A city of just 1.3 square miles, Central Falls, Rhode Island is filled with history. It ranges back to the times of the Industrial Revolution, but most importantly, it has been a “home away from home” for generations of immigrants from all over the world. From the first settlers from Canada and Europe to the more recent influx from Latin America making up nearly 70% of its population, Central Falls is the destination immigrants have sought to pursue the American dream.
Back in 1915, Rhode Island saw the birth of its first credit union, created to help the immigrant community. As French-Canadians made their way south to Central Falls, they quickly realized they had limited avenues available for financial support. Seeing a lack of financial institutions that met their basic needs, such as loans for homes and businesses, the community got together and created a credit union in the basement of their church.
The community members, upon creating their own financial institution, adopted the motto of “people helping people,” which encompassed the true meaning of being a community. More than 100 years later, it still holds true and Navigant Credit Union continues to carry the torch of helping communities like Central Falls.
In 2010, Central Falls experienced one of the most difficult moments in its history. A city with a history full of stories of immigrants “making it” in America, entered financial hardship, which ultimately ended in the State of Rhode Island’s first municipal bankruptcy, and one of only a few in the country.
During this time people lost their homes, taxes skyrocketed, city infrastructure and services deteriorated. Alternative Financial institutions flourished. It seemed that every street corner soon had a check cashing business, pay day lender or pawn shop, ready to prey on those downtrodden. Even as morale was at an all-time low, Navigant Credit Union was the beacon of hope, as the mayor recalls, not only for the city, but for its residents who experienced the hardships of bankruptcy first-hand.
In 2011, I was hired by the Credit Union to be the first-ever community development officer with the sole purpose of being that line of support to new immigrants, and provide opportunity to a community not connected with the credit union.
I immediately developed a strategy creating a platform for businesses to interact with each other and the Credit Union and receive information on the many resources available for starting and growing their business.
This initial step was hosting a business owners meeting titled, “Business Together for a Stronger CommUnity.” We partnered with the City of Central Falls and connected with every business owner possible asking them to gather in the community space of the local branch office.
Results were seen instantly. Something as simple as hosting a conversation, in their language, and allowing business owners the opportunity to express their ideas and concerns generated interest and the small business community grew stronger with every meeting.
Henry Osorio, owner of Best Shipping, a local shipping company providing shipping services across the country and all over the world, came to one of our meetings and immediately began using the resources he had been unaware of.
We connected him to a grant opportunity that allowed him to invest in software which would help him run his business more efficiently, and nominated him for the U.S. Small Business Administration minority-owned award which he won in 2016.
Other entrepreneurs in the area heard about Henry’s success in securing a grant and began coming to our meetings. Our message of help and support continues to resonate in the community because Navigant Credit Union is communicating it to these Emerging Market’s business owners in ways they understand.
Today, as the city emerges from bankruptcy, Navigant Credit Union prides itself in providing opportunities for individuals in the community. We have come up with creative solutions such as our “Pay Day” loan alternative, New Beginnings Suite of products and small business Micro-Loans which can be a great opportunity and innovative initiative for credit unions throughout the country. We are on the cutting edge in these areas and are pioneers in attempting to meet the needs of this sector and be profitable at the same time.
A drive through the main streets of the city shows a vibrant, communicative, and united business community. Even as the city went through its tough times and this wave of immigrants saw limited avenues for financial support, a strong message of empowerment and the resources available allowed this community to dream, flourish, and, by growing their businesses, propel the city from its darkest times to its brightest days.
The time is now!