Thank you, Paul, for that kind introduction, and thank you, everyone, for inviting me to join you for this wonderful event.
And congratulations to Mike L'Ecuyer for the well-deserved recognition he’s receiving today.
As I came in today, I felt a chill in the air, and last night it felt like fall.
Fall in New England is truly a masterpiece. It reminds of the poet Stanley Horowitz’s observation: “Winter is an etching, spring is a watercolor, summer is an oil painting, and autumn is a mosaic of them all.”
I also want to congratulate everyone involved in the wonderful renovation of America’s Credit Union Museum.
I am sure you are justifiably delighted in what you have accomplished here.
This is an important resource for credit unions, and I hope they will take the opportunity to contribute to the museum’s archives and tell their stories.
It’s also an important educational tool.
Touring the exhibits is a deeply moving experience.
What caught me most of all was the faces you see.
I encourage everyone to look at them, spend time with them.
I study these faces and I see so much of the fundamental values of our system, of our nation.
I see strength. I see intelligence. I see compassion. I see hope. I see the capacity for work. I see determination.
I see a sense of responsibility, a recognition of community and of how our lives are bound together, and how, working in concert, we can build something greater than ourselves that allows us all to prosper.
This past June, we celebrated the 85th anniversary of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s signing of the Federal Credit Union Act.
This law created the framework needed for teachers, police offices, skilled tradespeople, and millions of others to pool their resources and organize credit unions. Loans could be provided to members based on the consideration of their character, as well as the ability to repay.
This further democratization of banking and credit contributed to America’s economic rebirth following the Great Depression.
In the decades that followed, America’s credit union system has been an outstanding success story.
Thanks to the foresight of those who established that system, today millions of Americans, 118 million members and growing at last count, know they can confidently entrust their savings and their financial well-being to their credit unions.
Our mosaic becomes larger and more vibrant each time a new member joins a credit union and adds his or her tile to the design.
Like so many great things in America, this started off just as an idea. And if we follow that long historical chain of America’s credit unions, it would take us to right here, and, in fact, to this building.
About twenty-five years before the Federal Credit Union Act was signed into law, St. Mary’s Cooperative Credit Association—now St. Mary’s Bank—was chartered to provide a safe place for textile millworkers, most of them immigrants, to save money and find affordable credit.
Like the credit union system itself, St. Mary’s has grown.
The credit union now has more than 100,000 members and assets of more than $1 billion.
If you follow the credit union movement’s history, you’ll be reading a story of expanding opportunity based on the principle of people helping people.
A century ago, many Americans had trouble getting access to capital. If you were from a working or even middle class background; if you had a small business you hoped to see grow; or if you had a family farm where you needed to get your crops or livestock to market, access to credit was tough to come by.
Moreover, even if you could get that capital, it often came with high interest rates or the loan was structured in ways that made repayment difficult, if not impossible.
Then, when the stock market crashed in 1929, what credit might have been available suddenly dried up. Thousands of businesses of all sizes closed, millions of people were out of work, and the nation sank into a devastating economic depression.
Difficult times demanded creative thinking, and that was the backdrop that Congress drafted the Federal Credit Union Act.
But the most important story to tell here is not about legislation, or credit, or even financial institutions. Instead, it is a story about people helping people, in their own communities.
It is important to note that credit unions arose and grew not out of government fiat. Instead, they grew from a grassroots movement of people who were forgotten and were being left behind. And this movement grew from people who wanted to solve problems like:
- How can we find a new way to extend access to credit to Americans in the hardest to reach places?
- How can we extend a helping hand to people in rural areas, or in underserved communities?
- How can we help people with small means and in communities that are being overlooked or passed by?
“A national system of cooperative credit,” a network of locally based, non-profit, member-owned financial institutions that provide affordable, quality credit and saving services to those in need, would be one key solution to that problem. At every step, the growth of the credit union system was about the promise of people helping people. It was the promise of people working together to use their assets to invest in their communities.
It was not a completely new idea. Credit unions did exist prior to the federal law; they were chartered by states. But the Federal Credit Union Act laid the groundwork for the modern, comprehensive system we have today.
The system this movement created offers affordable products and services; it offers the kind of personal service to its member-owners that is relationship based—something not always common today in other business models; and it offers programs like the CU Senior Safeguard program (opens new window) that trains credit union staff to recognize signs that an elder member may be financially exploited.
I can tell you I am honored to work with over 1,100 dedicated professionals who work for the NCUA and strive for the highest levels of professionalism and public service. They know that behind every member number is a name, a face, and a dream. They know that members are much more than an algorithm or entry on a spreadsheet. They’re people with dreams for the future, who you can help to take that next step up the ladder with confidence. Our challenge now is to work on reaching more of those people.
America’s credit unions are especially well-placed to overcome these challenges.
This regulatory framework established 85 years ago increased trust, confidence, and accountability in the credit union system. That was what allowed these vital local institutions to expand, to prosper, and to give back to the communities they serve.
We do not take credit union members’ trust, their confidence, for granted. Their trust needs to be reinforced by a continual commitment to service, transparency, and accountability.
In that same spirit, all of you here today contribute your talents, your energy, and your leadership to the success of America’s system of cooperative credit, and I offer my deepest appreciation for your work.
Together, we face challenges and opportunities ahead.
For our part, as regulators, we want to build a framework that encourages you to innovate and provides you with the flexibility to find new ways to serve your members and to grow and thrive safely and soundly as financial institutions.
I am absolutely convinced that if we remain faithful to the tenants of the credit union movement, to the vision of the people you see in the images throughout this museum, we can meet those challenges and seize those opportunities.
If we do this, we’ll continue to expand our mosaic. The best is yet to come.
One of our tasks is the same one we inherited from our ancestors: expanding opportunity by making affordable financial services and credit available to more people.
I believe it’s the defining civil rights issue of our time.
In one respect, that means reaching the unserved, people who do not have a checking or a savings account, or the underserved, people who still rely on payday lenders or pawnshop loans or rent-to-own centers. We need to let them get their foothold on the economic ladder, regardless of which rung they start on.
As America has shown, time and time again, once one starts to climb this ladder, there is no telling how far one can climb.
We know that our diversity is not a weakness, but a strength.
Like the different tiles of the great mosaics, like the changing leaves of New England, these differences make our national economic picture brighter, more beautiful, and more vibrant.
I look forward to being your partner in this endeavor.