At a bank where Suzette Cowell worked, loan applications from two Toledo, Ohio, zip codes were automatically rejected. Now Cowell runs a credit union located in one of those zip codes.
As CEO/Treasurer of Toledo (Ohio) Urban Federal Credit Union, Cowell ensures that no such rejection occurs at the $12.3 million asset credit union.
“It didn’t matter where people worked or whatever, they would open the file enough to look at the zip code and put ‘denied’ on it,” she says, recalling her time at the bank. “One day it was too much for me to handle. I didn’t even know who the person was, but I was turned down and I started crying.
Soon after, Cowell attended a Bible study at the Friendship Baptist Church, where Pastor Bishop Duane C. Tisdale asked him to consider establishing a financial institution for the church. The next day, she checked out the local library’s only book on credit unions.
“I read it and got this fire,” Cowell says.
In August of the same year, a shooting in his neighborhood left three people dead, prompting calls for peace and unity. An idea to achieve both: form a credit union.
“MP Marcy Kaptur asked me if I would work on it for the community because the community really needed it,” she says. “It was birth.”
Four years later, Toledo Urban Federal opened on July 21, 1996. The credit union opened accounts at a church service and had about 800 members in its first month. In September 1996, it had 2,800 members.
“We literally had people standing around the block trying to get in the door,” Cowell says, adding that credit union employees and members pray at the start of every workday. “We had two staff members. We didn’t have lunch hours and really didn’t understand how the demand would play out. People just started coming.
Previously, many community members attended to their finances at convenience stores. Cowell says the credit union had to break the generational cycle of people going to these stores when they needed a loan or to cash a check.
At first, approximately 95% of Toledo Urban Federal’s membership was African American. But after credit union employees went on TV to talk about payday loans, members quickly branched out.
The credit union always prioritizes diversity and will be celebrating Juneteenth on social media and within the community. The federal holiday on June 19 commemorates the end of slavery. The holidays, she says, “are long overdue.”
Toledo Urban Federal also emphasizes financial education, as many early members lacked tools such as credit and insurance.
Credit union financial counseling usually takes place one-on-one rather than in a classroom setting. This allows staff to work directly with members to understand their financial limitations and aspirations.
“I like how there’s a personal relationship with the members, and they feel comfortable enough to talk to you about anything that’s going on,” says Cowell. “We even have members who file for bankruptcy and come back to pay us. Now and then, you really have to know where you belong.”