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Celebrating ‘Black History Month’: A Conversation with Howard Smith

February is Black History Month which celebrates the cultural heritage, accomplishments, and contributions of African Americans who have helped shape our nation. In this feature, Howard Smith, Chief Operating Officer at Priority One CU, shares what the month of observation means to him.

What comes to mind when you think of Black History Month?
When I think of Black History Month, I feel proud of love, equality, togetherness, and education.  I believe that it is essential to learn about Black history, including its meaning, the reason, the legend, and the people involved in the Civil War.  Black History Month is not only about teaching the past, but also living in the present and thriving in the future.

Tell us about your credit union journey.
My journey with credit unions began when my mother introduced me to it and allowed me to become a member as a teenager.  After completing high school, I worked in the financial industry, specifically in commercial banking and military comptroller unit.  As I grew in the financial sector, I became interested in working for credit unions due to the familiarity and great experience I received as a teen member.

I applied for a position at a credit union and began my career path.  I used my leadership qualities to focus on teamwork, member satisfaction, people helping people, and providing products and services that met the needs of the credit union and the members.  I also developed outstanding community partnerships and supported various organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, Town Councils, Leadership Programs, and Local Historical Non-Profit Organizations. These partnerships helped to make the credit union more diverse.

What are you doing to keep growing professionally?
I am comfortable with my early career years, but my career journey and growth continue to expand as I learn from other leaders and colleagues and get more involved. I am also excited to embark on my second year at Western CUNA Management School this summer.  Thanks to Priority One Credit Union for allowing me the opportunity to attend WCMS and be a part of Chi Class of 2025.  I’ve learned a great deal from WCMS.  Having the ability to witness the fun spirit and comradery from classes before me was a highlight in setting a high example for me to continue to grow in my career.  It’s a lot of work, focus and commitment that the leadership, student faculty leaders and students give.  Their experience, knowledgeable, and teamwork are great takeaways for me moving forward in agreement with the quotes:  “Employees Enter. Leaders Emerge” – “Star Early Start Often”.

In your opinion, what is the best approach to create more diversity in the credit union workforce?
The best approach to creating diversity within the credit union workforce is to be involved in the communities served.  A positive presence, acceptance of all, and flexibility to be there for all members across the board will bring about diversity.

Another approach is to understand the communities and advocate for members and team members.  By listening and allowing others to share their experiences, knowledge, and best practices regardless of race, we can create a more inclusive and diverse work environment.

What Black public figure, past or present, inspires you and why?
Several Black public figures, both past and present, inspire me in several ways, but the most significant inspiration in my life is my mom.  She taught me to love myself and others regardless of race or religion. My mom instilled in me the importance of learning and believing in myself, understanding diverse cultures, history, and strengths in theology.  She taught me to treat others the way I wanted to be treated.


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