Maurice Smith

It's time to expand our cooperative principles

Everybody wins when everybody engages to make credit unions better.

February 21, 2019

Each year, February is commemorated as Black History Month. This is a period to reflect on the sacrifices of African-Americans and celebrate the many contributions made to the American melting pot.

It is also a time to consider where diversity and inclusion for all of us stands today. As I look at my community of credit unions, I see an opportunity to reaffirm our values and explore new opportunities. I think the time is right to officially recognize diversity and inclusion as part of the credit union philosophy.

I have worked in the credit union movement for nearly 40 years. During this time, I have seen firsthand the credit union difference in action—but I think we can always strive to be better. While we have experienced many changes in technology, innovations and financial products, we have not paused to assess the real impact of our fundamental beliefs.

The credit union movement embraces seven cooperative principles as a set of philosophical tenets. The principles provide a blueprint for what distinguishes cooperatives from other organizations, illustrating our core values, economic model, and governance practices. As cooperatives, credit unions live by these ideologies in our everyday operations.

Absent from the seven cooperative principles is a specific focus on diversity and inclusion. I raise this point because I think this is a prime opportunity for the credit union movement to further distinguish itself from other industries.

As chairman of the CUNA Board of Directors, I appointed a Diversity and Inclusion Ad Hoc Working Group and tasked us with taking an honest look at the movement through this lens.

The board recently adopted language that CUNA is uniquely positioned to unify the movement, and will use its role as thought leader to call awareness to diversity and inclusion, provide supportive training and education, and enable networking opportunities to provoke thoughtful dialogue and action.

To this end, I challenge all of us in the movement to consider the addition of an eighth cooperative principle: Diversity and inclusion.

‘Black History Month reminds us that society benefits when equality and equity prevail.’

For credit unions, diversity and inclusion seems like a natural value to uphold. Credit unions support the notion that every member of a community has an inalienable right to exercise the doctrines presented in the cooperative principles.

The idea of open and voluntary membership (principle No. 1) implies diversity is a welcomed aspiration for credit unions. Democratic control (principle No. 2) suggests inclusion is a saluted ambition. However, an explicit emphasis on diversity and inclusion is missing.

As an African-American, I am proud to be part of a movement that improves the lives of individuals and our communities. For me, the credit union creed stands for financial and social empowerment: We are supposed to be the best representation of fairness in our neighborhoods.

The credit union way is, and has always been, keenly fixated on members. Therefore, it stands to reason that all members should be engaged in the movement.

Still, there is more to diversity and inclusion than financial access for members. We need to hold each other accountable for equality, equity, and opportunity for members, volunteers, and credit union professionals. It must be everywhere from the grassroots of our communities to the top of our credit unions or we will not fully serve our purpose.

When we promote diversity and inclusion within our ranks, we signal our determination to outperform the competition. Diversity expands the pool of capable candidates with valuable talents. Inclusion opens the door for advancements within the organization and the movement as a whole. Working together, diversity and inclusion create a powerful force for credit unions’ success.

Black History Month reminds us that society benefits when equality and equity prevail. It also reaffirms that these ideals have not been achieved yet.

Our society is still striving to be better. Although credit unions are leaders in these areas, we, too, can improve.

Credit unions were established to serve specific—typically underserved—communities, making a place for those who had none. And today, our mission continues to be to provide opportunity and access for all.

I believe the time is right for a new cooperative principle focused on diversity and inclusion. There is no better sector than credit unions to lead the charge for an aspiring new standard.

The aim to build a better society is both noble and pragmatic. Everybody wins when everybody engages to make credit unions better.

MAURICE R. SMITH is former CUNA Board chairman and CEO of Local Government Federal Credit Union in Raleigh, N.C.

Editor's note: In September, the CUNA Board voted in favor of a resolution to clearly and prominently establish diversity, equity and inclusion as a cooperative principle of America’s credit unions.