Today’s Solutions: March 01, 2024

If you were looking for the employees of Justine Petersen, a community organization and financial lender in Ferguson, MO, you might find them forming a human chain around local establishments. This is what they have been doing to protect businesses they support from theft and vandalism. 

Justine Petersen is not a regular bank, but a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that uses a combination of government funds and private donations to back businesses large banks won’t fund. This includes entrepreneurs who are too poor or disconnected from the financial system to qualify for traditional loans. 

Last week, a dozen employees formed a human chain around Reds The One and Only BBQ, one of the restaurants they seeded. Although unarmed, they stood for two hours to protect the shop physically and symbolically. 

Unfortunately, during the protests for racial justice across the country, opponents of the movement are taking advantage of the large crowds to purposefully target and destroy businesses owned by people of color. Minneapolis is where the bulk of the destruction has occurred so far, and local officials said it was the result of premeditated attacks on black and Hispanic owned businesses.

CDFIs are more than willing to step in to help in these difficult situations because many of them go far beyond serving as a financial resource for business owners. They are known to also guide owners through the myriad paperwork required to get their businesses up and running, offer them management training, and sometimes even provide spaces from which to launch.

CDFIs were originally created in the 1970s and grew out of groups that were formed to help minorities recover from attacks such as the 1921 massacre of black Americans in Tulsa, Okla. 58 percent of CDFI borrowers are minorities. CDFIs offer a wide variety of loan types and are instrumental in boosting local economies and reducing crime. They become intimately familiar with the needs of specific communities, so they are perfectly suited to help out. “We’re like the National Guard for small businesses,” Mr. Gondolfi of Justine Petersen said. “I love the idea of us being dispatched.”

Meda, a Minneapolis-based CDFI, is walking the streets of the city and assessing damages. They serve as economic first responders in one of the hardest hit cities. The group was originally formed after riots over police brutality destroyed another Minneapolis neighborhood 53 years ago, in the summer of 1967. Now, they are organizing neighborhood watches, inspecting graffiti for signs a business may be targeted, and communicating with business owners about their immediate and long-term needs. 

Over the past 35 years, CDFIs have made loans that helped start more than 400,000 small businesses around the country. These inclusive financial groups are deeply ingrained in the communities they serve, so when they found themselves under attack, they stepped up to offer much more than financial assistance. Employees are putting their time and bodies on the line to protect the businesses they serve.

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