'Real Change' Taking Place

DULUTH, Ga.— With the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police in early May of 2020, credit unions joined numerous other companies and communities nationally in committing to fighting racism, holding uncomfortable discussions, and announcing numerous initiatives and pledging support. But will that level of commitment fade?

The president of the African-American Credit Union Coalition (AACUC) doesn’t believe it will, at least not within credit unions. As the country prepares to mark the Martin Luther King Day holiday, AACUC leader Renee Sattiewhite told she sees real change taking place in the country and credit unions, even if in her personal life she is often confronted by reminders of racism and the fear it creates.

She cited several factors—growing interest in support for AACUC and its own growing role in becoming a stronger resource for talent, more executive positions related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) being created in credit unions, and just the changing “color” of the credit union workforce.

“I am very hopeful that credit unions will continue to move forward with their efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Sattiewhite. “The AACUC continues to be approached with support from so many different organizations, and not just credit unions. I'm encouraged, because the larger credit unions are really settling in and they're looking at DEI holistically. They're taking it seriously, as are credit unions of all sizes. I would say, eight months after the George Floyd incident, we're seeing people within our industry who truly want to effect change and break down barriers.”

Greater Support

Sattiewhite said not only are more organizations supporting AACUC and its Commitment to Change: Credit Unions Unite Against Racism initiative, but also the Credit Union Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Collective, which was created in part by CUNA and the AACUC, along with the American Association of CU Leagues, Coopera, CO-OP Financial Services, CUNA Mutual Group, Filene, the National CU Foundation, humanidei, Inclusiv, the Network of Latino Credit Unions and Professionals, PSCU, and the World Council of Credit Unions.

The DEI Collective is devoted to furthering diversity and inclusion, having launched in 2020 on June 19, Juneteeth, the day commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S.

CUNA and the AACUC also recently announced a new scholarship program and online community for Black CU professionals, while the Credit Union Executives Society recently announced it will begin offering complimentary one-year individual memberships to mentees in the African American Credit Union Coalition’s Mentorship Program.

“I'm finding there are many in the credit union industry who have rallied around this issue, and I think most organizations are just looking for roadmaps on how to get it done well,” Sattiewhite said.

One big way credit unions are advancing DEI, according to Sattiewhite, is in creating new high-level positions to lead diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

“My belief is that just like we have a BSA officer, credit unions should have a diversity officer,” she explained. “Having said that, many credit unions are looking at hiring someone. I believe, too, this person must be at the C-suite level, reporting directly to the CEO. I think that's the only way you were going to effect change. That's my personal view, but I know not every credit union can afford to do that.”

Assistance, Not Resistance

What pleases Sattiewhite most is she’s finding within credit unions more “assistance than resistance. And this effort is not dying down. Now, how we got here, the events that drove this change, are troubling and disheartening. But people want to, and are continuing the conversation. They are rallying around this issue and they are good people with good consciences and they have integrity.”

Sattiewhite emphasized her belief DEI will remain a strong value within credit unions because it aligns with the Cooperative Principles.

“It's just the right thing to do,” she said. “It lines up with our core principles and values and that is why it is lasting. I think we have brought an awareness—and by ‘we’ I don’t mean just AACUC. I mean collectively as people in the U.S. We have said this is no longer acceptable and that we are going to look to see how we can fix this. I do believe that this is not dying on the vine.”

A Positive Indicator

Sattiewhite said one of the indicators to her that DEI is being recognized more strongly within credit unions is AACUC is being increasingly looked to as a source for talent.

“Many credit unions and recruiting agencies are looking to AACUC to supply them with diverse talent,” Sattiewhite said. “We're getting very rigorous about job postings, and the jobs people are reaching out to us for are for higher-level positions, and that is increasing. That’s a very encouraging sign.”

What’s also gratifying, she added, is change that can actually be “seen.”

“You can see the complexion change in the credit union space. You can see the color changes in the boardroom and in the C-suite,” Sattiewhite said. “We see a difference because of our color. If your entire team is Caucasian and you add someone of color, you can immediately see that change. This is something concrete that's happening now that’s visible…The change we are seeing today will continue as long as those within credit unions, in their hearts and in their minds, continue to embrace the cooperative principles—specifically the eighth cooperative principle—it’s just that simple. It’s that simple for credit unions and for everyone in the United States.”

Much Work to Be Done

Yet in the face of all that, Sattiewhite acknowledged there remains much work to be done. She noted, for example, flashing lights in the rearview mirror continue to create a “paralyzing” feeling for many African-Americans, and she is hopeful that someday the negative feelings toward police by the Black community will wane.

Indeed, Sattiewhite shared an incident she recently experienced in Georgia.

“I was driving and talking on my cell phone with my (AACUC) Vice Chair Maurice Smith (CEO of Local Government FCU in North Carolina) when I saw police lights in my rearview mirror,” said Sattiewhite, who is African-American. “Two officers pulled me over. I said to Maurice, ‘I need to get off the phone, I'm being pulled over by the police. I'm going to put my hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel.’ Maurice told me to remember to be respectful and compliant. It's paralyzing for some Black people to be pulled over by police officers.”

A Fear Not Recognized by Many

Sattiewhite said she does not think most white Americans understand what experiences with the police are like for African-Americans, and how Black families teach their children to cope with the threat of police harassment.

“Black families teach their children to be respectful of police because we don't want to see anything bad happen to our children or any loved one,” explained Sattiewhite, who said the recent encounter with local police in Georgia went well, and that the officers were courteous and stopped her because one of her brake lights was not working.