Q&A: Kristen Christian, Founder of ‘Bank Transfer Day’

kristen-christian-webIt was about a year ago that Los Angeles native and gallery owner Kristen Christian began using social media, mostly Twitter and Facebook, to plan ‘Bank Transfer Day,’ a one-day movement in which U.S. citizens would withdraw their cash from a large corporate bank and join a credit union—and she got hundreds of thousands to sign on. In the last quarter of 2011, credit unions added 398,000 customers. And earlier this year, CNN reported credit unions nationally have hit a new record number of members.

Christian is in Harrisburg today and tomorrow at the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association’s Social Centric Conference to speak about the impact social media can have on social and economic changes. PW caught up with Christian to figure out how her agenda have gone over the past year, and what’s left to be done.

It’s been almost a year since Bank Transfer Day. What changes have you seen in the American banking landscape since then?

Considering I set out with the intention of reaching less than 500 people in my social circle, I was floored to read in American Banker recently that six million American consumers have changed the way they bank. Although many banks have since attempted to portray their policies as friendly to small businesses and families, I’ve yet to see any significant change in the policies themselves. Bank of America re-established the $5 monthly fee for debit-card access after November [2011], illustrating that a promise to terminate the policy just before Bank Transfer Day was little more than a PR stunt.

Do you think the shift made people more aware to some of the abuses that were being conducted by large banks in the U.S., like extensive overdraft fees and customers’ money being invested in less-than-honorable places?

Offering frustrated consumers a simple directive to follow and a support network of like-minded individuals allowed for an open dialogue of not only the obstacles we face, but solutions to repair the damage that’s been done. It’s obvious that “too big to fail” has no place in a capitalist society where consumers have a duty to support businesses whose values echo their own. Financial cooperatives continue to echo my own values nearly a year later by offering their community of members an opportunity to take control of their own happiness and well-being.

Your campaign last year was an example of the large role social media can have on Americans’ spending habits. How do you see social media interactions having a similar affect on policy and consumer change in the future?

This social re-awakening has extended beyond banks or even businesses and straight into politics. While current candidates are speaking of cooperation, political science professors are teaching future generations of politicians and campaign advisors about the benefits of social media. If one person can influence change of this magnitude with a laptop and $10, it’s safe to say a candidate could run a successful campaign through private donations and an army of volunteers who believe in their cause.

Some within Occupy Wall Street latched onto Bank Transfer Day. Would you say you and the group had similar goals during the height of the movement?

While I believe that the Occupy movement had similar frustrations, our responses were strikingly different. I don’t see a value in continuing to point out a problem instead of utilizing time and energy to find a solution. I believe that actions speak louder than words, and we will only see positive change if we take a nondisruptive stance. Yelling at frontline employees who are just as much victims as the bank’s customers is ineffective and unnecessary. While Occupy Oakland was speaking of the misdeeds of Wells Fargo and even vandalizing the banks’ properties, organizers decided to open an account there.

You’re giving a session this week titled “Partnership for Prosperity.” What would you say is the main difference between the goals of this “new generation of consumers” and past ones?

In order to understand the goals of the Millennial and Homeland (those born post-2005) Generations, we need only look to the previous civic and adaptive generations. Empowered by our society at a young age the GI Generation would go on to produce seven United States presidents, implement legislation to de-segregate public schools and put a man on the moon. The Silent Generation produced virtually every civil-rights leader of the past century. We have big shoes to fill, but with the mentorship and experience of the generations that helped make us who we are, I’m confident the world will be a very different place when we’re done.

How do you think your campaign to switch out of banks showed this to be the case?

Louise Herring, who’s widely considered the mother of credit unions for her efforts to found 500 credit unions and participation in the formation of the Credit Union National Association, was a member of the last civic generation and only a few years younger than I am when she began her crusade. Many have been awed, though not entirely surprised, to see another young woman come along some 80 years later to champion the credit union mission of people helping people. It really is a beautiful mission that I believe will help repair not only our nation’s economy, but also our morale.

And how should businesses and nonprofits seek out these consumers?

One of the first things I explain to clients seeking my services is that social media is a language that the next generation of consumers are inherently fluent in. Experienced marketers collaborating with Millennials to add a sense of fluency to the conversation will serve any company well. From there, I recommend that businesses utilize transparent and ethical policies to provide quality products or services to empower consumers to become their most outspoken advocates.

Christian speaks today at the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association’s Social Centric Conference at the Central Hotel and Conference Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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