LGBTQ community cultivates diversity-minded allies inside credit unions

Members of the LGBTQ community and their allies in credit union management and professional organizations are changing how financial institutions do business with and even address people of all genders and backgrounds.

At credit unions where fields of membership are quickly becoming far more diverse than their leadership ranks, the hiring or promotion of employees who are sensitive to diversity, equity and inclusion matters — especially recruits from the Generation Z and millennial age groups — has been a valuable tool in improving workplace morale and customer service, say the advocates of such moves.

Michigan State University Federal Credit Union‘s development of a feature that lets customers set their preferred name and set of pronouns, as well as GreenState Credit Union‘s work on incorporating machine-learning technology into credit decisions, are examples of innovations that stem from the input of members and employees dedicated to inclusivity.

But even for employees truly passionate about the credit union mission, the absence of sympathetic leaders and a culture of belonging can be deflating, according to Juan Fernandez Ceballos, president and chief executive of the Credit Union Association of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

“I loved the mission [and] I loved the fact that we were touching lives, but it was a job,” Fernandez Ceballos said on a panel discussion at the National Credit Union Administration’s DEI and ACCESS summit held this week. ” … It wasn’t until I started really meeting leaders that looked like me, that spoke like me and that loved like me that I really turned from seeing it as a job to truly as a career and a place where I belong,” he said. 

Research from the Chicago-based financial services nonprofit BAI found that 65% of survey respondents from Generation Z and 68% of millennials choose either a nontraditional bank such as Venmo or PayPal, or a large bank, as their preferred financial institution — adding to the divide between credit unions and members of young demographics

But for credit union boards working on developing more accepting cultures and services, recruiting younger talent can bring needed perspectives.

Monica Belz, president and CEO of the $141 million-asset Kaua’i Federal Credit Union in Lihue, Hawaii, explained how she has seen rising disenchantment among Gen Z and millennial credit union employees who have few promotion opportunities and feel trapped in their corporate culture.

“They feel ostracized and marginalized in many ways, and they’re leaving our industry at a rapid pace. … Look around at your boards, open your C-Suite, [because] if it is not representative of the communities that we serve there’s a place to change the system,” Belz said.

Belz stressed that as part of being representative, credit unions should use more neutral terminology during interactions with members and staff like “partner” instead of “husband” or “wife”.

“There’s a lot of unlearning and relearning going on today as well, and I think it applies across the spectrum in terms of the different marginalized communities,” Belz said. ” … In the LGBTQ community, I agree language can be challenging and unlearning [then] relearning is a value that we all have.”

From left: Monica Belz, president and chief executive of Kaua’i Federal Credit Union; Damian Alarcon (on screen), corporate relations manager for Travis Credit Union; Brandi Stankovic, chief operating officer and chief strategy officer of CU Solutions Group; Linda Bodie, CEO of Element Federal Credit Union; and Juan Fernandez Ceballos, president and chief executive of the Credit Union Association of New Mexico.

Organizations such as CU Pride — which was founded in 2018 as a collaboration between various credit union CEOs and experts from the consultancy firm Mitchell, Stankovic & Associates — offer networking services for professions and promote LGBTQ inclusion across the industry.

Linda Bodie, CEO of the $49 million-asset Element Federal Credit Union in Charleston, West Virginia, is one of the founders of the organization and was inspired to launch the group as a lesbian credit union professional felt pressure to remain closeted at the beginning of her career.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t my authentic self [as] I could’ve been fired. … Throughout the years [of] bringing my authentic self to my credit union, I was then able to foster an environment of acceptance for our employees and our members, and eventually that spilled out into the community,” Bodie said.

In order for change to truly take place throughout an organization, Bodie stressed that “your top people in the organization need to buy it, believe it and preach it 100%”

Alongside the challenge of identifying how an institution can accommodate the underrepresented demographics it employs and offers financial products to, credit unions must avoid the “performative allyship” pitfall — in other words, be sure to back up talk with action.

“[Allyship] doesn’t mean performative, and it also doesn’t mean stealing the spotlight, and that’s really important to me throughout the CU Pride journey. …  Can we even call ourselves leaders if the people that we’re leading aren’t comfortable being their authentic selves,” said Brandi Stankovic, chief operating officer and chief strategy officer of CU Solutions Group and co-founder of CU Pride.

Through the addition of DEI experts and adjustments in how programs are tailored for members, credit unions can begin to help the underbanked and underrepresented. 

“Once we start making those decisions, and … having products and policies in place addressing things like using deadnames on credit and debit cards for those in the trans community,”‘ action can begin to truly follow action, said Damian Alarcon, corporate relations manager for the $4.7 billion-asset Travis Credit Union in Vacaville, California.

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