Snapshot: Samira Rajan

CEO, Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union
How did you get into this work?
I had been interested in issues around the distribution of wealth since undergrad when I studied economics. It seemed that the banking system, given the ability of banks to determine where investment flows, had a central role in determining that distribution. After undergrad I worked at the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department, thinking that helping to determine banking regulation would be a good path towards ensuring more equitable banking policy. While I was in graduate school, however, my advisor suggested that spending some time in banking at the street level would be quite useful in seeing what truly affects economic growth.

So after I graduated, I volunteered at a start-up credit union not far from my home in Queens, New York. I ended up being an Americorp*VISTA and thought I would be there no more than a year, and then return to policy and regulation. But I ended up loving it!  First, as a start-up business, you have to do everything, wear all hats, and that was a fascinating challenge. Second, as a loan officer, I spent most of my days talking to individuals about their life circumstances – why they needed a loan to move, what their small business was all about, why they want to consolidate their credit cards.  All these hundreds, then thousands, of stories kept me at the credit union. The abstract of bank policy lost out to the really important everyday concerns of people trying to make some progress in their lives.

What does ‘solidarity economy’ mean to you?

It means having creating a different way in which we can distribute resources. Sharing ought to be an option alongside the more exclusive or individual ownership that capitalism requires. It’s rare that people want wealth as an end in itself – mostly people want to be able to accomplish other goals and they need some resources to do so. Capitalist structures tend to crowd out any space for other types of structures, ones which are not built around the singular accumulation of wealth. I think of ‘solidarity economy’ as a way to talk about all these other possible structures, like cooperatives.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this work?

Just day-to-day survival is hard. As a community credit union, a tiny financial institution in this cutthroat jungle of financial service providers in New York City, you can start to feel pretty besieged.  Regulators, bank competitors, online predatory lenders, hackers that want to steal information – all of these challenge Brooklyn Coop’s ability to make it through the year.  On top of just surviving, of course, we want to have impact in our neighborhoods.  It feels enormous and practically insurmountable most days.

Another challenge is being able to talk about these ideas to our members, to ordinary people walking into the credit union. They each have specific and pressing economic concerns and most don’t have time for abstract discussions of wealth.  I haven’t yet found a reliable and simple way to connect our mission to tangible benefits for our members. I really want to!  I want our members to understand both levels at which Brooklyn Coop works – as a comprehensive financial service provider and as a mechanism for generating and capturing local wealth.

Why do you think it’s important for cooperatives to help other cooperatives?

Because we need all the help we can get!  Collaboration is always better, in the end, I believe, than establishing ‘turf’ and hoarding resources.


What is your ‘theory of change’? 

Ay!  That seems such a large question. Essentially, just keeping to the things I know best, I believe that small institutions – ones that are closely attuned to local conditions and local needs – are better than larger ones. And, among other reasons, I think shared ownership is positive because responsibility is also shared.

Where can we find more information about the work you are doing in the future?

There’s nothing too formal.  I try to keep up a blog, so our website might be a good place to check for new developments.

What is the best way for people to get involved and support your work?

Brooklyn Coop can grow and expand only insofar as we have stable operating income. Mostly our operating income comes from interest on our loans. So, the best way to support BCoop is to move your credit balances – your credit cards, auto loan, even mortgage! – to BCoop so that we are earning the interest rather than a for-profit bank.
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