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While credit unions were founded on the principle of “people helping people,” diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts within the industry have exploded in recent years. A Tuesday panel at the CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C., urges credit union professionals to carry that momentum forward.
Kaua'i Federal Credit Union President/CEO Monica Belz says the DEI wave hadn’t formed when she arrived at the $136 million asset credit union eight years ago. A couple years later, DEI became the eighth cooperative principle for America’s credit unions.
Now, Belz looks around the room at industry events and thinks, “Holy moly, have we made waves. Not enough, but there is momentum, and we are all on board for this ride.”
The ride has included credit unions hiring DEI professionals, amplifying employee voices, and renewing their focus on financial well-being for all. However, some of that work has been met with friction, as DEI efforts have been politicized.
As CUNA Director of Advocacy Clement Abonyi says, some politicians have attempted to dismiss DEI efforts by giving them the “woke” moniker. But he believes “there is nothing to stop it when a group of people are determined to do something.” Greylock Federal Credit Union President/CEO John Bissell agrees that credit unions can’t let any hurdles stop the swell of DEI.
“This is a time for us to move forward and own what we’re good at,” says Bissell, who joined the $1.6 billion asset credit union in Pittsfield, Mass., in 2003. “Let’s not be back on our heels, let’s take on those big picture things, and maybe we can drive change for generations to come.”
The panel identified many issues, including inherent biases in real estate appraisals and FICO scores. Bissell adds that white Americans are much more likely than Black or Latino Americans to own homes and stock, and that LGBTQ+ individuals earn 90 cents on the dollar.
This is generational work, and Belz says it’s time to turn more of the work over to the next generation. She says that millennials are the largest generation in the U.S., and Generations Y and Z are more diverse and tolerant than any before them. However, she doesn’t see enough members of those generations on credit union boards or in the C-suite.
“The future of our industry is dependent on our leaders,” Belz says, recognizing that today’s DEI efforts were made possible by the pioneers who started to turn the tide. “Who’s choosing the next round of leaders? There is a very small, select group of human beings right now dictating the fate of everything we’re going to see in the next decade in our industry.”
Abonyi sees similar age-related issues while advocating on Capitol Hill. He has observed a disconnect between what politicians think is an issue and what is really going on.
“These are stories and narratives that are just not reaching lawmakers,” he says. “They may be stuck in a way of thinking that’s not reflective of the current environment. So, it’s really important to bring our stories to them. That’s the challenge of advocacy. As the country becomes more divisive in some areas, it’s hard to get our stories to break through. But it’s crucial.”
Filene Research Institute Fellow Dr. Quinetta Roberson, a professor at Michigan State University, says these challenges cause burnout among DEI professionals.
“Many of the people who do this work are not given a true seat at the table,” she says, stressing the importance of bringing DEI efforts to a strategic level.
Bissell agrees, believing that the ability of credit unions to be inclusive and serve everyone is essential to the survival of the movement.
“If we get that right, we’ll thrive,” he says. “If we don’t, we’ll go extinct.”
“DEI is the panacea to insolvency. If the DEI wave stops and the swell is over—I don’t believe it is, I think there are some big waves coming behind us—but let’s say there’s not, then we know our fate,” Belz adds. “We are still so far from being in a place where we can say this is a representative, equitable, and inclusive industry. We have so far to go, but I’m really excited we’re riding the wave to get there.”
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