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The civil rights issue of our generation

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First celebrated 155 years ago today, Juneteenth remains the most widely recognized observance of the end of slavery in the United States.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation had declared them free on Jan. 1, 1863, enslaved men and women in Texas only learned about their freedom on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced the “absolute equality of rights” between slave owners and slaves. Every June 19 since has commemorated the end of slavery throughout the United States.

As we reflect on the enormous significance of this day and what it represents, it should also remind us how much further we must go to achieve true freedom, equality, and inclusion for all. Indeed, the recent protests across America and the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected minority communities, have illustrated the economic and financial challenges of minority, rural and underserved communities and the extent of our nation’s income inequality.

Since becoming the first African-American to lead a federal banking regulatory agency last year, I have made financial inclusion a priority, not just at the National Credit Union Administration, but also throughout the financial services industry.

Since I was sworn in as NCUA chairman, I have talked to literally thousands of credit union leaders, employees, regulators and members about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. Everywhere I go, I describe financial inclusion as the civil rights issue of our generation, and it has been heartening to see that this message is being so well received.

To promote financial inclusion, the NCUA on Friday issued Preserving Minority Depository Institutions, an annual report to Congress detailing the financial condition of minority credit unions in 2019 and the agency’s efforts to preserve and promote the formation of new minority depository institutions, or MDIs, which play a critical role in advancing financial inclusion and the economic well-being of minorities and underserved communities.

As noted in this report, MDI credit unions, which account for 10% of all federally insured credit unions, served more than 3.9 million members in 2019 and had assets of $40.5 billion, demonstrating that these institutions are strong and serving the needs of their communities. At the end of 2019, the NCUA regulated 514 federally insured credit unions with the MDI designation in 36 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Further, through the NCUA’s MDI Preservation Program, MDI credit unions have access to grants and loans, training and technical assistance, and guidance from their examiners. Last year, the NCUA provided 58 low-income-designated MDI credit unions with more than $738,000 in technical assistance grants, and provided three MDI credit unions with nearly $75,000 in grants under the agency’s mentoring program pilot.

Besides preserving and promoting MDIs, I am encouraging my colleagues in the financial services industry to focus on, and invest in, other ways we can foster greater financial inclusion. That includes giving more working families access to financial tools that will help them achieve financial independence, helping more young people obtain the educational and vocational training they need to succeed, and nurturing the conditions that allow people to prosper and thrive.

In that regard, it was encouraging to be among the members of the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council when it announced its commitment to financial inclusion as well as fair access and fair treatment for everyone in America earlier this month.

As we observe Juneteenth in the midst of these difficult and unprecedented times for our country, each of us should consider its meaning, and how we can take important actions today to achieve financial freedom for everyone. And while financial inclusion is just one way among many we can achieve a freer, more equitable and just society for all Americans, I believe it is a significant step in the right direction.

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