Strategies for Better Expressing Your Credit Union’s DEI Gene

dna spiral
Dawn Abely, CUDE Photo
SVP/Chief Sales & Member Relations Officer

6 minutes

We all need to be all in, all the time.

I’ve been thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion—and believing in it passionately—since before DEI came to the forefront of conversations in business. One of the reasons I love working in the credit union space is that serving members’ needs—all members’ needs—has long been part of credit unions’ DNA. But as I process the passing of CUES CEO John Pembroke in November, it seems like a good time to talk about something he believed in deeply—that success with DEI means making a long-term commitment.

So how can credit unions express their DEI gene even more fully all of the time? I have some ideas for you.

Why Me?

Let me start by saying that I always hesitate to speak out about DEI because I’m white, and with that comes clear privilege. At the same time, I’ve been a woman in senior leadership for many years. When I first took a senior leadership role, there were even fewer women at the table than there are now. I believe it’s important for me to use the privilege I have to keep the conversation about DEI going and to honor John’s legacy.


I’m glad to be working for an organization that is firmly committed to investing in DEI both internally and in our industry.

Our two-year-old internal DEI team, which John initiated and sponsored, has opened conversations about key topics, and all our staff members regularly have opportunities to learn about special affinity groups. In 2023, all staff members will be completing the StrengthsFinder assessment, now CliftonStrengths. The aim is two-fold. We plan to use the survey results to help individual contributors, teams and the whole organization better appreciate each “CUESer”—delivering on the CUES core value to “value individuality”—work better together and better serve our members.

In addition, CUES has continued its leadership in bringing diverse speakers and content providers to our events and content. In 2021, we established our annual DEI: Catalyst for Change Award to recognize and celebrate the diversity, equity and inclusion efforts of credit unions. (Hats off to our two winners so far, Great Lakes Credit Union and GreenState Credit Union.)

We’ve also created our DEI Resource Center, where we curate DEI articles and tools, plus detail our own organizational progress, and published our Black Professional Network and Women’s Business Directory. Our free RealTalk! conversation series is also a DEI initiative!

CUs on DEI

As I mentioned already, I think that DEI is part of CUs’ DNA. But I also think, as John did, that we could deliver even more fully on the promise of credit unions. We can create ever-better workplaces of belonging and show continuous improvement at making high-quality financial services available to people of “modest means,” as put forth by the Credit Union Act of 1934, and serving the underserved. Making an intentional and transparent commitment to furthering DEI is a real asset in this.

The National Credit Union Administration recently reported statistics on its voluntary DEI self-assessment for credit unions. I see both progress and challenges in the numbers.

“Among the highlights for 2021, 61% of responding credit unions reported a leadership and organizational commitment to diversity, 56% reported taking steps to implement employment practices to demonstrate that commitment, and 31% reported monitoring and assessing their diversity policies and practices. Also, for 2021, CUDSA submissions increased by 28.3%. As in previous years’ assessments, supplier diversity and transparency of diversity and inclusion practices remained areas for improvement.”

More than a 28% increase in the number of credit unions that took the time to do the survey is certainly good news. So is the finding that more than half of U.S. credit unions have a high-level commitment to diversity and are taking steps to implement practices that reflect their commitment—and that a third are monitoring and assessing their DEI practices.

Still, I can’t help asking myself, what about the other half? What about the other two-thirds?

Steps You Can Take Today

Launching a credit union on DEI journey might not be so hard as it seems. In the podcast about his credit union’s DEI: Catalyst for Change Award win in 2021, CUES member Steve Bugg says you might just need to reframe, rearticulate or amplify things your credit union is already doing to serve all of its members. After all, DEI is in credit unions’ DNA!

Staying on a DEI journey you’ve already started can be supported by the many resources now available. Here are some thoughts that I hope will help you better express your organization’s DEI gene on an ongoing basis.

  1. Look for the teachers and show your appreciation to them. I have been blessed to have had people in my life who took the time to explain important DEI concepts in ways that make sense to me. I am grateful for the time and energy each of them spent with me—and to my current and future teachers who will help me continue to learn.
  2. Do your homework. While I deeply appreciate my DEI teachers, it is not their job to bring me along. I need to keep doing my own homework to help me more effectively advance diversity in areas where I have standing and privilege. There are lots of resources! Books, courses (like our popular Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Certificate Program, which starts again in March), workshops, speakers … take your pick! And keep going ... and going ... and going. Putting this together with the first point, I subscribe to the idea that when the student is ready, the right teacher will appear.
  3. Be a leader who’s learning. I used to say that I didn’t see color, not realizing how insulting that was to my colleagues of color. Of course, I see color! I'm telling you this story to illustrate the point that leaders may have to fumble along to learn what they need to know about DEI. When you make a mistake—and you will—apologize, learn and do better.
  4. Be ready to have difficult conversations. When George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, I brought my team together to check on how everyone was doing and to talk it over. That was a tough dialog to open, and I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. But it was positive and worth it. My staff members and I supported one another and became a more cohesive team as a result. 

I wish we didn’t have to have these conversations about DEI, that expressing our DEI genes was somehow easier and that so many of these conversations weren’t driven by tragedies. But I wish even more for workplaces—dare I say a world—where people are constantly striving to understand each other better, work with each other better and respect each other more. So I keep going, leading, learning, speaking out and renewing my commitment to DEI. 

What next steps will you take in your DEI leadership?

Dawn Abely, CUDE, is SVP/chief sales and member relations officer at CUES.

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