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banking on life

Are you inspired by what your bank is doing for your community and the larger world?  What kind of future is it funding with the backing of your deposits? more oil pipelines or more renewable energy? more segregation or more inclusion? more plutocracy or more democracy? Do you know?

What are you backing with your banking, and how strongly does that align with your values?

When I found out that Chase was amongst the 17 banks funding the Dakota Pipeline, I took it as a call to deal with the uncomfortable fact that my banking had not been wholly in sync with my values. Some of my financial needs and habits were at odds with my heart’s desire to be amongst those who help preserve clean water, protect indigenous lands, and build a clean energy future. What was I going to do about that?

I have had a checking and savings account at Bay Federal for a while. It is a friendly and environmentally conscious credit union based in Santa Cruz (CA), and I feel good about banking there. Before that, I banked at a small community bank in Eastern Massachusetts, and I felt good about that too.  But for a mix of personal and practical reasons, I have all along continued to use the Chase account I opened when I first moved to the United States 27 years ago.  Back then, I was 19 years old, and pretty clueless about the banking system, and the workings and impact of big banks. I was even more clueless about the kind of negative or positive power my small account could wield when joined with millions of others. I just needed a bank close to my school, and found it at the corner of 113th street and Broadway in New York City.  It was actually a Chemical Bank branch at the time, but Chemical was later acquired by Chase.

My first real introduction to the mystifying world of banking came in 2004, when I was invited by a working group at the Rudolf Steiner Foundation to attend a gathering focused on Transforming Money at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma.  There, I met Stephen Belgin, who co-authored New Money for a New World with Bernard Lietaer, a finance professor and former central banker from Belgium, who became a leading figure in the complementary currency movement.  At the time, their book’s galley was titled “Of Human Wealth: Beyond Greed and Scarcity,” and it opened my eyes to the workings of our debt-based money system.  I became friends with both Stephen and Bernard, and learned a lot from them.  In 2010, I built Bernard a new website to help his work reach a wider audience. This was shortly after the 2008 banking debacle, and I wished more people had an opportunity to read his out-of-the-box “Options for managing a banking crisis.” That same year, I befriended Katie Teague, and became an enthusiastic fan of her Money and Life documentary which interviews thought-leaders and activists working to transform our money system and the way we think about money.  While these innovators were shifting my understanding of the big picture issues, organizations like Green America were inspiring me to rethink my personal relationship to money, prompting me to start banking local a few years ago, and get rid of any credit card I held at big financial institutions.

Since 2008, I contemplated numerous times leaving Chase altogether, but could not bring myself to give up certain privileges which a local bank does not typically offer, particularly when you are new to it.  These hard-to-give-up benefits included the $2,500 overdraft protection I have had on my checking account at Chase since my student days at Columbia University, and the ability to use my ATM card anywhere in the world, without needing to notify my bank of my whereabouts and request prior authorization. As a nomad and researcher who spends most of my time away from my legal state of residence, having a reliable source of cash wherever I go is a pretty big deal.  My small credit union twice cancelled my debit card because of a security breach at a merchant I had used in the prior weeks.  On one of these two occasions, I would have been stranded without cash on the other side of the world, were it not for my Chase debit card.  For the last 25 years, it is Chase that served as my loyal and dependable companion abroad, including while I lived in Egypt in the late 90s, and in Indonesia in 2011-12.  International transactions and wire transfers were always easy.  The occasional temporary hold placed on my debit card would get lifted just as soon as I cleared any security concern. And I had 24/7 customer service, which was a must when I was several time zones away from my branch for months at a time, before online banking came of age.

But what about Chase’s larger impact on the world, and all the financial scandals?  The biggest bank in the United States has become infamous since the 2008 crisis for its corruption and abuses of power, from gambling on derivatives, to rigging foreign currency rates, to trying to bargain its way out of accountability.  As recently as last November, Chase was in the news again, sentenced to pay 264 million dollars in fines for bribing foreign officials.  How could I stay loyal all these years to a bank that violated my values in more ways than I can count? Or, more to the point, how could I violate my own values for so long?  I really don’t like the answer to that question, but here it is: the seductiveness of convenience, the power of habit, and some hard-to-explain form of emotional attachment.  Over the years, I came to know my routing and account numbers by heart, and somehow grew attached to them. My overdraft line of credit had regularly tied me to the next pay check during my student days, and again during a rough financial patch I had six years ago.  Keeping that safety cushion felt reassuring, even when I was not actively using it.  More generally, I knew what to expect and what I could count on.

So, what finally resolved me to break up with Chase?  A big part of it was the courage and determination of those who stood on the front lines of resisting the fossil fuel industry at Standing Rock, in spite of police brutality, and the freezing cold.  Was I truly not willing to incur a little discomfort and disruption in my financial life in order to align my heart and actions, and do my small part of defunding dapl and similar pipeline projects?  All the reasons I had for staying with Chase suddenly crumbled in light of what these activists were willing to go through. Emboldened by Sarah Van Gelder’s “Dear Chase Bank” break-up letter last November, I resolved to close my own account, and started looking for another bank that could serve as a backup to my credit union, and perhaps offer some new solutions to my logistical challenges.  It did not take me very long to find Beneficial State Bank, an exciting community development bank based in Oakland that is part of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values, and is focused on economic justice and environmental sustainability.  What actually inspired me to join that new bank was not so much its financial services and logistical capabilities, which are fairly similar to my credit union’s, but its approach to banking, its commitment to funding the new economy, and its active leadership in the socially responsible banking movement.  I wanted to be part of that, and planning to write a longer post about why in the coming weeks.

In an interview with Conscious Company Magazine, Kat Taylor, the co-founder of Beneficial State Bank, said something that really spoke to me: “We consider banking to be the original and most powerful form of crowdfunding.  We all pool our deposits so that we can finance the communities and world in which we want to live, and also borrow it back from time to time when we have needs — like home, college, and even retirement — if we haven’t had the privilege of saving.”

As an enthusiastic crowd funder who has been involved in many campaigns these past few years, I know how meaningful and satisfying it is to pool small contributions with others to support people and projects that inspire us. The possibility of relating to my bank deposits in a similar way really captured my imagination.  I am thrilled to be joining a bank that is committed to funding renewable energy and sustainable agriculture, cares about social justice, and sees the banking system as “a system of distributed power where the depositors are the ones driving the outcomes by their choice.” I will be closing my Chase account in the coming weeks, and no longer feeling conflicted about it.   Yes, I am losing 24/7 customer service, and giving up a few other things, but I am getting the peace of mind that comes from aligning my heart, mind and actions, and reclaiming my sense of integrity.  And I am also discovering wonderful new possibilities, like having a dedicated banker at Beneficial State Bank by the name of Stanley who goes out of his way to be helpful to me. It’s very different from calling a customer service line and talking to a different ‘representative’ each time. I love knowing there is specific human being I can call, email, and count on when I need support.

And how about you?  How good do you feel about your bank?  Do you need help finding a better one? Here is a place to start.

I want to leave you with a few questions to ponder. What if your banking could become your favorite form of crowdfunding? Where would you need to bank in order to feel that way? Who in your social network is already banking on solutions, rather than banking on problems? How could they help you make a similar shift? And if you are already in love with your bank — and I know many of you banking at local credit unions are — how could you invite or support relatives and friends in your community and social network to join you in aligning their money with their values? Maybe Ralph, the Kid Banker could help start that conversation?

In December, the US Army Corps of Engineers denied the easement for the pipeline project in North Dakota, but as long as companies like Energy Transfer Partners are backed by powerful big banks, and can afford to pay the fines involved in disregarding rules and agreements, the threats to clean water and Native American lands remain.  And yet, these big banks that are funding the fossil fuel industry are only able to wield the power they do because they are backed by millions of people like you and I who entrust our money to them without thinking about how our deposits are being leveraged in the world.  But what if we started to get a lot more rigorous and responsible about who and what we are backing with our banking? However small our bank account may be, we all play a role in undermining or strengthening the possibility of a banking system that finances life-affirming projects and possibilities instead of funding environmental degradation and perpetuating social inequities.  We make up the banks, big and small, and we need to learn how to personally embody the greater levels of accountability, transparency, integrity, and social responsibility which big banks are blamed for violating.  For some of us, this may need to start with taking a closer look at our practices, and choosing a better banking partner.


banking on life

Are you inspired by what your bank is doing for your community and the larger world?...
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