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Our Story

A Short History of Self-Help

When the Center for Community Self-Help (Self-Help) started in 1980, we believed that ownership was the best way for families to build wealth and financial security and for our society to create strong, vibrant communities. Our experience over the past 43 years has only reinforced that belief.

Video courtesy of Institute for Emerging Issues

Starting out

Initially we helped employees in rural NC form worker-owned cooperatives and gain ownership of local mills that were being shut down. Over and over we saw workers stopped in their tracks because they couldn't get conventional financing. In response, we started Self-Help Credit Union and a nonprofit loan fund. Our first capital was $77 raised through a bake sale organized by a baker that Self-Help assisted. Early investors also included Catholic women religious orders.

Self-Help co-founders are Martin Eakes and Bonnie Wright, and Self-Help's first "office" was Martin's VW Bug. After the car caught fire (taking Self-Help's files with it!), Martin tried towing a trailer around to meet with rural customers. Finally, in 1982 we got "real" office space in an unheated, unfurnished office building in downtown Durham, NC. Today, we have 75 credit union branches and lending offices nationwide.

Helping small businesses grow

Self-Help's early lending focused on small businesses, as these are often the engine for a community's economic growth. We adapted international microlending models to the U.S. market and then expanded into larger loans well-suited to bigger firms that were a main source of employment in rural communities. Over the years, we have diversified our lending to entrepreneurs. To date we have made over $955 million to small business and nonprofits.

Supporting homeownership

In 1985 we began making home loans to North Carolina families who were unable to get conventional mortgages. We saw that homeownership was the primary way for lower- and middle-class families to build wealth and financial security and that most small business owners relied on their home equity for start-up capital. Our home lending success (less than 1% of capital lost on the loans we made) affirmed our belief that low-wealth families pay back their loans if given the chance.

In the early 1990s, we began to partner with North Carolina banks who offered mortgages in the communities we served, but lacked liquidity to meet the lending needs in those communities. In 1998, we expanded this to a national secondary market mortgage program, which to date has supported homeownership for over 70,000 households nationwide.

Developing communities

Our first real estate development project took place in Durham, NC where we converted a downtown office building into affordable space for local nonprofits and small businesses (and our own lending office). Since then we have developed and invested $1.76 billion in commercial real estate projects to invigorate downtown areas and neighborhoods, and we have created affordable housing for 400 families.

Fighting predatory lending

In the late 1990s, homeowners began coming to Self-Help Credit Union seeking help to avoid foreclosure after unscrupulous subprime lenders had siphoned off their home equity. Our "tipping point" came the day one family showed us the paperwork on their $29,000 mortgage—where they had also been charged $15,000 in fees! In response to these abusive—and completely legal—loans, Self-Help worked with a state coalition in 1999 to help pass the North Carolina Predatory Lending Law, the first such law in the country. In 2002, Self-Help established the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) to build on initial successes and expand our focus nationally and to tackle practices such as payday lending in addition to mortgage lending. Since then, CRL has worked with community advocates, policymakers and industry groups to achieve predatory lending reforms that save American households millions of dollars annually.


Growth of our credit unions

In recent years our credit union network has expanded in North Carolina, South Carolina, California, Greater Chicago, Florida, and Washington to help meet growing needs for affordable banking services.

North Carolina. Over the past decade, Self-Help Credit Union has merged with ten community-focused credit unions. These locally-rooted institutions were seeking to stabilize their operations and increase their products and services. In one recent example, a 2014 merger with Generations Community Credit Union helped to preserve and expand services for predominantly African-American communities in eastern and central NC.

California. In 2008, we starting serving in California as Self-Help Federal Credit Union (SHFCU). SHFCU has grown through eight mergers with community-focused credit unions throughout the state. In Los Angeles, we acquired five stores from a conventional check casher and converted them into a hybrid check casher/credit union model that serves unbanked and underbanked consumers.

Chicago. When federal regulators closed Second Federal Savings and Loan in the Chicago area, Self-Help partnered with local community organizations to keep its branches open and assist customers. In 2012, Self-Help acquired Second Federal S&L and continued service to 14,000 predominantly Latino depositors and borrowers.

Florida. When the leaders of Community Trust Federal Credit Union (CTFCU) in Apopka, Florida needed a merger partner, they sought out Self-Help. In 2016 Self-Help Federal merged with CTFCU, and later CTFCU joined Self-Help Credit Union. We are continuing CTFCU's 30-year legacy of serving farmworkers and other low-income families in Florida.

South Carolina. In 2018, two South Carolina credit unions joined the Self-Help family: Palmetto Trust Federal Credit Union (Columbia) and CommunityWorks Federal Credit Union (Greenville). Palmetto Trust Federal was started to serve local federal employees. CommunityWorks Federal focused on a mission to serve the unbanked or under-banked. Self-Help is continuing and expanding the work these credit unions have started.

Washington. Lower Valley Credit Union merged with Self-Help in 2021. Founded in 1952, Lower Valley is deeply rooted in the Yakima and Wenatchee Valleys of Washington State and well recognized for its vision of ‘Planting Seeds of Opportunity for a Better Tomorrow.'

Through a series of mergers, acquisitions, and new branch launches, Self-Help Credit Union and Self-Help Federal Credit Union together have forged a network of over 75 branches and offices serving more than 190,000 members in eight states.

African American Credit Unions 

Self-Help’s history and mission are deeply intertwined with the history of African-American credit unions in NC. In a fascinating series of interviews, our friends at UNC’s Oral History Program document how African Americans relied on credit unions during the Jim Crow era. View the series here.