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An Inclusive Approach To Financial Literacy

What does it mean to take a holistic approach to financial wellness? How do you take the full context of a community into account when trying to address economic and educational inequities? City Year and Santander don’t have all the answers, but we’ve started doing the work in the best way we know how: by putting boots on the ground and creating real relationships with the people and communities we serve.

Everyone needs to be financially literate. Financial literacy empowers people to make choices for themselves and their families. It can help people budget, plan for the future, analyze their spending, set goals, and build wealth and security. Understanding and feeling comfortable with financial literacy tools can help people navigate financial challenges and succeed in adulthood.

Historically, however, not all people have had equitable access to these tools.

In a new Q&A, City Year Greater Boston AmeriCorps members Kaley Whittle and James Burton speak with Courtney Cook, a community partnership manager at Santander Bank, a City Year national partner, to discuss the intersection of community, representation, and financial literacy.

“Wherever your start is, a life of financial success is achievable.”

— Courtney Cook of Santander Bank

Kaley Whittle (KW): In honor of Financial Literacy Month, I’d like to learn more about why this issue is important to Santander and to you, personally.

Courtney Cook (CC): We know the bank has an important responsibility to support individuals and families on their pathway to prosperity, which ultimately strengthens and creates vibrant communities. For most people, putting together the components of financial wellness—obtaining housing, reliable transportation, continuing education and managing income—will all require a relationship with a banking institution. A sound grip on financial literacy and the ability to navigate financial systems is critical for a life of stability and wealth building.

In my role as a Community Partnerships Manager, I support Santander’s strategy to cultivate equitable access to our banking services through the regional facilitation of our CSR objectives. I am passionate about raising awareness in our communities for the educational resources and products the bank provides and ensure people know and believe they are entitled to these services. Wherever your start is, a life of financial success is achievable.

James Burton (JB): Why do you think the issue of representation is so important in the banking sector?

CC: As an African American working in the banking sector, I do feel connected to a greater purpose outside of the functionality of my role. I work in an industry that has historically denied access to services and capital for Blacks and others from marginalized groups. Fortunately, we live in a world now where the industry has been regulated to lessen this kind of discrimination from happening and banking institutions have opened up opportunities to have diverse talent from all backgrounds and perspectives contributing to professional roles at all levels. I’m really proud of the strides Santander has made in its DEI efforts, particularly the establishment of our internal affinity-aligned Business Resource Groups (BRGs).

The bank’s BRGs create programming to foster employee engagement, and drive business impact by representing the voices of our community. As a leader in Santander’s Black Organization for Leadership Development (BOLD) BRG, I know our professional representation has impact and influence on the relationship with our customers and also in building a workforce that is reflective of the surrounding communities where our bank branches are planted.

I grew up in West Philly with a single mom who worked hard to invest in my education and opportunities for enrichment. I see myself represented in the communities I work with and the communities that City Year serves.

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Did you know that City Year AmeriCorps members serve across 29 U.S. cities?

I feel like I have an opportunity to show people there is a place for them within the financial services industry both in a professional capacity and as an engaged customer maximizing the financial resources at their disposal.  When we conduct programs within local schools or with other community partners, that might be one of the only opportunities people have to interact with a banker outside of a transaction. To have it be someone who has shared experiences leaves a lasting impression and influences what they can imagine for themselves.

KW: In your role at Santander, what is your approach to educating people about financial literacy?

CC: It’s a balance of teaching financial fundamentals, but also really understanding your audience and where they are coming from and the challenges they face. Santander has a targeted objective of strengthening financial wellness through financial education in communities across our footprint by investing in and building intentional connections in areas with a high concentration of moderate to low-income families and individuals, and communities of color.

I know from personal experience that banks may not be perceived as inclusive or welcoming places to people from this demographic. They can feel formal and intimidating, especially if they aren’t representative of the communities they are meant to support.

Our corporate volunteer program is centered in skills-based volunteerism that leverages the expertise of our colleagues from the bank to facilitate community education programs. It is a proactive approach in developing relationships with the community and their local bankers.  A significant portion of this work is done alongside the community partners we invest in which include organizations that provide a multitude of services such as financial literacy courses, technical assistance for minority-led small businesses, workforce development and re-entry initiatives, affordable housing resources, and youth development organizations like City Year.

We literally meet people where they are—in their neighborhoods, in partnership with organizations that they have familiarity with receiving services from.

When I’m building out programs, I am really intentional about leveraging the diversity of the bank to incorporate peer-to-peer components and have facilitators who can be relatable and have empathy. Building trust is a large part of how individuals will receive and utilize the information we impart and ultimately affects where they decide to become customers.

James Burton (JB): Can you talk more about your work with students and young adults? In my fourth-grade classroom, we recently delved into the unjust practice of redlining. The students raised numerous questions about why—even today—white people are more likely to secure loans compared to people of color. I was impressed by my students’ inherent curiosity and sense of justice.

CC: Absolutely! I also am always impressed during my interactions with how youth are processing and questioning this world that they have inherited. Our young people have so much more access to information and different perspectives than previous generations which cultivates a keen curiosity. I’m really passionate about equipping young people with financial education during their formative years. The earlier someone becomes financially literate, the earlier they have the confidence to make decisions to support creating a life they can thrive in. Reaching youth before they are given access to a credit card application or receive their first paycheck from employment is an important strategy of Santander’s commitment to youth development.  When I facilitate youth budget workshops in middle schools, they are already asking about the stock market and investments and have ideas for starting businesses and becoming CEOs. They want to know how they should approach financing their college experience.  They’re further along in the game as far as awareness of financial concepts and it gives me confidence that they can have a much better start.

Icon of a ringing bell partially covered by a transparent red capsule-shaped red overlay

 City Year AmeriCorps members serve as student success coaches.

City Year and Santander have a long-standing partnership centered around the education and empowerment of young people, ideals that go hand in hand. Whether it’s serving in a classroom, investing directly in community organizations, or hosting financial literacy workshops, the goal is to slowly break down the systematic barriers that keep our students from thriving—this means providing them with the support and resources to break the cycle, but also casting vision. The goal is to give students a new perspective on their future, to show them everything they’re capable of when given the right tools, information, and support.

Education is a vehicle for self-advocacy. I was somebody sitting in math class who needed to connect it to her future in order to focus and prioritize. I always come from that place, especially when I know that the circumstances surrounding our communities can be challenging.”

Young people deserve the chance to see themselves represented in the financial system; they deserve the education and the opportunity to build a future for themselves.

Closing reflection from City Year Greater Boston AmeriCorps member James Burton

City Year has given me a firsthand experience that has not only deepened my empathy for those navigating financial hardships but has also brought to the forefront the systemic issues tied to income inequality and decreased financial literacy.

My service serves as an important reminder of the privilege I carry and how essential it is to use my voice to speak out and advocate for change. During my service year, I am committed to navigating my own financial challenges and using this experience to amplify the voices of those enduring daily hardships. Ultimately, this reinforces my dedication to raising awareness and advocating for policies addressing the root causes of financial disparities.

Each experience I have been a part of during my service year has significantly enhanced my comprehension of the difficulties individuals face in coping with economic adversity. Additionally, it has shed light on the broader, systemic challenges linked to income disparity and a diminishing level of financial literacy. This gained insight serves as a reminder of the privileges I possess and the critical responsibility I have to advocate for systemic reform.

As I progress through the remainder of my service year, I am determined to improve my own financial literacy and to utilize my experiences to give a greater voice to those confronted with detrimental hardships daily. I am devoted to pursuing a course of action that leads to a society marked by greater equity and justice.

You can also check out Kaley’s and James’ reflections on how their understanding of equitable access to financial literacy tools has evolved during their year of service in Greater Boston public schools.

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