(published May 8, 2023 -- cu.com, Sharon Simpson)

original link: https://creditunions.com/features/whats-the-big-idea/ 

Inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility ensures success and survival at Greylock FCU.

Greylock Federal Credit Union ($1.6B, Pittsfield, MA) had a head start when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Although DEI has been a buzzword in the industry for the past several years, Greylock started its journey in 2015.

Greylock’s market covers sparsely populated rural areas in western Massachusetts, eastern New York, and southern Vermont, where the population has been shrinking for decades. Still, the credit union identified a clear trend and area of opportunity.

“Our immigrant community and people of color were the only demographics that were growing,” says John Bissell, president and CEO. “We’d been trying, and failing, to do a better job serving more diverse communities. I realized we had to change our culture to remain relevant.”

From the Inside Out

Working with outside consultants, the credit union first focused on educating the senior management team and board. Even Bissell underwent a deep self-examination to uncover his own biases. A partnership with the local non-profit Multi-Cultural Bridge and connections established through Inclusiv helped Greylock build a roadmap for inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA).

That high-level work lasted a couple of years. Then, the credit union turned its attention to the broader organization, providing cultural competency training and a shared vocabulary to all staff members. Bissell personally made the business case to all Greylock employees.

“My message was that we shouldn’t take our long-term growth or this community for granted,” Bissell says. “Our community is changing, and we have to continue listening and responding to their needs.”

After Bissell made the business case, the credit union began changing systems.

It became a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and received a low-income designation. It also completely re-engineered how it recruits, hires, and trains to better reflect the community. Today, no one can hire or promote someone unilaterally, which has helped increase diversity among Greylock’s employee base. In 2015, people of color represented only 3% of staff; today, they represent 15%.

“We changed a lot of other systems and we’re not done,” Bissell says. “This will be the rest of my lifetime and more.”

Three months ago, the cooperative also added a vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, Rachel Melendez Mabee, to the staff roster.

“John and the team are very thoughtful about forming true community partnerships and are committed to being ‘comfortably uncomfortable,’” says Melendez Mabee, who has 15 years of experience in DEI programming.

Products for Community Needs

Greylock looks beyond the typical race, ethnicity, and gender aspects of diversity. That’s where access comes into play. Its local population has a higher-than-average percentage of people living with physical and mental disabilities, people who are facing language barriers, and — the credit union’s largest segment of the underserved population — 60-65% of the community who have low-to-moderate incomes.

As Greylock connected with other CDFIs and LICUs (low-income credit unions) throughout the country, it recognized its products and services were too limited.

Since then, the credit union has built a team of 30 certified financial coaches who can serve members in multiple languages. In addition to English and Spanish speakers, Greylock’s team includes a full-time coach originally from West Africa who speaks 14 different dialects.

Greylock also designed an affordable auto loan for credit challenged members with FICO scores lower than 660. Given that 92% of Greylock’s local population doesn’t have access to mass transit, this pathway to private transportation is essential in helping people get to and from work. The loan, which offers a more competitive rate, serves as a viable option in lieu of traditional predatory products. Additionally, the credit union lowers the interest rate for borrowers who make regular payments, which, in turn, increases their credit scores.

“By the time they pay off this auto loan, they qualify for conventional financing,” Bissell says.

On average, members save $900 per year with the product, and Greylock booked a total of $5 million in 2022.

For members who don’t have a social security number, Greylock offers an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) lending program. The credit union made $8 million in ITIN loans in 2022 and will begin offering mortgages to those with ITINs in 2023.

“This line of business is forever evolving,” Melendez Mabee says. “As we continue to assess needs, stakeholders provide feedback, and the data helps us uncover where the biggest inequities are.”

In addition to using data to uncover areas of opportunity, Greylock has formed Community Development Advisory Committees to engage with stakeholders.

“We visit with these groups monthly and bring them together once a quarter to ask where the gaps are and what we don’t have that we should have,” Bissell says. “We invite them to tell us what we need to know, even when it hurts.”

Success and Evolution

Prior to kicking off its IDEA strategy in 2015, Greylock was growing by an average rate of 1,000 members per year. Today, its annual growth rate is an average of 3,300 new members per year. Net income has doubled, too, and the cooperative’s asset quality has improved dramatically as well.

“The top of the house data is positive,” Bissell says.

Regarding Greylock’s new ITIN lending program, that went from zero to $8 million and appears to have plenty of room to continue growing.

And, as the area’s top mortgage lender — it provided 31% of all mortgages in 2022 — the credit union recognizes it has a special responsibility to ensure equitable housing opportunities. Therefore, it closely tracks mortgage applications and loans funded to people of color.

“In 2015, there was a tremendous gap in terms of the overall Black and Latinx population and the number of mortgage applications we were seeing and approving,” Bissell says.

That gap prompted the credit union to hire full-time coaches and a dedicated community lender to focus on the neighborhoods with the biggest opportunity to improve. Now, Greylock is exceeding the number of applications and approved mortgages it would expect to see based on the population.

Although many of Greylock’s measures of success are quantitative, it’s important to remember the qualitative aspects as well.

“We’re committed to serving our members and community, but we also have our employees’ backs when it comes to this line of work,” Melendez Mabee says. “Qualitative metrics like feeling safe, being authentic, and bringing diversity of thought to work with you are also measures of success.”

Lessons Learned

Looking back, Bissell says he was hesitant at first to publicize the credit union’s IDEA work externally.

“That hesitancy isn’t atypical for companies, as using words like ‘ally’ can be seen as performative,” Melendez Mabee says.

It took time to get there, but thoughtfully, genuinely engaging with community partners to drive systemic change has led to progress that Greylock is now proudly sharing.

In terms of opposition, the credit union has received calls from only a small handful of members. Having the full support of the board and management team helps Bissell navigate even challenging conversations with members who raise questions or objections to specific activities, such as displaying Pride flags.

“I explain our strategy of being open and welcome to everyone and invite them to continue to be a member,” Bissell says. “If they choose not to after having that conversation, that is OK. However, that really hasn’t happened to any measurable extent, and we’re certainly not losing business. Quite the opposite.”

Greylock’s employees are on their own journeys and might also feel uncertain at times; however, the credit union is clear that its programs are not aimed at achieving perfection overnight.

“This is joyful work,” Melendez Mabee says. “When people are struggling with their own blind spots, we want them to be able to do that in a safe, conducive way. We’re not here to change people’s minds; we’re here to provide awareness and education to help alter some mindsets and offer a different perspective.”

Those awareness conversations are an important way to prevent members and employees alike from falling victim to the zero-sum mentality that can otherwise take hold.

“We’re not taking something from you to offer it to another group,” Melendez Mabee says. “We’re doing our best to create as much of an equal playing field as possible based on what the data shows. And this isn’t going to happen overnight, so organizations should not be discouraged or deprioritize DEI if they don’t see immediate results.”

From Bissell’s perspective, a credit union’s survival and continued relevance is intrinsically related to DEI and being responsive to the entire community.

“A credit union is either on a DEI journey or they are on a pathway to extinction,” the CEO says.