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National JACL Credit Union in Salt Lake City has a story that starts in a difficult time in American history.
More than 100,000 Japanese Americans were removed from their homes in 1942, forced to move to inland “relocation centers” when President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to the bombing of Naval Station Pearl Harbor by issuing Executive Order 9066.
The order authorized the military to remove anybody deemed a threat to national security, allowing the U.S. to incarcerate people of Japanese descent living near the West Coast.
As World War II neared its end, internees were released from the camps. But reassimilation proved difficult as they faced social and financial discrimination, including the inability to qualify for loans and to open savings accounts.
When stories of hardship reached Topaz Internment Camp in Delta, Utah, some decided to act. A man named Hito Okada researched the concept of cooperative financial institutions and assembled 10 organizers and 15 more members of the Japanese American Citizens League.
With $2,435, the group started National JACL Credit Union in 1943 to provide access to financial services and assist in reassimilation.
“They decided to pull their money together, start a credit union, and help those who needed it,” says Dean Hirabayashi, president/CEO at the $39 million asset credit union. “People ask why we’re not in California, but we started in Topaz and the people who ran the credit union stayed in Utah.”
National JACL has been in Utah for 80 years, growing to more than 3,400 members while continuing to advocate for Asian Americans’ civil rights and promote fairness, equality, and social justice.
“Our values aren’t different than any other credit union,” says Hirabayashi, who worked at $17.5 billion asset America First Credit Union in Ogden, Utah, for 21 years and served on the board of National JACL before being hired in 2006. “It’s members helping members. We tout that and carry that philosophy forward with our members.”
That philosophy spreads beyond Utah. While the credit union has just seven employees and one branch, most of its members are out of state. According to Hirabayashi, roughly one-third of members live in Utah, another one-third in California, and the rest across the U.S.
Most members come through family referrals and the credit union’s relationship with its sponsor company, which formed in 1929 and is the nation’s oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization.
While membership now is open to people living in Salt Lake County, “we do little marketing outside of our association,” Hirabayashi says. “We stay with our niche in the Asian community.”
As the financial services industry changes and consumer needs evolve, National JACL is upgrading its technology.
“It's much more difficult for small credit unions to keep up with technology, but we do our best,” says Hirabayashi, citing work a new mobile app and online banking system, and improved bill pay services. “Small credit unions are a lot of work. We do everything that large credit unions do, but with a smaller staff.”
Its efforts include educating members and the community, not only about personal finance but also about Japanese American history and the values that keep National JACL alive.
While Utah doesn’t have a large Japanese American population, the state is home to the Topaz Internment Camp Museum, and the sponsor company has three chapters. The credit union also keeps history alive with activities including a yearly event commemorating Roosevelt signing the executive order.
The credit union holds additional programs during May to recognize Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. When Hirabayashi thinks about this celebration, four words come to mind: awareness, education, community, and unity.
“It's important that others are aware of [Asian Pacific American] groups, and that we're like everybody else but with an unusual and interesting cultural history and background,” he says. “It’s important to educate people about cultures and commonalities rather than the differences among us.”