Interview: John Holdsclaw of the US National Cooperative Bank

We catch up ahead of his speech at the UKSCS conference about CDFIs, co-op development and Covid-19

John Holdsclaw, executive vice president of strategic initiatives at the US National Cooperative Bank and chair of the CDFI coalition, is keynote speaker at the UK Society for Co-operative Studies Conference (1-3 October). Co-op News caught up with him ahead of the event.

The theme of this year’s UKSCS conference is Co-operative Politics, Policies and Practices. How will your speech approach this?

First and foremost, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to the UKSCS conference attendees. My approach will be to discuss the Bank’s mission work, a recent public policy victory that will impact the suitability and creation of worker co-ops, co-operatives in movements throughout US history, community development credit unions’ response to the economic downturn and how the social and racial disparities positions co-operators around the globe as advocates for change.  

The conference programme points to tensions between the sometimes anarchic, grassroots nature of emerging co-ops and the scale of the big financial and retail co-ops. How does the NCB address such tensions?

Personally, I do not see similar tensions in the USA, but with concern for community being one of the seven co-operative principles, I do see emerging and larger co-ops bearing a similar responsibility towards sustainable development in their communities.  In the USA, emerging co-ops are creating jobs, providing financial assistance and food security while the larger co-ops like REI Coop, Land O’Lakes, and Wakefern Food Corporation/Shoprite are also helping their communities through social responsibility while continuing to provide patronage to their member-owners. In addition, during these unprecedented times, we have worked with our strategic partner Capital Impact Partners, a national community development financial institution (CDFI) to provide co-op innovation grants for emerging food, worker, and housing co-operatives who are reaching new audiences and promoting co-operative development and  expansion. This promotion will disrupt income inequality, steward community ownership, and create strong vibrant places of opportunity in their community.

Earlier this year you were made chair of the CDFI coalition. What plans does the organisation have and what would you like to achieve there?

It has indeed been an honour to become the board chair of the CDFI Coalition.  For those who do not know, CDFIs are private-sector, financial intermediaries with community development as their primary mission. There are more than 1,100 CDFIs in the USA that provide financial services, loans, and investments; offering training and technical assistance services; and promoting development efforts that enable individuals and communities to effectively use credit and capital. For CDFIs, it is “about the mission, not the margin.” CDFIs include community development banks, community development loan funds, community development credit unions, microenterprise funds, community development corporation-based lenders and investors, and community development venture funds. They all supply the tools enabling low-wealth individuals and their families to become self-sufficient stakeholders in their own future. 

How have the NCB and CDFI been affected by the Covid-19 crisis?

Like most financial institutions in the USA and in the spirit of co-operation, we have worked with our customers on payment assistance programmes and hardship requests that provided them with much-needed help. Additionally, we have modified our branch operations. Prior to Covid-19, the Bank had long established a robust business continuity plan that we tested on a regular basis. With our existing information technology and communications infrastructure, the transition was seamless with Bank employees now working remotely. We do miss the in-person meetings with customers and community stakeholders, but we are taking every precaution for the health and safety of our staff and customers.

These are very polarised times – in the UK, the USA and around the world; what new things can co-ops do to help to address this and to respond to movements calling for equality and social justice?

These are polarising times indeed, the USA like many countries around the world is suffering from both health and racial pandemics. These pandemics have been in exacerbated over generations by systematic social and health inequities that have led to the racial wealth gaps and the disparities that are taking their toll on marginalised communities. Co-ops can draw from their rich histories to provide alternatives to those who are suffering right now and most in need. While co-ops cannot alleviate all the problems, they can  close the gaps by providing access to healthy foods, financial assistance through credits unions, affordable housing in limited-equity co-ops, professional employment and job creation, electricity through rural electric co-ops, and access to healthcare.

Can co-op learning events – and international dialogue – like the UKSCS conference help with these efforts?

Opportunities like the UKSCS conference, the International Cooperative Alliance General Assemblies and the USA’s National Cooperative Business Association’s IMPACT Conference provide opportunities for co-operators from all around the world to network and learn from each other; that further solidifies the impact of the more than 3 million co-operatives worldwide and their contributions to the global economy. More importantly, co-operatives need to understand that as people-centred  enterprises owned, controlled, and run by our members that we continue to use our strength in numbers as advocates for change. One member, one vote and shared purpose have never had greater importance than they do today. We all need to accept the responsibility of fighting social and racial injustices that wrongfully impact millions of people every day. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”