Everything is Interconnected

This was originally published on Verity’s Our Voices on May 9, 2012.
Recently I had an opportunity to participate in a poverty simulation as part of Credit Union Development Education training in Madison, WI. Though there have been times in my life that I’ve worried about money, postponing some bill payments in order to have enough money for rent or groceries, this simulation opened my eyes to the very real stress currently faced by 15% of the U.S. population.

My classmates and I were all given scenarios, and had different goals (mine: find a place to live by the end of the 2nd 15-minute “week“ for my partner and our child, so that we would no longer be homeless). We struggled with having enough transportation passes, with finding work, with being able to afford food or child care. The simulation was meant to represent one month’s time. Never have I been so stressed and worried about money, and it was only a simulation, and only for an hour. The experience enabled me to recognize that when someone is struggling with finances – seriously struggling, as in “If I don’t eat, will there be enough money to have both shelter and food for my child?” sort of struggling – it becomes nearly impossible to think beyond the immediate goals. The money stresses I’d faced in the past paled in comparison.

The program I was in – to become certified as a Credit Union Development Educator – seeks to examine the issues facing communities locally and globally. With 39 other credit union representatives hailing from all over the US, and from as far away as Nairobi, Kenya, we worked together in small teams to explore the different development issues that hold back our communities.

As we worked together discussing the issues in different activities and for presentations, it became readily apparent that so many of the issues are interconnected. For instance, in the US, if you don’t have transportation, it can be challenging to find (and keep) employment. If you aren’t employed or are underemployed, it’s near impossible to afford housing and food. Health care is prohibitively expensive. Education has been heading out of reach of many Americans for a long time, too, which can directly impact one’s ability to earn a living wage and save for the future. If one is unable to save for the future, it can be impossible to change one’s circumstances.

As we look at the issues globally, it gets increasingly heart-breaking. Fifteen to twenty million people die every year from hunger – end hunger, and we may begin the slow process of ending poverty. Cooperative efforts around the world are making a difference with opportunities such as savings mobilization and micro-financing programs, working within communities to empower them in ways that change their lives.

The challenges faced by our population are very real, and can be so easy to forget when we focus on our lives, which in the grand scheme of things for about 90% of the Seattle population, holds very few threats to our basic needs. “If you keep your food in a refrigerator, and your clothes in a closet, if you have a roof over your head, and have a bed to sleep in… you are richer than 75% of the entire world population.” Puts a lot of things into perspective.

Now that I’m back in Seattle, back where I can count the blessings I may have taken for granted previously, I find myself driven with a new purpose – to do what I can to help uplift and enrich the communities I belong to, as well as the global community that we all share. After all, much like the development issues, we as a people are all interconnected. It’s our responsibility as global citizens to make this world a better place, which we can do through cooperation.

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Our Members and Potential Members

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had conversations with several credit union friends. It seems that some credit unions have minimum credit scores for membership. It’s a practice enacted perhaps to protect the credit union from loss – which is understandable… but so incredibly short-sighted.

Our community population is made up of either credit union members or potential members. Drawing a line and saying, “we’ll accept these potential members but not those,” goes against the ways that we can serve. Our community members are all unique. They come to us from all sorts of different backgrounds, from all sorts of different levels of financial literacy. Not every member will be an ideal candidate to lend to on Day 1 of their membership. But isn’t part of what we’re supposed to do be people helping people?

There is so much opportunity to have a profound impact on the lives of the people around us if we acknowledge that we are all human. We are all flawed.  We all have lessons that we can share with one another. And for those of us in cooperative financial services, we have an obligation to share the knowledge we have that can help others gain financial literacy.

Do you know what I think we should do when we receive negative credit report or negative results when pulling an eFunds/ChexSystems report? I think we should ask our potential members about what happened. Not everyone might share what happened… but as they do, we have such an opportunity to learn about how we can best help them. I don’t know anyone who was born knowing how to balance a checkbook, or how to create and follow a budget. As we understand what effected their credit, we learn what their needs are to become stronger financially, and we can guide them to be in a better position to qualify for the help they need from us.

We can begin a conversation about what steps they can be taking so that we can expand our relationship with them. We can provide the resources and support to help them learn financial habits that set them up for success. We can help them to develop payment plans to payoff closed accounts, to help them pay off collections items. We may be the first people who will teach them how to tend to their financial needs, how to change their detrimental financial habits.

There is a revolution going on. If we are going to take advantage of this opportunity to reach people who are frustrated with a system that has set them up for failure, that has imprisoned them in debt… we need to be able to provide them the tools to begin rebuilding their future. We need to be guiding them through the challenges that they face in the areas that we can provide help. Because we can only serve our members… why are we making it so difficult for people to be members?

This will take a lot of cooperation. We will need to ask for our members to cooperate with us, as we cooperate with them. And furthermore, we must cooperate with one another – we must seek to uplift our colleagues at other credit unions, and not feel competitive with one another.

As we do this, we’ll have more and more people who are eligible for loans. We will have so many members who will be loyal to us, who will be committed to paying us back because of the ways that we have helped them to take charge of their future.

If we do not serve our communities through seeing the world around us as a world of CU members and potential members… we’ll miss the opportunity to serve this revolution in the many ways that we can.

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The International Day of Protest at Occupy Seattle

Please note: This was also posted on Verity Credit Union’s Our Voices blog. The views are my own.

Last Saturday, October 15th, protests occurred worldwide. Not all were focused on the subject of Occupying Wall Street (some nations are still fighting for their voice to be heard) – but the protests across the U.S. are focused on solidarity with the Wall Street Protesters. People are feeling so much outrage – that’s what launched the Wall Street protests, and is what keeps many people in Seattle returning to Westlake Park again and again. To me, it has never been enough to simply express my frustration. Instead, I am compelled to take positive, peaceful action to resolve the issues that I see in the world around me. That’s why I keep showing up.

The protests are the flame to my moth, for I see the ways credit unions can help our communities. Demonstrating alongside the other protesters provides an opportunity to listen to their stories. When asked in conversation, I offer guidance specific to the protesters’ needs. Credit unions can help, but I’ve been present at Occupy Seattle to witness and support, not to use it as a means to generate business for my CU. I’m there because the benefits of membership in a credit union are a key element of a healthy community. Even when I didn’t work in a credit union I would tout the benefits to those I encountered, so great is my belief in cooperative financial services.

There’s a misconception out there that in order to stop supporting for-profit financial services, all one needs to do is move their checking and savings accounts to a credit union. Through the “Move Your Money” campaign that began in 2009, and the “Bank Transfer Day” proposed for November 5th, people have begun moving their assets to CUs in earnest – it is amazing, though I caution that moving loans is equally as (if not more) important. In the midst of the frustration and anger that people are feeling, this move toward financial services that empower people through democratic process is a step in the right direction.

What we bring in through interest paid on loans, we give back out through dividend rates and the services that we provide. Like many credit unions, we work hard to keep people in their homes, and their cars in their driveways – even if they fall upon hard times. It takes a lot of communication and cooperation with our members to find solutions, and I’m proud of the work that we do. I believe that if more people had loans with credit unions heading into these difficult economic times, the neighborhoods around us would look a lot different – with fewer foreclosures and short sales as we helped to adapt loan terms to fit changing financial needs.

Credit unions across the nation are making difficult decisions in order to remain healthy for the long haul. Some credit unions have had to lay off staff or cut valuable programs such as financial counseling and financial literacy initiatives. Some credit unions, like Verity, have had to take a good hard look at their fee structure and begin charging for items that we used to be able to provide for free. It’s not dissimilar from how our members are looking at their budget and making difficult choices. Our commitment remains to serve our community in the best way that we can, and it is to that end that we seek to cooperate with our members.

The key to changing the world lies in cooperation, I believe this. I am so grateful for our members who recognize the Credit Union Difference, and make a conscious choice to be with us, and cooperate with us. If you have a story to share of the difference credit unions have made in your life, I’d love to hear it. Please share in the comments below, or send me an e-mail at: sasha.kemble@gmail.com

Want to learn more about the Cooperative Movement beyond cooperative financial services (a.k.a. credit unions)? In the Seattle area? Check out SLICE this Friday and Saturday – tickets available on sliding scale in advance and at the door. No one will be turned away.

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The Revolution Begins

The first two times I visited the Occupy Seattle protests, I walked through, smiled at people, and read the signs. I listened and absorbed what was happening around me. Both of those times were during daylight hours, and things seemed pretty quiet.

This time, on October 12th, it was different. The Instigator of Goodness swept into town, and invited me to help with the instigating while she accompanied her photographer friend. “Sounds like an adventure that will help the CU Movement,” I thought to myself. “I’m in!”

Westlake Park was busier than it had been on my previous two visits, and the darkening night cast a different glow on those assembled. The word going around was that the police were going to arrest those occupying the park after the park closed at 10 PM.

Clusters of people stood around, talking amongst themselves. Some strategizing, others simply passing time. Jamie walked right up to two people, to find out what the tape around their arms meant.

The tape identifies people who have different roles. Some are “Legal” and appear to be law students. (One of whom beat a hasty retreat from the park at 9:58, after encouraging the assembled to stay put and be strong – and to skedaddle if they didn’t want to be arrested.) We stayed even after the police showed up. We didn’t get arrested.

We spoke with a lot of people. At least over fifty people, if the number of flyers Jamie handed out was any indication. We heard stories – a young woman whose mother is in the foreclosure process, a young man who has felt unable to move his money due to spotty credit history. We spoke with the protestors, and we spoke with the officers who were there to serve and protect.

The stories that are coming out of this illustrate the need for us to do something different. The focus on profits at the expense of caring for our communities have put us into a position not dissimilar to that of the Great Depression… made worse only because we had history’s example, and we failed to follow it.

I will continue to be present, I will continue to witness. I will stand in solidarity with the members of my community because it is the right thing to do. Though there is some media support for these protests, there remains a lot of derision toward the protestors. We must be telling our stories ourselves to ensure that they represent the views of the people.

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Losing a Visionary

Do what you love,” Steve Jobs implored in his commencement address to Stanford’s 2005 graduating class. He died earlier today, and it’s surreal. One of my friends said, “Wait, wasn’t he supposed to live forever?” He was a visionary, and he followed through on his vision, changing the world and the way we interact with it. It’s amazing.

While processing the loss, I read Seth Godin’s post of A Eulogy of Action. And all I can think about is, “Now is the time.” The things that I’ve been meaning to do, saying I will do, but have been too afraid to begin… fear is ridiculous. Life is too short to put off the things that burn with passion for us.

I’ve been wanting to create a CUSO to help other credit unions and cooperatives advance the CU Movement. I’ve been saying I want to do this since the start of the year. I have friends who I’d want to work with (and who fortunately, want to work with me, too), and rather than continue to keep saying it’s a goal, I need to start taking action on it.

It’s scary – there’s a risk for failing in a spectacular way – but it’s exhilarating. I’m not sure how to do it. Yet. But I will learn, and I will do, and I will help others who are on the same path to know that we can do this, together, through cooperation. Anything can be done through cooperation. And it is so much easier with others. And so much more fun!

So – since writing things down helps people to accomplish their goals… I think commiting this to writing is a good first step on what is sure to be an exhilarating journey.

“There is no reason not to follow your heart.” Steve Jobs 1955-2011

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The 99%

On Saturday, I stopped by the Occupy Seattle protest that’s arisen to support the revolution occurring on Wall St in NYC. I’m energized by the idea, and my heart cries out, “YES! We must do this together!”

What is happening here is that people are being called to action. They are recognizing that the mess that has been building for years is the result of choices that a small percentage of the population have been making for the rest of us. Their greed and desire for ever-growing profits continues to widen the gap between the wealthy and the middle class. It is throwing even more people into despairing poverty, who were already struggling to survive.

Within days of beginning my first job first job after college, as a teller at a credit union branch in a low-income neighborhood in my hometown, I was faced with the difficult task of explaining to good, kind people that they didn’t have any money for the remainder of the month. The questions they asked left me sleepless at night: How would they pay for their food? How could they get diapers for their infant? I reached across the counter to hold the hand of one older woman, sobbing inconsolably over her overdrawn account and the knowledge that she was so deep in a cycle of check-cashing debt that she would probably never break free. I felt helpless. I knew that what we were doing in credit unions could help, but I knew that it would take time, and time is cruel to hungry stomachs and fearful minds.

There are people in my community who have had to make extremely difficult choices. They sacrifice their own meals in order to feed their children. They work two, or in some cases three, jobs to provide shelter for their families – even their grown children and grandchildren – who are unable to find work. They have to choose which bills to pay and which to default, in order to make it through to their next paycheck. They have to suffer through pains and illnesses and indecencies because they are not cared for by our society.

I am lucky. I have a good job with a living wage, decent health coverage, and a roof over my head. I can afford my groceries and my bills, and I live within my modest means. The choices I make are not the hard ones, because I have been given the opportunity to work hard, I have taught myself financial literacy, and I have only myself to care for. The debt I incurred through ten years of jobs that paid meager wages, and the debt I incurred through medical bills, education, and use of credit I didn’t understand… has an end that is closer than the horizon. I am fortunate to know that if my luck were to change tomorrow, the people I love are able to give me food and shelter and keep me from being homeless. I am so lucky.

In society, we became victims so that corporations could make record profits, be careless with our lives and then receive bailouts from our tax dollars. We became victims, but we do not have to remain that way. Taking this stand to peacefully protest is a good one. As Mark Ruffalo said in his thoughtful article written for the Guardian, “now is the time to give […] voice to decency and fairness.” Now is the time to identify and recognize the values that shaped what we once believed, that America is a land of possibilities, and that we can make the future brighter for the children in our lives.

My colleagues in the Credit Union Movement work hard daily to provide cooperative financial services to the communities we belong to. We look for ways to enliven and enrich all members of our communities, regardless of their account balances or their credit; regardless of age, sex, race, religion, sexual preference or ability. We learn through what we are doing each day, and if any of us employed by a CU consider ourselves rich, it is more likely due to the experiences are having, rather than because of the number on our paychecks. We know we would be making more if we were at a bank. Instead, we are beholden to our members, and strive to provide education and resources to help our members learn financial literacy, so they can make the right choices for them and their loved ones.

We are beholden to the principles that have founded and shaped us, because we believe that the cooperative principles will help the communities we live in find some hope in the bleak environment that we have been experiencing for years. We believe, like the protestors who are standing brave and tall in communities across the nation, that together, we can change things for the benefit of the 99%.

This peaceful protestor was kind, and serious.

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Financial Literacy is Imperative

Financial literacy is the ability to understand finance. More specifically, it refers to the set of skills and knowledge that allows an individual to make informed and effective decisions through their understanding of finances. Wikipedia

The PBS production Frontline: College, Inc. (available on Netflix Watch Instantly) demonstrates the need for true financial literacy. The investigation examines the practices of for-profit college education, revealing glaring problems with the quality of education provided.

Recruiters at for-profit institutions seek to enroll adults in their schools. They do this by letting them know the potential salaries in their fields of study, and claim to prepare them for employment in said field. One woman from the report was fed lies about why the psychology program they were enrolling her in wasn’t accredited. In another example, three young women recount the “on-site” portions they went to as part of their nursing program. One woman’s pediatric rotation? The students visited a daycare.

This, much like sub-prime lending, is fraud.

In criminal law, a fraud is an intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual. Wikipedia

There is a deep-rooted social justice issue in which one strata of our society feels entitled to the money of our large working-class. Our nation prides itself on The American Dream without laying out the clear groundwork to get there, and finish well. These institutions game the system by leveraging the debt of people who do not understand the loans they are signing for (funded by taxpayers), or who do not recognize that what they are being promised is undeliverable by the executives and recruiters who run these for-profit educational institutions.

Credit, when used responsibly, can help people. It can help people to get transport to jobs to help pay their bills for food and shelter. It can help people get the education to get the job to finance their dreams. Unfortunately, the way our dream-building infrastructure has been set up there’s no shortage of people willing to extend credit at predatory rates, no shortage of people who will take advantage of people who qualify for reasonable government support, and not enough regulators to serve and protect those whose motivations appear to be solely profit-driven.

Where does it stop? People are set-up over and over again to fail. No one person knows everything, but through our collective wisdom we can share with one another how to navigate life with modest success. When we teach one another, we help one another to stand.

It is imperative that we share the lessons learned and skills needed to operate in this world. We in the Credit Union Movement can do this is by empowering our members through consistent, ongoing efforts to increase financial literacy in the communities we belong to. I believe this to be critical.

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