Building Wealth in Immigrant Communities
John Herrera is being honored as a Champion of Change for his accomplishments as an immigrant entrepreneur and innovator.
I am honored to be named a White House Champion of Change. I am an immigrant from Costa Rica and like so many people around the world, I have always admired the spirit of Americans. I also know from experience that Latinos possess a strong entrepreneurial spirit. So, when I become a U.S. citizen on July 4, 1999, I felt it was my civic duty to help other immigrant families succeed and to help further strengthen this great country.
My work to foster entrepreneurship and greater economic opportunity for Latino families in North Carolina dates to the mid-1990s. While at the Duke Center for International Studies, I observed first-hand the rapid growth of the immigrant population in North Carolina, especially among working-class, low-income Latinos. This new and largely unbanked population experienced cultural and language barriers to accessing financial services. Most mainstream financial institutions did not view Latino immigrants as promising potential clients due to lack of credit history and low account balances. This fed a reliance on cash that resulted in increased crime against Latinos, as they were viewed as “walking banks.” I began looking for a grassroots response to the problem, gathering state and local leaders, community advocates, and the credit union community.
The outcome of these collaborations was the creation of the Latino Community Credit Union (LCCU), a full service, bilingual financial institution. Starting with one branch in Durham, LCCU has become a trusted and safe place for Latinos to save money, access affordable credit, buy homes, start businesses, and build wealth for the future. We provide a full range of affordable and innovative products and services typically unavailable to low-income immigrants, such as bilingual staff, deposit and transaction accounts, loans, remittance services to Latin America, and a comprehensive financial literacy program.
The need for our services has been demonstrated by our growth. LCCU is now the largest Latino-focused credit union in the country with 55,000 member-owners and ten branches across North Carolina. We positively impact individuals and families and help create safer and more economically stable communities—a recent University of Virginia Darden School of Business study attributed a 3.8% increase in property taxes, a 4.2% overall decrease in crime, and the appreciation of $9.8 billion in taxable real estate value to the presence of LCCU branches. With LCCU’s proven record of maintaining very low delinquency rates as compared to its peers, we have become a national model for financial institutions seeking to serve unbanked, immigrant communities. Now we have begun serving immigrants and refugees from more countries, such as Myanmar, Bhutan, and Kenya, who encounter similar issues integrating into the U.S. financial system.
In my role as Vice President of Latino/Hispanic Affairs for the Center for Community Self-Help, I am well situated to explore new financial strategies to help low income families become more financially stable. Self-Help is a family of nonprofit organizations whose mission is to create and protect ownership and economic opportunity for all, and is one of the largest Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) in the country. Self-Help is a highly successful innovator, and our entrepreneurial culture has continued to inspire me to push LCCU to greater heights. My passion is to positively engage with people in all walks of life so that we can better understand and help each other.
In addition to my work at LCCU and Self-Help, I served for two terms on the Town of Carrboro’s Board of Aldermen, and I was the first immigrant to win a municipal election in North Carolina. I also helped found El Pueblo, Inc., a statewide Latino policy organization; El Centro Latino, a community-based organization; and the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders, a coalition of over 90 organizations operating in 32 states to help build community assets and family wealth in immigrant communities. I also am forever grateful for the superb education I’ve received here—an M.S. from North Carolina State University and a B.S. from the University of Delaware.
My parents taught me that we need to help others with whatever talents God gave us. I think my talent lies in my desire to help people and to bring people together to figure out how to effect meaningful change. As a naturalized U.S. citizen, I am proud of both my heritage and my U.S. citizenship as I work to help effect positive change that helps all of our families and communities.
John Herrera is Co-Founder of the Latino Community Credit Union.