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MADISON, Wis. – Opposition among some in the Latino community was partially responsible for a failure last year of an attempt to start a Latino credit union in the Madison, Wisconsin area, according to CUNA Credit Union. The $238 million institution, based in Madison, had been the effort’s chief sponsor though Linda Ewing, the credit union’s vice-president of marketing and sales said that the CUNA Mutual Insurance company had pledged a good deal of support as well. “We started a board in order to raise money for the effort and draw the support we needed, but the support never materialized, Ewing said. CUNA Credit Union CEO Kim Sponem is on record as noting that the competition had just been too fierce for the limited pool of money available for similar community development efforts. The attempt needed to draw about $1 million dollars, Ewing said. Ewing said the limited opposition the credit union had received to starting a Latino based institution had come from some within the Latino community itself, including some credit union members, who argued that it would be better to encourage existing financial institutions that serve everyone to provide better outreach to the Latino community than to start a credit union just for Latinos. “We ran into questions like `why are you trying to segregate us’,” Ewing said, adding that a Latino woman had gone so far as to address the credit union’s annual meeting in opposition to the Latino credit union model. She reported that other Latino members, after the effort had failed, thanked the credit union’s leadership for not starting a Latino credit union. Dane County, home to Madison, has about 15,000 Latinos, according to the most recent census data, the majority of who work in the service industry in some capacity. Romilia Schlueter, Director of the Centro Guadalupe, an outreach and service program for Latinos run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison, said that comments like the ones CUNA had received were likely made, in her opinion, by people who did not sufficiently understand the depth of the community’s need for financial services. Schlueter, who had supported the failed effort, said it was never a question of wanting to “segregate” anybody but that wanting to “level the playing field” when it came to access to financial services for Latinos in the area. “When you look at the proliferation of check cashers and other high-cost, low-service financial outlets you realize that something has to be done to introduce this population to financial services,” she said. But John Herrera, co-founder of the $13 million Latino Community Credit Union, based in Durham, North Carolina, noted that starting a Latino credit union means a lot more than just translating credit union materials into Spanish or adopting an attitude of “if you build it, they will come.” “It’s a delicate mix of cultural intelligence and sensitivity, combined with leadership and vision,” he said. “Ultimately it takes a kind of cultural intelligence, an ability to see where the people who are going to be your members are coming from and to understand their concerns and hopes so that you can help fill them. It’s all about trust.” He noted that Latino CCU is regularly questioned now by banks in the area that don’t understand how and why the credit union can be adding 350 members a month while, from the bank’s perspective, there is not nearly enough traffic from Latinos to support that growth. “The key is that our members trust us,” Herrera said. “They trust us enough to deposit their money with us.” Herrera also pointed out that while many Latinos lack a history with any sort of financial institution, others, particularly from rural areas, are familiar with the cooperative and credit union concept since, in those areas, those are the types of institutions people use in order to finance their farm operations and crops. “Business cycles can come and go and banks can and do fail,” he said. “But many of these local cooperatives do not fail because people will not pull their money out of their credit union, even in hard times.” Organizers of Latino credit unions, like the one that recently opened in Oregon, need to tap into that attitude and experience if they want their effort to be successful, he suggested. -

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