Tonita Webb tries to be herself at work—on the good days and the bad. As the CEO at Verity Credit Union, she hopes that leading with vulnerability allows the rest of Verity’s employees to be themselves.
Webb, who addressed a 2022 CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference (GAC) breakout session Tuesday, believes allowing employees to be themselves is key to creating a culture of inclusivity. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts have shifted significantly over the past two years, and credit union leaders are doing their best to model behaviors that push the movement in the right direction.
Greylock Federal Credit Union President/CEO John Bissell says, “As a white leader, part of my obligation in growing my own self-awareness has been to recognize and face the fact that the U.S. financial system was set up by people who look like me to benefit people who look like me.
"If we’re going to be truly inclusive, we need to change that.”
To strive toward financial well-being for all, the credit union movement must work for and listen to everyone, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, income level, veteran status, or any other identifying factor.
“It’s time for credit unions to stop trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” Webb says. “Let us listen to our neighbors, our co-workers, our colleagues, our family members, and understand how to get them on the road to prosperity.”
Creating an inclusive atmosphere requires training employees, staff members, and the board of directors on how to be more inclusive inside and outside of the credit union. Having the right people in place makes it easier to establish inclusive policies and services.
Among the steps credit unions have taken to improve financial well-being for all include helping people get low- or no-interest loans, use their authentic name on credit cards, go by their preferred pronouns in the branch, obtain interest-free checking accounts, open second-chance checking accounts, and receive financial coaching and credit counseling.
“Discrimination still exists,” says Element Federal Credit Union CEO Linda Bodie, noting these programs must be backed up by a culture of love. “I tell people I’m not a banker, I’m somebody who’s taking care of other people and I just happen to be really good with money and finance.”
Leaders like Bodie must be ready to respond when inequity is present. And how they respond is crucial, as employees and members are watching.
They also have ideas, which is what Veridian Credit Union President/CEO Renée Christoffer heard during conversations with employees in the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2020.
The conversations were heart-wrenching, but the credit union’s culture benefited when an employee suggested the organization create spaces for minority groups to gather and build relationships. New roundtable discussions allow Veridian employees to share their feelings, discuss their communities, and consider how to better serve members and employees.
These tough conversations can reignite trauma, leading Webb to suggest DEI leaders check on employees to make sure they’re doing OK.
“Are we treating this like a journey or a race?” she says. “This DEI journey is forever. There is in this country at least 400-plus years of a system that has oppressed folks, and it’s going to take a long time to undo that work. And it’s hard work, it’s heavy work.”
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