Putting people top of mind

Social, emotional connections key to inclusion, according to DEI panel.

February 18, 2021

While diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a big undertaking for credit unions, they are guided by lessons from history, says Angela Russell, vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion at CUNA Mutual Group.

“When I think of DEI in our credit union space, I think of all the people who have been marginalized historically on a financial basis throughout the history of our country and the role we have to make that right,” she says. “I think about financial inclusion. If we’re not putting people top of mind and helping people who are impacted by our decisions day in and day out, we’re missing the boat.”

Russell and other panelists addressed the “Be Better Do Better” webinar series sponsored by the Heartland Credit Union Association and the African American Credit Union Coalition.

Erin Coleman, senior director of advisory services for Filene Research Institute, says it’s important to leverage social and emotional connections in a times of uncertainty, such as those created by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and recent civil unrest.

She offers three lessons for fostering a culture of inclusion “no matter where you are”

1. Create a culture that fosters cooperation. Communication is key here. Coleman says Filene emphasizes internal communication much more since onset of the pandemic.

But personal connections are also important. “It’s important to talk about your feelings and things that aren’t necessarily part of a strategic business conversation,” she says. “They build a sense of trust and inclusion. People feel like they are heard.”

2. Acknowledge differences. A good example is the work environment during the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, most workers had comparable workspaces. Now, workspaces are different and each worker faces different challenges with space, interruptions, and support equipment.

Coleman says companies should allow employees to make use of their space in a manner that’s comfortable for them. “It’s important for us organizationally to be graceful about that.”

3. Actively encourage diverse points of view. Many people listen only to those who confirm their opinions.

“To be a leader means to invite other points of view, even if they’re contrary to the norm and even if they disagree with what that norm is,” Coleman says.

Building on Coleman’s examples, Coopera CEO Victor Corro says immigrants often wrestle with their social identity.

“It’s important that credit unions recognize these nuances and how we feel as immigrants to this country,” he said. “It’s important to understand how people who did not grow up here but adopted this country as their own feel.”

Inclusiv CEO Cathie Mahon says her organization refined its identity when it rebranded five years ago, selecting a name that reflects its true mission.

“We used the moment of our rebrand to identify the change we are trying to make in the world,” she says. “We believe inclusion is a fundamental right. We are trying to find the spaces that are overlooked, that have been left out, and that have been intentionally excluded.”