“This is the moment credit unions were invented for. Or at least should have been…”
This message from author, speaker, and former VSECU consultant Douglas Rushkoff hit my inbox in July earlier this year. VSECU had benefited from Douglas’s insights before and MIT named him one of the world’s top ten influential thinkers, among other accolades, so his words had weight. He was simultaneously praising of the foundations of mutual aid and shared values that credit unions are built upon and issuing a challenge for credit unions to rise to the many difficulties we are facing in 2020.
So, on International Credit Union Day, a day when we celebrate the contributions of credit unions, we ask, “What is it about credit unions that makes them meaningful in this moment?” and “What are credit unions doing to meet the challenges of today?
Across America and in our state of Vermont, the sense of loss is strong and deep. In the most obvious sense, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our routines and habits—how we connect to each other, how we work together, and how we support our families, friends, and communities. The things we strive for—financial security, health, and belonging—are at risk for all, and lost for many.
But these losses are not being felt equally. At a deeper level, the ongoing difficulties and embedded challenges in our society that lead to unequal quality of life among our fellow citizens have been revealed by the pandemic for us all to see.
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For years, the middle-class security has been shrinking. The gap between high- and low-income individuals and families has been growing. Wall St. does well while Main St. has suffered.
For decades, the opportunities available to the people living in this country have been limited by their gender, race, religion, place of birth, or sexual orientation. Whether the limits were obvious and written in law, or subtle and ingrained in behavior, the outcome was the same. Access to the dream of America was cleared for some, and for others, full of obstacles ranging from indignity to violence.
For centuries, individuals with economic power have looked to consolidate and secure more for themselves to the exclusion of others.
But at every step, there have always been committed, strong, and resilient people coming together to make change and build durable movements, and organizations that support equality, shared value, and common good.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
― Author Unknown
“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
― Charles Darwin
The cooperative movement and credit unions are one such movement. It has proven repeatedly that organizing around shared value builds safety, security, and opportunity for common people seeking to thrive in an economic and social environment that challenges them at every turn.
Credit unions are built by and for their members, circulate and grow wealth among those who join, and are rooted in place with a concern for community and democratic member control.
Whether during their birth in Europe during the 1800s, their spread through North America in the first half of the 20th century, or their spread through the world during the second half, credit unions have been a way for people who live on that precarious edge to gather, hold, and build wealth. Rural farmers pooling resources to support buying needed equipment, workers in industry building a loan fund for each other’s homes–these are but two examples of how people, who know hard work and value relationships to land and each other, can do more in cooperation than they could as individuals.
When a cooperative credit union is formed, it is structured for longevity and resiliency. Broad and distributed ownership leads to a collective and durable community asset with value that is not easily sold.
The health of the cooperative structure requires education and engagement. Credit unions have long been advocates and leaders in financial literacy and planning, and support each member’s ability to make informed decisions about how to manage their money. If one member becomes more responsible with their finances, the whole of the membership is more stable.
Additionally, being a credit union member is an act of civic engagement. As owners, members have a say in directing the path and future that their credit union takes to maintain and grow their shared assets. Through representative democracy, they can ensure their credit union is acting in their collective best interest.
But what does this mean during a pandemic and economic shutdown? Oriented by member-first values, credit unions have led by consistently being there for their members and communities—loan forbearance, low- or no-cost emergency loans to businesses and individual members and continue access and service to financial tools, while observing guidance and practices that keep credit union staff and members safe. The cooperative way is working with members as individuals with distinct needs and seeking the best path to support them through crisis.
These examples above are taken directly from VSECU’s response in these times, but countless other credit unions have done the same for their members.
On International Credit Union Day, we celebrate the global movement that has fought for and built a financial sector that is deeply connected to people and place. Credit unions are a beacon of hope and light in these challenging times and will be for years to come.
Now, more than ever, credit unions across the country and the world are working to keep members safe, secure, and able to build personal assets and community vitality. Let us recognize that doing business with your credit union is more than just banking. Let us celebrate how credit unions are a bedrock of shared value and sustainable, resilient, rooted community wealth.
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