At a bank where Suzette Cowell used to work, loan applications from two Toledo, Ohio, ZIP codes were automatic rejections. Now, Cowell leads a credit union located in one of those ZIP codes.
As CEO/treasurer at Toledo (Ohio) Urban Federal Credit Union, Cowell ensures no such rejections occur at the $12.3 million asset credit union.
“It didn't matter where people worked or anything else, they opened up the file enough to look at the ZIP code and put ‘denied’ on it,” she says, recalling her time at the bank. “One day, it was too much for me to handle. I didn’t even know who the person was, but they were denied and I just started crying.”
Not long after, Cowell attended a Bible study at Friendship Baptist Church, where Pastor Bishop Duane C. Tisdale asked her to look into creating a financial institution for the church. The next day, she checked out the local library’s lone book about credit unions.
“I read it and I had this fire,” Cowell says.
In August of that year, a shooting in her neighborhood claimed three lives, leading to calls for peace and unity. One idea to achieve both: form a credit union.
“Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur asked if I would work on it for the community because the community really needed it,” she says. “That was the birth.”
Four years later, Toledo Urban Federal opened its doors on July 21, 1996. The credit union opened accounts during a church service and had about 800 members in its first month. By September 1996, it had 2,800 members.
“We literally had people standing around the block trying to get in the door,” Cowell says, adding that credit union employees and members pray at the start of every workday. “We had two staff members. We didn't get lunch hours and we really didn't understand how the demand would play out. People just started coming.”
Previously, many community members took care of their finances at corner stores. Cowell says the credit union had to break the generational cycle of people going to these stores when they needed a loan or to cash a check.
Early on, roughly 95% of Toledo Urban Federal’s members were African American. But after credit union employees went on TV to talk about payday lending, the membership quickly became more diverse.
The credit union still prioritizes diversity and will celebrate Juneteenth on social media and within the community. The June 19 federal holiday commemorates the end of slavery. The holiday, she says, “is long overdue.”
Toledo Urban Federal also emphasizes financial education, as many early members lacked tools such as credit and insurance.
The credit union’s financial counseling typically occurs in a one-on-one fashion rather than a classroom setting. This allows staff to work directly with members to understand their financial limitations and aspirations.
“I love the way there's a personal relationship with members, and they feel comfortable enough to talk to you about everything that's going on,” Cowell says. “We even have members who file bankruptcy and come back and pay us. In these days and times, you really have to know your membership."