How you can get involved in advancing financial literacy

How to get involved with financial literacy

I often meet people who want to help others live their best financial lives. Usually, this impulse stems from seeing folks around them make decisions about money that aren’t in their best interest—and knowing that with a little financial literacy boost, they would be on a sounder financial footing.

But where do you begin? How can you join in the money-smart movement? I reached out to a few finlit advocates for their advice. Here are four ways you can get involved.

1. Support great financial literacy organizations.

For years, working for Chase Bank in Queens, N.Y., Edwidge Pierrsaint would see young people come in with little money understanding; some didn’t even know where to sign their checks. “So I figured I’d get involved and help young people know from an early age about money and credit cards,” she said. “They really have no idea about credit cards.”

In 2016, Pierrsaint decided to pitch in at the Council for Economic Education (the CEE—one of my favorite organizations!) via the volunteer network New York Cares. Every year since, she’s led a team that helps out with CEE’s annual National Economics Challenge, in which teams of high schoolers compete against each other to answer questions about economics and current events. Pierrsaint loves the experience and notes happily that in the years since she started volunteering, more girls are participating.

You might find that your local community center, YMCA, or even Girl Scout troop has a program in financial literacy that needs your help. (The Girl Scouts encourage members to explore entrepreneurship—after all, their cookie business is up to $800 million annually! The group offers 26 different financial literacy badges.) You can find other opportunities through a network like VolunteerMatch.

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2. Lobby your local school board and/or state legislature.

Jessica Weaver is a self-described “finlit feminist.” At age 21, she has thrown herself into advancing financial literacy in Connecticut while pursuing a master’s degree in public policy. “I view financial literacy as a tool to increase female representation in the economy,” Weaver said. It all began when a college internship connected her with a mentor, Denise Nappier, who was then Connecticut’s state treasurer. Through Nappier, the first female African-American state treasurer in the U.S., Weaver learned of the sad state of financial education in many states including her own.

When she discovered that Connecticut high schools didn’t have a finlit requirement, she met with her state senator about drafting legislation. (Check out her op-ed in the Hartford Courant.) But budgetary and bureaucratic realities meant this would have to be a long-term goal, so Weaver switched gears to lobby for a finlit mandate at state universities, where there was less red tape. In just a few days, she gathered a thousand signatures at the University of Connecticut, leading to the establishment of an online financial literacy course available to all UConn students. And this past fall she campaigned for a seat on the school board in her hometown of Newington, Conn., making financial literacy education a main plank of her platform. Naturally, she won.

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The fact that financial education is a bipartisan issue makes it appealing to politicians. To get involved, follow your legislators on social media to track events and issues. Sign up for legislative newsletters to stay informed. And connect to civic groups on Facebook, advised Weaver. That’s an excellent way to find partners there to advance your objectives. When speaking to local officials, tell them about initiatives taking place in other local school districts or neighboring states. Not only will it educate them on the latest in finlit, but it may also prod them to action because representatives don’t like to fall behind their peers. (For a national overview of current financial education requirements and tips for how to advocate for financial education where you live, check out the CEE’s website.) And don’t be shy about attending a meeting and making your voice heard.

“As basic as it does sound,” Weaver said, “half the battle is just showing up.” 

3. Make a financial literacy presentation at a school.

At Castle Hill Middle School in the Bronx, librarian Philip Marc runs a voluntary after-school program about money. The course covers the ins and outs of paychecks, the basics of saving and investing, and wants vs. needs. “Every middle-school student thinks their main need is electronics,” Marc said.

Students watch presentations from volunteers like José Peña, who grew up in the Bronx and is now a financial consultant. Peña gets through to kids by talking about the student debt he’s still paying off, and the bad financial habits he developed growing up—and eventually changed. He recalls blowing earnings from his high school job on video games at GameStop. “I was spending money on stuff I didn’t need,” said Peña. “To this day I still have sneakers from high school, and I’m about to be 30 years old.” Added Marc: “A lot of people still have a you-should-learn-that-at-home mentality,” but parents have asked if he can work with them on financial education basics, too.

To see if there’s an opportunity, approach your local school’s principal with a proposal. It’s important to have some background in the subject, and even have a sample lesson plan. Not all schools will be open to having you come in, Peña warned, but “if you’re passionate about it, just go after it. It’s very satisfying.” 

4. Start your own initiative.

Kenisha Dennis grew up in a service-oriented family. In college, she and her sorority sisters volunteered in local schools, where she saw firsthand the need for African-American girls to become more empowered.

“In conversations with women, I’ve found that while we are finally making more, we are not saving more,” Dennis said. “We still do not possess the behaviors to build wealth.”

After years of volunteering and working with children as a dance instructor and substitute teacher, Dennis created Black Girls Can, a nonprofit that provides workshops, job shadowing, and other activities for girls in middle and high school. Today, the organization promotes financial literacy, entrepreneurship, the STEAM fields, and wellness, while nurturing self-esteem and leadership skills. It provides programs to a middle school in the Bronx and workshops at schools in the Washington, D.C., area, where Dennis lives.

Dennis developed her hands-on curriculum by talking to girls about money attitudes that they have picked up from their parents. “Some parents make sure their kids are dressed to the nines, but they can’t go to a museum because they don’t have $5 for admission,” Dennis said. In her programs, girls role-play scenarios and practice skills like filling out checks, reading pay stubs, and budgeting, using sums of money that reflect the realities of their lives.

Talking about money can leave you tongue-tied. My weekly newsletter is full of financial conversation starters.

Her advice for those who want to start a similar initiative? “Start by volunteering,” Dennis said. Black Girls Can is the culmination of six years working with kids and Dennis’s own early experiences as a student who benefited from programs like the one she would eventually create. Volunteering gives you a ground-level view of how organizations like the one you want to build work. It also connects you with the community you want to serve and helps you find mentors who can advise you. “There are books and articles that I read, but I also was in the field,” Dennis said. “You have to have some skin in the game with the community before you can say you are of the community.” And you don’t have to quit your day job. Dennis fits her labor of love around her gig as a corporate marketer.

Raising your voice for financial literacy can seem daunting, but there are so many ways to make a difference. What will you do? Please write me with your ideas!

advocacy Council for Economic Education financial education financial literacy financial literacy organizations finlit get involved Girls Scouts lobbying New York Cares School volunteering YMCA

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