On a sweltering summer day in late June 1977, I walked through the back doors of CUNA’s Filene House in Madison, Wis., to begin what is now a 35-year career in the credit union movement. I had been a credit union member since college, but I didn’t have a clue that credit unions were much more than just a different way of saying “bank.”
On that first day I was given a copy of “The Credit Union Movement,” by J. Carroll Moody and Gilbert C. Fite. My boss also told me to spend time browsing through the bound volumes of Credit Union Magazine that went back to the early 1930s.
The magazine was then named The Bridge because credit unions were designed to provide a bridge from economic hardship to economic opportunity.
Now that the movement has surpassed $1 trillion in total assets and the number of members soon will exceed 100 million, does our history still matter? Is it still relevant?
Credit unions have been so successful that Americans of all income stripes and colors have access to cooperative financial institutions whose primary mission is service and not profit. Our current legislative battles are just the latest in a century-long war to extend the credit union option to as many Americans as possible.
Just as early credit unions served as a bridge for working men and women to what became the great American middle class, we must continue to evolve as a necessary strategic response to the economic times in which our members live today.
Credit unions’ future will require nimbleness and innovation. Some will argue that looking too often in the rearview mirror prevents us from seeing both opportunities and obstacles ahead. They might argue that history serves only to pigeonhole credit unions as niche institutions designed to play a limited role.
Banks certainly believe that to be the case. Note their perpetual state of hysteria when it comes to anything that hints of credit union empowerment. Their heavy-handed campaign to prevent Congress from raising the cap on member business lending is just the latest salvo in an endless campaign of aggression against credit unions.
Our history as financial cooperatives defines us like nothing else. History provides meaning and purpose to our future.
It’s why the public and Congress supported credit unions in 1997 when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling threatened consumer access to credit unions. That threat triggered a strong and united response that enabled credit unions to pass the Credit Union Membership Access Act in only a few months.
NEXT: The past is essential to the future