Solidarity Snapshot: René Vargas Martínez

Program Officer at Inclusiv

How did you get into this work? 

Helping consumers and defending students through my work with credit unions and at the University of Puerto Rico made me fall in love with the concept of access for underserved communities – access to education, financial services, and opportunities. I decided that I wanted to make empowerment the focus of my career, and I am lucky to be able to do it at Inclusiv.  

My first real job was at a credit union in Puerto Rico. I loved educating members about credit and building a better financial future. Every loan I refinanced from a predatory institution was a small victory. While I was working there, I studied law during the evenings, and got involved in Student Government. I had the honor of representing students in different capacities: Academic Senator, President of the Student Council, and Student Representative to the University’s Board of Trustees. I also participated in the 2010 Student Strike at the University of Puerto Rico, where students organized to repeal a tuition increase and protest the government’s management of the economic crisis in the island.

After I graduated from law school, I was appointed Director of the Student Ombudsperson’s office at the University of Puerto Rico. Afterwards, I was promoted to Associate VP for Student Affairs, where I worked to change university policies and increase access to higher education for students from low-income communities. I also had the honor of helping hundreds of students through their college journey and served as a mediator in numerous conflicts, one of the most meaningful periods of my life.

What does ‘solidarity economy’ mean to you?

A conglomerate of organizations, practices and values that are of a transformative nature and share a similar mission of equality and justice.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this work?

We operate in a society and economy that has deeply rooted systems and attitudes that alienate or exclude whole communities and groups. Our Juntos Avanzamos program establishes a framework for integrating Hispanics and undocumented immigrants into the financial system at a time when immigrants are often vilified in public discourse. Our Puerto Rico CDFI Initiative aims to bring resources to Puerto Rico through democratically owned financial cooperatives at a time when the federal government’s position is that Puerto Rico has received enough help, even though it has received much less disaster relief than other states and the situation post Hurricane Maria is still dire.

For example, when we discuss the issue of financial services for immigrants, legality and repayment always comes up. There is nothing preventing financial institutions from serving undocumented immigrants, yet there is fear out there, and that fear leads people to believe opening an account or making a loan to an undocumented immigrant is illegal. All of our experience and available data shows that immigrants are just as responsible when engaging with financial institutions. That is a fact, yet, some lenders are still scared to engage with them.  When we discuss our Puerto Rico Initiative, we encounter notions about Puerto Ricans being foreign citizens, or that they are irresponsible as a whole, based on what people have heard about the actions of their local government. The truth is that hundreds of organizations operate successfully and are profitable in Puerto Rico. These are only some examples of the challenges we face out there.

Our programs are set against a reality that we are committed to change. These challenges are not unique to our organization, but they are there. We are harnessing the collective power of credit unions to empower all people living and working in the US, thereby creating more inclusive local economies.

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

Cooperatives have the power to accomplish real change that transcends their communities. Cooperation between cooperatives is one of the primary values of the cooperative movement and a natural extension of the cooperative philosophy.  Cooperatives, as a collective, integrated system, have the power to accomplish much more and transform the way our economy is operating. Cooperation between cooperatives is already a reality in many places. In Puerto Rico there is an integrated cooperative system, where financial, worker, service, and housing cooperatives work together and help finance and promote each other. They also invest in new cooperatives structures and have joint ventures to serve them. There is a cooperative loan fund for new cooperative development, a cooperative insurance company, supermarkets, and pharmacies: a whole ecosystem that sustains itself and works for the benefit of the communities they operate in.

What is your ‘theory of change’?

Access to financial services for people with low and moderate income through community owned financial cooperatives will help address structural inequality and revitalize economically distressed communities that have historically been excluded from productive engagement with the financial system. I believe that community credit unions can bring about change for individuals and the financial system as a whole. I am fortunate to work at an organization that has the interests of communities and consumers at heart, and advocates for financial inclusion for everyone.

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

You can visit www.inclusiv.org.

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

Spread the word about Inclusiv and Juntos Avanzamos and open an account at your community credit union!

You can contact me directly at rvargasmartinez@inclusiv.org.

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