If you are a credit union professional or a board member, perhaps your time is filled with concerns about cybersecurity, loan loss allowances, regulations, and other vital but mundane matters. We all need an occasional reminder of why we devote our waking lives to this work. Yesterday I got mine, when I watched a new video produced by Self-Help FCU, based in Oakland, CA: “Kern Central Credit Union: A Legacy of Serving Workers in the Fields.”
Self-Help FCU was started by the Center for Community Self-Help, which is also the parent of the state-chartered Self-Help CU based in Durham, NC. Chartered in 2008, it now has assets of about $1.1 billion. Much of its growth came through mergers of small to medium-sized low-income credit unions in California, many of which were pushed over the brink by the recession or by ongoing economic distress in the state’s agricultural regions. One such credit union was Kern Central, established in 1974 to serve oil-refinery and other workers in the Bakersfield area. In 1995, it merged with another credit union, co-founded by the legendary farm labor organizers and civil rights activists, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
Access to financial services was an especially acute problem for farmworkers, many of whom migrated with the crop seasons. They needed loans to fix the vehicles that they depended on to follow the crops, as well as loans for family emergencies like funerals. Emilio Huerta, a former credit union board member, recalled that “farmworkers historically in the Central Valley were very much discriminated against. To this day, many banks and many traditional financial institutions will not even allow farmworkers to open bank accounts.” As Dolores Huerta remembered, “when we found out that you could form a credit union and that the people who were members could actually own the ‘bank’ we thought it was a most incredible idea.”
The impact was profound. As Emilio Huerta put it, “The credit union meant giving farmworkers economic independence. That was the driving force: to establish a financial institution so that they could control their financial destiny.” The credit union was especially dear to Cesar Chavez. After he died in 1993, Dolores Huerta recalled that some people wanted to close the credit union. “I said, ‘oh, we can’t do that.’ Cesar would roll over in his grave. Because this was his baby, this was a thing he was so proud of. So, I said to the board ‘Why don’t we just merge with the Kern Central CU?’”
In Kern Central, they found a compatible partner, one with an equally long history serving working people. Initially founded to serve workers in the oil fields and refineries, it later expanded to serve all of Kern County for decades, until the chronically ravaged economy compounded by the Great Recession led the credit union to merge with Self-Help FCU in 2010. As a branch of Self-Help FCU, it continues its legacy. As staff member Vicki Harris tells it, “Our mission is ‘a key to a better tomorrow.’ We are different because we are here to serve the underserved. We give each and everyone a chance, a car loan or a mortgage loan. We get a lot of homeless and people out on the street. They still have to be treated just like the person I see come in in a suit and a tie or a dress.”
Emilio Huerta explains, “Expanding economic opportunity means social equity, by giving people the ability to establish financial equity. If a low-income family is given the resources to purchase a home and build equity, they now have money to send children to college, to fix the washing machine when it breaks, to buy a car. It gives them employment, independence. It all starts with having access to capital.”
Farm Workers CU and Kern Central CU are now units of a major institution. Dolores Huerta is “so proud, because what started out as a little farmworker credit union is now part of a much larger institution that is not only a credit union, but an organization that’s fighting for the financial rights of everyone.” Following the motto of the United Farm Workers, she said, “It’s a ‘Si se puede credit union.’”
Their story resonates deeply for me. I came to the credit union movement in 1979, when I helped organize and became president of a small, start-up credit union for the employees of farmworker organizations around the country—no doubt, inspired by the UFW’s credit union. Shortly thereafter, it was my privilege to meet Cesar Chavez. If, like me, you could use a little inspiration during this holiday season, go to the video: https://www.self-helpfcu.org/stories-from-self-helps-vault/kern-central-credit-union-a-legacy-of-serving-workers-in-the-fields