In the Beginning
Organizing the credit union involved an intensive nine-month effort starting in the summer of 1981. Organizers reached out to neighbors and community groups, gathering pledges of support for the proposed credit union. Using a contribution of only $30 from a local activist group to pay for organizing expenses, the organizers were able to obtain $100,000 in pledges from neighborhood residents.
Cooperative Federal was recognized and insured by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) on February 18, 1982. The credit union opened to its members and issued its first shares on April 3, 1982, and initiated lending on October 1, 1982.
The Syracuse Real Food Co-operative (SRFC) provided support for the fledgling credit union: a shared part-time staff person and a 5’ by 6’ space under solar panels on the back porch. Lending policy was developed based on input gathered at a series of membership meetings during the initial months of operation. The organizing committee became the inaugural board of directors.
Cooperative Federal’s founders, mostly “baby boom” generation activists, learned organizing skills through participation in the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the student and anti-war movements, and other social justice movements of the sixties, seventies and eighties. The credit union was envisioned as a vehicle for meeting community financial needs in urban residential neighborhoods, and for deploying collective savings positively and responsibly.
Our founders were specifically concerned with divesting from businesses that supported the Apartheid system of racial oppression in South Africa; providing fair and friendly financial services designed by and for people of modest means; and serving those that conventional banks fail to serve:
- women, who at the time were entering the workforce in record numbers,
- people facing the effects of present or past discrimination (particularly African Americans, native American Indians, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender [LGBT]community),
- very small businesses,
- unconventional businesses and organizations such as cooperatives, community groups and nonprofits,
- families with little wealth and low income, and
- part-time workers including many women, artists, musicians, youth, and those coping with underemployment.
In addition, the founders demanded that the credit union be sound, fiscally responsible and accountable. Such a credit union, they hoped, would help build a foundation for a community-based economy and gain a measure of independence from a distant and unresponsive global economy.
Growth in Members and Services
The new credit union was warmly received and broadly supported by the community. Fueled by volunteers, the credit union grew steadily. Volunteers served, as they do today, as directors, loan committee members, and internal auditors. Members worked on a full spectrum of organizational needs, from education & outreach, policy development and planning to cleaning, painting and carpentry. In the first few years, volunteers also served as tellers.
By 1985 the credit union hired a half-time staff person, computerized its operations and added share draft (checking) accounts to its services. A 140 square foot storeroom in the back of the food co-op was converted into a new office for the credit union. The treasurer and part-time loan officer worked out of the dining room of his nearby home.
The credit union quickly outgrew the one room office, and took over the first floor of the treasurer’s home. Booming mortgage business during the “refinance frenzy” of 1992-1994 provided capital for Cooperative Federal’s next big step.
Moving to Westcott Street
In February of 1994, Cooperative Federal advanced its mission and moved into a small building (930 square feet) in the heart of an underserved low-income, multicultural urban neighborhood. As the only financial institution in the Westcott/Near Eastside neighborhood, Cooperative Federal rallied to provide a wider range of services including extended hours, cash disbursement, expanded business-purpose lending, transaction services to nonmembers, increased loan and mortgage products, IRAs, electronic transaction accounts, and debit cards.
The response of the neighborhood was overwhelmingly positive. Cooperative Federal grew rapidly in members, assets, and loans. This growth enabled Cooperative Federal to evolve its mission, embrace larger challenges, and assume an increasingly active role in community development activities. Cooperative Federal became recognized as a Low Income Credit Union by the NCUA (1996), joined the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions (NFCDCU), and soon became certified as Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) by the U.S. Department of the Treasury (2000).
As the credit union grew, we directed our activities to increase economic opportunity for low- and moderate-income households, especially by fostering first-time homeownership, financing micro-enterprise development, partnering with housing nonprofits to increase the availability of affordable housing, and introducing other community development services. We soon expanded our business services and started to administer revolving loan funds and IDA programs.
In the late nineties, Cooperative Federal developed hands-on financial counseling programs to help members with household finances, budgeting and planning, account management, credit remediation, homeownership, post-homeownership advising, microenterprise development and expansion, and more. Our financial education, homebuyer readiness, and microenterprise TA programming was enhanced by strategic partnerships with community nonprofits and the City of Syracuse Departments of Community Development and Economic Development.
Cooperative Federal soon took on the challenge of leading local revitalization efforts. The credit union has played a substantial role in the stabilization and revival of the Westcott neighborhood and the Westcott shopping district, and has sustained several key neighborhood nonprofits and businesses. By 2005, Cooperative Federal invested over $56 million in the Westcott/Near Eastside community.
Serving the Southwest
In response to requests from grassroots neighborhood groups, the credit union again expanded its mission and adopted the challenge to provide service in Syracuse’s Southwest neighborhood, a very low-income neighborhood in a distressed area of the city. Cooperative Federal added the neighborhood to our field of membership, conducted intensive local outreach, developed new products and services such as a money order program, and upgraded our technological systems to accommodate a second office. New account access channels were added, included an automated telephone system, an ATM, and online banking. After three years of intensive planning, resource development, and capacity, building, the credit union opened a small, full-service branch in the Southwest Community Center in September 2002.
As of the end of 2005, 539 new members have joined the credit union at the Southwest office. These low-income members contributed shares of $48,129, and took out loans totaling $716,256 (12/31/05). By mobilizing a membership base in that neighborhood, Cooperative Federal has the opportunity to exert a similar community development impact in the Southwest as we did on the Eastside in the nineties. As our presence grows and our members become first time homeowners and business owners, we are beginning to see markers of success.
Cooperative Federal: At work in the Community
Today, the credit union has grown to serve thousands of members throughout Syracuse. From our 30 square-foot space under the food co-op solar panels, we are now bursting at the seams in our two offices, providing a combined space of approximately 1630 square feet in two urban neighborhoods. We continue to strive toward our ultimate goals: serving the financial needs of communities and neighbors who are not served by the mainstream economy, rebuilding our community, and improving the lives of members while developing an independent local economy in opposition to the structures of injustice.
This credit union was built from the ground up with a potent combination of member-power, vision drawn from both hope and struggle, and conviction in the face of oppression and distress. We are sustained by the talents, skills, intelligence, sound judgment and heart of members across all parts of our community. With continued stewardship of active members and a policy of strategic expansion, the credit union will serve our community for generations to come.