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Baruah: Economic inclusion unlocks community potential

From: The Detroit News

By Sandy Baruah

January 8, 2016

What’s in a name? In some cases, a whole lot.

When the U.S. Treasury Department officially changed the name of the Treasury Annex building in Washington this week to honor the historic Freedman’s Bank, it underscored the importance of economic integration and financial inclusion to the nation’s economic well-being.

For 2015 Mackinac Policy Conference attendees, there’s a familiar face directly involved — John Hope Bryant — who also happens to be bringing his message to the Detroit Policy Conference on Feb. 24.

I met Bryant, the Operation HOPE founder and CEO, during my time as U.S. assistant Secretary of Commerce. John was co-chairing the President’s Financial Literacy Council with Charles Schwab and doing what he does: Getting things done.

The renaming of the Treasury Annex to the Freedman’s Bank Building stems from a meeting earlier this year between U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Bryant, who is also a member of the Advisory Council on Financial Capability of Young Americans.

The Freedman’s Bank was established in 1865 to create an opportunity for wealth-building among the nation’s 4 million newly emancipated African-Americans.

During its nearly 10-year existence, approximately 100,000 African-American individuals and institutions amassed $57 million in the bank’s Washington headquarters and its branches in 37 cities across 17 states.

For those of us who lived in Washington, the “Freedman’s Bank” building was known as our local Riggs Bank. While neither the Freedman’s Bank nor Riggs Bank exist any longer, the Freedman’s Bank had a real impact on our society. It’s good to have the moniker of this building back.

Despite the closing of the Freedman’s Bank in 1874, it remains a significant part of American history, and this change highlights the historical significance of the bank and its original mission — to promote economic integration and financial inclusion. This lesson has major implications for Detroit as it looks to extend opportunity beyond downtown into the neighborhoods in the post-bankruptcy era.

Economic inclusion offers the opportunity to unlock so much untapped potential in our communities and transform neighborhoods. There has to be an intentional regional effort to extend opportunity to all corners of the city. Economic inclusion could multiply the impact of Detroit’s momentum. Investments in the city and region will draw greater returns if opportunity is widespread.

The Detroit Regional Chamber is collaborating with Bryant as part of a 2015 Mackinac Policy Conference “To-Do List” to increase financial literacy in targeted communities and support revitalization of Detroit’s neighborhoods through promoting entrepreneurship.

As part of those efforts, the Chamber is partnering with Mayor Mike Duggan and Bryant to recruit organizations throughout the city to host HOPE Inside Centers, which have successfully raised credit scores in urban neighborhoods across the nation.

As Bryant said at Mackinac: “Nothing changes your life more than God, love, or moving your credit score 120 points.”

Improving people’s credit scores transform neighborhoods and create opportunities. Renters become homeowners, payday lenders become banks and liquor stores become grocery stores. That is the power of economic inclusion, now recognized in the “new” Freedman’s Bank Building.

Sandy Baruah is president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.