Creating a board of directors that members and employees alike see as leaders who want to hear the concerns of “people like me” is a vital part of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.
Making DEI part of leadership selection and ongoing operations is a never-ending journey that mirrors the evolution of their communities, say board members and senior leaders. While embarking on a continuous DEI journey is no small task, the alternative is losing touch with member needs.
Greylock Federal Credit Union, Pittsfield, Mass., serves communities in western Massachusetts, eastern New York, and southern Vermont that today are 90% white. Yet the fastest-growing demographic groups in those areas are immigrants and people of color.
“If we want to be here thriving in 20, 30, or 40 years as a region and as financial institutions, we need to embrace the change that is happening all across America,” says John Bissell, CEO of the $1.4 billion asset credit union.
Considering white, middle-class experiences as the norm and all other experiences and value systems as “other,” he says, benefits a narrower demographic.
Roughly seven years ago, Greylock Federal leadership realized they needed to work toward having a board and workforce that reflect the wider community.
Due to that work, Greylock Federal has:
Recruiting a diverse board takes time and persistence. Greylock Federal board members Ty Allan Jackson and Sheila LaBarbera took different paths to board service.
Jackson, who is Black, joined the board in 2015 after being introduced to the credit union during two dinner events. Jackson is the founder of Big Head Books LLC and co-founder of Read or Else, which combats the cycle of illiteracy. He appreciated Greylock Federal’s efforts to verify that he had the “caliber and quality” to serve, as well as the credit union’s direct approach of asking him to join the board.
When other credit unions complain about their inability to attract diverse board members, he wryly responds, “How many did you actually ask?”
“You have to court diverse board members, you have to do the legwork, and you have to be able to see their level of commitment to the community,” Jackson says. He has “great pride” in serving on a board that includes people who are Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and female.
That wasn’t always the case.
LaBarbera sought a seat on the all-white, all-male board in 1999. A board member suggested it was ”not the right time” for her to serve. Despite the pushback, LaBarbera won election and became the first woman to chair the board.
She says creating a more diverse board makes it easier to consider new ideas.
“When you sit in a room where the demographic is all the same, you knew what you were up against because they all had the same thought process,” LaBarbera says. “Today, everyone has different perspectives.”
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