It's when barriers are removed and people are met where they are, that financial education is the most powerful.
"A workshop on 401(k) saving when you're losing sleep at night because you can't afford car repairs isn't going to make an impact," said Desiree Sanabria, workforce and financial empowerment program manager for CitySquare, a Dallas-based nonprofit.
That's why the Workforce and Financial Empowerment program at CitySquare takes a more holistic approach.
"There's a huge need for low-income individuals who did not have access to financial education growing up to understand how the system works," she said. "They're not aware of how credit works. Their families didn't share how to budget with them. It's a constant struggle to build a savings—between lack of budgeting and, sometimes, income so low they're barely making ends meet."
The mission of CitySquare's financial empowerment program is to help move underserved neighbors into self-sufficiency through financial coaching, education and access to affordable financial products.
"But we can't just think of the education as the knowledge they need to have around financial literacy," she said. "The traditional method of financial education through workshops is important but is often not sufficient for somebody to apply it or learn in an actionable way. When you're in crisis mode, and needs aren't being met, very little is retained in that type of learning."
CitySquare's program helps with goals like:
- Making a budget
- Opening a bank account
- Starting an emergency fund
- Building credit
- Saving and planning for the future
- Making a plan to get out of debt
- Financing a car or home
But it does so in a unique way.
"When wanting to talk about financial literacy, we have to think of a creative method that would help people retain the information and help them apply it," she said.
"People don't care about credit scores when they're just trying to put food on the table, so to teach financial literacy, you have to take a holistic approach."- Desiree Sanabria, workforce and financial empowerment program manager for CitySquare
Sanabria said the first step is to identify barriers—which could be a lack of stable income, childcare, transportation or employable skills.
"We built this program to break down those barriers," she said. "There's a social support aspect with assistance for housing, transportation and childcare. There's also soft skills training and vocational training and help finding employment."
Then, she said, things like financial workshops and one-on-one financial coaching are more effective. "It's about meeting people where they are," she said.
Individual. Family. Community.
Sanabria has seen firsthand how financial empowerment can change lives.
"For example, I'm inspired by a stay-at-home mom of two," she said. "She's dedicated all her time to her kids and is, as she says, a little rusty when it comes to being employed. Watching her practice things like mock interviews and writing her cover letter is inspiring to see."
That mom will soon be seeking an IT certification that will allow her to re-join the workforce and begin gaining financial independence—while still having the flexibility to care for her children.
"This education empowers her, but it also changes things for her children and her family," Sanabria said. "There's a ripple effect."
It's this chain reaction that has made TC Alexander passionate about financial education and empowerment, especially in underserved communities, and wholly supportive of CitySquare's mission.
"Coaching like this is invaluable," said Alexander, volunteer financial educator and business banking sales manager for BOK Financial®. "Giving someone a safe place to have those conversations, and be transparent about what they know and don't know, is important in getting people the education and resources they need—when they need it." He said the biggest roadblock he sees between people and financial empowerment is a lack of modeling. "No one's ever told them how important it is or how to get there," he said.
"From a generational perspective, you tend to do what you're taught or what you see. And sometimes previous generations were so busy trying to survive and keep their heads above water that this type of education fell through the cracks."- TC Alexander, volunteer financial educator and business banking sales manager
Access to resources, he said, is everything. "Knowing there are resources out there so things can be different, so you can dream for better— that's the biggest roadblock, finding those resources," he said, adding that CitySquare and organizations like it are removing that hurdle for the communities they serve.
"Financial education like this has a tremendous impact," he said. "It literally changes the course of people's lives. Creating generational wealth—giving future generations a more level playing field— changes the world. It changes the course of people's lives and the way they participate in their community."
Alexander said it's about empowering people to teach future generations. "People who know better will do better, so we need people that have the financial literacy experience to share with those who don't. It just takes one person learning these lessons to change the trajectory for generations to come."
He said it's through financial empowerment that entire communities thrive.
That ability to create foundational change is why Bank of Texas' parent company, BOK Financial Corporation, made CitySquare part of a pilot program seeking to accelerate resources to support underserved communities and address income inequality. Through the program, more than $400,000 will be awarded over two years to organizations like CitySquare whose programs will lead to long-term stability and success.
"Bank of Texas is excited to work with CitySquare to support our neighbors in underserved communities," said Mandy Austin, Dallas market president for Bank of Texas. "Financial literacy and workforce readiness are foundational to financial independence. Over the next two years, Bank of Texas will invest $125,000 into CitySquare's Workforce Development and Transition Resource Action Center (TRAC) programs which provide education and training needed to support financial health."
Alexander added, "I'm so excited about our collaboration with CitySquare because the work being done today will have a positive impact for generations to come. I'm so proud that we get to support and amplify the work they do because it is creating more financial equality and minimizes the number of people that have to grow up in poverty."
CitySquare is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that was founded in 1988. CitySquare offers a comprehensive array of social services that address four key areas related to the persistence of poverty: hunger, health, housing, and hope. They assist more than 58,000 people each year. For more information, visit https://www.citysquare.org/.