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Understanding the importance of equitable access to financial literacy

In recognition of Financial Literacy Month, City Year AmeriCorps members are exploring the importance of financial literacy for young people’s futures, especially in the schools and communities we serve where broader social and economic inequities and challenges persist.

In this collaborative essay, two City Year Greater Boston AmeriCorps members, Kaley Whittle and James Burton, explore how their understanding of financial literacy has evolved during their service year and by working closely with students.

We all make choices. Some are small, like deciding what coffee to order in the morning, and some are big, like selecting where to go to college or committing a year of your life to service. These choices, big and small, guide us through our daily lives, and whether we choose to admit it or not, the undercurrent of many of these decisions is money.

Navigating the complex financial system

Learning how to manage our finances, how to take smart risks, how to save money, and what it means to live with less—all these lessons and skills are a big part of adulthood. As AmeriCorps members ages 17-25 serving with City Year Greater Boston, we recognize that we all come to service, and to life, with different financial backgrounds, different levels of comfort with managing our money, and different kinds of knowledge about navigating a complex system.

Understanding financial inequities that persist for many people

Kaley Whittle: My time with City Year has expanded my understanding of the broader social and financial challenges that persist for the students we serve, and the related educational disparities City Year is fighting to change.

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Learn more about how City Year’s student success coaches are helping to expand educational equity in systemically under-served communities.

Throughout the various points of my service, I have gained an acute awareness of how systemic barriers can obstruct the academic and personal growth of young, resilient students.

I think often about the first time the Scholastic Book Fair visited the school where I serve. My students had mixed reactions: enthusiasm, some disdain, but mostly disinterest. I was more excited than most of them. I loved reading growing up and I loved the book fair. This was my chance to save up my allowance and spend it on whatever I wanted—any subject, any series, any glitter pen that glowed in the dark. It was one of my earliest introductions to financial autonomy and independence.

I was expecting a similar reaction from my students and was shocked when they didn’t respond in the same way.

When our class finally went down to the fair, the kids flooded the cardboard shelves. They tucked journals and comic books under their elbow as they discussed what they should buy with their friends. I watched some of my students wander through the crowd and flip through the pages of a book only to place it back on the shelf, rejected for some unknown reason. They did this repeatedly until our time was done and then lined up by the door, arms empty.

I shouldn’t have asked, but I did, and they answered—their families didn’t have extra resources for the book fair.

It seems obvious now how blind my own privilege had made me. Looking back, I know this must have been the reality for many of my peers growing up. Even though my parents had the financial means and stability to teach me about money management, I still floundered when I tried to establish a realistic budget in early adulthood.

There is an undeniable connection between financial literacy and the potential to disrupt the persistence of poverty, and the conversation is about more than education and information. It’s about autonomy and empowerment.

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Learn more about the resources and benefits you’ll receive as a City Year AmeriCorps member.

Balancing a budget and making ends meet

James Burton: My time with City Year has taught me this in other ways, too. The most impactful way was through some of the programs and benefits we are eligible for as AmeriCorps members, to help make ends meet during service.

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Learn more about compensation and benefits you’ll receive with City Year.

As AmeriCorps members, we receive a bi-weekly living stipend rather than a traditional salary.  This means City Year AmeriCorps members live on a tight budget—living with roommates, sharing affordable recipes, and finding free or inexpensive ways to have fun.  Ultimately, the financial constraints have dramatically limited my food options, offering me a direct perspective on the hardships those dependent on SNAP benefits encounter. This includes nearly 80% of the students at Mather Elementary—the school where I serve.

Access to financial literacy is essential

James Burton: I have learned that accessible financial literacy is essential. It’s one of the most valuable pieces of knowledge someone can acquire—boosting confidence and competency for their future. When I was introduced to City Year, I didn’t know what I was getting into; at first, I wasn’t sure about committing to a full year of service. But I’ve realized it has been an incredible opportunity.

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What to expect when you join City Year.

I’ve also benefitted from access to programs and training about budgeting and saving that are offered to City Year AmeriCorps members. City Year partners with financial institutions to provide financial literacy training to AmeriCorps members and the students we serve.

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Learn more about City Year’s partnersincluding companies, foundations and AmeriCorps that make our work possible.

Through my service, I have learned that accessible financial literacy is essential. It’s one of the most valuable pieces of knowledge someone can acquire—boosting confidence and competency for their future.

If you are interested in learning more about how your company can get involved with this critical need, contact Vice President National Corporate Partnerships & Strategy, mcilley@cityyear.org, for more information.

Members:

James Burton, a Skidmore College graduate, is serving his first year as a City Year Greater Boston AmeriCorps member, working in a fourth-grade classroom at Mather Elementary School. With aspirations of attending medical school, James aims to integrate a deeper understanding of diversity and the challenges encountered by underserved children as a pediatric physician.

Kaley Whittle (all pronouns) is a second-year AmeriCorps member serving as a Team Leader with City Year Greater Boston. After graduating from Georgia Southern University, they moved to Boston to serve their first year in a fifth-grade classroom in Everett, MA. This fall, they begin work on their master’s in library and information science, with a focus in youth library services, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. They hope to continue working in service and with children for the rest of their career.

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