THE BLOG

Occupy Next Step: Reinvesting Our Money!

01/05/2012 12:52 pm ET | Updated Mar 06, 2012

The Great Recession has shed a harsh light on American economic practices. Greg Palast, Matt Taibbi, Glen Greenwald and other investigative reporters and analysts have repeatedly shown how large institutions' financial practices undermined the national economy and impoverished local communities.

But one of the bright spots of last year was the return to progressive political action to hold financial institutions accountable. Not all of this action has been in the streets. Some of the most constructive attempts at change have taken place in local agencies where progressive political leaders have used their powers creatively.

One such local activist is Abel Guillen, a bright, energetic education leader in his second term as Trustee of California's Peralta Community Colleges. These colleges -- Laney, Merritt, Berkeley and Alameda Colleges -- serve the large East Bay Alameda County working class population in the San Francisco East Bay (Alameda County). The schools are stepping stones for immigrant and blue collar families to achieve employment and improve their standards of living.

Guillen himself, the son of a baker and a cook, the first in his family to graduate from college, grew up in a neighborhood where few people even considered college. He persevered through University of California, Berkeley, to earn his bachelor's degree, then a master's degree in public administration. For the last 10 years he has used these skills to give back to his community. Working as the vice president of a public school finance firm, he has helped raise over 2.5 billion dollars to build and modernize public schools and community colleges.

But as he worked on funding, he saw taxpayers dollars and student fees in the college system being railroaded out of the district into investment schemes that jeopardized the schools and enriched the few at the expense of the many.

So Abel Guillen fought back. On Nov. 25, he introduced -- and the Peralta Community College District passed unanimously -- a resolution for the local reinvestment of its student fees and community tax dollars that will move its funds from large, for-profit banks to community-based financial institutions. Guillen noted that these goals were in line with the most constructive aspects of the popular Occupy Movement, but removed from the destructive vandalism of fringe groups that trashed store fronts and disruptions that harassed workers.

"This practical action will redirect our college funds and spending power into community-based financial institutions and serve the interests of our students and the East Bay residents who make up the 99 percent," said Guillen. The Peralta Colleges serve more than 45,000 students and have an annual budget of $140 million dollars.

Guillen's resolution emulated the spirit of National Bank Transfer Day, the consumer action which paralleled and to some extent over-lapped Occupy Wall Street. For Transfer Day, consumers were urged to move their accounts from commercial banks to not-for-profit credit unions. Some in the Occupy movement did not think this action went far enough. But the Credit Union National Association reported that 650,000 people opened new accounts by the target date of Nov. 5. Some 80 percent of credit unions increased their new accounts as a result.

This movement gave concrete, constructive action to many who could not or would not join the movement in the streets and to those who wanted to take more than the symbolic act of demonstrating. Abel Guillen himself is seeking to take the next step... declaring himself a candidate for the California State Assembly. "There is much work to do," promised Guillen. "We are the generation to carry this all forward!"

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