5 Ways To Transform DEI Talk Into Tangible Action

After holding frank discussions with employees and communities about diversity, equity, and inclusion, these credit unions are forming DEI councils, launching targeted charities, and more.

 
 

CU QUICK FACTS

MSUFCU
Data as of 03.31.20

HQ: East Lansing, MI
ASSETS: $4.9B
MEMBERS: 290,438
BRANCHES: 19
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 11.7%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 12.6%
ROA: 0.48%

The employee book club at Michigan State University Federal Credit Union ($4.9B, East Lansing, MI) began reading White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism in February, just a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of the world. Little did the club realize how relevant that book would soon become.

In late May, the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in the custody of Minneapolis police, and the subsequent protests forced workplaces everywhere to confront questions about race in America. White Fragility soon hit No. 1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Copies of the book were nearly impossible to find, and interest in the credit union’s book club soared.

Such responses are well-meaning but fall short of addressing racial inequities, writes Washington Post freelance columnist Tre Johnson in a June 11 article.

“White people tend to take a slow route to meaningful activism, locked in familiar patterns, seemingly uninterested in really advancing progress,” Johnson says.

Silvia Dimma, Chief Human Resources Officer, MSUFCU

Credit unions across the country have been thrust into the debate about how to address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Many organizations held frank discussions about race at employee town hall meetings, shared personal stories about race, and communicated with members about these issues. Such actions reinforce the credit union values of people helping people and serving the underserved. Now, many credit unions are taking the next step, from forming DEI councils to launching targeted charities. And many eyes are watching for meaningful change. 

“Diversity is important,” noted NCUA chair Rodney Hood in announcing the agency’s creation of a Culture, Diversity, and Inclusion Council. “But without cultural change that encourages true inclusion, it risks being little more than checking the right boxes.”

Here, credit unions share some of the actions they are taking to address DEI in their workplaces and communities.

No. 1: Break The Silence

CU QUICK FACTS

Arlington Community FCU
Data as of 03.31.20

HQ: Arlington, VA
ASSETS: $354.2M
MEMBERS: 22,809
BRANCHES: 5
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 10.0%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 2.4%
ROA: 0.37%

Arlington Community Federal Credit Union ($354.2M, Arlington, VA), located just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, has been front and center to Black Lives Matter protests around the nation’s capital. Members of the community have been active in the marches for the movement that has dominated headlines for weeks.

Amy Thomas, who joined the credit union in 2011, became the first African American to lead the human resources department in 2014. As chief of staff and one of two people of color on the executive team, she plays a key role in facilitating dialog about race. In the days after the protests erupted, she shared articles and advice with the leadership team but noticed the credit union was operating largely as business as usual. 

“I had to talk to them as leaders and let them know even though we’re operating a business, there are people in the organization who are hurting,” Thomas says. 

Thomas says her team hadn’t said anything because they didn’t know what to say, so she advised them how to break the ice. Such advice is relevant to credit union leaders everywhere. 

Amy Thomas, Chief of Staff, Arlington Community FCU

“You can start by saying, ‘I see what’s going on; are you OK?’” Thomas says. “People need conversation and knowing they’re in a safe space.” 

Breaking the silence has facilitated more conversations about race. Importantly, speaking up has allowed team members to say they are against racism. 

“As you start to talk to people, you realize there are more commonalities among us than there are differences,” Thomas says. “To identify someone of color with a label is shallow thinking. I’m a black woman, but I’m also a leader in my organization. I’m also a mom. I like to exercise. I like to read. I’m a Christian. There a lot of attributes that make up who we are, and I believe being able to have conversations that unite us versus divide us is going to move us forward.”

No. 2: Let Employees Lead 

In the first weekend of rioting following the death of George Floyd, windows were smashed at the downtown Grand Rapids branch of Michigan State University Federal Credit Union (MSUFCU). Leaders gathered that Sunday to plan the credit union’s response, which included an employee email from President/CEO April Clobes, posting articles to the credit union’s intranet, hosting a series of WebEx forums, posting messages in support of Black and minority members, employees, and community members to the credit union's social media sites, and posting a DEI page on the external website explaining the credit union’s stance against racism. 

The credit union’s leadership showed decisive action; however, employees also played an integral role, says Silvia Dimma, chief human resources officer at MSUFCU. In 2018, the credit union formed employee resource groups to act as sounding boards and key influencers on matters of diversity and inclusion. The groups are organized around common perspectives: African American, LGBTQIA+, seniors, and parents. It was a natural fit for the African American employee group to host a series of WebEx meetings to open a dialog about race. “Employees shared personal experience stories and what the impacts were,” Dimma says. “There were a lot of strong conversations about racial injustice, but everyone was supportive of one another.”

More than 250 employees attended the three meetings, and plans are under way to meet monthly to discuss DEI issues. The resource group also partnered with the book club to develop a resource guide with links to books, videos, and articles as well as tips on how to talk about race with colleagues and children. 

A host of ideas have emerged from the forums and resource groups. Among them:

  • Financial education outreach in African American communities.
  • Forums and community discussions.
  • Participation in the Historical Black Colleges and University tour.
  • A mentor program to support high school and college students with education, skills, career readiness, and resources to improve economic mobility.

“Most of the recommendations are coming from the employees,” Dimma says. “They’re on the ground, interacting with our members. You can’t develop these programs without employee contributions.”

No. 3: Invest In Change

CU QUICK FACTS

Affinity Plus FCU
Data as of 03.31.20

HQ: Saint Paul, MN
ASSETS: $2.6B
MEMBERS: 211,766
BRANCHES: 28
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 14.1%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 10.9%
ROA: 0.77%

With branches in downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis, Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union ($2.58B, Saint Paul, MN) found itself at the epicenter of Black Lives Matter protests. CEO Dave Larson visited the George Floyd memorial and toured the area. The credit union also set aside $10 million and is offering 0% interest loans to support the recovery from protesting that turned violent and forced many of the credit union’s 500 business account members to temporarily close their doors — with some suffering major damage  — and some employees to leave their homes.

“It felt a little surreal to see that happen in your city,” says Julie Cosgrove, chief talent officer at Affinity Plus. “We realized this needs an immediate response for not only our members but also our employees. Even more, we wanted to show our commitment to positive actions.”

By Monday after the first weekend, the credit union had mapped out a plan to create Twin Cities Healing seeded with a $100,000 donation from the credit union's foundation. Affinity Plus picked local charities to support three areas: meeting basic needs such as food and water, rebuilding the community, and supporting racial justice. Affinity Plus posted a list of charities to its website, and as of mid-July, members had donated $36,352 to the foundation.

Julie Cosgrove, Chief Talent Officer, Affinity Plus FCU

“We selected organizations that fit into three categories, and we let our members vote on where to contribute those dollars,” Cosgrove says. “Each charity will get a minimum amount, but we feel it is important our members help decide. Early on, members reached out to us to see how they could donate. Since we are member-owned, this is a way to help our members make a difference .” 

The credit union also gave employees an additional eight hours of paid community service time to support the recovery.   Prior to the death of George Floyd, Affinity Plus had set aside $200,000 for an employee-directed fund, Affinity Plus Gives. The credit union encouraged its 550 employees to submit ideas for 501(c)3 charities and vote on allocating the money. Interest in supporting community services and recovery is high.

“Our employees care about these events,” Cosgrove says. “We care about racial injustice and discrimination. And, we care about people who are in pain right now.”

No. 4: Explore New Policies And Practices

CU QUICK FACTS

SPIRE Credit Union
Data as of 03.31.20

HQ: Falcon Heights, MN
ASSETS: $1.3B
MEMBERS: 124,619
BRANCHES: 40
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 15.1%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 10.0%
ROA: 0.52%

To address DEI issues, organizations can also take a look at their own internal policies and practices. That’s what SPIRE Credit Union ($1.28B, Falcon Heights, MN) is doing. In June, the cooperative announced it was forming a diversity, equity, and inclusion council. Plans had been in the works for months, but the council took on greater significance when the protests began. 

“It is a council of employees, all with diverse backgrounds, who will be asked their ideas, thoughts, and opinions on various topics and will give their input on concepts, initiatives, and proposals for our management teams to consider,” says Justin Burleson, senior vice president and chief operating officer at SPIRE. “As we learn from the recent past, we now have a renewed sense of purpose. We need to listen first and suggest solutions second. So, we will be doing a lot of listening.”

According to Burleson, SPIRE’s hiring practices reflect its commitment to diversity and inclusion. For example, 34% of employees hired by SPIRE in 2019 were minorities, and so far in 2020, minority hiring is 30% — significantly higher than state averages. The job market is a factor. Six of SPIRE’s 24 branches are located in rural northern Minnesota, which is less racially diverse than the Twin Cities.

MSUFCU also had been planning to launch a DEI council and hire a DEI director position, although its efforts were temporarily sidelined by the pandemic.

“We are excited to bring our DEI program to the next level,” Dimma says. “We are using differences to increase understanding, establishing a sense of belonging for everyone, and creating a formal project plan to support the diversity strategy with measurable objectives that are integrated with our strategic objectives and operations.”  

Justin Burleson, SVP/COO, SPIRE Credit Union

To date, ongoing discussions about identity at MSUFCU have led to the implementation of a Workplace Gender Transition Strategy and Plan and the expansion of inclusive language throughout internal and external channels. The credit union also made personal pronoun disclosure optional on its employee profiles, which are currently used in email signatures. 

To expand opportunities for employees, Affinity Plus launched an all-expense paid MBA program for 18 employees. To expand the diversity of job candidates, the credit union recently changed its job descriptions on postings from “college degree required” to “college degree preferred.” That policy now applies to all jobs at all levels. Additionally, every exit interview now includes the question, “Did you feel you belonged at Affinity Plus?” Even the longstanding practice of reviewing credit reports of new hires is under review, Cosgrove says.

“Policies that have developed through the years can create unintentional biases,” the HR SVP says. “This is an opportunity for all of us to look inside our organizations and see to it that our practices and policies are equitable.”

No. 5: Focus On Training

Diversity and inclusion training has been a part of many credit union HR programs for years, but recent events are prompting organizations to look at these programs in a new light. 

At Arlington Community, the credit union’s DEI committee is helping to revamp the course with a focus on leadership. Among the training topics are “Leading Diverse Teams,” “Unconscious Bias” and “Having Difficult Conversations.”

“There are so many resources out there to help people learn,” Thomas at Arlington Community says.

MSUFCU consulted with Michigan State University to launch the credit union’s 2019-2020 program, “The Power of Diversity and Inclusion.”

“During the course, employees discuss the importance of inclusion on our success and the ways unconscious bias influences our viewpoint and behavior,” Dimma says. “We learn to recognize how experience and advantage influence perception and empathy and determine ways to interrupt microaggressions and susceptibilities to create more inclusiveness in our work teams.”

Time For Action

When discussing race, Thomas says it’s important to talk about issues in the real world, not just in the abstract. For example, she recently led a community group meeting titled "A Conversation on Race." Participants included local leaders, nonprofits, attorneys, and law enforcement, and the group decided to continue to meet bi-weekly to continue the conversation and focus on solving community problems.

The key to getting people to open up, she says, is sharing personal stories. For example, she has had conversations about interacting with the police with her 6-foot, 3-inch 13-year-old. In early May, police were searching her neighborhood with guns drawn for a group of teens who had been spotted with BB guns. She learned about the search from a neighbor on Facebook and froze.

“I had just sent my son out to walk the dog,” Thomas says “I was panicking, scrambling, looking for my keys so I could dart down there to make sure he was safe. My concern wasn't that he would get caught in a crossfire, my concern was that he'd be an automatic suspect and have an altercation with the police. As black people, that's where our minds go first — all the time. Mothering during this time is tough.”

Dimma at MSUFCU notes that attitudes toward race are entrenched. No one can expect them to be resolved overnight.

“It will always be a continuous journey,” the chief human resources officer says. “It will always be something we need to develop and make a priority, but this year has brought it to a height globally. What are you doing as an organization? Where do you stand? We want to create a great environment, but we need everyone’s help. It’s a team effort.”

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