Instead of just battling the big banks, activists are working to strengthen a diverse alternative financial system that pursues social goals and offers affordable lending, but that currently remains undercapitalized, and in the case of credit unions serving low-income communities, is even shrinking. This diverse sector includes community lenders like cooperative and community loan funds, credit unions—nonprofit, democratically run cooperatives whose depositor-owners have one vote no matter how much is in their account—and cooperative banks like CoBank and the Washington D.C.-based National Cooperative Bank. Visionaries in 22 states are organizing to replicate the Bank of North Dakota, a state bank founded in the wake of a farmer uprising early in the 20th century. The bank holds government deposits and works through community banks to loan to business enterprises (including the fossil fuel industry), homebuyers, and students (see Abby Scher, Banking on the Public, D&S online).
The alternative financial sector needs strengthening. While the large CoBank and National Cooperative Bank are prominent exceptions, many of the institutions that support cooperatives and other democratic New Economy enterprises remain undercapitalized, are curbed by regulations promoted by commercial banks, or are only beginning to create ties of solidarity with other parts of the cooperative sector. But they are taking the best ideas from abroad and getting serious about scaling up.
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