How We Can Stick It to Big Banks and Help Our Communities

People are taking it to the streets. Occupy Wall Street has unleashed massive frustration and anger about the terrible behavior of the big banks.

Already, people are starting to take their money out of the big banks and move them into member-owned credit unions. In fact, if you haven’t closed your account already, on Nov 5 Rebuild the Dream will participate in a nationwide action, calling on Americans to “Move Your Money” out of the big banks. People are also taking action online. More than 220,000 people have signed a petition telling Bank of America to stop instituting a $5 debit card fee.

This has become a movement to be reckoned with, and I believe that we are simply at the beginning.

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These actions are important because, for one, we’re gaining the attention of the nation. We are sending a direct message to Wall Street that they can’t survive without us, as customers. A million closed accounts will ultimately mean a “loss” in billions at the end of the fiscal year. We’re throwing stones at Goliath’s knees - it may not bring the giant crashing to his knees, but it's sure going to hurt. And again, this is just the beginning.

Ultimately what we want is to change the way our financial system works and we want an end to the economic policies that have ushered this downturn. We’re advocating a change in the way corporations do business – especially if they want to continue doing business.

In Matt Taibbi’s article, “Hit Bankers Where It Hurts,” he proposes five policy changes that will prevent the type of business practices will hold corporations accountable to the American people: breaking up the monopolies of financial institutions; making banks pay for their own bailouts; demanding that no public money be used for private lobbying; and changing the way bankers get paid. These reforms call on 99% of us to support sustainable financial reform at a legislative level.

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Let’s have no illusions about this. To implement these far-reaching systemic changes, we need to keep an eye toward 2012. We need to sustain the energy we have now to insure that we win this type of financial reform in the next four years and hold elected leaders accountable like never before.

Whether or not you agree with Taibbi’s position on how to clean up Wall St., this movement will push forward. Some people are going to work at a legislative level advocating for policy changes, some will work at a grassroots level to hold corporations accountable. Others, if we choose to, will make changes in our communities.

A source in one labor union, says that CalPERS, California Public Employees Retirement System, recently approved nearly a billion dollars in public employee pensions to be invested directly into infrastructure. It’s a brilliant move – teachers, firefighters, nurses and other public employees are investing their retirement money to create jobs and give our economy a huge boost, outside of the political arena.

Following this example, we don’t have to wait for policy reform to make change. There are things we can do as a community to pool our resources and implement change on a local level.

1) Own Your Own Bank. Join a Credit Union.
Why choose a credit union over a bank? Credit unions are non-profit organizations owned by their membership. If you have an account with a credit union, you are a member and an owner. As president of the Inova federal credit union, Dallas Bergl says: “As a member/owner, you typically have the right to both vote and run for the Board of Directors. You get only one vote regardless of how much money you have at the credit union and all of the directors are volunteers who receive no compensation for their service. This process guarantees that your credit union is looking out for your financial interests and not that of a small group of stockholders.” Credit Unions can and do turn a profit, but this money belongs to members, not stockholders or management. Click here for help finding a credit union in your area or here to read up about starting your own.

2) Join a Community Investment Group
Rather than putting your money into a bank account where banks can re-invest and gain capital on your savings, you could try investing into your community, with your community. There are a number of examples where community members pooled their resources to start a business or save a community business that was on the verge of collapse. Claire’s Restaurant in Hardwick, VT, raised part of its capital from 50 community members who each put in $1,000. Their loans will be repaid through discounted meals over four years and the community will remain a shareholder in a favorite local hangout.

You can also invest your money in green businesses. In Graciela Tiscareño-Sato’s Huffington Post article, she argues that there are a plethora of successful green businesses and that one failed solar company doesn’t account for all green businesses out there, fighting for the environment. Here’s a few community -owned solar businesses you can invest in.

3) Start a Community-Owned Business
A community-owned business is one where community members are taking their savings, and invest in a joint venture rather than individual savings accounts with a big bank. Community-owned businesses usually arise to fill a void where the marketplace is too slow to act on its own or the risks appear high. In times when capital to fund new ideas is scarce, community-based businesses can give life to new ideas and invigorate the local economy. With a community -owned business, the community benefits from the goods and services provided by the enterprise and also receives money back as shareholders.

4) Consider Implementing a Local Currency Program
It may seem like a huge leap and chances are, you’ve never heard of local currency programs like Ithaca Hours, but they do exist and are operating successfully right now. Ithaca Hours is a local currency system that promotes “local economic strength and community self-reliance in ways which will support economic and social justice, ecology, community participation and human aspirations in and around Ithaca, New York.” Ithaca Hours help to keep money local, building the Ithaca economy. They even have a guide on how to start your own local currency program.

This movement is multi-faceted. What Wall St. and conservative critics can’t understand is that we don’t have just one message and we are not just going to fight on just one front. We will fight politically, we will fight with our dollars and we will create our own solutions to reduce our dependence on their monopolies. As Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

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