Banking has been confusing to me for as long as I can remember. In elementary school, my classmates and I were brought to our auditorium. I had my little green bank book and dollar bill in hand. There were 6th graders helping the Yonkers Savings Bank staff record our deposits in our bank books. I wondered, was the bank a business, if so, how did it make money? Or, maybe it was more like the Red Cross?
The puzzle deepened when I accompanied my mother on banking errands in Getty Square. One bank reminded me of a castle in a fairy tale. After an excursion to New York City, I perceived it as a less affluent cousin of Radio City Music Hall. It signaled W-E-A-L-T-H from every gold leaf, chandelier, marble tile and mahogany desk. I asked my mother about it. She tried to explain, but it just didn’t add up. In time I realized banks provide services to businesses that somehow were profitable; they also invest the money people deposit. (The only thing emphasized to me was: even if they make a bad investment, we won’t lose our money.) OK, it was a business, it must be making money, but the nitty-gritty was hiding way below the surface.
When I was eight my father bought a business for $28,000. At some point I overheard that it was short cash. A number of family members had made loans to my parents – but one had reneged at the last minute. I remember taking out my monopoly set and praying that God would turn some of those cream colored one hundred dollar bills into real money.
It never occurred to me a bank could be a resource to us. There’s no way I can find out if one could have helped, but I’d bet against it. (My mother’s family had a “cousin’s club” that got together a few times a year. It began around World War I as a loan society. Immigrant families needed to depend on each other – banks were not a resource for them and my guess is a decade after World War II that was still true for many of the next generation.)
My next bank experience, many years later was unforgettable. I decided to become the unpaid coordinator of the newly formed Rockland Community Foundation. The president of the foundation was also the president of a local bank.
The Rockland Community Foundation had very little money, but in those years there was lots of public money available to groups doing “prevention” work. My job was to develop/coordinate/oversee a request for proposals, identify experts in the field who would score the submitted proposals and make recommendations to the Foundation Board based on them
The bank president made a big announcement – he would match the $150,000 of government money with a donation from his bank. But this promise never materialized. Instead he used the Foundation to advance his bank’s name and did not contribute a penny to its mission.
I was familiar with the way Boards of Directors worked in the non-profit world and this foundation, with carefully drawn by-laws, was a non-profit. But the bank president would call meetings without conferring with me about an agenda, and at least once, not telling me about the meeting at all. At some meetings he would only invite board members he wanted around the table, neglecting to tell the remainder of the board about the meeting. His misogynist undertones were enraging. Things came to a head when the scoring was completed and without discussion with me, he made awards that basically aligned with his business interests rather than the carefully scored proposals.
I wrote a letter to our County Executive – someone I knew had great interest in substance abuse prevention. I heard from an administrator in the Mental Health Department who offered me a $5,000 stipend for the hard work I had done contingent upon my willingness to accept the Foundation President’s approach to the foundation. I saw his offer as “hush money” and refused it. I soon heard from someone else in the mental health department who told me how unprofessional I was acting and to never expect a job in county government.
I was grateful this unpaid assignment was over, except for the violent fantasies that remained. And, I became a one-woman divestment campaign – urging anyone and everyone to take their money/their organization’s money out of that bank. I doubt I changed hearts or minds then. Now I will be adding my voice in the next blog to the thousands out there focused on the cozy relationship between banks and fossil fuels and I expect to be more persuasive.
When the banking collapse began in 2007 I was riveted, as were many, by Elizabeth Warren. She understood the complicated wrinkles of banking and knew how to address them, yet she wasn’t given the respect and latitude she needed. My bank fiasco had been buried for 25 years, thank goodness. But in writing this blog post it was reawakened. I can only imagine how disturbing Elizabeth Warren’s violent fantasies must have been.