Personal finances become A Public Thing at Peavey Plaza on Bank Change Day

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A woman sat in one corner of Peavey Plaza, along the Nicollet Mall, at a foot-pedal sewing machine sewing dollar bills end to end, as a crowd of about 50 people assembled to discuss money on Bank Change Day. The woman, Rachel Breen, was one of several artists who was there as part of Financial Engagement/A Public Thing. An event organized by artists and journalists who wanted to start a public conversation on the state of the ecomony.  As one of the organizers, Colin Kloecker, explained to the crowd, “We’re not an organization but we all agree that the economy needs deep organizational change.”

Kloecker, along with Shanai Matteson from Works Progress and Sarah Peters and Molly Priesmeyer (Good Work Group), Sam Gould (Red76), Molly Balcom Raleigh, and other artists and writers, put the event together following their own conversations sparked by Bank Change Day. Bank Change Day, which originated on Facebook, has become the crest of a wave of consumer action to switch accounts from big banks to credit unions and small, locally based, nonprofit banks.

The event began shortly after 1 p.m., Shanai Mattson directed introductions as those assembled gathered in a circle. Everyone had put on nametags that had a spot for their name, what they wanted to know “about the state of our economy and how to make it better” and what they knew, “because “everyone has knowledge to share,” according to Mattson.

The topic for discussion was open but Mattson read out loud a list of questions to get the conversation going, “How does our economy work? What are some strategies for creating more economically sustainable families and communities? What is the difference between a credit union and a bank? Should student loans be forgiven? What is income vs. wealth? What financial education resources are available? What is possible?”

Following introductions, Kloecker explained that we would be using the Open Space Technology model for a public discussion. Peavey Plaza became a sort of conference room with people gathered in circles to discuss various questions generated by individuals in the crowd. A number of people there had signed on as “documentarians.” Armed with cameras, notepads and recording devices, they collected stories for a newspaper about the event.

Sarah Peters, the editor, explained that the Financial Engagement/A Public Thing newspaper will be available online at the end of November and that it is also going to be printed and distributed to the public on Black Friday, the big shopping day after Thanksgiving.

A half dozen groups gathered around individuals who stepped forward with questions. Each group was identified by a big cardboard sign with a letter on it. The group I sat in on was moderated by Molly, who asked “What are some practical, everyday things I can do to contribute to a better economy?” During the course of an hour, the group of mostly young adults, shared questions and brainstormed answers on the topic. Notes were taken so that representatives from each group could report back to the whole group.

The discussion ranged from options when changing banks to wondering, as one participant asked, “Are we really changing things by doing this?” A list of other things people could do centered on supporting local businesses for everything from holiday shopping to getting a pair of shoes repaired. Although most in my group seemed to agree, someone noted, “We don’t all have to agree. Just getting involved and getting political rhetoric out of the decision-making will help.”

A trumpet sounded to signal the end of small group discussions. Each group reported back. When everyone was finished there was applause. Matttson announced that the discussion was perhaps the first in what may turn into  a series of public conversations organized in this collaborative way. In a final artistic touch, the cardboard letters that had been used to identify discussion groups were assembled as everyone gathered on the plaza for a group photo. They spelled out, A Public Thing.

Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.