To Sheilah Montgomery, Juneteenth is about celebrating her family’s place in the U.S. It’s why the recently retired president/CEO at Florida A&M Federal Credit Union plans to spend June 19, 2022, honoring her mother, who passed away last year.
“I believe in Juneteenth,” she says of the national holiday celebrating the end of slavery. “It's important that people understand they can be denied their rights. That's something we cannot forget.
“I want to make it more significant for my family so they'll understand it's all about family,” Montgomery continues. “Juneteenth was about families who were denied the right to be American citizens. So, we're going to honor my mom every Juneteenth to say, ‘this is what it's all about.’”
Montgomery, who ended her first retirement three years ago to lead Florida A&M Federal, took that mindset into work, making everyone feel welcome at the $25.4 million asset credit union in Tallahassee.
It’s one of about 10 credit unions serving historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU), she says.
HBCU credit unions serve an important role for a community that hasn’t always felt welcome in traditional financial institutions, Montgomery says. Therefore, her career started with employees walking people through the door to show them the credit union is a friendly, trustworthy place.
Montgomery takes pride in meeting members where they are and keeping her door open for all.
Recognizing and welcoming everyone is why diversity observations such as Juneteenth, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and Women’s History Month are important.
Montgomery believes they give people an opportunity to pause and recognize others who have different experiences.
“We can forget that other people have different ways of expression,” she says. “And if all you hear is negative, you don't see all the positive things people contribute to the world. These observations give you a chance to pause and say, ‘Hey, here's your space.’”
A self-proclaimed civil rights baby, Montgomery has made room for others her whole life.
She’s worked at credit unions since 1975, starting as a filing clerk, title processor, and a teller as she progressed in her career.
When her career started, Montgomery wanted to help people and to travel. The credit union movement has allowed her to do both, she says, adding there’s nothing more powerful than serving others.
“The credit union profession has been the most rewarding thing in my life,” Montgomery says. “I've had the opportunity to travel all over the world, and it’s all about how to help people. I'm so grateful that I've had this opportunity to be part of a profession that has not only given me so much but allowed me to give so much back.”
Juneteenth is about affecting change. One way Montgomery has affected the most change is through her involvement with the African American Credit Union Coalition (AACUC).
“AACUC has been the catalyst for having conversations about what can be done about expanding access to financial services, recognizing that everyone has their own experiences and not judging them,” she says. “Once I found that we all had the same issues, and we were navigating how to bring more financial access to a community that has been denied, it hit home for all of us.”
Minorities had limited access to financial services when Montgomery began her career. She remembers a time when Black borrowers needed cosigners and references to take out loans—a demeaning practice.
Montgomery is a strong believer in one-on-one financial education. “When people understand their choices and how to ask for what they need, it makes a big difference. They don’t feel like they’re being judged.”
The chance to affect change, connect with people, and make a difference led Montgomery out of retirement in 2019. It’s also why she wants to continue serving others in her second retirement, which started in June.
“When you've been in the business this long, you've made every mistake you could possibly make,” says Montgomery, who has deep connections in the industry thanks in part to her work with the AACUC and Inclusiv. “We should sustain smaller credit unions so they don't feel threatened. I'm always excited about how they're helping that person down the street. They know their name. I don't want to see that go away.”
She also sees room for improvement in diversity and inclusion. While inequality issues aren’t as blatant as they were when she started her career, she believes there are better ways for organizations and communities to work together.
“Let’s make a difference,” Montgomery says. “Let's change the trajectory of what people think goes on in minority communities.”