From Uganda to Seattle, A Cooperative Journey

I founded my first credit unions without knowing it. It was 2007, and a civil war had done to northern Uganda what shaking a puzzle box does to a puzzle.

The war was finally, mercifully winding down, but millions of people were still confined to camps for “internally displaced persons,” which is what they call refugees who don’t cross an international border. The camps had population densities to rival Manhattan but none of the systems that make Manhattan livable: plumbing, sanitation, health, food, water, trade. They were dusty and poor and deadly.

I worked for a nonprofit running a program that employed a couple hundred Ugandans, most of whom lived in these camps. They made bracelets that were sold in America to fund local education programs.

In order to increase the long-term value of this program, I helped my Ugandan colleagues start “village savings and loan associations,” little cooperative groups to take savings deposits and loan them out to group members.

Growing up in San Diego, California I probably heard 1,000 radio commercials for Mission Federal Credit Union. I didn’t know what a credit union was. I thought it might be some technical kind of bank, something too complex for my needs.

As a business economics major at UCLA I learned what corporations are about. They are about maximizing profits. Public corporations, in particular, are legally obligated to put their shareholders’ financial interest at the top of the priority list. It was only after a trip to Nepal and an encounter with extreme poverty that I even questioned this arrangement.

When I founded a humanitarian business in Uganda, partnering with two dozen women who were refugees from that same civil war, I helped them create their own cooperative. I wanted them to have ownership, to have agency, to have the fullest possible hold on their own futures.

Only decades later, after moving back from Uganda and deciding to live in Seattle and finding a job posting from the Northwest Credit Union Association did I look into what “credit union” actually meant. When I learned that credit unions were cooperatives created to meet the common needs and serve the common values of communities, I “got it.” Clearly, money I deposit in a big bank is going to be used to benefit that bank’s shareholders. Whereas money I deposit in a credit union is going to be used to benefit me and my fellow members and my community. The difference is baked into the structure.

It wasn’t until after I got the job that I thought back to those village savings and loan associations (VSLAs) in northern Uganda. I was talking to Jim Morrell, president/CEO of Peninsula Credit Union, and he told me about a recent trip to Kenya where he met with local leaders of the credit union movement. He talked about the different forms and sizes credit unions take around the world, from tiny to well-scaled.

Those VSLAs, I realized, were the first sprouts of what grows into a credit union. They were the acknowledgement that by combining our resources and putting them towards things that further our collective goals we can get farther than we could alone. There’s an “African proverb” posted all over the internet that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I never heard anyone say it, but I still think it’s pretty good.

Years after helping kick off the VSLAs in northern Uganda I went back and met up with some of the people I had worked with. They were, thankfully, long out of the camps. Some, sadly, had returned to destitution. But some had used their savings and loans to start little general stores, some had bought motorcycles to rent out as taxis, some had restarted the farms that the war had stripped from them.

There were no miracles, just the quiet story of a group of people who linked arms, worked hard, and took a big collective step forward.

As I join the Northwest Credit Union Association as your new member communications evangelist, it’s my job to make sure that you, our members, always have the best information. And it’s my privilege to share the stories of how your credit unions are advancing the common goals and values of your members. If we link arms and work hard, we can all take a big, collective step forward.

Questions about this story? Contact James Pearson: 206.340.4790, jpearson@nwcua.org.

Posted in NWCUA.