitive, arguably precocious, only child, my parents poured into me a lot of their experiences, and I grew up being very sober around the dichotomies around race and how various racisms, sexism, shows up latently and blatantly and have spent my life trying to understand that, spent my life trying to deflect a lot of that and shield myself and my children against some of it. But I think it's given me a lens through which I view the world that is incredibly multifaceted, very multicultural, but really sensitive what happens over time when there's disinvestment, and I'm not just talking economic disinvestment. I'm talking social and political and spiritual disinvestment with communities and with people and how hopelessness and haplessness leads to the kind of conundrum that we face today. So, inasmuch as I can use my role and help those communities, my community, really understand the basics of how money works in this country and the basics of how financial literacy can help undergird families and their financial wellbeing and thinking about community development and community revitalization in more robust ways, targeted toward communities of color. That is absolutely a passion of mine, and again, just so grateful that I'm with an employer where my passion and my purpose and my profession all align.
Laura Taylor: So we've talked a little bit about the Fed having relationships with different groups. And I wonder if you could expand a little bit about why it is important for the Fed to have relationships, whether that be based on geography, or race, or profession, education levels, things like that. Why is it important for the Fed to maintain those relationships?
Nikki Jackson: Well, in my view, the Fed, in our role as the nation's central bank, is accountable to all of those communities. You don't have to be the CEO of a bank or the CEO of a huge Fortune 50 company or the president of a foundation to have a point of view and a voice about how the economy works. What happens in this country as it relates to how we think about money and how money works for all of us impacts all of us. And so, I think it's important that we be visible and assessible and transparent with as many communities as possible.
Laura Taylor: When most people think about the Fed, they probably think about monetary policy. They probably think about banking supervision or interest rates. I was wondering: What does the Fed look like through your lens, through the regional executive lens?
Nikki Jackson: When you're talking about what most people view of the Fed is this kind of one-dimensional organization. It really is incredible. I am continually awestruck by how multifaceted we are. We are an organization of rich texture, and arguably, all under the auspices of monetary policy. Ultimately, that's what—where it all folds up underneath. But the supervision work is incredibly important in terms of looking at how we can assure the safety and soundness of our financial and banking systems. The community development work has been anchored in low- and moderate-income communities, and all of the issues that beset those communities and trying to figure out ways to convene thought leaders around how we can really change some of the dynamics of low and moderate-income communities. And then, how do we teach people how to teach economics—that’s really, really cool—and the fact that we do that from pre-K all the way to post-secondary education, and not just the curriculum development, but we also do the pedagogy support. So, there's just so much that we touch. And the great thing about my job is that there's plentiful opportunities for me to talk about all of the breadth of the work of the Fed because there are folks that just kind of understand one or two pieces of the work. But it's just really interesting to see the epiphany and watch the "aha" when people really truly understand why this work is so important and how the Fed impacts communities in a broader sense, all kind of under the auspices of monetary policy.
Laura Taylor: I would say that most people don't realize the Fed has extensive community development teams. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the work of the team in Louisville.
Nikki Jackson: We work a lot with small businesses, trying to help small businesses think through how they can access capital, how they can find their way toward greater financial stability, and traditional and nontraditional lenders. We also do quite a bit with immigrant entrepreneurs and trying to think through how we can support those folks coming here from a different country. Our community development team in Louisville works a lot in trying to think through how can we really support community revitalization beyond traditional lending markets, and so, that's really great. We've been talking a lot about CDFIs, community development finance institutions, and how we can maybe have more of those in the Louisville zone. And then pulling in the right community leaders to be a part of those conversations. So, our work is, really impactful in the community development space. I couldn't be more proud.
Laura Taylor: We talked earlier a little bit about monetary policy. Sometimes, that is associated with what happens in Washington D.C. But there is a role that the branches play in monetary policy as well. Can you explain that a little bit?
Nikki Jackson: Yeah, so that's the anecdotal data gathering. So, when the FOMC [Federal Open Market Committee] meets, they have the opportunity to comb through and distill tons and tons of empirical data compiled by economists across all 12 banks and the [Fed] Board of Governors that helps give a strongly data driven picture, a snapshot, of how the economy's performing across the United States. And it's that hard data that's important for us to understand, for the FOMC to understand. But it also needs to be contextualized in some way. It needs to be kind of rounded out, and the story that goes behind the numbers needs to be told at the same time that the numbers are being mulled over, so that's where the branches come in. When we talk with bankers about how the economy is performing per their lens and how the economy's performing in their communities per their lens is really important. And we gather that information with fair regularity. We reach out to a number of business leaders because their view of interest rates—what does that do to their business? And then more localized—like in Louisville, we've got these wonderful bridges that have just been resurrected, and they've really helped redefine how we think about moving commerce in our zone. So, I'll talk a lot with our business leaders about what that means for their employees and how they're recruiting and maintaining employees and what they're thinking about in terms of how they're moving their goods, and so forth. And all of that matters. It matters deeply. It's utilized by our Bank president and his data-gathering for purposes of his speeches and his preparedness for various meetings and summits. So, I'm just really pleased that we are a part of that because it's so important for us to think about monetary policy holistically and thoughtfully, and that I get to be a part of that is pretty awesome.
Laura Taylor: The Louisville Branch has a board of directors?
Nikki Jackson: Right.
Laura Taylor: Can you tell us a little bit about who comprises that board and what their function is?
Nikki Jackson: I've got a great board. So, I've got folks on my board that represent a number of sectors and are representative of our region, or our zone. Our board chair is from Evansville, Ind., and she represents—her role is chief financial officer for a business—and so she represents the business sector beautifully and gives us some incredible insights on how businesses are performing in Evansville and beyond. And then we've got some folks on our board that represent the hospitality industry, which is really great. Especially in Louisville, as you might imagine, that's a burgeoning area for us, particularly because we like bourbon a lot and basketball and horse racing, we're quite a hub for tourism. So, the impact of that economically is really important for us to understand. We've got folks that represent the minority community. The president of the Urban League is on our board, and she gives us, in very potent ways, a firm understanding of all of the issues that are besetting minority communities in Louisville and beyond, from a job’s, justice, housing standpoint. We've got a president, a CEO, of a very small company. He's a wonderful entrepreneur who gives us a view of how entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial community in the zone is performing and what the support systems look like for those folks. And then, of course, we've got a banker, who's, of course, giving great banking information. And he's in southern Indiana, and that's an area that we haven't had represented on our board for a while. So, I'm really pleased. Our board is just very careful and thoughtful and worldly, and they're unapologetically frank and clear about their perspectives and their industry, and they share all of that with wonderful regularity. We also have an economist from St. Louis who sits in on that. So, he or she has an opportunity to hear firsthand from our board members about what's happening in their respective areas. And then, of course, again, it's another opportunity for us to combine all of that data and make sure that the research department here in St. Louis has a clear understanding of what our board of directors believe is happening in our zone.
Laura Taylor: The Louisville Branch actually celebrates a pretty big milestone this year—its 100th year in operation. You've become a bit of an historian during this time, certainly learning more about the Branch's history. Can you share with us a couple of unique things you've learned?
Nikki Jackson: Yeah, you're right. We're 100 years old. We'll be 100 years old technically in December of this year, And I didn't realize [that] over the last 100 years, first of all, how many people and places the Louisville Branch has really impacted until I started reading up a little bit on our history. So, physically, we've moved around quite a bit. There's a restaurant in Louisville called Vincenzo's, which is this beautiful, historic, amazing restaurant. Well, I didn't realize that at one time it housed the Federal Reserve Bank, the Louisville Branch. I knew that they had this beautiful wine vault that was actually a vault, and I thought, "How cool is that?" Come to find out, it's because we had our money there. Who knew? So, that was pretty interesting. And I'll tell you what, every year in October we host these dinners for retirees who come back to the area and talk about their experiences, having worked for our Branch specifically. And just to hear their stories about the kind of camaraderie and what it was like when we had cash operations and the incinerators that burned the money, and just there's wonderful pictures that we've chronicled about—a couple of nights where employees had to stay overnight because the big flood. And, so, you had people who were literally sweeping water out of the Bank at that point just to try to preserve the cash because the cash was being inundated with these floodwaters. And, so, just kind of visually to see our evolution, and then to hear that history from the mouths of folks that lived it is awesome. I'm so excited to be celebrating our centennial this year, and it's been a wonderful learning journey for me.
Laura Taylor: And what will you be doing to celebrate the centennial?
Nikki Jackson: In August, we have Dave Wheelock, who is one of our fantastic economists, coming to do a talk – kind of an intimate talk about the history of the Fed, and then, in November, we've engaged all of our board members and a lot of our community members. We have the community advisory councils. Those folks are going to be participating in the events in November. And it's just going to be celebratory, high energy all of that. It's going to be great.
Laura Taylor: So one last question. Where do you think the Louisville Branch will be in the next 100 years?
Nikki Jackson: In the next 100 years? You know, the great thing about the Fed, and certainly true with the Fed in St. Louis, is that we are evolutionary. We are intentional about our growth and our progression. We talk a lot about it. We think a lot about it. I think that our Branch will continue in its current trajectory. I think that we will continue to have monumental impact across our zone, reaching broader and broader communities. I think that's going to be a part of our future landscape. And there's just so many folks that we still need to touch. And, so, hopefully, we're marching toward that over the next 100 years. I know we'll certainly be marching toward that as I lead the Branch.
Laura Taylor: To learn more about the Louisville Branch of the St. Louis Fed, go to our website at stlouisfed.org and click on "Louisville" at the top of the page.