Doing Our Job in a Time of Tragedy-Credit Union’s Role after September 11th

In September 2001 Ed Callahan was entering his 14th year as CEO at Patelco Credit Union.  He continued to write a monthly column for the Callahan Report.  In the issue right after the 9/11 attacks he assessed their impact and the role  credit unions were now called to play.

He opens by acknowledging the pervasive feelings of fear and vulnerability.  He follows with the need to stay open to keep the economy functioning and provide assurance and forestall panic.

And finally he urges cooperatives to be “out in front”with expanded efforts for service.  A leader’s thought  about Doing Our Job, meaningful then, 20 years later, and in any future crises.

Here is the full article:

September 11 was a profound shock, and caused a deep wound from which we as a nation can never completely recover. In some respects it was the darkest day in our history. When the two towers fell, so did the illusion that the United States of America was protected by its two oceans.

We never thought something like this could happen, and yet it did. And I am sure on that awful morning everyone thought: “If this can happen, what else — and worse — could follow?”

When you have that sort of question on the minds of millions, panic can be just around the corner. Panic arises from fear of the future, and that kind of fear can likely be far more destructive than what kindled it. Franklin Roosevelt was right in 1933when he said: “Fear is the greatest enemy of all, because it destroys everything it touches.”

Staying Open

This is why it was so important for credit unions — indeed all financial institutions — to remain open on September 11 . . . and the 12th and 13th and subsequent days.

This is not meant to be a macho statement. I firmly believe it.

Firefighters and other emergency workers were on the front lines. That was their job. But financial service workers had their job too. They had to demonstrate that the financial system of the country was still functioning, that people’s money was safe and available. This was not the life-threatening work of the emergency workers, but it was absolutely essential nonetheless. It kept the lid on fear; it quashed panic. Just imagine those days if all financial institutions had shut their doors and turned out their lights.

Service: We have to mean it

When President Bush addressed the nation on the night of September 11, the first thing he said after stating that the country’s government was operational was that its financial system was functioning. These were not idle thoughts on his part — they were carefully included to dispel any notion that people’s money was not safe or accessible.

People at my credit union and undoubtedly thousands more wanted to be with their families on that terrible and unsettling day — who knew what else might be in store for us, or where? I sympathized. I felt a keen need to be with my family also. We allowed anyone to go home who felt strongly they should do so.

But others remained and kept the doors open that day, and the days following. This was important on two levels. One was symbolic, of course — we would show a face of continuity, and we would not take an action that might lead others to succumb to fears about their savings.

The other was functional — we really were there to carry out transactions, provide cash or whatever else people wanted. Credit union employees are service workers, not isolated business units, and they have to provide a service in good times and disturbing times. They often have to provide that service to settle the waters, because if they do not the waters will roil. Thus, we need to be grateful to everyone who worked that day and that week and to express our gratitude in both words and acts.

Cooperatives to the Front

All this said, we can be more helpful. People everywhere have been asking, “What can we do?” Credit unions can step up to the plate. They can be the conduits to relief efforts. They can encourage their employees to contribute to the United Way and other worthy relief organizations that are sending food, medicine, supplies and financial resources to emergency workers and victims’ families. They can research and post for their members those relief agencies most effective in delivering aid to the greatest needs.

People faced with this horrible attack want to help heal and rebuild — it is the essence of cooperation. Let America’s cooperatives show what they are made of. Together we can bind the wounds, relieve the widow, raise the orphan, and reconstruct both our confidence and our damaged buildings. We owe that to our forebearers who built this country and to our children who will inherit it.

One month later in Doing Our Job in a Time of Tragedy-Part II, Ed described Patelco’s  enhanced efforts to serve members.  The plan used Internet delivery and was called eAccess Freedom Trail.   His second column and the project summary  can can be accessed here.

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