Politics, credit unions, and my dad’s hands

It’s been a month since the election, and like many people I’m still shaking my head, trying to make sense of what it will all mean. Before I get into this too deeply, I should state for the record that I supported neither candidate and spent Election Day knowing full well I was going to be disappointed, regardless of the outcome. I’ve never been a straight party-ticket person, as I tend to see many different sides to an argument, but it’s become even more challenging as the political landscape continues to polarize.

I’m not blue or red – I’m a credit-union man

I grew up in Utah, the reddest of states. But before you judge, I also grew up in the bluest of lower-middle-class working families. My dad worked two jobs, just so we could scrape by. It was my dad who first introduced me to credit unions, via his tiny $3-million-asset-size Copper Mine Employees Credit Union. Dad personally took me to the credit union to help me qualify for membership and to get my first auto loan. The branch was located near the mine. Dad met me after his work shift wearing overalls, black steel toed boots, and sporting greasy hands – hands I knew had been washed but would never be “clean,” no matter how many times my dad washed them. Together, we walked in to the credit union.

In spite of how my dad was dressed, he was treated warmly, made to feel very important, and treated with a lot of respect. The loan officer proceeded to explain to me what a not-for-profit, financial cooperative was, and how it was through my dad’s savings that I could borrow the money. The experience was priceless. The loan officer explained why it was so important to pay the loan back. I had no credit, and the credit union, my dad, and the co-op were taking a chance on me. If I failed to pay, I would let them all down. Of course, the best financial advice happened after we left the credit union office when my Dad told me that if I didn’t pay the loan on time, he would “kick my ass.” Did I mention my dad was a Navy man, too?

My dad and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye – especially about politics. He was always making the argument in favor of the “little guy” – the person who worked long hours for mediocre pay, people whom nobody seemed to care much about anymore. Frequently, I made the opposing argument for progress and business. Of course, that led to my mock-banishment, having been told to never again mention the name of Ronald Reagan in my father’s house (and, of course, it was over Thanksgiving dinner). I know my dad was very proud of me, but sometimes he had a hard time trying to understand my desire for what he perceived as a “pencil-pushing” job. His perception of business people was that they were non-caring, profit-before-people “management.” My dad’s experience with business people, or political “know it alls,” was mostly negative, as it usually seemed to lead to closed plants and negative consequences for the “little guy.” The one saving grace for me was that I had found my way (career) into credit union land – and he knew that credit unions existed to help the little guy. That helped, and my dad was happy to see me focused serving through my activities at the credit union.

My dad isn’t here anymore, but I know he’d be happy to know that I’ve found even more ways to help the little guy. Today, I spend a good part of my time dedicated to helping hardworking people with low- and moderate-incomes who are credit-challenged, immigrant, or otherwise completely overlooked by banks (and even some credit unions). There are ongoing efforts across the country focused on helping hardworking non-citizens gain affordable access to credit and citizenship status, helping single mothers receive financial education and access to non-predatory financial services, helping blue collar families living in the rust belt who have lost higher-income wage jobs to offshore relocations. These are good people who live in states neatly defined as either “blue” or “red,” but our efforts to help them should be “purple.”

Why it matters

Unfortunately, it’s human nature to judge others. This judgement gets in our way of helping good people who may not see the world through “our” lens. Regardless of who we are, our lives and our beliefs have been shaped by our experiences. It doesn’t mean we have the right perception, but it becomes our perception, none the less. I see it too frequently in credit union land, where judgement gets in the way of helping immigrant consumers who are viewed first as “illegal” and not worthy of a credit union helping hand. I see it when lower-income and credit-challenged consumers are unfairly judged for poor financial decisions they have made, and even their “redneck” lifestyle. Unfortunately, it’s become acceptable to make fun of the lower-class “Walmart shoppers.” Again, I see and hear unfair judgements all the time in credit union land. The more it’s directed at the “undesirables,” the more we risk losing our claim that we’re here for the little guy.

There are many lessons we’ll gain from the outcome of this election. For me, I hope it was a wakeup call for anyone in our space content to judge the millions of consumers who need the financial assistance of a credit union, including immigrants who don’t speak our language, low-income people in urban cities who could not live without some form of public assistance, and blue collar “rednecks” who are trying to cling to what they have – even though it isn’t very much. It includes the proud, hardworking common laborer who lost a better life when the plant or coal mine closed. It includes the people of low means and single working mothers who count on low-cost access to food and supplies at Walmart.

I’m not red or blue – I’m a credit union guy. Call me old fashioned, but I believe that credit unions exist to help underserved consumers wherever they live or work. Regardless of blue collar or white collar, urban or rural, citizenship status, income status, educational, credit status, race, religion, or sexual orientation. There are great credit unions in our country that serve each of the categories I just listed, and because of their commitment they are more relevant than ever. Just like learning to understand my father (and he me), we must understand that our members (and potential members) are a sum of their life’s experiences. We may not understand their frame of reference, but the bottom line is that we need to remember to recognize, listen to, and value them. We need to stay aware of their needs and not take them for granted. We need to be more careful with judgement.

So many people today feel underserved and overlooked. I think we would all be wise to rethink our roots and remember why credit unions were chartered. If you believe that credit unions are most relevant when they serve underserved and overlooked populations, I hope you’ll reexamine your perspective on what you believe to be true about those underserved groups. Find ways to reach out and understand what makes them tick. Find out what they find important. If you want to serve them, make sure they know that you recognize them, hear them, and above all value them – even if they don’t share the same life experiences and beliefs that you do.

When it comes to serving underserved and overlooked communities, credit unions have an abundance of opportunities to make measurable impacts for the little guy, measurable growth and profitably impacts for the credit union, improved differentiation in a hyper-competitive market – even political advocacy leverage – all while finding more ways to seek out, understand and serve the little guy.

If I could sit down one more time with my dad, you can bet we wouldn’t waste any time arguing politics. But I would definitely take time to report back on my efforts to serve and respect the little guy. I would thank him for the greatest advice I could have ever received.