Opportunities CU ‘walks its talk’ in providing real opportunities for minority members.
According to a 2019 University of California-Berkeley study, lenders charg Latinx/African American borrowers higher interest rates than equivalent borrowers and had notably higher denial rates. Opportunities Credit Union, Winooski, Vermont, wants to help combat such numbers in its state. (Also read “Making Racial Fairness Fundamental in Lending.”)
Since its inception in 1989, Opportunities CU, a low-income designated community development financial institution, has been providing a path to financial security to people of modest income and assets regardless of color, creed or nationality. Our motto, “We don't say no, we say when,” removes the label of creditworthiness and shifts attention to the process required to learn and grow financially.
According to one Opportunities CU financial educator, “Many people grow up financially illiterate, and they can quickly get into troublesome debt situations because they lack knowledge of basic credit and banking rules. Most of us take financial literacy for granted, but OCU tries to give financially under-educated members an extra advantage through one-on-one counseling, workshops and case management.” By offering not just access to financing but also financial education, OCU provides steps to help those who may have traditionally been denied bank accounts or loans with a host of knowledge, tools, and determination.
During this pandemic, it would be easy for financial institutions to become more conservative in their lending practices. In this environment, $52 million Opportunities CU has helped 41 immigrants/refugees, 44 members of minority groups and 92 low-income Vermonters get affordable mortgages. Many of these borrowers (36) were buying their first home. The CU also helped disabled and African-American Vermonters get consumer loans for vehicles and COVID-19-related emergencies. A total of 57 community-changing small business loans have been closed. Of these, 26 were to immigrants/refugees and women-owned businesses. The small-business loans retained over 451 jobs.
Furthermore, along with Mayor Miro Weinberger, Opportunities CU joined in with 30-plus Chittenden County organizations in declaring racism a public health emergency. You will find “Immigrants are welcome” signs on the credit union’s doors and a long list of translated language options.
The leadership and board at Opportunities CU reflect its mission not just in policy, service and product innovation, but also in the people themselves. Thirty percent of the board are African-Americans, 20% are women, 10% Asian Americans, and 10% immigrants/refugees. And, 17% of the staff at Opportunities CU are immigrants.
According to Board Chair Charlie Baker, “The inclusion of black and brown community members on the OCU board provides us with the best possible opportunity to truly listen to our members and our community and provide services that best support efforts to address racial equity and poverty in Vermont.”
Kate Laud is president/CEO of $51 million Opportunities Credit Union, a community development financial institution and low-income designated credit union headquartered in Winooski, Vermont.