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A Reflection on our trip through the Deep South with Hope Credit Union

In the first full week of June 2023, members of Just Money Advisors attended a trip hosted by Hope Credit Union and Faith & Money Network. The purpose of this trip was to show investors in Hope, first-hand, the impact that their deposits are making in the Deep South, particularly for low-income and rural Black families. This is a reflection on that experience and was originally published on Better Banking Options on June 23, 2023.


A boarded-up community building with a sign that reads “Morehead Beautification Project,” symbolizing the need and the aspirations of the small town.

When most people discuss racism today, they either believe it so insignificant that it doesn’t need to be addressed or they see it as a relational problem, with one person’s prejudices preventing the other from being fairly treated. To this point, there have been monumental strides made in the treatment of Black individuals in this country, both during the civil rights movement and in the years since. Additionally, personal prejudices are pervasive and extremely harmful, something all non-Black people should work on dismantling in their own lives.


However, this notion would be impossible to hang on to throughout our trip through the areas served by Hope Credit Union. We got to see, up close and personal, the effects that both historical and modern racism have had on some of the poorest communities in the country. And we learned that correlation is no coincidence; many government and financial institutions were designed to uphold the principles of slavery, and have been changed surprisingly little since the Reconstruction era. Black families, particularly in the Deep South, are profoundly affected by the legacy of slavery still to this day and will continue to be so long as we don’t do the work of uprooting our foundations in racism.


Indeed, what we think of as long past is a legacy of discrimination which many living people still remember vividly. Hearing from JoAnne Bland, who recounted her experiences walking across the bridge in Selma on Bloody Sunday when she was just eleven years old, reminded us all that history is closer to our time than we realize. Bertha Looney also shared her story with us as one of the first of eight Black students to integrate Memphis State University. Gloria Dickerson from Drew, MS, told us a similar memory of being one of the first Black students, along with seven of her siblings, to integrate local all-white schools in rural Mississippi, and the vitriolic backlash they faced from white supremacists in response. All three of these women are now striving daily to enrich their communities, which still struggle from the effects of disinvestment and extraction.


Bertha Looney describes her experience as one of the first eight Black students to attend Memphis State University (now University of Memphis).

Even if this history wasn’t recent, the magnitude of violence which Black Americans have been subjected to, even after slavery, is difficult to comprehend. Walking through the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is staggering, simply due to the sheer number of names displayed, each one representing a life snuffed out by racially motivated violence. With only an estimated 2% of victims being double-verified and represented, the memorial represents a drop in the bucket of an ocean of brutality that was used to keep Black families from gaining any semblance of agency, whether that agency was economic, political, or cultural. This leads me to my main takeaway from the civil rights education we received on the trip: white people cannot possibly do enough to make up for the damage racism has done to Black life in this country, and that this damage has affected every facet of this life. That’s why it’s so important for reparation to be constant and ongoing, and for racism to be addressed in policy, finance, culture, and more.


This can be an extremely intimidating prospect, which leads many to throw up their hands and declare efforts useless. However, Hope Credit Union provides a brilliant example for those looking to enrich Black communities with opportunities for wealth building.


Hope helps fund an inclusive charter school in Memphis, which focuses on STEM to provide lucrative job paths to Black students. They also help fund the Jones Valley Teaching Farm in Birmingham, which provides POC youths with educational and vocational opportunities around growing and cooking their own food. They work with local community organizations to fund affordable and safe housing as well as small businesses to revitalize dying neighborhoods. And they make an effort to invest in branches in rural areas like Moorhead and Drew, MS, where residents previously had to drive 15 miles just to have access to basic banking services.


Work like this is incredibly vital to undoing some of the economic inequality that has been enforced along racial divides, but it is only part of Hope’s mission. The other part is Hope Enterprise Corporation, that works to dismantle policy created to funnel wealth out of Black communities. In recent years, they’ve mobilized government funds for projects which enrich and stabilize the areas they work in. They see this multi-faceted approach as the way to fully address the issues that poor Black communities in the Deep South are facing.


Trip participants reviewed an informational packet at the beginning of our first meeting with Hope Credit Union directors in Memphis.

In these ways and more, Hope Credit Union is a powerful example of what community banking really means. Even when someone doesn’t qualify for a loan with them, Hope works with that member to get them financially stable enough to qualify. They talk to, and employ, the people in the communities in which they work, and have a deep and intimate understanding of the financial needs of those communities. Finally, they are motivated by a bigger picture of what the Deep South could look like if institutional powers dedicated time and effort to invest in the disinvested -- those who would have so much to contribute if other people just believed in their value.


And truly, the people in the communities we visited have put so much effort into enriching the people around them. Even we, who were just visitors in their world, were welcomed with such warmth and grace that you would think we went to church with them on Sunday. Traditional banks think of low-income Black families in the South as a “risky investment,” but Hope truly celebrates them as the credit union’s foundation, the reason Hope continues to thrive despite having such a radical business model. Many of Hope’s members have suffered through some of the worst violence, discrimination, and resource extraction this country perpetrates, but still, they prevail. They build. They struggle, but they hold each other up, even in the worst of times.


So what could this country, or even the world, look like if more banking options were doing the work Hope does? Not just providing financial services, but asking the community what financial services they really need. Not just catering to the wealthy, but investing in those who have been overlooked and taken advantage of for generations. Not just working within our financial landscape, but engaging with regional and federal policy makers to change it. Hope Credit Union’s model is truly a gift of hope for those who know that banking can be more than just banking: It’s the way we create economic mobility for all.

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