What I Discovered In Credit Unions Twenty-Five Years Ago

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Editor's Note: Cliff Rosenthal, executive director of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, recently won the Herb Wegner Individual Achievement Award. Below are excerpts of Mr. Rosenthal's remarks, during which he thanked the Washington league, John Annaloro, Pete Crear, Martin Eakes and Dave Chatfield for their support, in accepting the award.

Recently, I picked up the glossy magazine from my alma mater, Columbia University. Nice picture on the cover of a newly famous guy who went to my school-made me kind of proud, maybe I'd give a few more bucks. Then I read the story, and I came across a quote from him that summed up my path in life: "I always felt that the value of a really good education is you can take more risks." That's the code I've tried to live by. The writer, by the way, was Sen. Barack Obama.

I came of age in the 1960s. Some of you are thinking, "Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll." I wouldn't know. Well, maybe a little about the rock and roll part. It was about awakening to social justice, about the fight for equality and equity. And when I came to the Community Development Credit Union movement a decade later, I felt instantly that I had met my destiny.

I saw a movement driven not by the mandates of profit, but by the call of justice; a movement that was the continuation of the struggle for civil rights by other means.

I met people like Earnest Johnson, who literally drove a million miles through the South to organize and nurture credit unions-and whom (the Herb Wegner Awards) honored in 1999. I met Martin Eakes, who relentlessly takes on the biggest abuses in the banking system-and whom (the Herb Wegner Awards) honored in 2001. Twenty-five years ago, I came to a movement that saw poverty not as a crime, a sin, a stigma-but as opportunity denied, human and social resources wasted needlessly-a reproach and challenge to America's greatest ideals.

Twenty-five years ago, I was captured entirely by a vision of people pooling their wealth and their talents to take control of their economic destiny-to better themselves, yes, but to better their communities, as well. And since that day, I have been privileged to work with people who have struggled against the odds every day, often without the respect they deserve, almost always unrecognized.

Twenty-five years ago, I found a movement of pragmatic idealists. I knew I was in the right place. I know I still am.

Let me share with you my vision, 21st century version.

In my vision, there are no field of membership barriers for the credit union movement-people simply join the cooperatives of their choice.

They are offered membership without regard to their economic value as customers, or their immigration status.

They join credit unions because they know what credit unions represent, and they willingly assume the responsibilities of cooperators.

They join because the credit union message is everywhere-but especially, where people need them the most. The payday and predatory mortgage lenders are obsolete. People know better than to use them, because we have educated them, opened our doors, and welcomed them.

In my vision, there are no more debates about the value of small versus large credit unions. Large credit unions share their immense capacity and work with the smallest institutions to serve even the most hard-pressed, marginalized people-as they are starting to do today, through the Federation's Community Development Partners program.

In my vision, when we speak of Prompt Corrective Action, or PCA, we will be speaking of promptly correcting denied opportunities.

Our destiny as credit unions is not about maximizing return on assets. It is not about achieving efficiencies of scale. Those are good things. We need to do those things. But they are not the essence of our cooperative destiny. They are not a mission statement.

We are stewards of cooperative wealth-of hard-won, painstakingly built cooperative wealth. (Let us keep this in mind when we see our colleagues try to convert credit unions to banks.) As we approach one trillion dollars in assets, we are the single greatest potential force in the nation today for making the American dream of opportunity real.

Today is the last day of Black History month. Let us recall the vision of Martin Luther King: "to create the beloved community" in America. Let us, in the credit union movement, be a force to make that vision real.

For more information on the Federation, www.natfed.org.

I don't like money actually, but it quiets my nerves.

- Joe Louis

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