The DE-fining Difference – And So Much More

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“Be ashamed to die until you’ve won a victory for humanity.”

It was heavy stuff to be hearing at 6pm on a Thursday night, especially given the location.  We were in North Carolina, home to the Biltmore and Krispy Kreme Donuts and arguably the greatest college basketball rivalry known to man.  More precisely, we were in Raleigh, a place whose famed main drag of Franklin Street features celebrated establishments like Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe and Time After Time Vintage Thrift Shop (kitchy stuff for the uninitiated).  Drill down even further to the building where this quote came to life that night and you’d find yourself in the historic Dubose House library, wine and beer and history all flowing freely beside a roaring fire.  All in all, a pretty nice place to be for the 47 or so credit union and other co-op professionals doing our best to block out the sub-zero temperatures lurking outside like an unwanted guest. 

We were gracefully positioned on the grounds of The Rizzo Center, a seamless hybrid conference center retreat – think charming bed and breakfast meets luxury country hotel.  The pristine grounds and campus-like all-inclusive amenities came with impeccable service and a 2nd floor pantry that was fully stocked with ice cream at all hours of the day.  Not to mention the seemingly unending trays of food turned out by incredible head chef Chris Harmelink and his team literally every hour on the hour. 

And while we didn’t know it yet, all of this learning and networking and sharing of ideas was happening mere miles away from a population in the midst of abject poverty and hopelessness.  Some by their own accord and others by circumstance, but all of them in need and looking for answers – for help. 

“Be ashamed to die until you’ve won a victory for humanity.” 

Perhaps all of the above was why the quote cut through the atmosphere that night.  In no uncertain terms, it already made sense to most of us, of course.  You live and you work and you love and in the middle of all of that you want to do something good for the world – to have your life mean something.  I like to think that most people probably think this way.  And even though our weeklong, immersive journey into this program had only just begun, for some reason, the quote resonated deeper in that moment than any of us in the room would have anticipated, perhaps not because of the days behind us – but because of what lay ahead. 

The silence is my only evidence of this, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with.  People that know of the Credit Union Development Educators training certification (or DE for short) will always ask a DE: “So – what’s it like?”  The literal answer, of course, is that DE is a program put together by the National Credit Union Foundation, designed for credit union professionals or any interested party to learn more about the history of financial cooperatives: why they came to be, how they’ve been able to endure in their present form and what makes them different than their for-profit cousin, the bank.  Through seven days of immersive study and guest speakers and simulations and visits and discussions, though, we found a different definition of DE began to emerge, one that really began to connect the dots to the quote we heard:

“What am I doing, and how can I effect change?”

William “Bill” Herring, President and CEO of Cincinnati Central Credit Union and the purveyor of the quote above that night, is actually the son of the author of that quote – one of the credit union movement’s most beloved pioneers, Louise Herring.  Her story could fill pages (still waiting on the movie), but the main thing you should understand about the “Mother of all Credit Unions” is that her passion was her life’s work.  And that is really what is at the core of her quote and at the guts of the DE program.  Louise asked us that night what we were doing and how were we effecting change in our work – for most in the room, at their credit unions, for me, at NCBA CLUSA.  But for all of us, in our daily lives.

Many of you that read this publication are already living your passion.  It’s evidenced in your work at food co-ops, behind desks or in the fields at your rural electric, in the dirt under your fingernails at your farm.  For the folks at the credit unions, though, their boots on the ground work is a little different because it deals with one of two things that actually makes the world go round – money (more on that later).  The question Louise and Bill put forth that night was really asking the group if we understood HOW to make a difference in someone’s life at their credit union, whether as a teller or a VP: “With every small victory, a greater victory can be achieved.”  For many of the people in the depressed economic area around Raleigh that we had yet to see, their literal only hope WAS the credit union (Cooperativa Latino) and their willingness to do business and educate them about their money. 

Many of us see the benefits of helping others every day in Co-op Land, a place where a better business model allows a group of people survive and thrive.  But the challenge for DE’s attending the course and for all of us every day is to maintain that momentum and determine what we can do – what can WE achieve on behalf of our friends and family and strangers and people outside our porch that we don’t really WANT to help but that we know we SHOULD help.  Lois Kitsch and her group at NCUF are grooming almost 100 people every year through the DE program to give them the tools to take on this challenge and provide graduates the ability to see beyond the financial problems and convoluted stories of their credit union members and utilize the cooperatives principles – the thing that makes them “not banks” – to develop and deliver services that provide a hand up, not a hand out.

My DE experience was transformative in that way.  I’m not glib enough to realize one doesn’t change overnight, of course, but the seeds are already planted.  It’s too late to take back.  I went in believing that credit unions were a key ingredient in the glue being created by NCBA CLUSA that help bind this cross-sector co-op thing together, and I left without a doubt in my mind I was right.  But I also left with the other thing that helps the world go round – perspective.  And that’s my answer when people ask me what DE is all about, what the difference is between co-ops and everything else.  It’s a way to see the world through new glasses and be willing to do something with the new world you see. 

So, feel free to ask me about DE.  You’ve got my number and my email.  I’m happy to share my story with you.  Though I can’t guarantee the wine, beer, fire and fancy quotes will be included.  That you’ll have to get on your own… or at DE!

 

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