CUNA News is running a series of Q&As with African American credit union leaders around the country in honor of Black History Month.
Pamela Owens is a senior vice president, organizational development and capacity building at Inclusiv. She has been in the credit union industry for 21 years, and is a 2019 inductee to the African-American Credit Union Coalition Hall of Fame.
Q: What inspirational story or contribution from the African American community do you reflect on during Black History Month?
A: During my first year at Inclusiv, I had the opportunity to attend a conference of rural Southern credit unions. Most served predominately African American communities. They served some of the poorest communities in the U.S.
It was fascinating to listen to the stories of how these credit unions were chartered and the hardships they overcame. The organizers risked their lives to ensure that people within their community had access to safe banking.
That experience shaped my work ethic. I understand what a tremendous honor and privilege it was to work in this movement.
Q: Tell us about a hurdle that you overcame during your career and how it shaped your drive to succeed.
A: Inclusiv has member credit unions of all sizes. Much of my work focuses on smaller and faith-based credit unions. It has been a challenge for the larger movement to understand the importance and relevance of these credit unions.
Although small and hyper-local, they serve a purpose in their communities and for their members. If these credit unions did not exist, many of their members would be unbanked.
I am still working on showing their importance to the mainstream movement.
Q: What does diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) mean to you?
A: Access! I live in New York City with financial institutions are on almost every block but yet there still is a large number of people unbanked and underbanked. When you leave Manhattan and go into the outer boroughs the number of people not connected to a financial institution skyrockets.
This is especially true in immigrant communities.
DEI for me means that anyone regardless of race, gender, socio-economic status or immigration status can walk into a financial institution and be treated with respect and be offered products and services that complement their lifestyle.
I feel that credit unions do the best job at providing this access. It’s why I have stayed with the credit union movement for so many years.
Q: Why should DEI matter to the credit union movement?
A: It is the genesis of why credit unions exist and has been part of our makeup since our start in the US. I trained at St. Mary’s Bank Credit Union and listening to the stories of how the earliest credit union members (factory workers) in Manchester, N.H. were welcomed into the credit union is one of the most important things we must not forget.
If our movement is committed to “people helping people”, we must help all people. On a very practical level, DEI is the business model that makes sense.
The U.S. population is becoming more diverse. DEI is good business.
Q: What is one way your organization is serving underrepresented communities?
A: Inclusiv serves underrepresented communities through many of our initiatives. We have an expressed goal of preserving Minority Depository Institution (MDI) credit unions. Many of these credit unions are the oldest in the movement and serve African American communities.
Through this initiative we work with MDI credit unions in New York, Chicago and rural communities in the South. We do a “deep dive” and work with them on membership outreach, product development, training and technology.
We also have the Juntos Avanzamos (Together We Advance) Initiative which is a designation for credit unions serving and empowering Hispanic consumers. Inclusiv is leading the national expansion of the Initiative.
Q: What piece of advice would you give to other professionals in the credit union movement?
A: Start with positivity! I value every person that I meet. I might not always agree with their ideas or approach but I see value in everyone.
Positivity is at the core of all relationships that I have both personally and professionally.
Q: How can credit unions best serve their members from diverse backgrounds?
A: They first need to listen to their members. Instead of developing a product or service and hoping that it will work, do a quick survey to see what the members want and need from the credit union. Don’t be afraid to try something outside of their comfort zone.
Second, credit unions need to have staff and board that represent their full membership.
Q: How do you promote diversity and inclusion within your organization or in your personal life?
A: I am very fortunate to work for an organization where DEI is at the heart of our existence. Since our start in 1974, Inclusiv has championed DEI in the CU movement.
From our board of directors to our staff, we have always believed that DEI must be a goal. We still believe in that principal today and have a very diverse staff and board.
Our diversity is not just in terms of gender and ethnicity but also locations of our members (urban and rural) as well as asset size. We believe an inclusive economy is one that serves all people.