WEST POINT — Since its founding in 1995, Hope Credit Union has provided more than $2.5 billion in financing for more than 1.5 million people, primarily in underserved communities.
It especially helps Black communities, where lack of access to capital has been historically low.
“It really is a remarkable success story,” said Ed Sivak, Hope’s executive vice president for policy and communications. “At a time when credit unions have been in decline, Hope has continued to grow and provide opportunities.”
With more than 35,000 members in five Southern states — Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee — Hope has created opportunities for small business loans, home mortgages and auto loans in communities often shunned by larger banking institutions.
Although it has branches in many urban areas — Memphis, New Orleans, Jackson and Little Rock — it often locates in rural, majority-Black towns across the South, places like Moorhead (population of 2,078), Itta Bena (1,845), Shaw (1,715), Drew (1,656) and even tiny College Station, Arkansas, with a population of just 455.
“For a lot of these branches, it may be the community’s only access to banking services,” Sivak said. “There are a lot of great stories. A couple of years ago, in the Delta we had a customer who opened her first bank account. She was 100 years old. That’s a great story, but a sad story, too. It illustrates so much of what we are about, providing opportunities to people, especially Blacks and women, who never had that opportunity before.”
Hope is also a player in Washington, D.C., where it lobbies for policies on behalf of underserved communities.
Donna Gandy, 61, has spent her entire life in West Point. In 2017, she had never heard of Hope Credit Union, about the hundreds of millions of loans it provided to thousands of people just like her.
All Gandy really knew was that she needed a car.
“My car was giving me a lot of trouble,” she said. “I finally said, ‘I’ve got to have another car, something that won’t be breaking down all the time.'”
Gandy had a checking account with one of the larger regional banks, so went to her local branch to inquire about a car loan. It turned out to be a pretty short visit.
“I told them my situation,” she said. “They said no, that I hadn’t been at my job long enough or whatever. I was wondering, ‘What am I going to do?'”
A friend suggested she try Hope Credit Union.
“I thought to myself, ‘Where’s that?’ I thought (Hope) was a town,” she said, laughing. “But it was right here in West Point.”
The West Point branch had just opened. Jessica Bell was the branch manager.
“I went down there and talked to Jessica,” Gandy said. “The first thing she asked was, ‘Do you have any credit?’ I told her I didn’t. I thought that might be the end of it, like it was with the other bank.
“But she kept talking, asking me questions like did I pay rent or did I have utility bills I had been paying on, anything that had my name on it that I paid every month,” she added. “I went home, got that stuff together and brought it back to her, but I wasn’t really sure if it would do any good. She looked it over and said, ‘I think we can help get you a loan.'”
Bell said Gandy is a pretty good example of the work Hope Credit Union does.
“I think what makes us different is that we really want to help people if we can,” Bell said. “At a lot of banks, it’s pretty simple: You qualify or you don’t. It begins and ends there. But we are always looking for ways to help. Like any lender, we’re not just going to lend to just anyone. We have to be responsible to our members. But in a lot of cases, these are people who are good risks. They just don’t meet the usual standards.”
Bell said the goal is to say yes.
“A lot of our members either don’t have established credit or they may have something on their credit that’s holding them back,” she said. “People make mistakes in life. Things happen. But when you have very little credit to start with and something happens, it can set you back and make it almost impossible. That puts people in the position where they are vulnerable to predatory lenders, like pay-day loan places. They get in a cycle of debt they can never get out of.”
One of the ways Hope provides opportunity to people in those circumstances is to look at it a little closer.
“We call it alternative credit factors,” Bell said. “They are things like rent, utilities, anything a person pays every month. Those things don’t show up on a regular credit report, but they do tell us something about the person. Does that person have a history of paying their bills every month? That’s pretty good information. It tells us a lot about the person’s reliability.”
In the beginning
Today, Hope Credit Union is a mid-sized credit union offering the full range of banking services.
At its core, it remains an institution whose mission is to help folks like Gandy.
Hope was founded in 1994 by members of Anderson United Methodist Church in Jackson and Bill Bynum, who remains the credit union’s CEO. In its early years, Hope was content to build its membership in the Jackson area, but in 2002, it joined forces with Enterprise Corporation of the Delta as its primary sponsor.
“That really expanded the possibilities beyond the Jackson area,” Sivak said. “The Enterprise Cooperation of the Delta was one of the largest economic development institutions in the South and has established relationships with many of the major philanthropic institutions in the nation, like the Kellogg Foundation. From there, Hope really began to grow and expand.”
Last month, Netflix invested $10 million with Hope, the first of its $100 million program designed to provide opportunities in Black communities. Hope will use the funds in its communities to make business, mortgage and consumer loans and provide other financial services that build wealth and foster economic mobility.
COVID-19 and opportunities
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Black community hard. A disproportionate percent of Blacks not only contract the virus but die from it. It’s also been a staggering blow to the already-precarious finances of Black citizens.
That, said Sivak, is not only a challenge but an opportunity.
“One of the biggest moments in our history was Hurricane Katrina,” Sivak said. “Hope had just expanded its footprint at the time of the hurricane and we were able to really make a difference there, making sure that the Black community wasn’t overlooked. We helped more than 10,000 people in New Orleans and the Coast access federal grants, get low-interest loans and help lift them out of a bad situation.
“We kind of look at COVID-19 in the same way,” he added. “Through our policy efforts or our programs, our goal is to make sure the Black community isn’t left out.”
A big part of that effort has been directed to providing PPP loans.
“It’s really about all I’ve been doing since this all started,” Bell said.
Hope has provided more than 1,800 PPP loans with more than $57 million throughout its branches.
“COVID-19 is tough on everyone, especially our Black community,” Bell said. “But we’re determined to rise to the challenge because that’s what we’re founded on.”
Hope for the future
For Gandy, the benefits are personal.
“I feel like I have a chance for something I never thought I’d have, really,” she said.
In September, she’ll make her final car payment. In November, she’ll pay off the $1,000 personal loan Hope provided her as a means of building her credit.
“My credit score, I don’t even remember what it was three years ago,” Gandy said. “I’m sure it was pretty bad. Now, it’s gone up way over 100 points I’m sure.”
She now has another goal.
“My next step is to get a home loan,” she said. “That’s what I’m working toward.”
Three years ago, Gandy just needed a reliable car.
“Back then, I didn’t ever dream of anything more than that,” she said. “Now, I have the chance to have my own home. If I hadn’t gone down to talk to Jessica that day, there’s no way I’d have this chance. I’m serious: It’s changed my life.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.