Credit unions can help heal a divided nation, credit union stalwart William J. Bynum told a gathering of community development credit union leaders this week.
This year’s political turmoil—from the presidential election to racial protests in many American cities—weighs heavily on Bynum, who gave the opening keynote address of the 2016 CUNA Community Credit Union Conference and The Federation 2016 Annual Meeting in Dallas.
He delivered a rousing speech about the role credit unions can play to heal a country divided by politics, race, and economic inequality.
“I am counting on you. I am counting on us to bridge the divides, to heal the wounds. It is people coming together, listening to each other, and forging solutions that put this country back on track on its quest to become a more perfect union,” Bynum says. “And no one brings people together better than credit unions.”
Economic inequality and social injustice strain communities, he says. And persistent poverty in many communities, especially those with high concentrations of people of color, has caused chronic high unemployment, low-performing schools, poor health, and high rates of predatory lending, Bynum says.
“Over the past several months there has been a lot of talk about the need for healing after the election—about the need for rebuilding trust and civility," he says. "The promise of America is indeed great. But until we close the divide in this country between the haves and have-nots, I fear that the deep wounds we just saw lifted up will never heal and that we will never become the great country that we should be."
An advocate for the disadvantaged
Bynum, CEO of Hope Credit Union, a community development financial institution serving Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee, has been working in disadvantaged communities for years.
Hope's service area contains more than a quarter of the country’s persistently impoverished counties, where more than 20% of the population has lived below the poverty level for three decades or longer.
“Hope was organized by people who believe that dignity and opportunity are fundamental human rights. Over the past 22 years these principles have been our North Star, guiding us in determining where and how to grow,” Bynum says.
During the past two decades, Hope has expanded to 27 locations, grown to over 30,000 members, and financed numerous consumer, business, and mortgage loans. The credit union has also funded health-care providers, a healthy food initiative, and charter school facilities.
“We helped breathe new life into buildings that have fallen down on their way to urban decay and natural disaster," he says of Hope’s work in places such as New Orleans. "That is what we can do. That’s what credit unions were born to do."
Credit unions need to stand up for what is right and be advocates for the disenfranchised, Bynum says.
“The greatest threat to our industry is if we abandon our roots or if we forget who we are," he says. "We are cooperatives. We are credit unions. We were born out of the solidarity of immigrants. We were born from the struggle of people who look like me and who look like you. We were born out of the collective desire of working people everywhere who simply wanted a fair shot at the American dream. A fair shot at dignity. A fair shot at opportunity."
Bynum says he gets frustrated sometimes when credit union leaders complain about regulations, citing the lax enforcement that played a role in the recent economic crisis.
"We are stewards of other people’s money," he says. "So let’s not just throw regulation under the bus. Let’s talk about smart regulation. Let’s make it better."
Setting politics aside
Regardless of the political environment, credit unions can score wins for members, Bynum says, adding that he has worked with legislators across the political spectrum.
“Despite some fundamental differences in our philosophies we were able to find common ground and come together to help a lot of people,” he says.
Bynum encouraged attendees to read the financial empowerment recommendations of the Ferguson Commission’s report, stemming from the unrest in the the wake of the death of Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer.
The commission’s work aimed to come up with best practices for communities across the country. They include:
Vulnerable Americans need credit unions, Bynum says.
“Just as we are credit unions, we are Ferguson. We are Baltimore,” he says. “We are Cleveland. We are Orlando. We are Charleston. We are Dallas. We are everyone and everywhere who believes in—and who demands—dignity, and opportunity, and justice for all.”