East St. Louis Native Wants Black Communities To Have More Access To Financial Services
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
EAST ST. LOUIS — Learning the importance of helping people in his community is a lesson Alex Fennoy understood at an early age.
His mother, Toni, and his father, Nino, were teachers in East St. Louis School District 189. His dad was also an esteemed track and field coach and mentor for kids in the city. His grandfather was a precinct committee officer for East St. Louis..
East St. Louis raised Fennoy. It’s where he developed a firm support system with family and people in the community that translated into a career of connecting underserved Black areas to financial services. As a result of his work, the American Bankers Association honored him last fall with its George Bailey Distinguished Service Award.
As the executive vice president of community and economic development for St. Louis-based Midwest BankCentre, Fennoy wants to make sure that low-income populations have access to banking needs. It’s a mission that comes naturally for Fennoy, who says his parents always instilled in him a duty to help those who were less fortunate.
“I was blessed to have a two-parent home,” said Fennoy, who now lives in O’Fallon. “Both my parents are retired educators in the public school system for East St. Louis District 189, and I was able to see that other kids didn’t have that. I didn’t look at that as something so much better for me. I looked at it as a blessing, and then never looked down on others who didn’t have what we had.”
“There was a lot of poverty (in East St. Louis). I didn’t know the word poverty at the time, but I knew we had more than most. We weren’t rich, but we were middle class. But my parents put it in my head that it was a blessing and a responsibility to do more for others than it is ‘I’m better than them’, so I never had that conflict.”
‘Unbanked:’ little access to banking services
The COVID-19 pandemic inevitably exacerbated the recurrent racial wealth gap between Black and white Americans as Black communities disproportionately contracted the virus itself and labor market disparities worsened. In the second quarter of 2020, white households held 84% of total household wealth in the United States compared to 4% in Black households, according to the Brookings Institute.
One factor contributing to this gap is little access to mainstream banking in low-income Black communities. Increased access to banking services can save individual Black Americans up to $40,000 over their lifetimes, according to a 2019 McKinsey & Company report.
It’s why Fennoy opened a Midwest BankCentre branch in 2017 on the campus of Friendly Temple Church in St. Louis’ North County. The church is located in the Wells-Goodfellow Neighborhood, a historical underserved area in which over 90% of its residents are Black, says Michael Jones, pastor of Friendly Temple.
“It’s an unbanked community, which means that when people receive dollars to invest or to bank, there wasn’t a bank within the radius of a mile or two in our area to provide those resources, or if homeowners wanted home loans, if small business wanted loans, there were no banking institutions within the immediate community,” Jones said. “It’s also a food desert where there are no shopping centers or food centers. People would have to leave the community and take the resources out of the community to gain access to opportunities.”
Jones said Fennoy, through the Friendly Temple’s partnership with the bank, is helping the church’s effort to restore the neighborhood by bringing more businesses to the area.
“Alex knows our community,” Jones said. “He’s a part of our community. He can relate and identify with the challenges of our community, and he has a passion to want to elevate or raise our community to levels of equity. He knew that this is an unbanked community, and our community needed the services and the resources.”
East St. Louis, Fennoy’s hometown, faces challenges similar to those in Wells-Goodfellow. The city is a food desert, with few grocery stores, and lacks a hospital. Additionally, about 40% of its residents live in poverty. But that’s not the East St. Louis that Fennoy remembers.
“I grew up in the 70s and 80s as a kid, and East St. Louis, at the time, still had tons of opportunity and over 50,000 city population and a bustling small city,” Fennoy, 52, said. “It wasn’t as bustling as maybe 30 years earlier, but it was nowhere near the kind of deficit situation that it’s in now.”
“East St. Louis is about 89 blocks, and we lived on 76th Street and my paternal grandmother lived on the equivalent of 15th Street, not a straight shot, but almost. At 8 years old I could ride my bike from 76th Street down to 15th. That’s my East St. Louis.”
Fennoy remembers making frequent trips as a kid to the candy store, where he first practiced saving.
“If somebody gave me a quarter - my parents, grandparents, my uncle, older cousins - because I did some chore or because they wanted me to have some money in my pocket,” Fennoy said. “It never dawned on me to spend the entire quarter. I remember going to the neighborhood candy store and thinking I have a quarter but I’m not going to spend all this. I’ll put the rest in my piggy bank. That’s never changed from 5 to now.”
Although banking seemed like a natural fit for Fennoy, it wasn’t the career he initially chose. After graduating from Lincoln High School, Fennoy attended Fisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was on a path to become a dentist. However, as he neared entering the pre-dental track, he became less interested in the field and more interested in the business classes he was already taking,which led him to switch his major to accounting. Fennoy describes the change as a blessing in disguise.
“I used to say years ago that it was an accident, but I’m a little wiser now to know that it was not an accident,” Fennoy said. “For me, my faith is the most important, (so) it was divine intervention and being led.”
That change in academic majors led to a nearly 30-year banking career for Fennoy that includes his financial work for banks like Boatmen’s, Cass, Regions and National City. Although he said his early career is what fed his appetite to work with nonprofits and churches in underserved areas, it’s his current job with Midwest Bank Centre that he believes best aligns with his purpose.
“It’s about diversity of thought, but it also is about the diversity of people’s experiences,” Fennoy, who has worked with the bank since 2010, said about reaching Black communities.
“I think our philosophy is also that we believe that is going to be needed, especially in historically underserved areas, because it’s a level of hand-holding that, when you’re building that trust, has to happen.”
In January, Fennoy and his team plan to launch a program that will lend up to $200 million in community development loans for the next five years. The loans will be available for minority small business owners or businesses located in low to moderate income areas. Fennoy said although most of the loans will be awarded to owners in St. Louis, a small portion will be open to those who live elsewhere, like the metro-east. He said he’s also working on putting a branch of the bank in East St. Louis, although he doesn’t know when.
Retired Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee said Fennoy’s work has left an indelible mark on her eponymous foundation. Joyner-Kersee was coached by his dad and remembers meeting Fennoy as a kid. Alex is currently the secretary of the foundation’s board of directors.
“Just to see how he has grown into a young man that takes the community seriously, that looks to give back and try to spread and share his knowledge, especially dealing with the bank sector and trying to get people to understand what it means about being unbanked, is great,” Joyner-Kersee said. “Also him being a part of serving on the board of the foundation and helping to secure opportunities for us that’s fair and equitable is great.”
Joyner-Kersee said Fennoy was instrumental in helping the foundation qualify for a Paycheck Protection Loan, a federal program designed to help small businesses and nonprofits continue to pay employees during the pandemic, this year. She said his financial knowledge has been invaluable to her team and the East St. Louis community.
“A lot of people in the community go unbanked and lack the understanding of having a bank account, so I think his leadership goes beyond his banking experience,” Joyner-Kersee said. “Alex really does care about the community. When you have someone that cares about the community and the relationships, then you start seeing them beyond just that relationship. It’s a true family.”
Being honored for his work in the community was a humbling experience for Fennoy. Each year, the American Bankers Association awards a non-CEO bank employee for their dedication to improving the communities they serve. Fennoy was one of two recipients.
“It’s special, but at the same token, the work ain’t done because so many people in the whole community will be better if we have stronger businesses all throughout our region. If we have opportunities for more people to work because we know that deters crimes. It’s not brutal policing. It’s more jobs, it’s more education, it’s more opportunities. When those things are more, the direct inverse effect on all the negative things that we do to one another in society decreases. It’s proven.”
DeAsia Page is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.