WASHINGTON—As more credit unions take steps to improve diversity, equity and inclusion, executives and other experts are debating how much progress has been truly made since the death of George Floyd in 2020.
The culture war dominating the political news cycle has cast a cloud over many DEI efforts, according to Dr. Quinetta Roberson, professor at Michigan State University and a research fellow with the Wisconsin-based credit union think tank Filene Research Institute.
“People are now putting a ‘woke’ label on DEI,” Roberson said. “If you have a DEI strategy, you have a ‘woke’ strategy and it’s become more of an attitude and belief base, than practice and strategy base. … It’s on us to try to address that, and I think part of it is putting what we do into the language of our respective organizations.”
The problem is amplified if the people pushing back against DEI initiatives are the ones sitting on credit unions’ leadership teams, Roberson said.
Corporate culture across the industry is one of the main challenges impeding the progress of diversity, as many boards of directors tasked with succession planning aren’t selecting young talent to join the executive ranks over worries surrounding lack of experience and differing perspectives, said Monica Belz, president and CEO of Kaua’i Federal Credit Union in Lihue, Hawaii, in a panel discussion hosted during the Credit Union National Association’s Governmental Affairs Conference on Tuesday.
“One reason that we’re missing the mark is because of culture. … Culture eats strategy for breakfast, operations for lunch and everything and everyone else for dinner,” Belz said.
As a millennial leading the $150 million-asset institution, Belz has tailored the organization’s hiring practices to focus on recruiting talent from the millennial and Generation Z groups for positions at all employment levels.
“The millennial group is the most diverse group, the most educated group, the most tolerant, collaborative and inclusive group to date, except for Gen Z whom we’re raising. … That group in and of itself is DEI,” Belz said.
The credit union industry is making progress on the whole. In 2019, the Credit Union National Association and the National Credit Union Foundation adopted a modified version of what are known as the traditional seven cooperative principles — a set of guiding tenets first adopted in 1995 by the Belgian non-governmental organization International Cooperative Alliance, which represents cooperatives in sectors such as agriculture, banking and more.
As part of the adaptation, both organizations established DEI as the eighth principal and have pledged support for credit unions working to build more inclusive and varied communities.
Credit unions that make progress locally may still find pushback on their DEI initiatives when they seek help from local and national legislators, said Clement Abonyi Jr., director of advocacy for CUNA.
“We live it every day because of our age or because of the communities that we live in. … As the country becomes a lot more divisive in some areas, it’s hard to get the stories to break through,” Abonyi said.
Other campaigns include executive coaching programs run by the Credit Union Women’s Leadership Alliance and chosen name and pronoun products developed at the $7.3 billion-asset Michigan State University Federal Credit Union in East Lansing. These have been launched in recent years to address the needs of underrepresented communities.
Collaboration among credit unions and their trade groups is important to the success of any DEI initiative, according to John Bissell, president and chief executive of Greylock Federal Credit Union in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
“As we were just beginning to embark on our DEI journey … it felt like we had to go looking for like minded partners,” Bissell said.
As CEO of the $1.6 billion-asset institution, Bissell promoted diversity and inclusion within the organization’s senior leadership ranks but saw disparities between the responsibilities of female executives and how respected their voices were in the boardroom — finally addressing the instances of “mansplaining” through outside experts and fostering more dynamic conversations.
But for DEI-oriented experts who want to avoid backpedaling on any progress made in recent years, schematics for change must be constantly evolving.
“Feel the culture of this industry today and holy moly, have we made waves [but it’s] not enough. … There is momentum and as we say in Hawaii, this is a party wave and we’re all riding this wave together,” Belz said. “We are still so far from being in a place where we can say this is a representative and equitable and inclusive industry.”