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%.