The District of Columbia is an expensive place to live, work and play. Although legislation and social programs provide some financial relief, neighbors across all eight wards are still feeling the tight squeeze of COVID-19, high inflation, geographical division based on ZIP Codes and low housing stock. These and other stressors have left many folks struggling financially.
A few months ago, I attended a financial empowerment workshop hosted by the Adell C White Workforce Center and facilitated by the Vicky Davis Group and Paths Forward LLC. According to the online announcement, the objective of the workshop was to “learn about sound money management from experts that are committed to following up and ensuring you are set up for success.” I am not usually interested in workshops that make lofty promises, but the certificate of completion and a $200 stipend for participation lured me to commit.
Most of the participants I encountered were from Wards 7 and 8. Over the span of four hours, a few dozen of us discussed the basics of banking, paychecks (taxes, withholding, deductions), setting up direct deposit, building savings by sticking to a budget and how to build and maintain good credit.
During lunch intermission I met Sharonda Gains, a 29-year-old professional, without kids. She has spent the past seven months couch-hopping with family in the Deanwood and Kenilworth communities. She said she planned to couch-hop until she saved enough to purchase a home.
Immediately, I asked, “Do you have fair credit?”
“I don’t know,” she replied quickly.
“Has your couch-hopping plan been successful, have you been able to save?”
She shared that she had not. “Everything in the District is expensive. Every time I save some money something comes up, and I have to spend it,” she said somberly.
I reminded her of the program announcement and its promise of being able to get her “set up for success.”
As the workshop continued, we gained information that would empower the group to make better financial decisions. Sharonda would occasionally answer a question but mostly appeared to be absorbing all the information and taking notes.
For example, one of the facilitators asked, “Does anyone know the difference between a bank and a credit union?” A few hands went up eager to answer the question. Sharonda stopped writing and looked up with a querying face. One person said, “Credit unions have better interest rates.” “Banks are more convenient,” another said with confidence.
Although everyone provided a correct answer to the question, no one provided the strongest answer, which was the response the facilitator was hoping to hear. The difference between a bank and a credit union is that a bank is a for-profit institution, explained the facilitator. It earns money for profit. A credit union is a not-for-profit institution and redistributes its profits to its members.
I scanned the classroom and looked in Sharonda’s direction. We made eye contact and she lipped the word “Wow.” At that moment I wasn’t sure if she had developed the financial toolkit to purchase a home, but I felt confident she was leaving more informed than when she arrived.
A month passed since the workshop, and I decided to check in with Sharonda. Before I could ask a question, she blurted out her credit score and we both laughed. Since attending the class, she had opened a checking and savings account at a credit union and was using the union’s free credit building tools.
Although Sharonda is not a homeowner yet, she has a plan to obtain a studio apartment before Christmas. She credits the class with providing her with the right information to start moving toward her goal.
Leniqua’dominique Jenkins works on the DC Council, but the views expressed here are her own. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.