Being pioneers: Advancing DEI in credit unions

Phil Knight, the founder of Nike once said “The cowards never started, and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen.” As a fellow Oregonian, the pioneer spirit resonates throughout the state. There is a reason so many in my generation loved the video game Oregon Trail as we strived to make it out west with as much of our wagon train intact as possible. We loved going where others had not yet been.

In my work as a credit union professional, I’ve partnered with many organizations that have pioneered CUSOs, products and services, and most importantly financial inclusion for all. I have seen the remarkable benefits of “people helping people,” by our pioneers; however, I have also seen the weak die along the way—or at least their spirit for truly fulfilling our mission. Recent pushback against Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, including the social media tag #DidntEarnIt, is one troubling example.

This pushback against DEI initiatives often stems from misconceptions and misunderstanding. Critics argue that DEI initiatives are divisive or unnecessary, but this overlooks DEI’s core goal: fostering fair and inclusive environments where everyone can thrive.

Some naysayers believe that highlighting differences creates more division. At Humanidei, we believe that highlighting differences is key to understanding our shared humanity and fostering inclusive environments. Our work aims to bridge gaps and foster environments where diverse perspectives are valued and integrated into the organizational fabric. This leads to solutions that are more creative and more reflective of what our diverse membership may need to be fully, inclusively served. DEI-focused organizations better understand their membership base by being reflective of the communities they serve.

Others believe that DEI has run its course, and it is time to move on; however, data continues to show that diverse teams outperform homogenous teams. Teams that have higher gender and ethnic diversity are in the top quartile of high-performance. In addition, a focus on DEI can be an important recruitment tool in a still-challenging war for talent: Organizations with a commitment to DEI have enhanced employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention. Employees are looking to work for organizations that align with their values.

Finally, over the last year, DEI has been mistaken as aligning with political agendas; something that is for one party over another. However, DEI is not about politics. Diversity is not for one group. By definition, it requires honoring different perspectives and viewpoints. Equity is not about providing advantages, but about ensuring there are opportunities for all. Inclusion is not making anyone feel bad, but ensuring everyone can fully participate.

Serving diverse markets, creating opportunities, and allowing for full participation for all is what credit unions are built on. DEI is a core pillar of credit union cooperative principles. It is essential for growth, sustainability, and relevance. When credit unions embrace DEI, they drive innovation and growth. By creating psychologically safe organizations, diverse voices are heard and considered and help drive a culture of continuous improvement.

Regardless of the benefits, DEI faces resistance from various levels within organizations. It is crucial to address challenges regarding DEI initiatives. Education continues to be a vital tool for resistance to DEI. Creating an understanding of what DEI is—and what it is not—helps ensure that when employees express concerns and questions about DEI, there is a shared understanding about the topic. Have you ever felt unheard or undervalued at work? Imagine how a commitment to DEI could transform that experience for you and your colleagues.

Many people working to advance DEI also currently live in an echo chamber. They are likely to get affirmation of their work from others in the field but are still looking to get leadership commitment necessary to advance their work beyond their own sphere of influence. Senior leaders and even boards need to give visible support for DEI initiatives through actions. As with any other initiative, DEI success metrics help ensure accountability and transparency. After all, what gets measured gets done, and what can be measured often gets the attention of leadership.

Consider again the words of Phil Knight: The cowards never started. The weak died along the way. Don’t let that be you. If you have not yet begun your DEI journey, start today. If you are losing energy behind your efforts, discover what you need to refuel and re-engage. Humanidei’s DEI Practitioner Network is a wonderful community of support for those leading DEI efforts in credit unions, and we would love to plug you in.

Like pioneers on ‘The Oregon Trail’, we work together to overcome challenges and ensure no one gets left behind. With our guidance, you won’t just survive the journey; you’ll thrive, without any worry of dying of dysentery.


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Oscar Porras

Oscar Porras

Oscar Porras started his career in the credit union industry over 20 years ago. He has primarily worked with community members of modest needs, credit union professionals of diverse backgrounds, ... Web: Details