Life In Politics Began With Old-Time Clubhouses

Register now

Shirley Jenkins got involved with politics at the young age of 14. It was back when political clubs dominated the democratic process, and local clubhouses were the source of political information for individual neighborhoods. Each clubhouse was a branch of its political party and was led by a clubhouse captain, who worked with the people living in specific neighborhoods to turn out the vote and get candidates elected.

"The barber on the block where I grew up was a clubhouse captain. During the election primaries, I would watch what he was doing and actually walked the precinct with him to get petitions signed," she recalled.

It was a small taste of democracy in action, but that was all Jenkins needed to get hooked for life. She started with student government in high school, did some campaigning in college, and eventually became a clubhouse captain herself. She worked as a legislative aide, campaigned for Presidents Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton, and even started running for the New York State Senate at one time, but she conceded when the "boys" in her party asked her to step down.

"In New York politics there were chains of progression. In those days they wanted men to hold certain positions," she said.

Clubhouse politics has pretty much disappeared from the American political arena, but it did set the stage nicely for Jenkins' involvement in the credit union community. She has been a board member of the $1-billion Municipal Credit Union in New York for 22 years, and at the time she was elected, local and national politics were not a driver in her decision.

"I worked for the city and I wanted to be a board member for two reasons. I wanted to watch my money grow, and I wanted to assist in turning the attitude of the staff around. Morale was low and working conditions were not good," she said.

Both of those missions have been accomplished, she said, giving Jenkins time to focus on ways to help sustain the credit union movement. It should come as no surprise that lobbying legislators is a big part of what she does, and she does quite a bit of it. For years, Jenkins has attended the Hike the Hill events in her state capital and Washington, D.C., as well as the GACs in both locations. More importantly, though, she maintains frequent personal contact with her legislators, even when they are not in session. She sends them letters, gives them photo opportunities and teaches them about the credit union movement. She even gets them to join the credit union.

"Our job as volunteers is the continuous education of our members and our community, which includes our legislators. They have people grabbing them from all sides, some pumping them with information, some pumping their pockets, some hiding their real agenda," she said. "That's why it's so important for us to continue to educate them. It's important that they understand we're for people, not for profit, that our boards are volunteers, that everything credit unions do goes back into the movement and into better services."

Educating legislators is second nature to Jenkins, who went to college to be a teacher. Between that experience and her years of political involvement, she knows how to get the attention of her legislators.

"We use (CUNA's) Project Zip Code to show them how many of their constituents are credit union members. It's our way of telling them they should work with the movement if they wish to continue getting re-elected," she said. "We have to get their attention to clear up any misinformation they have about our movement. Bankers are always lying about credit unions. They want us to be taxed like they are, but they don't tell the true story about how many tax benefits they get. The majority of credit unions are small, community-based, church-based credit unions."

Jenkins is used to fighting for the underdog, and her life experiences have given her the necessary tools to do it effectively. In addition to her training as a teacher, Jenkins also worked for the city of New York as the director of labor standards, where her job was to ensure that women and minorities were being presented with opportunities by contractors working within the city limits. In addition to rejecting contracts from companies who had denied opportunities to minorities, Jenkins worked directly with an organized union in the construction industry and got them to pull in women and minorities as trainees. Even when she ran for office that one time, her platform encompassed minority women. Being a minority woman herself, Jenkins has had a first-hand account of the challenges that are faced.

Then again, Jenkins is somewhat of an anomaly of her time. While opportunity wasn't a word generally associated with African-American females growing up in post-Depression America, Jenkins seemed to overcome the odds. During her youth, she became a member of the New York Times youth forum, which gave her regular access to members of the United Nations. As a young adult, politics was a die-hard hobby for Jenkins, but her involvement gave her leadership opportunities not typically held by women, such as clubhouse captain.

Helped Form AACUC

Eager to provide other minorities with similar opportunities, Jenkins got together with some other minority credit union leaders at one of the GACs, and they formed the African American Credit Union Coalition (AACUC). In just under seven years, the coalition has established an internship program for college seniors in financial degree programs; a mentoring program that encourages large credit unions to mentor small CUs, including cooperatives in South Africa, and the Pete Crear Lifetime Achievement Award to honor those who have had a significant effect.

Jenkins recently stepped down as vice president of the AACUC. "I've pulled back a little bit, but one of the reasons I stayed on the board so long was because young people didn't step up to the plate. I'm getting older now and I would love to see young people take over the reins," she said.

Even if others do take over, it's questionable whether Jenkins will really step down. When she "retired" 14 years ago, she opened a travel agency that she's still running today, and she loves doing it. This is the same person whose favorite sayings are, "What is a life if you haven't used it?," and "Credit union members are the volunteers that never rest."

Volunteer Lobbyist: Shirley Jenkins

CU: Muncipal Credit Union

Worth Noting: Ms. Jenkins became involved in politics as a teenager, thanks in part to a local barber.

Strategy For Ensuring The Credit Union Is Heard: Jenkins said she always uses CUNA's Project Zip Code to demonstrate member numbers in elected officials' districts.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.