Credit union is Armatage activist’s tool against injustice

Me’Lea Connelly’s North Minneapolis startup has $5 million in pledged deposits

Me'Lea Connelly
Me'Lea Connelly. Photo by Ackerman + Gruber 2018 @ackermangruber

After Philando Castile was shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer in July 2016, Armatage resident Me’Lea Connelly said she looked for a way to inspire the average person to take action against injustice.

Connelly, already a full-time community activist, had seen the wear and tear that a more “confrontational” approach to protesting had taken on young leaders. She decided to organize a community meeting in North Minneapolis to discuss ways black people could resist structural racism through economic means.

“We needed more tools,” Connelly said.

At the meeting, held a week after the shooting, attendees brainstormed ways to become more independent of white-led financial institutions. The most popular idea was to start a financial institution, such as a bank or credit union, that would serve the North Side and be led and run by black people.

Nearly three years later, Connelly is one of the leaders of a new financial institution, called Village Financial Cooperative, which will open this year in North Minneapolis. While the opening date hasn’t yet been set, Connelly said the credit union will hold some sort of celebration on Juneteeth, a holiday commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation.

Village Financial already has 1,900 pledged members and $5 million in pledged deposits, Connelly said. She said the credit union will offer products such as checking and savings accounts to start and hopes to expand services once it becomes more established.

The Jay & Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota has given the credit union hundreds of thousands of dollars in support. Last year, Village Financial piloted a low-interest micro-loan program, providing members with loans of up to $500 at 0 to 8 percent interest. Connelly said the program had a 100 percent repayment rate.

Connelly, 36, is an entrepreneur and former security firm manager who has dedicated her career to community service since attending a protest for the killing of Michael Brown in 2014.

A mother of three, she worked as operations director for the nonprofit Neighborhoods Organizing for Change for two years before beginning work on the credit union project.

She’s also a Bush Foundation fellow and is working on a master’s degree in cooperative and credit union management out of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Connelly said people in Southwest Minneapolis can do more to address racial inequalities.

“Talking about the work that I’m doing on the North Side seems like this aspirational story,” Connelly said. “But this work is right here, and there’s opportunity for folks in Southwest to do more to address these disparities that are right here in our backyard.”

She said she attended a meeting of the Armatage Neighborhood Association several years ago in which board members were thinking about spending surplus funds to put a skateboard locker into Armatage Park. She raised concern about the condition of the Washburn Tot Lot, which is across the street from rental properties where she said “most of our families of color” live.

Connelly said she’s happy the Armatage Neighborhood Association rallied to rehabilitate the rundown tot lot and that the Park Board paid for new equipment. But she said more people need to open their eyes to disparities and make a decision to act on them.

Connelly spoke with the Southwest Journal about her background and her work with Village Financial. Her answers have been edited for clarity.

Me'Lea Connelly
Armatage resident Me’Lea Connelly is one of the founders of Village Financial Cooperative, a credit union opening this year in North Minneapolis. Photo by Lauren B. Fall

Where did the idea of the credit union come from?

We already know that there’s an income disparity, and there isn’t really mobilization around addressing that. That isn’t an area where people see us being able to organize properly. But they can make sure that where they put their money is in a place that isn’t going to compromise or limit their ability to build economically. This is a different avenue for us to insulate our wealth and an opportunity for us to build economically where there aren’t external factors that thwart our progress.

An example of that is when we talk about the housing crisis — 20 years ago there was a huge rally for black folks to buy homes. No one was paying attention to [the motivations of] the financial institutions that were actually facilitating those mortgages and what the quality of those mortgages were. So when we talk about institutional agency in the financial sector, that’s the difference that can be made between how we trust and what we trust. What kind of economic power we give to financial systems that don’t have a mission for our community and what the consequences can be when we yield that power to them.

Why is it important for there to be a black-led financial institution?

Let’s say you’re a black person, you live on the North Side, and a relative of yours was just killed by police.

Think about all the things after that that have to be done. Is there life insurance? Do you have a good relationship with your insurer? Is there savings in place? Then we go to, ‘Now this person is gone, who is this person responsible for?’ What financial institution do they have to help them ease that burden?

So when we talk about the loss of a black person at the hands of police, the same way we talk about the prison-industrial complex, there are economic consequences that become really crucial for the black community. They’re very difficult to build out of if they don’t have a financial institution that’s on their side.

[The credit union] is not just about, ‘We’re the boss, and we get to make the rules.’ It’s about the fact that the economic systems that we’re a part of are intentionally, for whatever reason, not serving us with equity compared with our white counterparts. Not because we’re higher risk. Not because we don’t have the opportunities to make income. We’re literally just not paid the same amount. All of these things continue to layer on.

What effect do you think this institution will have on North Minneapolis?

I think it’s going to have everything to do with what our pledge members want, and that’s really the power of cooperative economics and the cooperative model. We’re letting the feedback loop of what we’re hearing from our pledge members lead our efforts and not the other way around.

I think what we’ve heard so far is that folks want education. They want to feel advocated for when it comes to money and have a place to go where there isn’t shame and there isn’t fear of being taken advantage of or judged about their financial past.

They want someone that looks like them that serves them. They want someone who understands the culture that they live in and they want someone who honors that and sees the dignity in working people.

As this project continues to build pride on the North Side, I could image that it would mean a lot for housing and gentrification and a lot for savings and opportunities for credit and loans. The list goes on and on.