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NCUA Chairman Todd M. Harper Opening Remarks at the NCUA’s 2021 DEI Summit

November 2021
NCUA Chairman Todd M. Harper Opening Remarks at the NCUA’s 2021 DEI Summit
Chairman Todd M. Harper

NCUA Chairman Todd M. Harper at the NCUA's headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

As Prepared for Delivery on November 2, 2021

Thank you, Miguel. I want to extend my deepest appreciation to you and the entire OMWI Team, who have been diligently working for the past year to bring this event to life.

And hello, everyone! Thank you for joining us online today at the NCUA’s second DEI Summit. Through this summit, we want to change how people see diversity, equity, and inclusion; understand how to implement programs and initiatives to support DEI; and learn how the credit union industry can advance these critical principles each day.

Our theme for this summit is “DEI – From Intention to Action”. At their core, diversity, equity, and inclusion are far more than just policies and principles. They are foundational practices and behaviors that must be acted upon. After all, intentions are meaningless without concrete actions and behaviors to support these values.

Throughout our time together this week, we will focus on how to move from intention to action, by discussing how the industry can advance diversity, equity and inclusion not by talking about them, but by doing them – internally within your organizations, externally with your members, and even more broadly, within the full scope of the credit union system.

Moving from Intention to Action at Indiana University

Before we start with the panel, I want share three stories with you. As many of you know, I grew up as a Hoosier, where I attended grade school, junior high, high school, and college. Today, I want to tell the stories of three of my fellow Indiana University Hoosiers: the legendary George Taliaferro, my friend, Robert Johnson, and my mentee, Lindsey Batteast. From start to finish, 75 years separated these three alumni, who attended IU in the 1940s, 1980s, and 2010s, respectively. Yet, through each of their own academic journeys, intentions, and actions, they advanced DEI at the university.

Let me start with George Taliaferro. George was an extraordinary man. We grew up in neighboring hometowns – I in Hammond and he in Gary – in the industrial heart of Northwest Indiana. George was the first all-star, Black football player at IU. In all, he played seven positions on the offense and defense, and he led the team to its only undefeated season in 1945. George also became the first Black player ever drafted by the NFL when the Chicago Bears selected him in the thirteenth round of the 1949 draft.

In all, George played six seasons in professional football and was a three-time Pro Bowler before hanging up his cleats and beginning a career in higher education, where he served as the dean of students for Morgan State and later returned to IU as a professor and special assistant to the university’s president.

While George Taliaferro is most known for his athletic achievements, his most significant contributions, in my view, came off the field. That’s because George was instrumental in helping to integrate Indiana University and Bloomington businesses. One day, as a student, he took a chance and walked into the office of the IU President Herman B Wells. He explained to Dr. Wells that there was no place on campus for a Black man to eat, even though he had a dollar and a quarter in his pocket to pay for his lunch. George also explained that he had to walk several miles to and from campus in order to eat each day. Dr. Wells listened and then said, well, let’s see what we can do about it. What Dr. Wells did was to call up the owner of The Gables Restaurant, a popular gathering spot for students across the street from the campus.

At the time, The Gables proudly displayed a very large picture of the 1945 championship IU football team, which included Taliaferro, but George could only see it through the outside window. After Dr. Wells suggested that he would prohibit all students from dining at The Gables if African-Americans weren’t permitted to eat there, the owner agreed to allow George and a friend of his choosing to eat at the restaurant for one week on a trial basis. George went every day, and the restaurant received no complaints.

Not only did The Gables soon drop its segregationist practices, but soon other businesses around town did the same. And one evening, while at the local movie theater, George removed the “Colored” sign that had directed African Americans to the balcony. In doing so, in his own quiet way, George tore down another barrier and opened the door to a better, more inclusive community.

About 40 years later, I began my time as a student at IU, and our DEI cause wasn’t desegregation. Instead, it was divestment of the university’s money in companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. During my freshman year, I met my friend, Robert Johnson, a leader within the Black Greek fraternity system. Later, I would run on the same ticket for student government as Robert.

Robert was elected student body vice president, and I became a senator representing one of the dormitories on campus. As a student leader, Robert vocally stood up to the administration and pushed for divestment in South Africa. He called for the university to reevaluate its policies, which at the time invested more than $5 million in companies operating in that racist regime. Like Robert, I did not understand how a university that claimed to respect and welcome all people could support businesses gaining profit in a nation that deemed the color of a person’s skin to be against the law.

That’s why when leading demonstrations, Robert would chant, “Apartheid kills; IU pays the bills.” I supported Robert and his efforts to change an unjust system, voting for resolutions and other actions in favor of divestment. Robert also led student efforts to create a merit program for minority achievers and established a program to help first-generation people of color find mentors. I am proud to have supported Robert in all of these efforts to make Indiana University a more welcoming place for all.

Fast forward about 30 years, and we come to Lindsey Batteast. I met Lindsey, by chance, when I spoke before her career planning class as a guest lecturer. After that presentation, Lindsey and I struck up a conversation, during which I learned that Lindsey had benefited from a program called Women Rising, an initiative to give women the skills needed to negotiate better salaries and assignments early in their careers.

As the head of a grant committee for the IU Well House Society, I had helped to fund some of the staff costs for the Women Rising, and Lindsey was selected as a student ambassador. With that common bond, it didn’t take much more for me to become her mentor. During her time at IU, Lindsey saw that people of color, like herself, were underrepresented in student government. Instead of accepting the situation, she took action to create change by building public awareness of the problem and creating a broad coalition of like-minded students. Ultimately, Lindsey’s efforts led to the adoption of an amendment to the student government constitution to increase the size of the student senate by roughly one-third and dedicating each of those new seats to underrepresented populations. The amendment unanimously passed the student senate and was fittingly ratified by a vote of the students on Martin Luther King Day.

Today, I’m proud to say that Lindsey has just begun her graduate studies at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. And soon, we will share not just one common alma mater, but two.

Getting Outside Your Swim Lanes

So, other than Indiana University, what unites George’s story of advancing diversity, Robert’s work toward equity, and Lindsey’s efforts to achieve inclusion?

It is that each of them — in their own way and in their own time —got outside of their swim lanes. The changes led by George, Robert, and Lindsey did not occur by happenstance. It took concerted effort and a personal commitment. Each of them saw a problem, identified a solution, and acted to achieve change.

If all of us gathered here online during this summit are to be successful, we need more people to get out of their swim lanes and take up the charge of advancing DEI within the credit union system. We have made progress these last few years, but we have more work to do. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are not just principles to be exclaimed during staff meetings or posted on a website. They go beyond just what is done internally. They are the very actions and initiatives an organization takes and commits to publicly.

That’s why I have made advancing economic equity and justice a priority for the NCUA. And, it is why the NCUA funded underserved grants this year as part of the Community Development Revolving Loan Fund. It’s also why the agency is looking at the causes of appraisal bias. And, it’s why in leading the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council, I have asked staff to look into the exam standards and peer groups used for measuring the performance of minority depository institutions.

It’s also why I have urged credit unions to decrease their reliance on overdraft fees, which studies have shown are a tool of financial exclusion rather than inclusion.

Embracing DEI in the Credit Union System

The credit union industry can advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging by embracing these concepts internally within your organizations, externally with your members, and even more broadly within the credit union movement. Over the last several years, we have seen efforts within the credit union system to embrace and solidify the principles of DEI as a pillar of the credit union movement. These are worthy efforts, and I encourage these efforts to continue.

Embracing diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and economic equity and justice are vital to creating greater opportunities for all Americans, a more vibrant credit union system, and a more inclusive and sustainable recovery from the pandemic. By enhancing support for minority depository institutions, enforcing fair lending laws, advancing initiatives to close the wealth gap, and increasing the levels of diversity and inclusion when it comes to credit union leaders and board members, we can ensure that the cooperative nature of the credit union system lives up to its mission of meeting the credit and savings needs of consumers, including — and especially — those of modest means and in communities of color.

Your participation in this week’s summit is an important step forward in achieving each of these goals.

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