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The Credit Union Century: Taking Solace in Our History of Bold Choices


“Progress is not the mere correction of evils. Progress is the constant replacing of the best there is with something still better.” — Edward Filene  

I won’t bore you with the economic headlines – you’ve heard quite enough of those to know the situation facing consumers and credit union members. But on a day where the stock market is once again tanking and pessimism seems to be raining down lately like leaves falling off trees, I’m encouraged by the sheer power of the credit union story and how our history should give us great comfort.    

I came across this Online profile of Edward Filene in Jewish Currents recently. In reading Filene’s story, I started to reflect on the world of 1908. How different America must have been for the working class in the early part of the 1900s. And as the head of Filene’s, he had a front-row seat on these struggles as both “the boss” and “the merchant.”

You have to think in both these roles, Filene heard the stories of his employees and customers — the simple realities of day-to-day life of people working hard and achieving little success. The quiet desperation of life in a society that valued blue-collar labor without valuing its human worth. A society where hands got worked to the breaking point, only to be tossed aside upon the breaking.      

We all know the “what happened” when it comes to the birth of credit unions 100 years ago, and that’s a miracle in itself. But maybe the larger miracle comes in the “why” of Ed Filene & the credit union story.

Why would a guy like Filene bother to develop more humane worker policies in the age of Robber Barons and concentrated wealth? Why fight for progressive legislation that protected working people when he had all manner of comfort?

Why travel the world to learn about solutions to human problems that were based on self-help and empowerment — including the first credit union he laid eyes on in a small village near Calcutta in 1907?

And most of all — why would he fight bankers, moneyed interests and the corrosive rot of “that’s just the way it is” thinking to launch the credit union movement in America? Why fight the powerful on behalf of the powerless?

I can’t answer the why of Filene’s story, but I think it’s safe to say that doing nothing amid all this inequity & suffering was the easy choice for him to make. Perhaps the stories of employees and customers moved him to action. Or maybe he was just a fundamentally decent, visionary human being. And so, he fought to create progress as he saw it — the “replacing of the best there is with something still better.”

And a century later, here we are. 

“… without darkness
Nothing comes to birth,
As without light
Nothing flowers.”
— May Sarton

In many ways, this seems like a time of great darkness. The powerful argue for bailouts because they are “too big to fail,” then take junkets to luxury spas to bathe in their billions. Weak banks get taxpayer money to stay alive, and strong banks get money to “return shareholder value” (and because, well, everyone else is getting it – so why not?). 

But if you’re a consumer in need of a loan, good luck! Oh, and by the way thanks for the help – we’ll look for your check on April 15th.   

“Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.” — German Proverb

Like Edward Filene a century ago, many of you are no doubt hearing stories from your members today. Maybe it’s a loan someone needs to fix a car, pay a hospital bill or college tuition. Maybe it’s a member who needs more time to pay a loan after learning that the plant he’s worked at for 20 years is closing. Perhaps another member is in a bad mortgage loan and the walls are literally closing in on her. 

The headlines might tell you what the safe choices are right now for your credit union. But after one Great Depression, two World Wars, countless recessions and other times of national struggle, it’s clear that over the past century, the credit union movement was not built on making safe choices. It’s based on listening and empowering — on helping people “replace the best there is with something still better” in a very real and fundamental way.

And as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of credit unions in America — the powerful example of Ed Filene shines a light for us in this time of economic darkness.

Don’t let your fear make the wolf bigger than he is. Go be bold!


7 Responses

  1. Filene has truly become my hero. Thank you for these words of inspiration – and for challenging us to continue fighting for our members.

  2. The Warrior and the Communicator – ROCK ON!!

    You said in one post what I’ve been trying to say on my blog for two months!
    “WE” are better than banks because we have a history of not just saying we are people helping people – we actually do it.

    Let’s keep on doing it.

  3. Denise & the Warrior: thanks for your kind words. These are amazing times, indeed.

    Right after I posted this, I got a press release from Local Government FCU … they are investing $50 million in the Municipal Bond Market in NC. This will allow cities and towns throughout the State to gain access to needed capital.

    It’s yet another reminder that as banks hoard money, credit unions are sharing opportunity – and at just the right time.


  4. Our credit union just launched a fee-free Holiday Skip-a-Pay program to help members free up some cash for the holidays. No catches. No hoops to jump through. Just a way we’re proving, yet again, that the credit union difference is alive, well, and ready to be part of the solution to the current financial crisis.

  5. Well said. Filene was a brilliant man and philanthropist. I take great pride in knowing that I’m in an industry (or movement) that has had such an incredible philosophy from the very beginning.

    After 100 years, its time to celebrate that history, and more importantly, revisit it and make sure we are living that same philosophy today.

    CUNA.org has set up a pretty cool website with a timeline of credit union history (http://www.cuna.org/100years/index.htm).

  6. Great article Jeff! It is inspiring to think about how our CU history informs what we’re doing today. I agree with Andy and share his pride in our industry.
    I just finished publishing our CEO’s monthly message and he also reflected on our history and the formation of BECU during the Great Depression.

    Oh, and Howdy Denise!

  7. Thanks everyone! By the way, I would be remiss if I did not share a link with the America’s Credit Union Museum in Manchester, NH. It sure would be nice to make a pilgrimage there one day to learn more about the history of credit unions in the US!


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