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Keeping Up With Change

news2_KyleLocal surfer’s activism video continues to make a splash

By Nick Veronin At the beginning of last summer, Kyle Thiermann was already enjoying above average notoriety. The 19-year-old Santa Cruz native is a professional surfer, sponsored by local and national brands. These days, however, he finds himself being stopped on the street for another reason altogether—getting people to switch banks.

“I’ve been recognized before,” Thiermann says. “[But] I’m constantly getting people who now recognize me.”

Back in early July, Thiermann put together a simple Wordpress website and posted a video to YouTube as part of a school project aimed at bringing awareness to a relatively obscure controversy brewing in Constitución, Chile. The focus of Thiermann’s video was a proposed coal-fired power plant, funded in part by Bank of America, which threatened to upset the livelihood of the local community and contaminate the waves just offshore. In the short film, the young wave-rider urged viewers to bank locally. By doing so, individuals would ensure that their money wouldn’t be leveraged to fund projects such as the Constitución plant and would instead likely find its way back into the local community.

After receiving coverage in several Santa Cruz media outlets, Thiermann’s effort kicked into full gear. Before the publication of the Good Times cover story, “Surfing for Change” (9/3/09), Thiermann had documented $40,000 in transfers from multinational banks to local ones. Today he has documented about $10 million in transfers—and that’s just from people who write to him directly through his website. “Claim Your Change” has 4,300 YouTube views.

“I always hoped that it would take off,” he says, “but I definitely didn’t expect it to get to this level.”

Representatives from both Bay Federal Credit Union and Santa Cruz County Bank say customers have opened new accounts as a direct result of hearing about Thiermann’s cause.

Tonée Picard, executive vice president of Bay Federal Credit Union, says that several accounts were opened at her bank after a presentation on local banking hosted by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Thiermann screened “Claim Your Change” at the event and representatives from four Santa Cruz banks spoke about the benefits of keeping one’s money in the immediate community.

“I can’t give you a concrete number, but we definitely saw an increase in the wake of [his] presentation,” Picard says.

“I think it’s great that my project is at least helping the movement [to bank locally],” Thiermann says. “I think it’s becoming more apparent that it’s the right thing to do. It’s kind of like now when you drive a Hummer downtown it can be socially awkward. My hope is that this movement will keep going and more people will wake up to this.”

Rick Hofstetter, president and CEO of Lighthouse Bank, says that he does not know of anyone who has opened an account in his bank solely due to watching Thiermann’s video, but he appreciates the young surfer’s efforts all the same.

“Personally I think it is great,” he says. “I don’t need to be convinced.”

Hofstetter explains that all the money his bank takes in is used nearly exclusively to finance projects in the community, and even if money does leave Santa Cruz County, it doesn’t go far. “A foreign loan for us might go to San Jose,” he says.

Hofstetter is disappointed that so little attention is paid to this issue, but he understands why so many people continue to bank with the large banks. “People don’t really like dealing with the major banks, but they continue to because of the perceived inconvenience” of banking with a smaller bank, he says.

People often cite convenient access to their bank’s ATMs, which allows them to avoid service fees, as a reason for banking with a larger financial institution. But, he points out, since Lighthouse has no ATMs at all, they absorb all convenience fees charged to their customers’ accounts.

“These institutions have been very good at marketing,” Hofstetter explains.

Britney Sheehan, a media relations representative from Bank of America, says that Thiermann’s video is misleading and an oversimplification of issues.

Sheehan insists that Bank of America is committed to environmental initiatives and the development of low-carbon energy sources. “While we invest in renewable and other clean technologies,” she says, “the fact remains that for the time being, fossil fuels, and coal in particular, will continue to supply a significant amount of the energy needed to power society.”

The power plant in Constitución is still moving forward toward construction.

Thiermann does not agree with Sheehan’s argument. “I think that Bank of America doesn’t have a vested interest in the country and the local community doing well, because they aren’t based in that community,” he says. “Local banks do have a vested interest in the communities they serve. That’s the message I want people to take from my video.”

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