Cooperative Federal is more than an ordinary credit union. Founded by local organizers and activists in 1982, we are a mission-driven, community-owned nonprofit focused on social and economic justice.
When you bank with Cooperative Federal, you’re making a choice to join our movement. Above and beyond community revitalization or economic growth, we are building a future that works for all of us: one that stands in opposition to the structures of racism, oppression, exploitation and injustice.
Cooperative Federal’s mission is to foster social equity and economic justice in Syracuse, NY by connecting all people with capital and banking services - especially in communities that have been unjustly excluded from wealth.
We envision a solidarity economy: a world where all people are valued, have opportunity, and can be part of a sustainable future.
Cooperative Federal is owned and operated by its members. There are no other owners. Unlike banks, we’re run democratically by an all-volunteer Board of Directors, not wealthy shareholders.
All of our members’ savings are invested locally through loans to people, small businesses, and nonprofits in our membership. Unlike commercial banks, we don’t invest in Wall Street and we don’t finance large corporations. Socially responsible finance is the heart and soul of our credit union.
Deposits are federally insured by the National Credit Union Administration and backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government. Read more about NCUA Insurance.
Cooperative Federal’s story began in 1981 with little more than “a dollar and a dream.” A team of community organizers, dissatisfied with the mainstream financial system, used $30 in donations to fund a grassroots pledge campaign. Applying organizing skills learned from participation in the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the student and anti-war movements, and other social justice movements of the 1960s-1980s, they raised $100,000 in deposit pledges and secured a charter from the National Credit Union Administration effective February 18, 1982.
Our founders were specifically concerned with divesting from businesses that supported the Apartheid system of racial oppression in South Africa; providing fair, friendly financial services designed by and for people of modest means; and serving people that conventional banks failed to serve or subjected to discrimination: women; black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC); LGBTQIAP people; households with little wealth and low income; very small businesses; unconventional businesses and organizations such as cooperatives, community groups and nonprofits; 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, unjust, and unaccountable global economy.
When Coop Fed initially opened, in the spring of 1982, we operated a volunteer-powered branch in the back of the Syracuse Cooperative Market. There, members could access savings accounts, personal loans and microbusiness loans. Our fledgling credit union gradually added a staff person, a home-based loan office, checking accounts, mortgages and more. In 1994 we celebrated our first major expansion: moving into a small building we purchased at 723 Westcott Street, in the heart of an underserved, multicultural urban neighborhood. That branch would remain our home base for nearly 30 years.
Embracing Community Development: 1996-2001 In the late 90s, we formally joined the emerging national movement for community finance. Coop Fed earned a Low Income Credit Union designation (NCUA – 1996), became certified as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI Fund / US Treasury Dept – 2001), and introduced programs for financial education, business advising, housing rehabilitation and more. Over those years we played a major role in the stabilization and revival of the Westcott/Near Eastside neighborhood, the redevelopment of the Westcott shopping district, and helped to sustain several key neighborhood nonprofits and businesses.
Our renewed and expanded community development vision soon drove us to expand throughout Syracuse. We answered calls from black-led community organizations to establish a credit union branch in the Southwest Community Center (2002), introduced a HUD Housing Counseling Program (2005), and expanded our financial education and business development programs. We developed bilingual Spanish services (2004) and rapidly grew in popularity within local Hispanic/Latinx communities. We opened our third branch in Syracuse’s Northside neighborhood (2008) and introduced multilingual programs to serve refugees and other New Americans building their futures in Syracuse.
The most challenging chapter of our history unfolded in 2009, when shockwaves from the financial meltdown led to unexpected losses and lost income. The ensuing recession took a great toll on our members and our credit union. While this turmoil triggered a rash of mergers among small credit unions nationwide, we successfully adjusted our business plan, weathered the storm and remained independent.
Unwilling to retreat from our mission, Cooperative Federal spent the next decade reaffirming our deep mission commitment, developing new revenue streams, and building technological infrastructure for more efficient and automated services. During this phase we solidified our coalition-based approach to community finance, cultivating and nurturing dynamic collaborations with a growing cohort of community partners: schools, workforce development centers, entrepreneurship programs, refugee resettlement agencies, neighborhood development and housing agencies, local and regional government, community centers, social service agencies, faith based groups, neighborhood associations, and on. We also introduced a new Southside branch colocated with the Syracuse Housing Authority (2017).
Finally, 2019 brought a monumental milestone: the retirement of our founding CEO, Ron Ehrenreich. Ron’s leadership throughout his 37-year tenure was not only invaluable to Coop Fed, which grew into a high-impact and resilient credit union under his care; he was also a pioneer and a true visionary for the community finance movement, and an unwavering ally in movements for social, economic, and racial justice. Christina Sauve, formerly Coop Fed’s Chief Operating Officer (COO), was appointed as our new CEO upon Ron’s retirement in October 2019.
Today, in the face of an unprecedented pandemic, economic uncertainty, and a national reckoning on racial justice, our community needs democratic finance more than ever. We are dedicated to rising to these challenges. By expanding our online services, cultivating BIPOC leadership on our staff and board, and relocating our Eastside branch to an expanded facility, we will continue to evolve in ways that affirm and help uplift Syracuse communities.
Sarai joined our credit union after taking a personal finance class in high school. “I wanted to apply the skills I learned about calculating and saving money,” she said. “And Cooperative Federal feels like home; whether I’m visiting one of their locations or speaking on the phone with a teller, the personal interest they show me is something I can’t get at a big corporation.”
Linda’s favorite part about banking with our credit union is “the family vibe,” she says. “There’s always someone here who will say, ‘oh yeah we’ll work with you on that, don’t worry about it.’ Coop Fed in the community is one of those necessities of life. What they give and what they are to new people in the community is beautiful.”
For Jesse and Carolina, getting a good auto loan is just as important as getting a good car. “This was my first time getting a formal car loan and I found the process simple and stress-free,” Jesse recalls, “plus we got a really good rate which was a definite perk.”
Buying a home can be complicated – and overwhelming. But with Coop Fed, Kayi found support to help her push through fear and believe in herself. She recalls with a smile the many times she told our homeownership specialists, “I’m scared.” But they wouldn’t let her give up. “They kept telling me, ‘You can do it,’ “she recalls.
When Shakiba decided she wanted to be a homeowner, she came to Coop Fed. “I already knew I could trust the credit union because of the positive experience I had when they helped me purchase my first car,” she said. Especially as a New American accustomed to a different banking system, “I had no idea what to do when I started… The homebuyer program really helped me and made a difference in my experience of this process.”
Jery started his own business to not only to build a future for his family, but to help revitalize Syracuse neighborhoods. “We need to invest in our communities and leave a legacy for our children,” he said. “Coop Fed has been thoroughly imperative to the process of helping my business grow.”
For Chelsea, buying her first home wasn’t only about financial health – it was about personal growth and independence. “I was decorating and kind of looked around and was like I’m home,” she said. “No more paying rent to someone else. This is mine. I got this for myself.”
Carlotta, a local landlord, refinanced high-cost debt into a new mortgage with cash out for home repairs. She says that improving her property not only helped her and her tenants; it “made it better for the whole neighborhood.”
Becky owns Lead Safe LLC, a local business focused on lead paint testing and remediation. COVID-19 recovery funding “made it possible for Lead Safe to continue training lead abatement specialists” during the pandemic, “keeping our business in operation” and helping them continue to “make lead-safe spaces for families and children in Syracuse.”
When her old employer moved out of town, Tiffany launched her own sheet metal fabrication shop. Her vision was to not only preserve jobs and services in CNY, but to be welcoming and inclusive. Today, Punch & Die Metal Fabrication is a “friendly place where young people, college students, DIY-ers, weekend worriers, and the general public can come and have their project parts made,” Tiffany said.
Tanisha got ready for homeownership with financial counseling, down payment grants, and a mortgage from Coop Fed. “Every single staff member who assisted me during this process treated me with respect and answered any question I had,” she recalls. “Instead of looking at me and seeing a single black woman with two small kids, Coop Fed’s mortgage department saw my desire for homeownership as a strength.”
Tahirah comes from a family of Coop Fed members and open her first account as a child. “As I grew older, in addition to learning the value of saving, I began to understand the importance of investing in our local community,” she said. “While other banks charge huge fees and talk about the multi-million dollar business they helped, our credit union focuses on helping those within our region.”