Having Grit, Giving Grace, and Celebrating Success in DEI

Efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion have taken many forms at Verity Credit Union. The Seattle-based credit union puts new hires through diversity training, notes employees’ pronouns on name badges, and offers gender-neutral restrooms in its offices.

It brought in a consultant to introduce DEI topics to employees and to help them start using a common DEI language. In 2019, Verity joined an affordable housing project in south Seattle, a new geographic area for the credit union, and participated in racial equity training with the partner organization.

When the pandemic hit, the credit union put the in-person training on hold, but the killing of George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, pushed Verity to rethink that decision.

“That was the catalyst,” says Angela Lowe, Verity’s Chief Human Resources Officer. “We realized we needed to speed up our DEI work rather than slow it down.”

Voices of Color

The week after Floyd’s death, Lowe and Vivian Valencia, Verity’s Director of Community Relations, received an email from a coworker in the Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) community asking simply, “What can we do?” At the time, emotions were running high and Verity decided the best thing it could offer was space.

“We wanted to offer a space for our employees to come together and have an honest, genuine conversation,” Valencia says. “But we recognized it was likely having a different impact on our Black or employees of color.”

Valencia, who is a woman of color, fostered these initial conversations. In a group setting, Verity’s BIPOC employees discussed their emotions and experiences, but the conversation quickly evolved to include how these employees could help Verity move forward in its DEI work. In mid-June, the credit union officially formed Verity’s Voices of Color (VVOC) with the express goal to spur conversation, provide education, and advocate for policies and programs.

“One of our guiding principles is that we all come to the meeting stripped of our titles,” Valencia says. “We are all equals and each of our concerns or opinions weighs equally.”

Initially, VVOC met twice a month; today, meetings are monthly. Valencia moderates the conversation based on an agenda of the group’s current priorities, which can be wide-ranging. The group identifies ways to make the credit union’s DEI work more effective while also serving as a resource for new projects. For example, an employee ran her idea of creating a leadership program for BIPOC employees through VVOC.

Additionally, VVOC writes blog posts during heritage months — including Black History Month, Italian-American Heritage and Culture Month, and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month — highlighting individuals in those communities who’ve made societal contributions big and small. This is just one way Valencia says VVOC educates staff and moves conversations forward.

“These are tough conversations,” the community relations director says. “They get messy and they can hurt. But they are needed, and we want to be a part of it.”

The Cultural Equity Council and a New Roadmap

While Valencia was putting together VVOC, Verity’s then-CEO John Zmolek wanted to ensure the credit union was not only making space for these conversations but also that its strategic plan incorporated DEI goals. That June, he asked Lowe, the Chief Human Resources Officer, to lead the strategic effort.

“I started by pulling together a task force of people who I knew were passionate and educated on the subject,” Lowe says.

This included Valencia, Verity’s director of branches, and its human resources manager. Internally, the task force is known as the Cultural Equity Council (CEC) and is staffed through an application process. The now eight-person team is composed of a nearly equal number of back-office and front-line staff as well as a balance of race and gender identities, according to Lowe.

After the initial formation of the CEC team, Valencia invited Lowe and Zmolek to a VVOC meeting to hear from the group.

“We wanted to know what they thought the opportunities were for Verity on matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Lowe says.

The CEC used that feedback to develop its strategic plan, but there were clear calls to action the credit union needed to address in short order. First, there was inconsistency in how managers addressed discriminatory behavior exhibited toward staff from members. To address that, Verity created a member interaction policy that established guidelines. Second, some branches had placed Black fists designed by local artists in their windows in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. There was a strong member reaction, and staff asked for talking points to handle the conversations more effectively.

Before the CEC formally added DEI initiatives to the credit union’s strategic plan, members of the VVOC met with Verity executives to help prioritize where to start.

“Do we start with the member experience? Community outreach? Employees?” Lowe asks. “We all agreed that if we started anywhere but with our staff, our efforts would fall short. If our staff experience isn’t the same as who we tell our members we are, then it will be inauthentic.”

But Verity recognized DEI is not a top-down proposition. At the time, Verity’s executive team was entirely white. Zmolek retired in April 2021, and Tonita Webb, a Black woman with 15 years of executive experience at Seattle Credit Union, took the helm as CEO.

Additional positive change has come straight from employees, who have founded VVOC as well as other employee resource groups, including one for working parents and one for LGBTQIA+ employees.

“We are always open for people to start new resource groups,” Lowe says. “They should be the ones telling the CEC what to do and driving the credit union forward.”

Along with the help of its consultants, Filene’s roadmap to activating DEI, a toolkit from Equity in the Center, and feedback from the VVOC, Verity began to mold elements of its strategic plan to reflect the organization it wants to be. A big part of that includes setting goals, and a big part of setting goals is having the right data.

“I can tell you our turnover stats for the past 10 years,” Lowe says. “But not based on gender or race.”

To fix that, Verity has worked to disaggregate its data with the expectation that a more accurate picture of its history will help it set better future goals. Verity has been moving fast, but with a new CEO in the seat, it wants to level set and re-establish a long-term vision.

“Defining what we mean by ‘diversity,’ ‘equity,’ and ‘inclusion’ has to happen this year,” Lowe says. “Is it enough to say we are building a culture of belonging? Is it important to state we are an anti-racist organization?”

With that direction clarified, Verity will turn its attention to community partnerships and vendor relationships. The credit union wants to ensure these organizations share its values and is working on a way to add accountability to future agreements.

Grit and Grace

Employees have met Verity’s DEI work with a range of reactions. Some employees think the credit union should do more and go faster; likewise, some feel threatened by Verity’s evolution.

“We’re no different than the rest of the world,” Valencia says. “We’re just a small slice of that.”

Valencia acknowledges DEI work can be messy because employees exist all along the ideological spectrum. It might not be possible for the credit union to bring employees closer together, but it can ensure all employees feel safe making their voice heard.

“We want to make sure everyone always feels heard and understood,” Valencia says.

Recently, Verity has slowed down the pace of its trainings to allow employees time to process what’s been introduced. But Verity is not giving up on its dedication to DEI. The cooperative is pushing through the discomfort, even if it means losing employees along the way.

“We’re trying to bring everyone along while recognizing there are going to be some who opt out,” Lowe says. “But we’ll also attract new people whose values align more closely with ours.”

Verity continues to have messy conversations with staff and members, messy conversations that serve as proof that things are changing. When it can, Verity even highlights the tangible results from its DEI efforts. Even so, making progress can be a challenge. For other credit unions going down this path, Valencia offers words of advice.

“Every organization has employees across the ideological spectrum,” she says. “Meet them where they are, but be clear that things will continue to move forward. Have grit, but give grace.” 

Editor’s note: Verity’s strategic efforts to improve DEI are an example of credit unions living their “People Helping People” mission. In recent months, the Northwest Credit Unions’ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force has examined similar approaches for the Credit Union Movement. Hosted by NWCUA and the Northwest Credit Union Foundation, the Task Force is led by credit union professionals from across the region who are committed to the principles of DEI. The Task Force has collaborated to identify  DEI-related tools and practices, and will soon share a comprehensive resource guide of actionable strategies credit unions could deploy to advance their work as employers, financial institutions, and community partners.

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Posted in CU Difference.