We are all leaders, say the farmworkers, the indigenous, the students. We are all students too. The other day my friend Penny came to visit me in Brooklyn. She taught me something that she says I taught her while we organized together in college. “To be an ally you have to organize strategically,” explained Penny. This is why I am part of the movement to make universities more democratic.
I grew up outside of Miami, in the swamplands-turned-suburbs. My father never knew how to be a parent. He worked a lot and stayed out late, lost and also searching for something. When I left to college though, my father and I drove the eighteen hours to the University of Pennsylvania. He decided to tell me the story of his youth: his story of crossing the United States-Mexico border and working in the fields. He cried.
At Penn I joined a Xicanx student organization, and met people with family stories like mine. At first we did charity projects that just served as band-aids to problems. When we met farmworkers who were organizing to take power and change the fast food industry, we decided to organize as their allies. The farmworkers led the campaigns because they understood their situation better than we could. Yet, we students were part of the struggle too because the same fast food restaurants that were keeping down the price of produce, were also exploiting young consumers. So we organized with farmworkers…and won, one campaign after another!
Then some of us started organizing around our university’s endowment. The University of Pennsylvania was invested $15 million in the hotel-management company HEI Hotels & Resorts, a company accused of serious labor rights violations. HEI workers were organizing and invited us to organize with them. After our first round of meetings with the administration though, we realized students were excluded from decision-making at Penn. We were disappointed and felt powerless. For the next three years my student activist group organized – building a coalition of 30 student groups (including six large coalitions), petitioning, holding rallies, and having wait-ins – urging Penn not reinvest in HEI. During the spring of my senior year, we negotiated a public statement of non-reinvestment with Penn’s Executive Vice President of Finance. Friends at Harvard, Brown, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Vanderbilt, and Notre Dame also organized. HEI workers won better treatment from their employers. As students, we had also taken power within our university, making our university more democratic.
My organizing is also a way that I heal my relationship with my father. We talk about systems of oppression. He comes to actions with me. Standing under the sun all day alongside protesting farmworkers, my father feels proud. He is actualized, in a way far beyond the satisfaction he gets from his daily work and consumption. We are taking power.
You can take power with us. Students across the country are calling on universities to Move Our Money, with the goal of moving 2% of the endowment – and a significant portion of the operating budget – into Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs, or local banks and credit unions). Investing directly into CDFIs, instead of universities running their own "community investment" programs, avoids problems such as gentrification, because community members own and have a say in the way money is spent from their community financial institutions.
We’ve already had a number of victories, including UChicago students getting $1 million invested in CDFIs, and several hundred thousand dollars at a handful of other schools. Students are still working to move more money though.
Immigrant and people of color communities dealing with the prison industrial complex, poor and middle class folks dealing with the housing crisis, and frontline communities dealing with environmental catastrophe have called for divestment from bad banks. They are also calling for another economic model --- and community investment, which creates affordable housing, living wage jobs, and green technology, is part of that. As allies we must organize strategically, in a way that honors the voices of folks most directly exploited by bad banks, and their need for real improvements in their lives. Thus, we continue organizing for our universities to Move Our Money from bad banks to good banks.
Yet, we are all part of this. Bad banks are luring young people into credit cards with high interest rates and profiting off of student debt. In organizing for our universities to Move Our Money, students are demanding an economy that guarantees young people a future. By changing the endowment model of investing, we change the world by reshaping how investors invest. We are all leaders. You are a leader. Join the campaign to Move Our Money.
You can email me at [email protected] to find out how you can get involved.