Diversity Insight: Nurturing DEI in LAFCU’s Cultural Journey

diverse group nurturing a plant
Kelli Ellsworth Etchison Photo
Chief Marketing Officer/Chief Diversity Officer

5 minutes

DEI is an ongoing challenge that is a long way from being resolved. LAFCU is working toward change by beginning where it is.  

Every employee wants to feel valued, respected and that they have a voice. The different perspectives that people bring to a project and the innovative ideas from those diverse perspectives are invaluable. When people feel valued, they are energized and engaged. Numerous data support that diversity in the workplace is also good for the bottom line.

Establishing an Executive-Level Diversity Officer Position

The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent calls for social justice across the country sparked the movement to expand and formalize LAFCU’s diversity, equity and inclusion program. Watching the injustice unfold prompted me to take action to propose a more robust DEI effort starting where we could make the most impact: right inside our own four walls.

The board of directors voted unanimously to create the position of chief diversity officer, a position I now hold, to accelerate existing diversity and inclusion initiatives at our Lansing, Michigan-based credit union. As an indication of the importance placed on the effort, the position is part of the executive team. As CDO, I am responsible for providing leadership, guidance, training and support to internal and external partners in the development and delivery of equity programs and tools. 

Although LAFCU’s DEI program had included human resources’ efforts to attract diverse candidates, hosting DEI speakers at annual all-staff meetings and maintaining a culture that values the contributions of all employees, the move to expand the program demonstrates leadership’s understanding that through a more informed and enlightened staff, the organization will be better able to meet its business goals to provide exemplary service and useful products to all its members. This includes providing equity in access to relevant products and services with the goal of making everyone—staff and members—feel welcome, heard and seen.

Forming an Employee DEI Committee

I knew the LAFCU DEI Program would need to be employee-driven to be truly successful. One of the initial tasks I undertook as CDO was to form a DEI employee committee. Comprised of volunteer employees, the committee is empowered to create and implement LAFCU’s DEI strategy to ensure no one is left out.

In the application to be a member of the committee, employees are asked why they want to join. And, before becoming a committee member, each employee is made aware this work is difficult, and it could bias other employees against them. This has not deterred anyone from serving, and none of the volunteers have left the committee.

The committee members’ work is especially important to a financial services organization like LAFCU. We know certain government financial policies in the past have had inherent bias and harmed certain groups. We need our employees to be educated and alert to avoid future issues.

I am pleased to say the 18-member committee, comprised of employees, managers and executives, is also diverse regarding race, age, gender and sexual orientation.

Communicating DEI Mission, Core Values and Tagline Tenets

LAFCU’s DEI logo combines three elements to symbolize diversity, equity and inclusion. It represents, as a whole, the growth of a flower. A flower can’t grow and develop without the help of others, just as we all depend on each other to create the beautiful flower that is our humanity.

Through intensive discussion, thought and conversation with employees, the DEI employee committee established DEI tenets: mission statement, core principles and tagline. We turned to marketing for a logo, then launched a four-week initiative with the goals of educating and engaging employees. Strategies were:

  • Communicate with repetition
  • Make messages tangible, sticky
  • Create anticipation, fun, buzz
  • Include everyone through participation
  • Craft artifacts with staying power

The campaign was powered by employees. Several DEI employee committee members as well as the CEO were featured in the educational effort. The result was a campaign with eblasts, videos, employee giveaways, interaction components and a DEI quiz. Weekly eblasts with embedded videos provided key messages supported by fun giveaways.

Implementing Educational Training

As I began to lay the groundwork for the internal DEI program, I knew it was critical to hold one-on-one and group discussions with all staff and create strict no-judgement zones and safe spaces for hard questions and difficult conversations. It was also essential to provide ways for employees to give feedback on the initiative to the LAFCU DEI committee, HR department and CEO, so it could be used to shape and drive the DEI program forward.

people with forget-me-not seedlings
An interactive component of LAFCU’s DEI employee communication campaign involved nurturing forget-me-not seedlings as a reminder that fostering a culture of inclusion takes intention.

To intensify the learning, every executive and management team has gone through or is going through a comprehensive 21-Day Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Justice Challenge. I am also taking all employees through an implicit bias training, so they become more aware of how to set aside their bias and fully service our membership.

As the DEI executive, I onboard every new hire by taking them through the culture from a DEI perspective. During one of those onboarding sessions, one of our new hires began to share that they had struggled with their identity and was thrilled that LAFCU promoted a safe space for people to be their authentic self. They later shared that it was because of that initial session that they gained the courage to begin transitioning from male to female.

DEI: An Ongoing Challenge

We believe our DEI program is making people uncomfortable—in a good way. They are self-reflecting. As the educational process continues, we want employees to be more likely to consider the implicit bias that’s sewn into our DNA and adjust accordingly—personally and professionally—for the betterment of the organization, members, staff and community.

DEI is an ongoing challenge in our society that is a long way from being resolved. LAFCU is working toward change by beginning where we are. If we can educate and raise awareness among our staff, we can actively plant the seeds to help grow the solution in our community and beyond.

CUES member Kelli Ellsworth Etchison is chief marketing officer and chief diversity officer at over $950 million LAFCU, Lansing, Michigan. In her dual role, she is responsible for strategic marketing, community relations, and establishing diversity, equity, and inclusion as shared values—internally within LAFCU and externally in the community. Kelli is an award winning marketer and a recognized community service advocate. She holds a bachelor’s in business administration from Northwood University, Midland, Michigan. Kelli completed the CUES Strategic Growth Institute’s Mergers and Acquisitions program and was in the first cohort of credit union leaders who earned a DEI Certificate through CUES and Cornell University.

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