United Way Suncoast’s BankOn Summit Brings Together Leaders

Young Money Solutions CEO Howard Johnson speaks during a BankOn Summit panel discussion.

   SARASOTA – United Way Suncoast’s BankOn Suncoast Summit brought together experts and stakeholders to discuss all the intricacies of banking: financing and income and interest rates and savings and fees and assets. Yet a thread of humanity and a longing to help others wove together the seemingly dispassionate discussion of numbers and percentages.

   Elected officials, partner agencies, federal government representatives and community leaders gathered with United Way Suncoast leaders at Sarasota’s Robert L. Taylor Community Complex. They delved into the topics revolving around financial inclusion and the BankOn program.

   But they did so with heart.

Summit centers on ideas

   The BankOn program works to ensure that everyone has access to a safe and affordable bank or credit union account. The program’s certified accounts are safe, with no overdraft or surprise fees. They also benefit account holders with financial goals and makes it easier for them to pay bills and directly deposit payments with no fees.

   Yet the summit also centered on sharing ideas and initiatives about how to lift up those facing financial challenges. The opening panel gave Young Money Solutions CEO Howard Johnson and Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay executive director Jose Garcia a chance to expound on how their programs guide community members towards financial stability.

   Rhonda Little, a community affairs specialist for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, explained that her organization’s financial inclusion approach extends from BankOn accounts and foundational financial institution relationships to creating financial stability and building household wealth and savings. FDIC’s work also encourages financial institutions to work to create healthy communities. 

Make The Connection

   At the end of the initial panel discussion, Rhonda made an impassioned plea for those in the room to connect with each other. She implored them to work together to solve problems for community members. She asked each person to, “touch somebody in here and do whatever you can do to help. Make a connection.”

   Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith, who bears the same name as United Way Suncoast financial stability manager and event organizer Mark Smith, echoed Rhonda’s sentiments.

   “I like that United Way Suncoast and other nonprofits are working together,” Commissioner Smith said. “That’s the collaboration we need. We’re very fortunate in Sarasota County to have a broad network of nonprofits.”

A Crucial Step Forward

United Way Suncoast CEO Jessica Muroff

   Sarasota mayor Liz Alpert opened the event by stating the summit, “signifies a crucial step forward.” United Way Suncoast CEO Jessica Muroff noted that residents with mainstream bank accounts fare better while those without can spend more than $40,000 over the course of their lifetimes on check-cashing fees or high fees on pay cards.

   “Our goal is to remove these barriers,” Jessica said. “We want to provide safe savings, building foundations for financial tools, establishing credit history and fostering trust.”

Lisa Locke, Community Development Advisor for the Bank On National Data – Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, delivered the keynote address.

   Subsequent panels and presentations at the daylong summit focused on overcoming barriers to financial inclusion, the economic viability dashboard from United For ALICE and creating a strategic plan to advance financial inclusion. BayFirst Financial donated coffee and doughnuts and Mission Barbecue provided lunch.

Community Collaboration Needed

   Mark Smith, the United Way Suncoast, who led the work in putting the program together, credited BayFirst Financial commitment to Sarasota’s Newtown area as an example of the kind of action Suncoast communities need from businesses to improve.

   “You heard about … banking deserts, not having a branch in your neighborhood, not having a grocery store in your neighborhood, not having a pharmacy in your neighborhood,” Mark said. “You also heard about, ‘not knowing.’ There’s still people who don’t know that there’s a branch here in Newtown, or that they can get their taxes done through VITA.

   “That’s one of the reasons we’re here today. So we can better communicate with people who need to know this information and utilize these services.”

   More than 3 percent of Sarasota County’s households were unbanked and 11 percent were underbanked in 2021. Rates are higher among lower-income households, less-educated households, African-American households, Hispanic households and single-mother households. Across the region, 15 percent of households are underbanked, ranging from 8 percent in Pinellas to 17 percent in DeSoto County.

   Clearly, financial inclusion deserves our full attention. United Way Suncoast will continue to serve as the guiding agency for BankOn Suncoast as it strives to promote economic mobility. Click here to learn more. 

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