Helen Godfrey-Smith sat beside her father at a local bank in Jefferson, Texas, “quietly stewing,” she says, while white bankers dismissively called him “boy.” She was 13 years old, and it was the height of the Civil Rights movement in the United States.
Indignant, she later asked why he tolerated their disrespect.
She remembers his reply vividly: “It doesn’t bother me because I know who I am.” Godfrey-Smith says the wisdom and sense of identity her father demonstrated still inspire her. A hard-working, proud parent of eleven children with minimal formal education, her father had struggled to achieve success as a small business owner.
“I remember thinking, there has to be a better way,” Godfrey-Smith said.
It was a pivotal moment she says defined her career path. As president and CEO of a credit union based in Shreveport, Louisiana, Godfrey-Smith now guides farmers and other small business owners—much like her father—toward financial literacy.
Shreveport Federal Credit Union serves unbanked and underbanked rural communities in the Mississippi Delta, a region embattled by deep and persistent poverty that spans northwest Mississippi and adjacent parts of Arkansas and Louisiana. Her credit union provides an alternative to the payday lenders that prey on low-income communities overlooked by traditional financial institutions.
“There’s movement in the area of economic development in the Mississippi Delta region, and I believe long-term sustainable farming is the answer,” Godfrey-Smith said in an interview April 23.
The economic justice advocate was in Washington, D.C. last week to speak at an event on Capitol Hill addressing the financial obstacles faced by farmers, co-ops and other small business owners in the region.
She’s observed that the majority of these farmers have an entrenched fear of losing their family land. That fear, she says, coupled with meager knowledge of appropriate land management and loan structuring, leaves them deeply skeptical of any lender.
“It’s really a financial literacy desert,” she says.
Many small farmers also lack a basic awareness of marketing. “There’s a mentality that all you have to do is pick your tomatoes and put them in a ‘for sale’ box at a street corner. What they don’t realize is you can’t just put out a box anymore, you have to spray-paint it first!” she says with a laugh, referring to the need to package produce in an appealing way that opens small farmers to markets nationwide and even around the world.
“My goal is to alter that mentality and get them to understand that really, they’re small business owners,” she says. “But people only do business with the people they trust, so I’m in the trust-building business. I kick off my pumps and walk the fields.”
On these farm visits, Godfrey-Smith is building relationships, but she’s also looking for productive farms and up-to-date, well-maintained equipment. “They can’t be afraid to invest, and we can’t be afraid to invest in them,” she says. What she’s not looking for is a perfect credit score. People fall on difficult times, she says, but that doesn’t change their potential to succeed. Shreveport Federal Credit Union makes what Godfrey-Smith calls “character loans.”
“We make loans to people, not paper,” she says.
Godfrey-Smith says this system of mutual trust is turning out success stories in the Mississippi Delta region, helping to raise awareness of the potential for economic development and the cooperative business model. Earlier this month, her credit union was recognized by Alcorn State University with the 2014 Cooperative of the Year Award.
The award honors the Shreveport Federal Credit Union’s “Healthy Food Financing Initiative” to combat food deserts in the Mississippi Delta region—communities with little or no access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. The initiative provided loans to small farmers to expand operations, establish healthy food markets and purchase equipment for harvesting and processing fresh produce.
Lillian Salerno, administrator of the USDA Rural Business-Cooperative Service, recently visited the headquarters of the initiative in Mississippi and applauded Godfrey-Smith’s work in the region.
Going forward, Godfrey-Smith says she envisions her credit union will evolve to stay relevant, but never lose sight of its top priority: empowering unbanked and underbanked people. When Shreveport Federal Credit Union is able to help a family improve their credit score, their gratitude is palpable, she told Vermont Cooperative in a video interview.
“They’ll be in the car dealership and say, ‘Send my paperwork to Shreveport Federal. When no one else would serve me, they cared about me and invested in me. Now it’s my turn to invest in them.’”