Black recruitment tops agenda for African-American CU Coalition's new chair

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Larry Sewell is taking over as chairman of the African-American Credit Union Coalition during a time of massive social upheaval.

Demonstrators have taken to the streets for months to protest the treatment of Black Americans after George Floyd died while in police custody in May. As a result, the country is paying greater attention to issues of race and social justice.

Different organizations within the credit union industry have created their own initiatives to help combat racism. The African-American Credit Union Coalition has been at the forefront of this by launching Commitment to Change: Credit Unions Unite Against Racism, which will focus on promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.

Larry Sewell, vice president for corporate partnerships and advocacy at Together Credit Union
Larry Sewell, chairman of the African-American Credit Union Coalition and vice president for corporate partnerships and advocacy at Together Credit Union

More than 1,000 people registered to participate in its Commitment to Change conversation series last month. The event’s purpose was to encourage those within the industry to think more about diversity and inclusion.

Sewell, vice president for corporate partnerships and advocacy at the $2 billion-asset Together Credit Union in St. Louis, will help oversee Credit Unions Unite Against Racism and other efforts during the next year. He believes the industry needs to be more intentional in its efforts to reach underserved communities and in recruiting Black leaders to serve in the C-suite.

“If I’m a CEO and I look around and I am of a certain race and everyone looks like me, then I need to make a conscious decision to make that change,” Sewell said. “I need to step out and get out of my comfort zone, and recruit and hire someone who will bring even more value to my credit union.”

The following is an edited transcript of a conversation with Sewell.

What are your priorities for the next year as chairman of the African American Credit Union Coalition?

First and foremost, we will keep the Commitment to Change ongoing — Credit Unions Unite Against Racism. We will continue that initiative throughout this year and probably into next year. We have received such outstanding support and recognition from credit union leaders throughout the country. That’s very encouraging to us.

I’m very proud that the African-American Credit Union Coalition was the organization to step up to get these national conversations going… Now it has gotten to the point where more people are recognizing [how Black Americans are treated] because they are seeing it. In the past, it wasn’t seen.

There has been a greater focus on serving traditionally underserved communities. How can credit unions do a better job of that?

No. 1 is making a commitment to get more involved and doing a better job, and then holding ourselves accountable once we make the commitment. Those words sound easy to do.

The majority of credit unions are fairly small and they are in smaller communities. The challenge for credit unions is keeping those smaller credit unions open and viable. That’s really important. Not every credit union is a $1 billion[-asset] credit union. They might be a $10 million or a $5 million[-asset] credit union.

I think that’s where we can make a difference and make an impact – by working with those credit unions who need that help and support to remain viable in their local communities. One of the ways that the African-American Credit Union Coalition can help with that is to provide mentors to smaller credit union leaders. We can provide them with a person who is part of a larger credit union [system] to help them where they maybe need help, [such as] picking up the phone to get some advice. How can we provide interns for credit unions so that we are infusing credit unions with young people who see credit unions as a viable career option after they leave school?

We’ve seen some banks, including Bank of America and PNC, pledge money to help fight racial inequality. And Netflix has pledged to make a $10 million deposit in Hope Credit Union. How does the industry make sure these efforts are effective?

Let’s see if people are still making those same commitments a year or two from now. How do we ensure that isn’t just lip service or what’s popular right now? Once an organization has made a statement, then see if they put action behind the statement.

That can be different for every financial institution, but in a lot of ways it will be the same. What types of products may I offer if I’m going to target an underserved community? How do I redirect people away from payday lending facilities or title companies?

I should be offering the type of products that will attract people to that financial institution instead of going and paying an outrageous loan rate at a non-traditional financial institution. We have to keep people away from mortgaging their futures if they need to borrow $500 to take care of a household expense. We need to gain their trust. If you gain their trust, they will be more apt to come to you the next time.

Rodney Hood as chairman of the National Credit Union Administration has talked about the racism he has faced in quite personal terms. Do you think that’s helping to move the needle and spur difficult conversations?

Chairman Hood has a tremendous role. But when he’s stopped by a police officer, they don’t ask his occupation. They just see an African American man. They don’t see Rodney Hood, chairman of the National Credit Union Administration, appointed by the president of the United States.

As he shares his vulnerability, as an African-American man myself, I can relate to what he shares. Can he make a big difference? Yes, he can and he is. Once people share personal stories, they become more relatable.

People grow up and have been taught all kinds of things. Assumptions are made. Stereotypes are made. Biased thoughts come into play. Those are the type of things that have to be eliminated and who knows when that will happen. But we have to try.

Let’s remember the Civil Rights Act was only enacted in 1964. That’s about 56 years ago. That’s during a lot of people’s lifetimes. And that was just the law. The behavior and attitude of some still hasn’t changed.

Within the credit union industry, those who are CEOs and in leadership positions remain overwhelmingly white. How can credit unions encourage more diversity among leadership?

Of the [almost 5,200] credit unions, we have approximately 170 African-American CEOs and 100 of those are African-American women. I think there were six or seven African-American CEOs of the 300 or more $1 billion-[asset] credit unions. Those are really low numbers.

How can we improve those? People who are in current leadership positions have to be open to having more access for people of color and also women. The women representation is much better. But if talking just about ethnicity, we need people who are currently in leadership roles and board members who are willing to step outside the box and look around the conference table and see if the leadership is representative of the membership.

If there is an imbalance there, there needs to be a strategy to better balance that. Sometimes that has to be an intentional act. We make the decision and execute it. It might mean recruiting at places where we don’t normally recruit. It might mean going to African American universities and colleges and specifically recruiting those bright smart students who are ready, willing and able to work in credit unions.

It might mean going to businesses that are minority-owned and, if the owners are within the field of membership, asking them to volunteer and serve on our boards. It is maybe in an associate or internship capacity initially, but we make access possible through that. Then when we have board openings, we have a bench we can draw from.

Let’s keep in mind, no organization needs to compromise or lower its expectations to hire someone of a different color or gender. You aren’t settling; you are probably improving. There are outstanding people of color ready, willing and able to do outstanding jobs. They are just looking for an opportunity.

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Diversity and equality Financial inclusion Black Lives Matter Racial Bias Racism Recruiting College recruiting