Putting money where your community is

Yesterday, the city of Buffalo moved $45 million of city funds out of megabank JPMorgan Chase and reinvested it in First Niagara, a community bank based in the city itself. The drive to put city funds in local banks and credit unions was led by Occupy Buffalo.

Occupy San Jose in the fall of 2011 also raised the issue of muncipalities placing their funds in banks that aggressively foreclose on struggling families, and push credit cards with high interest rates on the desperate. In the Bay Area, the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in San Jose took $3 million out of Bank of America and Wells Fargo and put it in a small community bank. Our good friends at People Acting in Community Together (PACT) were instrumental in getting that to happen. Along with Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), they are aggressive in preventing foreclosures through a variety of means.

Disinvestment is a long-held tactic for peacefully opposing exploitation and discrimination. It was a key part of pressuring South Africa to end apartheid. Such a tactic can be used on any scale- even the largest and most profitable multinational corporations rely on constant (and consistent) investment. There now exist mutual funds and other investments that are ‘socially responsible’- that is they avoid investments in corporations that produce things such as weapons, tobacco, and passively or actively exploit workers.

In a meeting at Occupy Stanford, everyone in the circle gave their own reason for being there. Multiple people talked about the university’s multi-billion dollar endowment, and how some of its money goes towards groups that try to make land grabs in Africa, or buy mineral or water rights in developing countries. University endowments were also a major source of student action during the apartheid era- and the fact remains that many institutions violate their stated principles through the unscrupulous nature of how they allocate their money.

In our own communities, credit unions and community banks are an obvious choice for individuals and organizations- including UU denominations. These institutions have a vested interest in keeping businesses open and growing- they are run by people in the community and have deep social ties to families and local businesses. Credit unions are owned by the account holders and have a democratically-elected leadership. As a not-for-profit, they do not seek to enrich themselves, but instead have services that serve their community’s needs. All surplus funds in a credit union are used to lower loan interest, reduce fees, and improve service.

One of the UU principles talks of “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” In society at large, giving financial support to a multinational financial institution is not an endorsement of democracy. Corporations primarily serve a couple dozen members of the board of directors, and a couple dozen major shareholders. They are oligarchy in action. We have an option and obligation to support democratic systems, and community banking is one of them.

Inquire as to where your UU congregation keeps its funds- perhaps a community bank is waiting for your patronage!

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

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