First Black Woman to Head a Fed Bank Talks about How the Influence of Her Jamaican Heritage

Susan Collins, 63, made history in the summer of 2022 when she was selected to lead the Boston Federal Reserve bank, a regional bank. She is the first Black woman to serve in that role. In a Bloomberg feature she cites her experience spending summers with family members in Jamaica with introducing her to issues that she would confront throughout her professional career. These included inequality, foreign-exchange problems, and how monetary policy has a real impact on people’s daily lives.

Collins learned early on about different cultures and countries as she was born in Scotland, grew up in Manhattan, and made frequent trips to her parents’ home country of Jamaica. She attended graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and studied international economics. What she learned in school allowed her to better understand what brought about the situations she saw in Jamaica.

Collins remembers watching how Jamaicans struggled following the introduction of a new currency in 1969 and how she was aware that even individuals who were better off financially still had to contend with water shutoffs and power outages. These observations led her to understand that it is not always sufficient for people to rely on intelligence and resources when facing difficulties beyond their control. Her childhood trips to Jamaica provided her with economic lessons, she said.

Collins is attracted to the Fed’s mission of creating a stable economy that will benefit all workers, and this is a message she emphasizes in meetings with stakeholders in her district. She believes that the mission is not to create an economy that only works for some people, but one that works for everyone.

Collins became a part of Fed policymaking during a period in which the United States central bank is developing the most aggressive tightening of monetary policy in several decades. The move is meant to mitigate the effects of inflation, which is at a generational high, but it has also prompted worries about whether a recession is on the way and whether there will be reversals in the job market, which has left minorities and groups of disadvantaged people behind for some time.

While working in her new position for just a brief time, she voted for the first time at the Fed in favor of a 75 basis-point increase in the target range for the benchmark interest rate, and she has supported three additional rate hikes since the first vote. In 2023, Collins will engage in policy discussions where differences of opinion could become more clear as the Fed nears the expected finale of its drive to tighten monetary policy. She is concerned that Black and Hispanic people could feel the greatest effects of the predicted economic pain arising from the Fed’s moves.

Collins was first exposed to the banking field that combined her skills in math with her interest in social matters during the first economics classes she took while an undergraduate at Harvard University. At the time, she worked as a research assistant, helping economics professor Richard Freeman, who studied labor issues that included unions and racial inequality in the workforce and education. According to Freeman, Collins was always “evidence-driven.”

Collins showed early on the tendencies of an academic who lets the numbers speak for themselves, Freeman says. “She was always evidence-driven.”

Photo – Peter Davis/Federal Reserve Bank of Boston

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