2018 Changemaker: Me’Lea Connelly

Me’Lea Connelly (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

Me’Lea Connelly helped organize a North Minneapolis forum in 2016 with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “The forum became really popular,” she recalls. “Lots of people [around the Twin Cities] wanted to have a chance to be in that space.” 

Her son was six years old. She explained to him how difficult it can be when everyone wants to have a voice. He replied, “I thought that this [forum] was for us. I thought that this was [about the concerns of] black people.” 

She persisted in keeping the event focused on the Black community. Her son’s response stayed with her. 

Later that summer, Philando Castile was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. Almost 200 Black community members and leaders gathered to discuss how to divest funds from traditional sources and use them to invest in their own communities, as a form of protest as well as to address economic disparities in the community. 

“At the end of that meeting, a Black-led financial institution was the number one idea on the board,” says Connelly, founding member of Association for Black Economic Power, who emerged quickly as the founder of Village Financial. 

Connelly’s goal is to “see a beautiful Black economy thriving on the Northside” of Minneapolis. Banks in many communities of color offer “predatory financial products that take advantage of people who don’t have other options.” She hopes to see Village Financial disrupt the system of check-cashing and payday loans. 

The root of systems like militarized policing, the school to prison pipeline, and gentrification that oppress Black communities is money. “The core to reversing that is creating systems ourselves, owned and controlled by us,” she says. 

Connelly is helping to set this goal in motion through the co-operative structure, rather than a traditional bank. “The importance of the co-op system,” says Connelly, “is that it doesn’t come down to a few shareholders who own everything. It comes down to the people.” 

The impact this work has on the future is personal for Connelly. “The thing that really drives me is my children,” she says. “I want to make sure I show my children, and children in our community, that we have a right and we have a duty to invest in ourselves as Black people. I want them to see there is desire, and there is a space for us to be the focus.” 

Village Financial is led by a majority Black team, and serves a majority Black area. It has promised to be operational by Fall 2019, and has already raised $1 million of capital and more than $3.4 million of pledged deposits, led off by the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation. 

Connelly hopes to see the work she is doing stay in the Northside community. “Often our movements are diluted and co-opted for the greater good, and for other people of color communities,” says Connelly. “What I want to see is an opportunity for us to be absolutely unapologetic about focusing on our community.”