CUNA News is running a series of Q&As with African American credit union leaders around the country in honor of Black History Month.
Opal Ellyse Tomashevska is a senior manager, multicultural business strategy for CUNA Mutual Group in Madison, Wis. She has six years in the credit union industry and is a 2017 winner of the CUNA Mutual Group Values in Practice Award.
Q: What inspirational story or contribution from the African American community do you reflect on during Black History Month?
A: There are so many, including many of those making history today, but if I had to pick one hero, it would be Harriet Tubman. It’s not just that she escaped slavery herself, during impossible times, which is feat enough. Or that she risked her own life and freedom time and time again for the liberation of others, which may be one of the bravest things ever done in the history of this country and the world.
Not to mention that she did all of this as a woman, but it’s that she was thinking of the future the entire time! She was thinking about us now. Her quotes still ring true for me today of how to put God first and do the impossible.
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the starts and change the world.” – Harriet Tubman
Q: Tell us about a hurdle that you overcame during your career and how it shaped your drive to succeed.
A: Like many African Americans before me and beside me, the biggest hurdle I have had to overcome is being the first. I am a first-generation college graduate and no one in my family has ever worked in corporate America or finance or in any professional capacity like this. I have had to do things on my own and learn things on my own, sometimes the hard way, for a very long time.
The benefit is that I have learned I am much stronger and more resourceful than I ever knew, and I know firsthand that one can overcome impossible odds. It has shaped my drive to succeed in a way where I am ingrained to include others with me.
Any knowledge I get is not just for me, but for me to share with others along the way.
There is a saying that “we are blessed to be a blessing to others,” I live by this. There are so many people, especially within this credit union movement who have been good to me for no reason at all. They have invested in my professional development and growth and without them I wouldn’t have the voice I have.
It is my honor and joy to be able to do that for others as I continue to grow in my career.
Q: What does diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) mean to you?
A: Diversity, equity and inclusion simply means a better future for all of us. For me as a woman of color, on a deep level it means I am seen, and I am valued. For business it means we will make truly informed decisions with not only the best intentions but also the best outcomes.
For the world, it means we get to finally advance on all cylinders as human beings striving for positive change and better lives.
Q: Why should DEI matter to the credit union movement?
A: The CU movement was built on and still runs on “people helping people.” DEI means we aren’t just talking about some people, but about all people.
Q: What is one way your organization is serving underrepresented communities?
A: The reason I wanted to work for CUNA Mutual Group is because of the way we give back to the community. We do big things that get fanfare and we do the small things no one sees or knows about but they mean the world to some communities and individuals.
For decades, CUNA Mutual Group Foundation has been giving back to the Lussier Community Education Center, which is the center that serves the neighborhood I grew up in. Not only does our organization help financially but I have colleagues who serve on the board, and volunteer as mentors in the elementary and middle school programs, the authentic real life ties are more than you can count and it brings me great joy to work for a company who is giving back on so many different levels.
This is just one example, there are so many others I could list!
Q: What piece of advice would you give to other professionals in the credit union movement?
A: Don’t forget that our roots are in the credit union movement. You cannot help but get inspired when you remember why credit unions were started and how they have kept going all these years.
We are mission driven and we stand on the shoulders of incredible pioneers, being a part of the credit union movement is something to get excited about!
Q: How can credit unions and/or their partners best serve their members from diverse backgrounds?
A: Include us on your teams! The more your workforce looks and feels like the community the better you can serve that community. Really take the time to listen to your members and find out what they need and want.
Q: How do you promote diversity and inclusion within your organization or in your personal life?
A: Working in Multicultural Business Strategy, I live and breathe this stuff every day. It doesn’t end when I leave the office and it doesn’t begin when I arrive. My heart is in the work I do, and I try to share as much of myself as I can to model inclusion and strive for equity.
I use my voice to liberate others whether that’s through poetry or sharing opportunity or just being quiet and making space for others to share their truth so we can all learn from it.
I am always thinking about how my actions can make it easier for the next person who looks or feels like me to succeed.