The quest to build Minnesota's only black credit union in north Minneapolis

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"We have communities that are underserved and also taken advantage of by the most predatory businesses in our state." The people pushing to open a credit union in North Minneapolis (from left to right): Felicia Perry, Elaine Rasmussen, Brett Grant, Me'Lea Connelly, Danielle Mkali, Amber Jones, and Ron Harris. Sarah White, Fotos for Barcelona

Nagina Moore, a mother of two teenage boys, works the overnight shift for county human services. In the morning she packs her sons to school, occasionally going, herself, to meet with teachers about the elder boy's depression and the younger boy's sometimes destructive outbursts.

She knows the kids' difficulties come from instability at home. Though she now earns enough money for rent, a bad credit score ensures her housing applications are always rejected. Instead of sleeping in a homeless shelter, Moore and her sons share a motel room with family. The boys have no space of their own.

Moore is hardworking and law-abiding, yet she can't put her family in a house of their own. Meanwhile, in north Minneapolis, where she lives, payday shops that charge desperate people 30 percent interest for short-term loans populate the area. There are just two banks for the whole neighborhood, spread 20 blocks apart.

Me'Lea Connelly, a private security firm manager-turned-economic-activist, recently embarked on the long process of establishing a black-led credit union to solve problems like Moore's.

"We have communities that are underserved and also taken advantage of by the most predatory businesses in our state," Connelly says. "Regular banks don't give them chances. The credit union that used to be on Emerson and Broadway, they packed up and left."

Unlike banks, which are owned by a small group of shareholders whose objective is to make money for themselves, credit unions are member-owned nonprofits.

For Connelly, the idea grew out of attending protests following the Jamar Clark and Philando Castile police killings, in which she watched psychologically damaged black youth take to the streets again and again. She decided that the black community needed another tool for the prevention of police violence.

Blexit was born. It would focus on realizing an economic renaissance for north Minneapolis.

"Our local government hasn't been aggressive about addressing the holistic issues around police brutality," Connelly says. "It's about the state these communities have been left in, without any support. If they're not gonna do it, we're gonna do it for ourselves."

Community leaders met and decided that Blexit's first order of business would be creating a black-owned credit union by 2019. They gauged public interest by challenging people to take $100 and open accounts with black-owned credit unions in other states, since none exist in Minnesota.

Over a couple weeks, the campaign had more than 1,000 shares and pledges on Facebook, and Blexit was able to confirm with the credit unions that at least 20 percent actually opened accounts.

From there, Blexit applied for grant money to open its own credit union in Minnesota. They were successful. Now they're applying for a charter, and will begin a pledge drive to build membership in the coming months.

Meanwhile, Connelly says she wants to hear from black people about what services they want to see and what causes they want to invest in.

"Absolutely, if we can create access and pathways for folks to get out of these situations where they're not able to get relief for their families so they can grow, that's exactly what we want to do," she says. "If they wanna say housing is their number one issue, we want products to help people get into stable housing. Let's do it."


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