Against the backdrop of Black History Month, the chairman of the Credit Union National Association wants diversity and inclusion added to the seven principles that have guided co-ops for 175 years.
While many groups today tout the notion of diversity, the chairman of the Credit Union National Association, Maurice Smith, is calling for the International Co-operative Alliance to do more than just talk about diversity and inclusion. He wants the group to add D+I as a guiding principle, joining seven other principles that have been in place for nearly two centuries
CUNA is part of the cooperative movement, and like all co-ops—whether for housing, banking, health insurance, or other industries—the association follows ICA’s seven guiding principles: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training, and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community.
“While the principles touch on fairness, openness, and democracy, there is no principle that comes out and openly touts the idea of inclusion and diversity,” said Smith, who also serves as CEO of the Local Government Federal Credit Union in Raleigh, N.C. He proposed the change during Black History Month because the month “reminds us that society benefits when equality and equity prevail.”
In the past, co-ops of varying natures, despite having the seven principles to guide them, have discriminated against people based on race or gender. “The cooperative principles were established in 1844, 20 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 60 years before women had the right to vote,” Smith said. “These were established at a time when our sensibilities were different.”
As such, Smith wants the principles updated to reflect the sensibilities of our current world. “It’s different today than it was then. We have changed as a world and changed as a co-op community.”
Smith contends that D+I in the co-op ranks, particularly in credit unions, needs to be seen at every level. “Still, there is more to diversity and inclusion than financial access for members,” Smith wrote in an op-ed posted on CUNA’s website. “It must be everywhere from the grassroots of our communities to the top of our credit unions or we will not fully serve our purpose.”
When people see others like themselves in all aspects of the cooperative, they can see themselves as being a participating member. “It lays out for the whole world to see that opportunities are available,” Smith said. “To the extent that a community or organization sets out to tell the world that they are open for business to everyone, it gives hope to everyone at the table.”
Smith recognizes that adding a new principle is an uphill battle, but he’s tired of there being just talk about diversity. “There has been a lot of conversation about this,” Smith said. “It requires an international congress of co-ops, an alliance, if we are going to change the principles.”
While one could argue that adding an eighth principle is just more talk, Smith said the principles are a good starting point because they guide everything co-ops do.
“It is the North Star for co-ops,” Smith said. “All the co-ops point to those principles as determining their core values. It is the start of the conversation, and it sets actions in motion.”