The United States has reached a “tipping point” with its tolerance for racial injustice, asserts Renee Sattiewhite, who believes this time, after the protests subside, actual change will take place.
Sattiewhite, president and CEO of the African American Credit Union Coalition (AACUC), stated attitudes toward people of color will change, acceptance of racism will decline, and this change will work its way through credit unions as well.
Sattiewhite spoke with CUToday.info in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police, which has set off protests and discussion of race-related issues across the United States and the world. It has similarly set off discussions within the credit union community, with CUNA, CUES and other individual credit unions announcing initiatives seeking to address racism and equality.
The AACUC itself has also announced a new partnership with the World Council of Credit Unions aimed at reducing discrimination.
Sattiewhite told CUToday.info no longer can lip service be paid to change, as has been the case in the past after civil unrest following the death of another African American at the hands of police.
“This time I don’t think we have a choice,” Sattiewhite said. “The landscape and the people in society have changed.”
What has altered that landscape, and the hearts of many Americans, is the fact more of the mistreatment of African Americans by police is being captured by cellphone video and now body cameras on officers,” said Sattiewhite.
“We know what has happened to African Americans over so many years, but now we are just seeing much more of it,” said Sattiewhite. “You just can’t look at this the same way anymore. The visual images…”
An ‘Affect’ on the Good & Decent
Sattiewhite compared what people are often seeing today, including the graphic video of Floyd pleading for his mother before he died, to the death of Emmitt Till.
Till was the 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of offending a white woman in her family's grocery store. Till’s four killers were acquitted. Sattiewhite recalled how Till’s mother wanted an open casket so everyone could see how badly her young son was beaten by grown men.
“These things we are seeing are happening almost monthly now,” Sattiewhite said. “Those visuals affect people. They affect anyone who is decent and good, and I believe most people are decent and good. This is a tipping point. It’s a tipping point for AACUC. It’s a tipping point for my board. It’s a tipping point for Renee Sattiewhite. People are saying this is no longer acceptable—period.”
But for real change it must involve more than changed mindsets, said Sattiewhite.
“For things to be different there has to be an admission of the atrocities,” offered Sattiewhite. “Once that's admitted, then we can look at how do we best solve this problem. The commitments have to come from not just your mind but from your heart. You have to feel it, you have to want change to happen. I was talking to a white woman this morning, and she was just not getting it. I finally had to say, ‘Stop, you don't understand. I'm trying to give you the viewpoint that you need to be looking out from and you refuse to see it. And she is a well-intentioned white woman. So part of what has to happen is the change must happen from your own point of view.”
What About Credit Unions?
But what about credit unions? Since the death of Floyd, numerous initiatives have been launched and positions announced by credit unions, CU organizations and CU leaders. What specific steps can credit unions take to make a difference?
“The key is to be honest and open. You have look at this like you would a relationship,” explained Sattiewhite. “So, let's say two people have been married for years and they've become disrespectful to each other, and now they've come to a place where they’re either going to part ways or try to work things out. To do that you would need a mediator, someone to have a conversation with you both—whether that's a pastor, a counselor or your parents—someone to mediate. There needs to be some mediation.”
The Need for ‘Real Talk’
What that will do is lead to “real talk.”
“I would talk with Tim Anderson (AACUC board member and CEO of U.S. Senate FCU) when he was chairman of AACUC, and he would say, ‘OK Renee, it’s real talk.’ That meant, ‘OK, this is a safe space and time to have some honest and open conversations.’ Right then, he was no longer a boss to me, we were equals and we spoke open and honestly, without any concerns.”
Sattiewhite emphasized those same types of conversations have to begin happening across credit unions, between their leaders and African American professionals.
“CEOs and people need to have honest conversations without being defensive,” she said. “And CEOs have to be very open about not just listening but hearing what is being said to them.”
Beyond that, Sattiewhite said she provide specific directions.
“I can't be the one to define these action steps for everyone,” she said. “Those steps have to be different for each organization. But there needs to be progress. This has to be intentional. And there should be consideration and humility in all of this. And humility—I don’t think we always have that, and that is why we have trouble sometimes.”
Educational Campaign Launches
As CUToday.info reported, the AACUC is rolling out its “Commitment to Change, Credit Unions Against Racism” initiative.
“We're looking at how we can start a fund and use the money to help educate people about racism,” said Sattiewhite. “We want credit unions all across the nation, and those of you who are international, to please join with us in eliminating and eradicating racism. Unite against racism. We hope to help people understand and navigate through the differences people have. If they understand these differences better, they will be less likely to make assumptions. For example, just because someone comes from the West Coast and has a laid-back manner and way of speaking does not mean they are not smart.”
The AACUC is also partnering with SECU of North Carolina to deliver DEI training four times a year in which participants will be asked to live a day as a minority.
“You will live in someone else’s shoes and really feel what goes on in the lives of people of color,” explained Sattiewhite.
SECU has donated $125,000 to the program.
“We're looking to run the academy four times a year and I am really excited about it,” said Sattiewhite, who added the program is now being formed.
African Americans in CU Leadership
As for the issue of African Americans in leadership positions within credit unions—where they have long been underrepresented despite much discussion–Sattiewhite believes what will lead to increasing those numbers is good data and measuring results.
“The last time we checked, in November of 2019, there were 154 African American CEOs in the credit union space. We have more than 5,000 credit unions. That's really a low percentage,” noted Sattiewhite. “The problem for me is that we just got that information in 2018. Until we know what the numbers actually are on an ongoing basis, how can we come up with a plan for change? How will we be able to measure? So we need to get organizations to start the research and keep these numbers coming, because at AACUC we don't have the bandwidth. If we received a grant for that, then we could do that. But without that data…You have to be able to monitor and evaluate if you are making a difference to make lasting change.”
Published article available here.