Martin Luther King Would Have To Wonder About His Dream If Observing CUs

In one of the finest pieces of oratory ever delivered by an American, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. famously proclaimed, "I have a dream." But were Dr. King a credit union executive, he likely would have been forced to add, "And I'm prepared to wait. And wait. And wait."

This week the country celebrates a holiday in honor of Dr. King, whose efforts, including at the cost of his own life, helped to clear the way for African-Americans to participate more fully in that American dream. That includes the opportunity to pursue any career, or enter any profession, and to go as high and far as one's talents takes them.

Not that you could tell Dr. King ever gave any such speech, much less existed, judging from the credit union community. The same credit unions that have done an exemplary job of reaching out to "underserved" communities and markets, including low-income African-Americans, look like the Osmond Family reunion when their management teams and boards get together. True, an African-American Credit Union Council has formed in recent years, but it's not like they need to book the Las Vegas convention center.

Several years ago the Credit Union Journal took an in-depth look at the composition of the leadership of credit unions, including the trade groups. At that time we reported that the only African-American in the management ranks was Pete Crear at CUNA. The good news is that since then the World Council has also named an African-American as its new CEO. The bad news: it's Pete Crear. Nothing else has changed.

We also reported a few years ago on a bold initiative by the Credit Union Executives Society to partner with some of the historically black colleges, particularly Hampton University, to make African-American students aware of career opportunities in credit unions. The program did not end up steering many interns into CUs, and today the program is pretty much inactive.

CUES President Fred Johnson was on an advisory committee at Hampton University and saw first-hand that despite credit unions' best intentions, the competition was fierce, and Hampton students could pick the places at which they wanted to intern. Those places include real resume-builders, big banks and brokerages and name-brand Fortune 500 companies.

"There were a limited number of black students and they were really being cherry-picked," recalled Johnson. "They would have 15 or 20 offers to choose from."

Credit unions often note that when it comes to consumer finance they have low top-of-mind awareness, and the same also applies to credit union careers. Combine the fact credit unions really aren't doing much to reach out with the fact many young African-Americans really aren't reaching out to them, and what you get is more of the same.

It isn't just African-Americans who are absent from leadership positions: credit union and trade association management and boards still are pretty much a "guy thing." Later this month WesCorp is hosting a Women's Leadership conference in which all of that is sure to be a part of the discussion. After all, many women also have dreams of their own.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann<at>cujournal.com.