Tracy Choi compares her community development work to a familiar task: table setting. “We ‘set the table’ in our communities,” she says, “by focusing on how we can create a safe and neutral environment where people feel included to discuss issues that affect them.”
As a senior outreach manager at the San Francisco Fed, Tracy engages with the public regularly to make sure the community table has who and what it needs. She values the opportunity to connect with others through her work, especially with low-income communities and communities of color. “We’re not just people inside a heavily guarded building,” Tracy says. “We really want to hear firsthand from communities in our District to learn what they’re experiencing and how the economy is or isn’t working for them.”
She appreciates having deep conversations with District constituents, building strong relationships, and the powerful role research can play in helping to uncover economic barriers. In her job, Tracy constantly meets with people, all the while trying to connect the dots. She’s always asking, “Can I bridge connections? Can I help point people to resources that could be helpful?”
Like other community development professionals, Tracy didn’t intentionally set out to work in this field. She considers her involvement in community development work a natural progression shaped by personal and professional experiences.
The daughter of parents from Korea, Tracy says she has lived “a half-American/half-immigrant life.” During her childhood, she witnessed the barriers that her family faced, such as language barriers and at times, feeling unwelcomed by society. Her parents learned and navigated life, with English being their second language. “My mom finished college in Korea. But when she came here, her credentials didn’t transfer, so she took classes at a local community college to help her learn English and get a job,” Tracy said. “Later on, my fifth-grade teacher even tutored me and my mom after school to help us improve our grammar.”
Tracy considers her local community as the support system that helped her family navigate those challenges. “Even through those difficulties, there was a sense of belonging,” she said. “The community looked after and took care of each other. We supported each other. Everyone looked after each other’s kids. We shared resources and made sacrifices. I was fortunate enough to experience that sense of community, and through my work, I want to help more areas of our region celebrate the power of that kinship and use it to thrive.”
“We ‘set the table’ in our communities by focusing on how we can create a safe and neutral environment where people feel included to discuss issues that affect them.”
Working on the ground
Tracy previously worked for the Department of Housing in San Mateo County, California. The agency administers federal, state, and local funds to help finance programs to deliver affordable housing and tackle homelessness. They also collaborate with stakeholders to share best practices and innovative policies related to affordable housing. “My role was very administrative, but it really gave me an on-the-ground look at what partners are doing to help address the affordable housing crisis in the Bay Area,” she says.
Joining the Fed just recently in 2022, most of Tracy’s work is focused in the San Francisco Bay Area and Utah, both part of the 12th Federal Reserve District. While her time at the Fed has been short, she already speaks fondly about her involvement in different projects.
For example, in 2017, Northern California experienced one of the most destructive wildfires (The Tubbs Fire) in the state’s history at the time. Tracy recalls, “Prior to my arrival at the Fed, my predecessor had already convened local stakeholders to talk about recovery and how to finance affordable housing solutions for displaced residents. Those convenings snowballed into communities having conversations about pooling funds together and partnering.”
Shortly after joining the Fed, Tracy helped organize a community development tour for Federal Reserve Board Governor Michelle Bowman and the San Francisco Fed’s executive leadership. “So, when Governor Bowman came to town,” she continues, “we were able to connect her with one of those partners who was in the process of building an affordable housing development.” Tracy says this helped the governor understand one of the important ways community development efforts bring critical resources together with those who need them.
Tracy appreciated the value that community leaders brought in sharing stories around recovery and natural disasters during the tour. “It was exciting to me because we saw seeds that were planted five years ago now bearing fruit. To revisit the community five years later and see how far it had come was exciting,” she says. “It was my first visual representation of successful community development.”
A key lesson that Tracy has learned is that community work takes time. It’s a marathon, not a race. “We’re not in this work for the quick, simple solutions. We’re not going to change a community system or problem overnight. We want sustained involvement to help create long-term changes.”
Reflecting during uncertain times
Tracy notes that recent challenges in the banking industry and the economy have prompted her and colleagues to reflect more intentionally on their work. At a recent team retreat, they were able to ponder the importance of their work and what drives it, even during the tough times. She shares, “Despite the difficulties, fostering cross-sector relationships and creating inclusion in conversations continues to be one of the guiding principles of our work.”
Tracy knows what she aims to do. “Not only do I want to invite people to the table but keep them there. They know their communities. They know what they need. They know the resources and assets they already have. So, it’s important to know how we can bring all those minds and the resources they need together at the table and have open, inclusive, and productive conversations that will help important local efforts move forward.”