By Rachel Popa, Content Marketing Specialist at GLCU

Michelle Collins, a retired banker, didn’t know how she was going to help The Leaders Network open a credit union in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, but she was determined to make it happen. Despite being one of the largest neighborhoods in Chicago by population and geography, Austin has long been considered a financial services desert, meaning that its nearly 100,000 residents lack access to essential banking services.

Michelle, the daughter of a West Side pastor, grew up in Austin, worked in community development banking in the neighborhood for more than 30 years, and is passionate about financially empowering its residents. She first learned about The Leaders Network, a group of multicultural, interfaith, and community leaders, after the organization awarded her the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Keeper of the Dream award in 2019.

The Leaders Network is dedicated to following Dr. King’s vision of creating a “beloved community,” and to establishing a better quality of life for marginalized groups living in Chicago’s West Side and beyond. After attending a meeting and seeing the work The Leaders Network is doing in the community, Michelle joined the organization as a strategic advisor, and was asked for her help to open a credit union in Austin.

Bringing the Credit Union Philosophy of “People Helping People” to Austin

Unlike large banks where customers are often treated like just like another number, credit unions are more community-minded organizations that aim to build relationships with their members. This hands-on approach to community development, improving members’ financial well-being, and building relationships led to the decision to open a credit union in Austin.

“We’re going to initiate a new day and a new way of conducting financial transactions on the West Side,” said David Cherry, president of The Leaders Network. David has been a member of The Leaders Network since 2015 and has 35 years of experience as a community organizer. “Credit scores are only a part of a person’s life story when applying for credit. There are so many things which our credit union will take into account which banks won’t.”

From left to right: Leaders Network Team Members Pastor Cy Fields, Rabbi Max Weiss, Michelle Collins, Pastor Marshall Hatch, Deborah Williams-Thurmond, David Cherry, and Pastor Ira Acree

After Michelle made some calls and met with others in the credit union industry, the Illinois Credit Union League introduced Michelle and The Leaders Network to Great Lakes Credit Union (GLCU), and the two organizations set their sights on bringing the first-ever credit union branch to the Austin neighborhood. After months of planning, construction, and hard work, the Leaders Network branch of GLCU opened its doors on April 24th, 2024.

“For me, it’s really a dream come true,” Michelle said. “It’s a miracle that we can have a credit union…a real, fully-fledged financial institution right in the heart of Austin.”

“It’s going to be transformative and history making,” added David.

Banking for a Greater Good: Expanding Access to Financial Services

Before the Leaders Network branch of GLCU opened, there was only one financial institution available to serve Austin’s residents. Because of the lack of financial institutions in the area, many people in Austin had to rely on currency exchanges and predatory payday lenders to get by.

“I remember stopping at the currency exchange that's at Chicago and Cicero in the Austin community. I was standing there, and the person was counting out how much cash this person was about to receive. Just think – you’re cashing out two weeks’ worth of pay, and so you're [getting] all that cash and taking it home,” David said. “There was so many robberies taking place at that Chicago and Cicero location, they actually put an armed security guard in the space. But the problem is that once you leave the space then people can still rob you when you're walking down the street. It's just such a terrible way for so many people to live.”

And without access to a checking or savings account, people often store cash at home or keep it in their wallet, where it’s easier to spend – and to lose, David said. These underbanked residents also miss out on taking advantage of interest-bearing accounts, and the protection and security a financial institution provides.

With the median household income in the Austin neighborhood sitting at $38,407, many can’t afford to pay for emergency expenses or put money into savings. As a result, some West Side residents turn to predatory payday lenders to cover bills and emergency expenses. Payday lenders charge exorbitant interest rates, which leads to people paying back much more than what they borrowed. This contributes to generational cycles of poverty, where people struggle to get ahead.

“By the time they finish paying off their [payday] loan they they’re so much in debt that they're behind on their light bills, they're behind on their rent,” David said. “It's been an unmitigated disaster for people. Austin has been hit hard by these [payday lenders].”

Financially Empowering the Austin Community

The Leaders Network branch of GLCU offers much-needed alternatives to currency exchanges and payday lenders. For example, the credit union offers affordable Fast Cash loans to help members cover emergency expenses, with approval for a loan based on the member’s relationship with the credit union, not their credit score.

Members can also take advantage of the credit union’s Credit Builder loan, which offers a no-cost opportunity to establish or improve their credit score. And with the credit union’s Fresh Checking account, members can build a positive financial history without a monthly balance requirement.

In addition to accounts and loans that help members get back on their feet, the credit union offers small business loans, mortgages, home equity lines of credit, interest-bearing checking accounts, share certificates, retirement accounts, savings accounts, and other essential financial services – paving the way for financial and economic empowerment in the Austin community. Free HUD-certified housing and financial counseling is also available to both members and non-members in the community.

“I believe that financial literacy [and] the access to capital to make improvements will uplift the community,” Michelle said. “When you're investing in your home or becoming an owner where you can become an investor, the equity that you're building is wealth building for the community.”

“[We’re] that first step, that seed that's planted to show them how to save,said Reggie Little, a business development specialist at GLCU. Reggie started his banking career in Austin in 1985 and played a key role in opening the Leaders Network branch of GLCU. “With us lowering the bar to a dollar to open up a savings account [or] CD, just knowing that you have a CD can give someone a sense of pride. Of course, you can grow that CD as time goes by, but we're helping them take those baby steps.”

By prioritizing the needs of those who have been underserved and breaking generational cycles of poverty, Leaders Network Financial and GLCU are ushering in a new era of opportunity for the Austin community and beyond.

“Fortunately, I had financial education growing up. I’m in a position to not only help myself but help others who may not have had that experience. So, I can now let people in the Austin community know that there’s options for them,” said Cedric Collins, assistant branch manager for the Leaders Network branch of GLCU. Cedric is Michelle’s son and has spent a lot of time in the Austin community as well over the course of his life. He has a background in retail management and said he’s looking forward to following his mother’s footsteps in the financial industry.

Building a Better Future Together

Now that the branch is open, Michelle, David, and the branch staff are looking forward to seeing the impact it will have on the Austin community and beyond moving forward.

“As we continue into 2024 and 2025, there's going to be so many opportunities to reach out to the churches and to other groups,” David said. “The goal for all of us is to transform Austin.”

The Leaders Network branch of GLCU aims to bridge the wealth gap, help West Side residents build generational wealth, and enact positive change in Austin and surrounding areas.

From left to right: Branch Staff Amanda Thomas, Cedric Collins, Beatriz Hernandez, Melissa Luciano, and Reggie Little

“I'm excited to help the underserved,” said Beatriz Hernandez, the senior branch manager for the Leaders Network branch of GLCU. “I think that's very important, especially in this community. Those individuals that have been using our ATMs have expressed so much gratitude – just being able to have an ATM where they don't have to drive far away. That is one of the most important things I’m seeing.”

“It's long overdue. I'm excited to serve the community,” Cedric added.

“What happens in Austin is important to not just people that live in Austin. If you live in Oak Park, if you live in River Forest, if you live in Maywood – we're all in this fishbowl together,” Michelle said.

Excited to return to the neighborhood where he started his career, Reggie added, “I really love Austin. I have high hopes and dreams for this community. I would love to see it become the next Lincoln Park or Jefferson Park or Wicker Park. We have the ability.”

Together, Leaders Network Financial and GLCU are working to build a stronger, more financially secure community on the West Side. The Leaders Network branch of GLCU may be the first credit union to open its doors in the Austin neighborhood, but the goal is for it to not be the last.

“Let's make Austin this shining example of what is possible,” David said.

Learn more about Leaders Network Financial and GLCU’s mission to increase access to financial services in Austin and surrounding communities and apply to become a member today.


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