Joyce Harrison is a woman of humble beginnings that understands what it means to be called “unequal” or “not good enough.” The native of Asheville, NC grew up in the 1940s and 50s when racism was alive and strong, but always felt determined to do something to uplift her community—and that she did. After spending 21 years with the Self-Help Credit Union, Harrison is retiring, leaving behind her legacy as one of the most influential money handlers in her region.
“I’m an African-American female who’s had to dig my way to where I am today, and it did not come by easy routes,” Harrison tells Asheville’s Citizen Times. “Everything I have done in my life I have earned — nobody’s ever given me anything.”
According to Citizen Times, Harrison spent 10 years working for Handi-Skills, an organization that offers job training for people with disabilities. Although the job provided her some sense of fulfillment, she knew in her heart that she was destined to do even more.
“I kept thinking, ‘What do I really want to do? I want to do something stable, but also do something to help people in the long run,’ ” she said.
She switched careers and began working at Asheville Savings Bank, where she quickly moved from working as a bank teller to the challenges of working with loans and other ventures.
Dana Smith, the regional director of Self-Help noticed her skills at Asheville Savings and invited her to join Self-Help Credit Union’s board of directors. It wasn’t long before he also asked her to work at Self-Help, and after a year of persuading, she finally agreed.
“From that day forth, I knew this was where I needed to be — this was my landing point,” Harrison told Citizen Times. “I finally realized the dream I’d had for so long, to help people of color get to the level they wanted to get to.”
Although Harrison’s trainer at first teased her, calling her “the banker with a heart,” he was soon silenced by her impressive skills and achievements. In her first year she made more than $1 million in small-business loans in her local Asheville area, a record-breaking mark for the credit union. In her 21 years as the head of Self-Help, she succeeded in securing 934 home and commercial loans for the bank at a total of $75 million. Of that total, 60 percent went to low-income families, 29 percent were minorities families and 44 percent were female-headed households; many of the recipients fit into more than one of those categories.
“Self-Help was on the cutting edge of seeing how we can turn a no into a yes — it wasn’t about your portfolio being large enough, it was about making loans, doing things to grow the community,” Harrison said.
Her commitment to her community hasn’t gone unnoticed. As she retires, she takes with her several awards and the love of so many families she helped empower over the years.
“Joyce has an incredible love and passion for helping other people,” Martin Eakes, Self-Help’s co-founder and CEO told Citizen Times. “Her light and enthusiasm have brightened Self-Help and communities all over WNC.”