Reflections on REC's 7th National Conference

By Brett Vetterlein, Community Investment Campaign Organizer

Last weekend, October 9th and 10th, the Responsible Endowments Coalition held their 7th National Conference at Columbia University in New York City. Students and faculty came from all over, Boston to St. Louis, Oregon to North Carolina, California to Pittsburgh, and even Canada. These activists and organizers gathered to attend workshops, discuss strategy, and have a bit of fun. However, I think we all walked out with a little bit more than we had originally anticipated.

For me the conference started very late Friday night, when two people who were at that point strangers to me from the University of Pittsburgh buzzed up to my Bronx apartment. I was expecting them, of course. The hostel where everyone was supposed to sleep had run out of room for all of the REC attendees so I offered my couches as extra sleeping space. After some getting to know one another I let them get to bed.

Fast-forward to 7 A.M. Saturday morning, when I woke up after less than four hours of sleep. I realized I had forgotten to print out my script for the workshop I was leading, not to mention the schedule for the day. Needless to say I was worried about what laid ahead. Trying not to wake my guests up, I poured a cup of coffee and ran out the door at 7:30 hoping to make it to the hostel on 104th Street around 8:15. The MTA didn’t like my plan however, and decided 8:25 was a more appropriate time for me to arrive. I met Martin, REC’s national organizer and a few other staff members, not the mention the room full of student activists, for coffee and bagels before heading over to the conference center at Columbia.

After making a quick round to make sure everyone was out of bed and ready to get going, we started out for our destination. The only problem was that I had no idea where any of my fellow Fordham activists were, not to mention the two Pittsburgh people I had made them responsible. I was getting a little nervous. After arriving at the conference center and sending out a few strongly-worded text messages, I began to relax as I drank my third cup of coffee, and Dan and Martin introduced the conference.

My first workshop was “Student Power: Organizing and Envisioning Democracy in Higher Education” presented by Patrick St. John and Tristan Husby. I was really blown away by the historical and social context they brought to the student movement. The two began by introducing the concepts of the “university” and “student power” and then moved onto discussing the history of the structure of higher education, pointing out that in the 14th century, when universities first started popping up, there existed a student run university. We talked about what a student run university could look like and how we could get there, not to mention discussing why its important to use prefigurative politics.

After lunch, and another cup of coffee and two cans of coke (I was on a bit of a caffeine high by this point), it was my turn to run a workshop with my fellow REC community investment campaign organizer from Tufts, Caroline Incledon. This was what I had been looking forward to (and simultaneously dreading) for weeks now. It was our job to introduce these students to Community Investment and convincing them that they could move their university’s money out of the big banks that caused the financial crash. The presentation went great though, with the help of Dan, REC executive director (although he won’t like me saying so). We talked about different kinds of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and how we could use the economic recession to prove to our university administrations that investing in our local community not only will help residents of the depressed areas our universities are located in, but will be a way of telling the big banks we don’t approve of their practices.

After that the Keynote Panel, Sarah Ludwig from the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project and Leslie Lowe, a consultant for several SRI industry organizations, presented on the practices of banks like Chase, how practices like sub-prime mortgage lending are the natural successor to the practice of redlining, systematically denying loans to low-income communities and especially communities of color. They also showed how universities and other institutional investors can fight back. All in all it was very inspirational.

Next I attended the “Moving your Money” workshop led by Vonda Brunsting from the Service Employees International Union, who gave us ideas about how to get individuals and especially universities to break up the big banks by moving their accounts away from Chase, Bank of America, etc and into small community banks and credit unions, just like many pension funds, labor unions, and other institutional investors have been doing for years.

The day ended with a walk back to the Hostel for some pizza and open discussion. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend the any of the “open spaces” as they are called, because I met with some people to discuss REC’s Steering Committee, possibly one of my favorite aspects of the organization. It is a group made up of entirely students that is meant to advise REC’s Board of Trustees, to make sure that we always remain driven by the needs of the actual students. Talk about democracy in action!

While many others went out to bars and to sightsee in the city, I headed home for some much needed rest. The morning came too quickly once again, and I found myself back at Columbia soon enough sitting in Cheyenna Weber’s, REC’s former national organizer, workshop “Creating Sustainable Activist Cultures,” where we discussed how to created long-term movements and avoid burnout for others and especially ourselves. The entire conversation made me think very seriously about the campaign I’m running at Fordham and how to make sure that it is always enjoyable so that I don’t get burnt out too quickly.

The last workshop was presented by Yotam Marom, a NYC activist formerly from the New School and member of the Organization for a Free Society (not to mention a good friend of mine). He led a workshop called “The Movement Inside and Out,” about how to structure our movements so we promote diversity and inclusiveness, not to mention challenge multiple sections of social life (the economy, sexism, racism, etc) while organizing for social change.

Finally the conference ended with us going around “RECognizing” (get it?) all the people we wanted to thank for making the weekend memorable. After eating another leftover bagel from breakfast, giving a few directions to out-of-towners, and chatting with some people, I finally went home, happy with a successful weekend and my first REC conference of what I’m sure will be many.

I’d like to thank Martin, Dan, and all my fellow REC Student Organizers, and especially all the students from around the country for coming and making REC’s National Conference something truly great, and for doing all the great work we all do on our campuses. Here’s to us getting a better world. We’ll make it happen soon enough.

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