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First Black-owned bank now officially open in Twin Cities

First Independence Bank has an ambitious goal aimed at closing the racial wealth gap, and they're getting some help from a lot of competitors.

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota's first Black-owned bank has now officially opened it's doors in Minneapolis, and it's getting broad support in addressing an ambitious goal.

"We're really trying to make banking more inclusive," said Damon Jenkins, regional market president for First Independent Bank. "We're really trying to give the unbanked, or the underbanked, access like they haven't had before."

For years, Minnesota has been among the worst in the country for wealth inequality. The median Black family in the Twin Cities makes less than half of white families. That is a problem that will take more than one bank to fix, which is why First Independence Bank isn't doing this alone.

"I'm excited, relieved... I could come up with probably 50 different adjectives to describe it, but I just feel blessed and fortunate," Jenkins said.

Damon Jenkins was working for Wells Fargo a year ago, but spent the last few months preparing to lead the first Minnesota branch of First Independence Bank, one of just 17 Black-owned, full-service banks in the country.

"Being a native from here and growing up in Minneapolis and being a Black male, I can show people who look like me what their potential is," Jenkins said. "Not just to be a banker, but to be leading the first Black bank in the Twin Cities, it's just really special."

It's all thanks to a special kind of cooperation. Bank of America, Bremer Bank, Huntington Bank, U.S. Bank, and Wells Fargo contributed capital, infrastructure, research, marketing and other services to help the Detroit-based First Independence Bank to gain a foothold in the Twin Cities.

"It's unprecedented to see five major competitors come together to say, 'We want to invite another competitor in,'" said Chairman and CEO Kenneth Kelly. "That's very historic."

And Kelly says that spirit will continue beyond the grand opening.

"First of all, our mission is collaboration," Kelly said. "We are Black-owned, but not Black-only. That's intentional. It takes a community to be supportive to make sure that a bank can be sustainable long term."

That support will include efforts by all the banks to address the racial wealth gap.

Community leaders like Laverne McCartney Knighton, with the United Negro College Fund, attended the grand opening and said the ceremony was a great way to kickstart that effort.

"My heart was just on a 10," McCartney Knighton said. "I couldn't have been more proud."

McCartney Knighton was among several community leaders who have provided input to the bank, as it attempts to address distrust and repair harm many people of color have felt while banking over the years. She says it matters that the branch, located at 3430 University Ave. SE, near the border of Minneapolis and St. Paul, features a diverse staff.

"We all want to know and trust that the people that we do business with have our best interests at heart," she said. "That trust factor goes up when you see people who look like you, and you're being respected."

"We've got a long road to go on this equity journey," Jenkins said. "It's just that — it's a journey and not a destination."

Though that journey begins with a small footprint, Damon says the collaboration means customers will have free access to 55,000 ATMS operated by Bank of America, Bremer Bank, Huntington Bank, U.S. Bank, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo, while his team focuses on those who are traditional undeserved.

"We have a program, a resource, that we'll be rolling out called Operation Hope," Jenkins said. "That's financial literacy with credit restoration, with the end result of getting people to a bare minimum of a 700 FICO score, and as you get to there, you become credit worthy, so we can get you to a point where we can get you into a home."

He calls it a first step for the bank, with faith that the customers, and a community, will follow.

"The first step would be to put your money where your mouth is," McCartney Knighton said. "Put your money in a Black bank and see where that can help you to become a more successful human being."

Wells Fargo, which previously owned the building now occupied by First Independence Bank, donated the facility to the nonprofit Project for Pride in Living, a partnering agency whose mission is: "To disrupt poverty & inequity." PPL is, in turn, leasing the property to First Independence Bank.

First Independence Bank plans to open a second branch at Lake St. and Hiawatha Avenue later in 2022.

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