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Monika Mitchell Headshot

Is it Time to Forgive Wall Street?

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"To err is human; to forgive, divine," goes the saying. That sums up the four-year conflict and conundrum between Wall Street and Main Street. We can't forget and we don't want to forgive.

Many people on Main Street will emphatically exclaim, "No!" We cannot forgive Wall Street for turning the American Dream into its personal ATM. Wall Street, on the other hand, has long blamed Main Street for taking the bait and leveraging home equity as income.

Yet we are human beings first and foremost -- imperfect and fallible creatures prone to indulgence and excess. Why then knowing our faults, is it so hard to forgive those who have trespassed against us?

Several weeks ago, I joined a panel at Union Theological Seminary on how to resolve public anger against Wall Street. The program was organized by Samir Selmanovic, Founder of Faith House in New York and facilitated by Dr. Paul Knitter, Professor of Religious Studies at Columbia University. When I explained to the crowd assembled that many on Wall Street were hurt in the crisis too, a fellow panelist from the "Occupy" movement responded, "I don't want to think about Wall Street as human."

I sympathized with her passion and rage having felt this all myself three and a half years ago. My Wall Street search firm suffered a fatal blow with the bankruptcy of former client Lehman Brothers and the collapse of investment banking. After more than a decade on Wall Street as a talent broker for the senior levels of the mortgage markets, it was difficult to learn that the same people I worked with for years were direct contributors to my own demise. Lehman, Goldman, Bear Stearns, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch were all former clients of my firm. Angry, yes. Forgiving, no. Horrified and shocked even more.

I lost more than most that September day in 2008 and in the three years that followed. The business I created and depended on was destroyed. With it went my livelihood, savings, home life and the trust I had in the system... for me and former beloved employees, nothing would remain the same. As we watched those responsible rewarded with bonuses and bailouts, it was even harder to bear. Our government's behavior, in the eloquent words of New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, was "shameful." Official policies from Congress, two Administrations and the Federal Reserve picked the winners and the losers. The losers became the winners and those who did everything "right" -- saved more, borrowed less, spent within their means -- were suddenly moved to the losing side. Our own elected figures abandoned us. It was and is a deeply painful betrayal. So I know Main Street's anger well; I have lived both sides of it -- on Wall Street and off.

As with any loss however, it is often from the ashes that we rebuild. Good things can come from dark places if we seek them. I co-wrote a book, Conversations with Wall Street, detailing my experiences during the crisis: what I saw, what market makers said, how shocking it felt to all of us on the inside looking out and the outside looking in. It revealed solutions to remaking a system that had long lost its moral compass if it ever had one -- a system I had been an integral part of until the veil was abruptly yanked off. Searching for solutions, I innovated an award-winning news journal, Good-b, on how business can be done better -- with accountability, integrity and humility -- a broader definition of sustainability.

Yet the question of our fundamental fallibility is the one that remains. To a large degree it is our unwillingness on both sides of the issues to see each other as human that brought us here.
We see Wall Street as impervious to ordinary people's pain, wholly indifferent to the suffering of innocents. One of the truths exposed as the markets came crashing down was the absence of human connection from Wall Street to Main Street.

A senior director from one of the most powerful financial institutions in the world explained mortgage trading in October 2008, "Humanity is too far removed." For him, the numbers blinking along his screen were profits to be made or lost, not second lien loans on financially strapped Americans with kids to put through college and roofs to keep over their heads. Only after the fact did he see their struggle and feel regret.

Yet despite Wall Street indifference and Main Street mistrust, it is by recognizing past mistakes that we move on. Wall Street is not just algorithms, mathematical models and trading screens. We may not want to believe this, but there are human beings behind those walls.

Nor is Main Street the sea of financial ineptitude and economic ignorance that financiers love to blame. Both Streets are full of people like you and me who are sometimes afraid and other times, righteous. People who believe they are doing "good" even when they might be doing "bad." People who are equally concerned about the inequities of the system yet don't know how to fix it.

For 70 years, the United States National Parks system put out wildfires in the Sequoia forest until they realized they had made a grave mistake. Sequoia seeds are encased in a hard shell that only fire can burn off before it takes root in the soil. According to the NPS, "Periodic fires help to create an ideal habitat for young sequoias to grow by removing competing trees and duff, leaving a bare mineral soil for sequoias to grow."

The crisis began long before Glass Steagall was revoked, before credit default swaps were invented, and mortgage pools were securitized. The inevitable economic train wreck resulted from the deeply held and mistaken belief that prosperity in America is a given and our resources are limitless. That brings me to forgiveness.

It might finally be time to forgive each other so we can move beyond it towards solutions. At some point, blame becomes counterproductive. The truth is, we will not be able to re-seed the forest until we view our wildfires as opportunities for new growth. One door may close, so another can open.

This week, 75 thought leaders and world change agents from business, civil society, faith institutions, and academia will assemble at the Andaz Hotel on Wall Street to "Re-envision Prosperity." The goal of this think-tank is to create a new template for 21st century prosperity that incorporates ways to restrain greed and gluttony while planting the seeds for more equitable growth.

The Sequoia is an extraordinary tree capable of living for centuries and growing taller than the Statue of Liberty. The tree is magnificent, not just in its physical majesty but in its remarkable resilience. Yet it all begins with a simple germinated seed.

As the effort to ignite a productive Wall Street-Main Street conversation progresses, perhaps in the not-so-distant future we can say, a Sequoia tree grows on Wall Street. Maybe then we could finally forgive one another. That would be divine.

I'll keep you posted.