INSIDE LOOK: MEET OUR MEMBERS
Who are the people who work to help Californians build assets? Why do they do what they do? How are they trying to do it? CABC’s “Inside Look: Meet Our Members” profile series aims to answer these questions.
This series is part of CABC’s Valuing Who We Are at Work Project developed by Melody Ng, CABC’s 2021 Racial Economic Justice Fellow. Learn more about the project here: Valuing Who We Are At Work.
- Tiffany Younger of Liberation for Us | June 2022
- Perfecto Muñoz of West Modesto Community Collaborative | May 2022
- Danika Dellor of Women’s Achievement Network & Development Alliance | April 2022
- Maria Cadenas of Santa Cruz Community Ventures | March 2022
- Shirley Yee of YR Media | February 2022
- Keisha Nzewi of CA Child Care Resource & Referral Network | January 2022
- Kristin McGuire of Young Invincibles | December 2021
Tiffany Younger of Liberation for Us | June 2022
Perfecto Muñoz of West Modesto Community Collaborative | May 2022
“My parents supported me through K-12 and college. They shaped my ideas of how I can be a change agent, how we change ourselves and our community.”
Perfecto Muñoz has served as the Executive Director of the West Modesto Community Collaborative (the “Collaborative”) since 2018. It was an unexpected second start, since he had retired the year before without any intention to return to work. The Collaborative is a nonprofit organization that mobilizes community members to advocate for improvements to the health and safety of West Modesto through numerous community projects and services.
For almost 11 years, Perfecto served as Senior Policy Advisor on Consumer Health and the Workforce Senior Policy Advisor on Consumer Health and the Workforce at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. After retiring in 2017, he moved back to Stockton, California, where he grew up and spent some time thinking about his next steps. He thought he might try to fill some of his newfound free time with volunteer work. When a friend referred him to an organization in Modesto looking for volunteers, he sent the organization, West Modesto Community Collaborative, his resume and was promptly invited to meet with them. It was not until he had reached the end of his conversation with the then-Executive Director that he realized that he had just completed a job interview. He was asked to take over the Executive Director role soon after.
Driven in part by a conviction that he was being called upon to be of service to community in this new chapter of his life, he decided to take the position. Perfecto has always been inspired by his parents’ faith and strong sense of service to community. “My parents supported me through K-12 and college. They shaped my ideas of how I can be a change agent, how we change ourselves and our community.” His father always told him: “Leave nobody behind.”
That is why he believes in faith through action. “Faith has played an important role in my life. Without that, I would be lost in the sense that there would be no glue to keep me focused on what I’m trying to do and why I’m doing it.” However, it is not enough just to pray for or offer well wishes to people who are going through hardship or trauma. Those sentiments have to be followed by supportive actions — which to him is the difference between conviction that is self-serving and that serves community. This core value has driven and continues to drive his work.
"'Leave nobody behind.'"
Perfecto often reflects on the fact that despite the strides that have been made for the civil and political rights of people of color and other marginalized communities in the past several decades, the hate and anti-immigrant sentiments that marked his upbringing are still prevalent today. New Americans are perpetually challenged by those who believe that a person’s rights in this country should be proportional to the amount of time they or their families have spent living and working in the U.S.
How Teachers Disempower Students of Color
Perfecto’s journey has been marred by authority figures who have doubted his ability to succeed. As a Mexican American youth, he was subjected to a consistent and often bewildering torrent of racist stereotypes about Mexicans being “lazy people”: “Why do they think we sleep under cacti and have siestas everyday?” At every turn in school, he was discouraged by the adults around him, who at times made him believe: “‘I can’t do this. I’m stupid.’” He recalls a moment in elementary school when a teacher humiliated him in front of the whole class for answering a question incorrectly. “People started laughing, but these same individuals who are laughing suffered humiliation from this teacher.”
He was told repeatedly that he would never “go beyond high school, because I was only good with my hands.” Though he was consistently pushed toward remedial classes, he was lucky to have a father that advocated for his right to take classes that challenged him. He eventually earned A’s and B’s in the classes that he was repeatedly told that he “was going to fail.”
After graduating from high school, Perfecto went to university and earned several graduate degrees. He knows that the value of his success — the sense that he “could do it” — had far reaching impacts on future generations in his family. The sense of things, like a degree, being achievable was a legacy that he was able to pass on to his children and their children. “If one generation can move ahead and make life better not only for himself, it opens a wealth of doors to the family, to see they can do it because their grandpa, uncle, sister, and brother did it.”
Reclaiming Teaching as Advocacy
Perfecto cut his teeth in the world of advocacy through his involvement in the Chicano Movement in his youth. His approach to advocacy has evolved throughout his career, and he believes the hard-won lessons he took away from his experiences offer insights that are still relevant for up-and-coming advocates as they think about how to effectively champion their causes and work with communities. “My approach was hard hitting, demanding, and that was the approach at the time. As I became more astute to politics and understanding the system, I saw I needed to readjust my approach. As an individual, I started to be more of an advocate, teaching people how they can serve themselves rather than others serving them.”
Over time, Perfecto realized that the aims of movements would be better served not by “trying to be the voice to those who are voiceless” but by teaching communities how to advocate for themselves while using his own platforms, and whatever power he held, to amplify those voices. As he transitioned into his new role at the Collaborative, a colleague advised him that he would need to engage in more diplomacy to communicate needs and advocate for ideas than he might have done in the past — advice that he took to heart. “When I started meeting with people in the community, I saw the doors open much better than they did in the past. I was working with important players — supervisors, council members. It got to the point where they were coming to me: ‘How should we handle this?’”
"Academics is just one element of trying to address issues. They don’t often see the world for what it really is. Sometimes you have to go in the streets and talk to people, engage in conversation."
Effective advocacy requires developing give-and-take relationships in which conversations are two-way exchanges rather than a unilateral demonstration of making demands. “It gets to the point [when] you become too overbearing” and “the more you talk, people turn you off. They stop listening. Now I’m more of a listener, letting people talk and share opinions whatever that might be. I only ask questions for clarity or respond with some kind of support. Those are the kinds of things I’m trying to do as an individual” to “improve my situation for the people around me.”
Having spent most of his career in academia, Perfecto found that he was now able to bridge the “void” between academia and community practice in his role at the Collaborative. The time he spent on the ground becoming acquainted with the social and political ecosystems of a community has helped him understand how to be a more effective advocate. “I became an individual who knew who to talk to and voice concerns and have that person hear the concerns of the community.”
As someone who is well aware of how advocacy is conducted through the world of academia — trying to isolate problems and solutions “through a microscope” — Perfecto remembers the limitations of the approach that academics take, even as well-intentioned allies to their causes. “[A]cademics is just one element of trying to address issues […] They don’t often see the world for what it really is. […] Sometimes you have to go in the streets and talk to people, engage in conversation.”
In a counterintuitive way, his experiences on the ground enabled him to see situations from a more strategic vantage point, like ”an eagle in the sky.” He feels that he now has a better grasp of his limitations as an individual advocate and is better equipped to focus on “how we as a community can make this change.”
West Modesto Community Collaborative: Building Community Power
The Collaborative has been working in the community since 1991. It was established as a result of the Stanislaus County Minority Community Health Coalition, which was formed by a group of 15 individuals working in public service to support community health issues. Currently, it has a membership of over 500 members — half of which includes community residents, City/County representatives, faith-based organizations, educators, and local businesses. Several years ago, the Collaborative established a new direction in its work with a stronger focus on community-building with the help of funding from The California Endowment.
When Perfecto began touring the community and meeting different stakeholders at the start of his tenure with the Collaborative, he became aware of a surprising community dynamic. The area that West Modesto Community Collaborative serves — in the unceded territories of the Plains and Bay Miwok — is occupied by a diverse, low-income community of Asian American, Black, and other residents of color, though it has a predominant Latinx community. “If you look at the census tracts in [Stanislaus] county, this block has the highest number of Latinos.” More than 70 percent of the residents in West Modesto identify as Hispanic and/or Latinx. (“Hispanic” is a term that describes people who are Spanish-speaking or who have a background from a Spanish-speaking country, while the term “Latinx” describes those who are from or have a background in a Latin American country.)
Yet the fact that the community had such a large Latinx population seemed to go unnoticed by at least some of the people working for the major public institutions serving the area. He recalled how a local community leader, who was of Latinx descent, that accompanied him on the community tour expressed surprise at learning that there were any Hispanic people in West Modesto.
"Do people forget who they are once they get their degree? Do they see themselves as far removed from the community now that they can move into another class of community?"
“That just made me wonder, ‘Why did this person think that way?’ […] Do people forget who they are once they get their degree? Do they see themselves as far removed from the community now that they can move into another class of community? It’s amazing to see the different perspectives of Latinos in governance. You would think they would have this overarching view of community-based perspectives, but it doesn’t necessarily happen that way.”
In his early days with the Collaborative, he was always being asked by members to speak on their behalf. “I said, ‘No. It’s important for you to speak. I drive home at the end of day. Because you live here, you have to be a constant reminder that things have to change. […] ‘Even though I have all these letters behind my last name, don’t let that bother you. Let’s think of each other as humans to work with each other to make life better.’’” His experience at the Collaborative has taught him to work with community “with humility.”
Having spent most of his career in academia, Perfecto had never before been situated in a long-term, full-time position at a community-based organization, responsible for overseeing the day-to-day, on the ground operations. He believes that evolving to support the Collaborative’s work has made him not only a more effective advocate but “a better person.” He says that one of his greatest assets as a leader is his willingness to evolve with the community as they go through their journey — “until they tell me they don’t need me anymore.”
“I know that I can only do it for so long.” The goal is to “help them develop new future leaders.” This ethos is the core principle of what he aims to achieve with his time at this organization. “I’m in the background, not in front, because then it’s my show.”
“When I started, they said, ‘We need you to speak.’ But they began to understand that I’m just the beacon guiding them. They had to navigate to get where they wanted to go.”
In Perfecto’s second year with the Collaborative, a local branch of Bank of America, which had been the only full service bank in West Modesto for over 60 years, considered closing its doors and moving all its services to Midtown Modesto — to the dismay of local residents. “They came and said, ‘What do we do?’ I said, ‘We need to rally the community.’”
The members of the Collaborative immediately organized a campaign to urge the bank to stay, that included raising informational signage around the community imploring the bank not to leave and demanding answers to their questions about how they would replace the services they were effectively withdrawing from the community. Their efforts eventually yielded a meeting with officials from the bank, after which, the bank reconsidered its decision to leave. Perfecto shared this victory as an example of how a “community can influence corporate business[es]. The capacity for communities to advocate for their own needs — not just the outcome of advocacy — is “what creates asset building.”
Built Environments as Community Assets: Connecting Health to Wealth
A crucial aspect of the Collaborative’s work has been its ability to rebuild and strengthen the community’s relationships with local government. In the past, the organization had a tense working relationship with the Modesto City and Stanislaus County governments — driven in part by the community’s sense that officials were far removed from the community and, therefore, their concerns.
For one thing, Modesto City Council meetings were often not accessible to the community. But this changed as the members of the Collaborative began pushing the city government to take their meetings to the people where they were better able to vocalize concerns about community safety issues, including the layout of local roads and sidewalk conditions. “The city started responding because they saw all these people at these [City Council] meetings” where previously they only saw “a handful of people.”
The Collaborative helped the City see that it needed to provide more opportunities for the community to interface with them — including facilitating more recurring meetings in each of the six Council districts and convening meetings in the morning and evening hours, so community members would not have to miss meetings to attend to their work and care-related obligations. Fortunately, this push from the community coincided with the City administration’s desire to focus on improving their engagement with the local community. “The City Council members loved [this change]. They shared their ideas, exchanged ideas, but in the end, the community was heard, and in most cases, they got what they wanted — being heard by the governing board of the city. And things started changing.”
"It’s not just a sense of community, it’s a place to gather. People need to be able to gather and share and laugh and express joy and disappointments together."
For a long time, the community had felt their concerns were being overlooked by local government officials. So in 2019, the Collaborative established the West Modesto People of Action Council. Through the Council, community members were able to organize and develop recommendations and a plan of action to advocate for the changes they had wanted to see for a long time. Some projects from their efforts include the development of dedicated bike and pedestrian trails in Modesto that would allow their youth to travel safely to and from school and a long awaited road improvement project on Paradise Road, one of the most dangerous streets in the area, near the city’s largest high school (Modesto High School), where the speed of the traffic poses dangers to cyclists and pedestrians. City officials supported their proposals and have helped to move forward a road development plan that will begin construction in 2023. In 2018, the city was awarded approximately $3.9 million from California’s Active Transportation Program (ATP) to support road improvements, such as the installation of bike lanes, on Paradise Road. The City was also recently awarded a Federal Highway Administration grant to support this work.
Accessible green spaces and functional transportation infrastructure are key features of healthy, thriving communities. They constitute community/public assets that contribute in indirect, but essential, ways to a community’s public safety and well being. Traffic collisions disproportionately endanger minorities, lower-income residents, seniors, and children — with Black and Latino children being more likely to be killed while walking on the streets. Low-income individuals are also between two to three times as likely to be hit by a car while walking as their middle and high-income counterparts.
Modesto belongs to a cluster of regions with the highest pedestrian fatality rates in California — with the other regions including Bakersfield, Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, Stockton-Lodi, and Fresno. These areas are noticeably concentrated in the state’s inland areas where transportation infrastructure often lacks the most basic accommodations for pedestrians, such as sidewalks and safe crossings. Despite growing awareness of this problem and initiatives that have arisen to address this issue, bike and pedestrian fatalities in California are still on the rise — hitting a 25 year high in 2020. Between 2010 to 2019, fatalities increased almost 47 percent for pedestrians and 60 percent for bicyclists in the state.
Investing in safer streets and other public spaces can contribute more directly to local economies by shaping the opportunities residents and communities have to build wealth. Residents who feel safer moving through their local streets are more likely to patronize local businesses, increasing business and tax revenues. In 2012, a bike lane that was added along Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission district resulted in nearby businesses seeing sales increase by up to 60 percent — which merchants attributed to increased pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Cities outside of the state have also seen similar increases in local economic activity as a result of pursuing street safety improvements for pedestrians and cyclists.
The Collaborative’s work is ultimately underscored by its understanding that public spaces, including transportation infrastructure and green spaces, are essential community assets that have material impacts on residents. “Community parks are the life of the community. People go out, picnic, children [play] different activities. But if a park dies, the community dies with it. It’s not just a sense of community, it’s a place to gather. People need to be able to gather and share and laugh and express joy and disappointments together.”
Looking Back to Look Forward
Reflecting on his history, Perfecto can see how some of the newer generation of advocates today may be vulnerable to making the same mistakes he made when he was younger. As an “ambitious” firebrand, his penchant for pursuing “change now” to the exclusion of everything else on the negotiating table at times led him to disregard the needs and opinions of potential allies and other stakeholders. “I realized that as a young man and father and husband, I needed to be more open to not just communication but open to criticism and new ideas that I didn’t think were things we should be involved with. […] As I moved forward in time, I realized that I’ve been walking through life with my lenses dirty. If you wear glasses, like I do, people look at you and see all the smears and ask, ‘How can you see?’”
As he reckoned with the limits of his efforts, he began asking himself, “What am I missing? What do I need to improve on? What good have I done? And what can I do better? What drove me to where I am today?” After some reflection, he found that what he needed was “to have a clear mind, be willing to listen, [and to] take criticism.” He hopes that younger advocates will heed some of the lessons that he learned — and also remember that they stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, however flawed they may be, who made great, unimaginable sacrifices — including jobs, family and friends, standing in the community — to push former baselines forward.
"If they can list them, we know we’ve done something right."
There is no point of full maturation in the life of an advocate, because the conditions on the ground are always changing. Consequently, being an advocate is necessarily an on-going process of “becoming.” “[W]hen you go through life, you think you’ve had and experienced everything. But then you have a new experience, and you learn something even better. You learn something about how you treat people better, how invested you are in a community. ‘It’s not me, it’s them,’ and all I’m doing is helping them get across the bridge.”
Perfecto ultimately believes that the impact of advocacy, policies, and programs needs to be measured out on the streets. People in the community need to be asked about where they feel improvements in the communities — whether that is their local parks, community centers, or any public spaces the community uses. “What will help us determine success? Surveys are fine, but the way to look at this is: Have we changed the lives of people in the community?” Moreover, how asset building organizations conceive of and measure impact needs to extend beyond just the outcomes in the community to include the sense of agency that the community had in influencing those outcomes. The “true testament of success” will be determined by whether residents can feel changes in the community and articulate those changes when asked about what is different about their lives. “If they can list them, we know we’ve done something right.”
Danika Dellor of Women’s Achievement Network & Development Alliance | April 2022
“My mom, despite her challenges, was my hero growing up.”
Danika Dellor was invited to join Women’s Achievement Network and Development Alliance (WANDA), “a small grassroots organization with a great idea,” shortly after giving birth to her daughter over seven years ago. WANDA provides financial capability training and other resources to advance socioeconomic mobility for low-income single mother families in Silicon Valley. When she was mulling over whether to take the position, WANDA invited her to attend an annual graduation ceremony honoring the mothers that complete their program, where she was inspired by the story of one mother who spoke at the ceremony about her journey from poverty to a life of entrepreneurship and success for herself and her family. Danika now considers this person a friend, who has returned over the years as a volunteer to teach new cohorts of mothers in the program.
In the U.S., approximately 80 percent of single parent households are headed by mothers, and nearly one-third of those households live in poverty. Danika grew up in one of those households. “My mom, despite her challenges, was my hero growing up.”
Danika was raised in San Francisco by a single mother and experienced cyclical poverty throughout most of her youth. She now lives in Silicon Valley, where she remains a witness to the entrenched wealth gap in the Bay Area — a region with the widest income gap in the state and that is among the areas of the country with the highest income inequality. (In 2020, the top 10 percent of earners in the Bay Area earned on average $384,000 a year, compared to $32,000 for the bottom 10 percent of earners.) “The wealth disparities I saw growing up and extreme wealth [gaps] I see now are vast.”
"At our worst, my mom had $1.67 in the bank, and we were sleeping on my uncle’s floor. It’s a really stressful and stigmatizing place to be."
Like many women of her generation, Danika’s mother was limited by the political and cultural constraints imposed upon women’s financial independence and social mobility. By the age of 18, her mother was married to an abusive man who she eventually left after seven years. Later on in life, she became an administrative bookkeeper, choosing “under the table” jobs that offered flexibility at the cost of financial stability. More often than not, these jobs offered only hourly pay. “She was always operating with a ‘let me just get to tomorrow’ rather than ‘next year’ mentality. She didn’t have the skill set for planning, and was always in survival mode […] At our worst, my mom had $1.67 in the bank, and we were sleeping on my uncle’s floor. It’s a really stressful and stigmatizing place to be.”
Danika also remembers her experience feeling like part of a “generational” phenomenon. “Most of my friends were also children of single moms. It’s what drew me to the work […] I identify with the challenges our clients go through, […] that my mom faced [like barriers to] job opportunities and housing opportunities. Things have somewhat changed, but not enough.”
Poverty Eclipses Your View of the Future
The mothers of WANDA have diverse backgrounds and are brought there by different circumstances. Some are widows, some were divorced, and some were simply never taught about managing finances. Some “might already have financial experience but have bad luck, where one small crisis creates a downward spiral of financial, housing, and emotional instability. Some might not even have a future view or the potential [view] of what’s possible.”
Poverty can dramatically shrink the terrain on which a person can navigate through life. When resources are thin on the ground, there is little room for mistakes. “Before I was 17, we’d moved over a dozen times. And when [my mother] did have any extra money, she spent it, since we never knew if we’d have it again, instead of putting it away. She could never develop a future view when she never got out of the ‘emergency mode’ cycle.” The habits that financial insecurity compels people to develop “are difficult to grow out of.” [So when people say,] ‘Well she should have made better decisions, it’s part of how you were raised. How you’ve been living sets a pattern. As you get older, it becomes more difficult to change patterns.”
"[America’s favorite] pastime is passing judgment."
When she was growing up, it was often difficult for her mother to secure housing for them. Most landlords would not rent to her mother, because her credit was so poor, or simply because she was a single woman with a child. Her mother had accumulated significant student and credit card debt that limited her opportunities moving forward.
Today, debt continues to play a major role in housing insecurity. The average student debt owed by a borrower has risen by 300 percent since the 1970s, with the average borrower in California now owing over $21,000 in student loans when they graduate. Meanwhile, the cost of living in California has exploded in the past several decades. The median cost of a home in the 1970s was roughly three times the average income for younger families, while today, the average home sells for over seven times the average family’s earnings. Over half of borrowers are delaying the purchase of a home because of student debt, while a fifth of borrowers who apply for mortgages are rejected, due to their high debt-to-income ratios.
At the same time, these individuals — who have too much debt to qualify for a mortgage loan — are devoting an increasing proportion of their income to their rent. While the average Californian spent 20 percent of their income on rent in the 1970s, the average renter in California today spends twice that amount (nearly 40 percent).
Danika laments “how easy it is [for people] on the outside” to think that poverty is a choice and that people “can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and change their life. “I see how people treated my mother, made assumptions about her. She never remarried [after separating from her husband]. She made a choice to become a mother even though she and my father were breaking up and never married. She didn’t have a partner. Even her own family made judgments. [America’s favorite] pastime is passing judgment.”
Leaving Single Mothers Behind
As Danika reflects on her life and the experiences of the mothers at WANDA over the years, she has realized how social policies in the U.S. are “often are policies meant to keep people in poverty.” Her mother, who lived in a skilled nursing facility that housed Medi-Cal recipients and who recently passed away after a long battle with dementia, was a victim of these policies. “Her COVID stimulus payments caused her to be kicked off all her benefits.” The payments pushed her savings to over $2,000 — making her ineligible for other forms of public assistance.
In theory, if not in practice, social safety net programs are meant to ensure that people’s lives are not upended by one bad day. “One unexpected challenge can become a crisis and perpetuate a cycle that’s hard to overcome once it starts.” But even with the existing safety net programs, many people in the U.S. are one emergency crisis away from losing most if not all of what they have. Nearly 40 percent of people would struggle to cover an unexpected $400 expense. Anywhere between 40 to 60 percent of people in the U.S. are one paycheck away from homelessness.
Many public assistance programs, like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and child tax credits, include income cutoffs, better known as “asset limits,” that are meant to “phase” people back into employment. But more often than not, they result in working individuals and families being cut off from assistance that they still need, because their earnings are insufficient without support from public assistance. Roughly 70 percent of people that receive public benefits (SNAP and Medicaid) already work full-time. Asset limits have been shown to deepen poverty, actively discourage and prevent families from attempting to save and build wealth, and, ironically, may discourage work.
"Her COVID stimulus payments caused her to be kicked off all her benefits."
Poorly designed social policies have left single mothers overwhelmed and under-supported. The design of federal child tax credits takes for granted that mothers can and should rely on a partner for financial stability. Single parents have long been treated by the Internal Revenue Code as single filers, resulting in an income cutoff level to qualify for the child tax credit that was half the rate of the cutoff for two-parent households. While the cutoff has been raised, single parents still do not receive the same assistance as two-parent households. Last year, Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA45) introduced the “Single Parent Penalty Elimination Act” to equalize the income thresholds for married-parent households and single-parent households under the expanded child tax credit enacted in early 2021.
By some estimates, a single parent in California would need to earn between $40.34 to $66.02 an hour to support a household with between one to three children. Meanwhile, the median hourly wage for workers in California is roughly $24 an hour (and $19 an hour for workers of color). Given the reality of this income-cost of living gap, 71 percent of households led by single mothers do not make enough income to cover the cost of living in California, even though 60 percent of single mothers work full-time.
Some people have asserted that the lucrative tech sector is the answer to the problem of livable wages for working single mothers (and workers in general). But Danika rebukes this proposal. As someone who lives in the tech-heart of the country, she has seen firsthand how the hiring practices and working conditions for jobs in the tech industry are often ageist, hostile to racial and ethnic diversity, and “not really friendly to working women that need time to manage their families.”
In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how U.S. social and labor policies, and the assumptions behind them, continue to place inequitable burdens on mothers and women in general. “Many women have left the workforce since they were not necessarily the high income-earners. And yet there’s still the expectation for them to work and manage the house, school and family responsibilities. A lot of our moms didn’t have the luxury of leaving. They held frontline jobs, multiple hourly jobs, and lacked access to childcare.“
WANDA: Reinvesting In Single Mothers Families
Danika often wishes an organization like WANDA had been around for her mother when she was growing up. Having been born in the 1940s, her mother had been socialized for her entire life to believe that her life could only unfold in one of a few ways. “No one ever said, ‘You can own your own business.’ The narrative we provide our youth greatly affects their perception of what is possible. It takes a lot to ask someone to completely alter the narrative of what they have been taught, especially about their place in the world. It’s hard for them to tangibly imagine what something else could look like.”
WANDA celebrates the diverse experiences and unique skill sets of its mothers while helping them develop financial capability and identify asset building opportunities tailored to their individual needs and goals. She appreciates how the mothers in the program inspire each other. “In the program, they can see that they are not alone and that they are indeed their own best asset.”
Founded in 2007, WANDA is focused on “Education, Equity, and Empowerment.” It pairs an individual development (IDA) account (matched savings account) with financial literacy and career advancement training and implements its program through a cohort model to nurture community-building among clients. Very few banks offered IDA products when it was founded. Overtime, WANDA recognized that it needed to enhance its curriculum to offer clients the flexibility to accommodate their unique needs and the messy realities of their lives as they worked through the program. “It’s a whole new era. How do you look for jobs and network? […] How do you set goals when you have no time? When all these bad things are happening to you?”
Since its founding, WANDA has helped its clients save and invest over $1 million in appreciating assets. Over 70 percent of clients open savings accounts for their children, and 80 percent pass on the financial capability knowledge that they learn through WANDA to their children. Approximately 77 percent of clients increase their income by an average of $10,000, while clients that come into the program with low credit scores are able to raise their scores by up to 100 points.
"It’s a whole new era. How do you look for jobs and network? [...] How do you set goals when you have no time? When all these bad things are happening to you?"
At present, WANDA is a small organization that operates with the support of a compact group of staff and volunteers. It has ambitions to scale its work to a larger service area throughout the Bay Area, but Danika wants to be thoughtful about what that will look like, since it is common for organizations with a strong interpersonal program model that do an excellent job of providing “high-touch” services to specific, localized communities to lose some of what made them so effective initially as they grow. “We do our best to meet everyone where they’re at. Who are our clients right now? How are their challenges evolving? Are we representing them in the best way?”
WANDA’s program partners have been advocating for them to offer their programming in Spanish, given that approximately 60 percent of the mothers in the program identify as Latinx. “As a high quality program, we need to ensure that it’s culturally appropriate for [the participants], and come back to our board and tell them it’s imperative for us. It’s a demand. We really have to grow, to look at this and respond appropriately.”
While financial literacy has been the focus of WANDA since its inception, this focus may change depending on the evolving needs of their community. “What’s working and what’s not? Like during my upbringing, nothing is static. We had to be ready to pivot, if we had to move out or if mom lost her job. I think the organization needs to be open and flexible and reflective of how the issues are affecting disadvantaged single mother families. I had to be that way growing up, and I try to lead our organization the same way.”
This need-based adaptability extends from high level strategic planning to day-to-day program management. “Even with our moms, we try to meet them where they’re at.” If one of the mothers in the program has an emergency and is unable to meet a program deadline or requirement, “the response is not to dismiss them from the program. We want to build trust, to have that conversation before that happens, to see how we can problem solve as they address their challenges.“
While WANDA’s programming focuses on helping mothers navigate their way through “emergency mode” on the ground, Danika recognizes that helping them achieve financial stability and a future vision will require addressing the institutional barriers that keep them caught “in the cycle.”
Well-meaning programs that focus on personal capacity building can unintentionally feed into negative stereotypes about poverty — namely, that it can be solely attributed to individual choices. Lack of individual financial capability is often a symptom of educational and financial systems that do not make knowledge about finances readily accessible to everyone. Knowledge of how to navigate systems then becomes a privileged commodity — one that seems to be commonly passed down through families. For families that have never had access to this knowledge, the exclusion becomes part of an inherited, generational deficit.
WANDA’s focus on financial literacy at the household level is neither a glorification of the “bootstraps” mentality nor a refusal to acknowledge structural barriers to financial stability. Rather, this focus recognizes that people still need to know how to navigate systems, even when they are “good,” in order to reap any intended benefits.
From Affordable Housing to “Sustainable Generational Wealth”
Over the past several years, California has invested more — though arguably insufficient — funding toward affordable housing. Most recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom allocated $100 million to develop affordable housing in his 2022-2023 state budget proposal. WANDA has been exploring how it can support individuals once they are housed. “How are we changing socioeconomic infrastructure to allow for more opportunities for these individuals? […] A lot of women need or already live in affordable housing. How can we make sure they can stay there and keep improving their lives? […] That’s where I focus our work on the programmatic level […] Are the other interventions they need being funded? What supports are these families given access to? We want to understand where the gaps are.”
WANDA is currently collaborating with MidPen Housing, one of the largest non-profit developers, owners, and managers of affordable housing in Northern California, on a pilot project that supports a cohort of their affordable housing residents. WANDA is actively seeking additional opportunities to work with more affordable housing agencies. “In California, there is a lot of work being done to address affordable housing. But what else is being done for residents to create an upward trajectory in economic mobility? We want to become an integrated resource for affordable housing and other organizations doing work around asset building and how we can complement UBA [Universal Basic Asset] work.“
"When we’re talking about economic justice, who owns what, the idea is that asset ownership is what drives sustainable generational wealth."
Danika believes that Universal Basic Assets (UBA), Universal Basic Income’s (UBI) lesser known counterpart, may help shift the conversations advocates are having about asset building from poverty alleviation for the current generation to wealth-building for future generations. “UBI’s a great concept. But what’s the long term plan for 10 years? […] Universal based assets, there’s some work being done in that. How do we redistribute who owns the wealth in this nation? […] Some people might invest [their UBI]. Others might be using that to survive. But how are we creating access at a societal level to broader ownership?”
UBA describes “a core, basic set of resources that every person is entitled to, from housing and healthcare to education and financial security” that consists of three classes of assets: (1) private assets, which includes housing, land, personal money, and retirement accounts (where traditional asset building work is focused and UBI is currently situated), (2) public assets, which are owned collectively by everyone but managed by different government bodies on the public’s behalf, as countries like Canada and Denmark do, and (3) open assets, which are owned and managed neither privately nor by the government but are open to the public and managed by a defined group, including mainly digital assets like Wikipedia and open-source software.
“When we’re talking about economic justice, who owns what, the idea is that asset ownership is what drives sustainable generational wealth.”
Slow Trickle: Getting Policy to Meet Needs on the Ground
WANDA works at the “micro level” to support people where they are at, but keeps its ear to policies, like paid leave and other support systems for working women, that are being advocated at the higher level. “Policy level change is a slow trickle down. In the meantime, we do the best that we can.” As someone leading a direct service organization, Danika admits that it can be difficult to stay motivated while waiting for policy to hit the ground — where her work lives. “I just get frustrated with how long it takes and how many hoops people have to jump through.”
But the key to the right policies being developed requires a change in how people and institutions are making higher level decisions. To that end, she is happy to have seen organizations working to bring more community voices into the policymaking process in recent years. “The role of nonprofits now is gathering those voices to bring up the chain.” Making more consistent, dedicated space for a wider population of people to participate in and inform policy development is important not just because lived experiences matter, but because there are limits to the guidance that the lived experience of any specific person or group can provide. “I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘I think these are the problems.’ […] I can’t say, ‘This is what would work best.’ My experience is from 20 years ago. Things are different now.”
Danika wants to see more institutions delegate decision making power to communities, whose voices are essential to providing the guidance and leadership necessary for organizations like WANDA to serve them more effectively. “How are you bringing clients into the conversation and at the leadership level? […] What’s the best way to bring their voices? What are some models? How do you share that out? I want to do more and don’t know where to start. […] Anyone who says they have it all down, it’s not true. You have to keep changing to stay relevant. Are we furthering the mission?” After all, the best way to serve the community is to “[try] to evolve in the right way.” She includes philanthropic and other grantmaking institutions in this assessment. “Are you bringing grantees into the grantmaking process? Who is on your board? There’s a real power shift needed for a lot of the work to change.”
Maria Cadenas of Santa Cruz Community Ventures | March 2022
“As an immigrant, I saw the system for what it was. I knew my value, and no one could take that away from me.”
For over six years, Maria Cadenas has served as the Executive Director for Santa Cruz Community Ventures (Ventures). Ventures serves the rural communities on the unceded territories of the Ohlone (Amah Mutsun and Costanoan Esselen), now known as Monterey Bay, on California’s North Central Coast. The region serves as a major agribusiness hub in both the state and the country, and is home to a large, primarily Latinx migrant farm worker community that endures long hours, crowded housing conditions, wage theft, and other hazardous and abusive working conditions. Approximately 81,500 undocumented workers live in Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Benito Counties alone — giving Monterey Bay the eighth largest overall population of undocumented people in California and the highest concentration (proportion of the total local population) of undocumented people in the state.
Maria’s parents were raised under different conditions of poverty — her mom grew up in Mexico City while her dad, who grew up in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco, experienced rural poverty. However, her parents were able to provide a middle class living in Mexico for their family, though they eventually immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s, when she was 10 years old. It was after this move that she experienced poverty firsthand.
Maria is a first-generation U.S. college student and identifies as a lesbian. Of students who graduate from college with debt, first-generation graduates tend to owe more than their second-generation peers. Almost two-thirds of first-generation college graduates owe at least $25,000 or more, compared with 57 percent of second-generation college graduates. “I was only able to avoid most college debt through scholarships, summer internships, and work-study. This had a cost, including the fact I was unable to spend summers with my family throughout my undergraduate career.” Meanwhile, because women earn less on average than men regardless of their sexual orientation, poverty rates for lesbian couples are higher than they are for married heterosexual couples.
“When you have some workers in California doing well, and they don't have to connect with anyone outside of their circle, how can they know what others are experiencing?
Even with her wealth of local and global personal and professional experiences, she feels that she does not “know everything that is crucial to be informed about what different people need” — which requires her to approach her work with a beginner’s ethic: listening and modifying accordingly. “My experiences can provide a lens, but not the entirety of the lenses we bring to policy work. A lot of things are unseen and unknown and therefore left out, so we need to have a consciousness about looking at who is at the table and who is left out, and use that analysis to propose policy interventions.”
As a person leading an organization, Maria is adamant that she is not a spokesperson, but rather a facilitator — and that facilitators play a crucial role in ensuring that the voices at decision making tables can speak to diverse experiences. She warns that it can be easy for decision makers to make sweeping statements about how communities in California are faring that miss the mark when the same insular groups of people are only having conversations with each other. “When you have some workers in California doing well, and they don’t have to connect with anyone outside of their circle, how can they know what others are experiencing?”
The Whole Picture: “Seeing Systems”
Maria’s personal and professional experiences have presented her with many opportunities to “see the system first hand” — one that she came to believe “made absolutely no sense.” “Communities of color have internalized oppression, ideas of who they are based on status, race, gender […] As an immigrant, I saw the system for what it was. I knew my value, and no one could take that away from me. I could see the systems in the U.S. and the exclusion they create.”
But “seeing systems” is a skill that is partially enabled through privilege: having the time, space, and resources to take stock of one’s lived experiences and to contextualize them within larger social and political forces shaping community life. “Most people don’t understand systems.”
She wants people to understand that her work, though informed by specific lived experiences — both her own as well as those in the stories people have shared with her — and issues that some might glibly dismiss as “identity politics,” is ultimately grounded in her desire for people to recognize “our shared pain,” the “humanness in each of us,” and the necessity for our laws and institutions to treat everyone’s needs as deserving of the same recognition and care. “It’s [about] recognizing the value of each other and starting from that space. I don’t have to experience that kind of suffering just to recognize that in others.”
“It’s [about] recognizing the value of each other and starting from that space. I don’t have to experience that kind of suffering just to recognize that in others.”
Having worked locally and globally on issues ranging from farmworker and immigrant rights to public health and economic development in different sectors, including corporate philanthropy, Maria has witnessed the impacts of intergenerational poverty and wealth gaps in different communities. From Santa Cruz in the U.S., Mexico, Chile, Peru, China, to Morocco, she saw the same issues proliferating everywhere. “You can see the urban and rural divide, you see extraction of wealth and labor in poor communities from rich industries.”
“So much wealth is available in the world but so unevenly distributed […] We need to shift how wealth is being shifted and attributed to ensure people can continue to thrive.” The worker productivity-pay gap — the gap between the value that workers produce and what of that value is returned to them — has been widening since the 1970s (the last time that the federal minimum wage kept up with inflation). Workers are now producing at least 3.5 times the value of the services that they produced in 1979, even while their wages have stagnated. By some estimates, the median worker would have to make $9 more per hour to be fairly compensated for their work — and the value that their work generates for the economy. During that same period, executive pay has skyrocketed, with the executive-worker pay gap increasing from 21:1 in 1965 to 307:1 in 2019. This trend has continued unabated throughout the pandemic. Even as workers were laid off and filing for unemployment in record numbers (by the tens of millions), executive pay rose in 2020 (up 19 percent from the previous year), with the average executive’s pay increasing to more than 350 times the salary of the average worker.
“Money is just a vehicle to provide service, labor, and goods, and to think that our economy is the end of it all is a false frame to our short time on earth. We can use business assets and economic models to create well-being, but it is not well-being.” However, the way we are using money at present “creates inequalities.”
“Money is just a vehicle to provide service, labor, and goods, and to think that our economy is the end of it all is a false frame to our short time on earth. We can use business assets and economic models to create well-being, but it is not well-being.”
While Maria values the decade of experience she spent working in the philanthropic sector and the work that philanthropy can and does support, her experiences have helped her see more clearly philanthropy’s limits. “It’s the other side of the coin of capitalism and still owned and dictated by those who extracted wealth from communities.” There are more philanthropists in the world now than there ever have been before in history. Nearly three-quarters of the world’s 260,000 philanthropic foundations have been established in the last two decades; which begs the question: Why, despite this boom in philanthropic activity, does inequality keep rising?
In the U.S., less than 20 percent of the money gifted by large donors is redistributed to causes that affect the poor. Donors give overwhelmingly to “elite” causes that primarily benefit the “super-rich” — the (high) arts, sports teams, other cultural pursuits, and to the elite educational institutions that they themselves attended. These figures raise questions about philanthropy’s presumed role as a wealth redistributing mechanism.
“Recognizing blind spots in the delivery of work is important.”
Meeting the Needs of Undocumented People in Crisis
The COVID-19 pandemic was the impetus for many community organizations to roll out new community programs and initiatives. The pandemic created unprecedented conditions of deep need, and many community-based organizations were unprepared to provide the level of emergency aid and services that was necessary to meet those needs. The undocumented, and even their documented relatives, were particularly vulnerable, given that undocumented people are often ineligible for most federal public assistance and some state programs due to their legal status. These prevailing restrictions led the virtual omission of undocumented communities in early federal COVID relief legislation, despite the fact that they are overrepresented in the services sectors and other “essential worker” industries that were both hardest hit by the pandemic and at highest risk of exposure to COVID-19. In California, undocumented workers make up 7 percent of the state’s “essential” workforce.
Ventures responded to this aid gap by establishing UndocuFund Monterey Bay, a rapid response relief program that focuses on undocumented workers in Monterey Bay. Ventures worked with community organizers and 10 local partners — including Building Healthy Communities East Salinas, Center for Community Advocacy, United Way of Santa Cruz County, among others — to put the program together. The program was designed to accommodate the restrictions that undocumented people often face, such as issuing funds in the form of cash equivalents (prepaid ATM cards) to account for recipients that did not own bank accounts. Like a number of rapid relief programs and initiatives that have sprung into existence during this period of compounding global crises, UndocuFund has “challenged the way safety nets are designed, the paternalism of relief programs.”
Government agencies have had a long-standing preference for delivering public assistance via in-kind programs. This preference is largely driven by common assumptions about low-income people: (1) that they do not know how to manage their money and that their poverty status is attributed to poor decision-making around money and (2) public assistance is plagued by fraud and discourages work. These assumptions continue to dominate popular narratives around public assistance despite a growing body of evidence that affirms that direct cash transfers is the most effective and efficient means to deliver aid and public assistance to people. Recent findings also confirm that people know how to spend their money and often do so in practical ways, such as the COVID-19 stimulus money recipients who were found to have used their stimulus payments primarily to pay their rent or mortgages, on groceries and other household essentials, and to pay off debts.
Like many other emergency aid programs that are typically meant to provide only short-term aid, UndocuFund was challenged by the unexpected length of the pandemic. Ventures responded by modifying the program, decreasing the number of families served in order to provide these families with more funds for an extended period of time — with extended monthly stipends taking the place of a lump sum payment.
Ventures: Living the Future We Want Now
When Maria left philanthropy for Santa Cruz Community Ventures in 2015, she saw it as an opportunity to test questions about systems change-community transformation in real time on California’s North Central Coast. Part of that journey involved a run for the California State Senate (District 17) in 2020. She narrowly missed appearing on the general election ballot by coming in third place behind John Laird (D) and Vicki Nohrden (R) in the primary election — but was able to secure a substantial 21 percent of the votes.
Over the last several years, Ventures has worked to ensure that financial capability is considered an essential foundation for well-being, helping more people draw the connections between health, education, and labor rights in the community and the economic stability of the region. While Ventures has been operating on a relatively small budget for the last several years, they have been influential in bringing equity into conversations about economic development — folding into these discussions topics including social safety nets and business succession planning, the social and economic determinants of health, and living wages. In some ways, this influence outpaces the expectations that people might have for an organization of their size.
As it actively courts culture change in public conversations, Ventures has simultaneously embraced its role as a social laboratory, working in partnership with communities to pioneer programs that allow them to begin instigating systems change on the ground. “I joined Ventures to work hands-on on issues of economic justice while focusing on system level structural approaches.” Ventures recognized the opportunity to take advantage of suitable conditions — a progressive-leaning local political culture, the particular geography of the community and its population size — to test and model social and economic justice innovations, to “be active in imagining and designing communities we do want.”
“Three years ago, no one knew what we were trying to make. We were creating transformational programs in partnership with community so we could pull it off. People are still trying to understand what it means. We had to have a few programs mature.”
“Three years ago, no one knew what we were trying to make. We were creating transformational programs in partnership with community so we could pull it off. People are still trying to understand what it means. We had to have a few programs mature.”
One such program was Santa Cruz County’s Semillitas program, a universal children’s saving account program for all newborns within the County that features an equity adjustment (wherein people with less get more). The program aims to improve child development outcomes, to nurture a postsecondary education culture in communities, and to cultivate the financial capability of families. “Four years ago, some people said we were never going to be able to do this. Now it’s live and getting funding from health, social service, and educational partners.” Ventures is among the growing ranks of practitioners, policy makers, and researchers affirming, if not championing, the view that financial well-being is a key determinant of physical and mental health.
The UndocuFund Monterey Bay program that the organization launched during the pandemic eventually served as a model for another pilot economic development program that likewise focuses on undocumented workers — Alas. Alas incorporates guaranteed income ($500 a month for 6 months), financial capability education, and cohort networking to nurture community building among program participants. The program constitutes another step toward “[reimagining] our safety nets towards an equitable recovery.”
Because Ventures is dedicated to a very specific, localized population, it has often been able to receive direct feedback from their service communities and to “pivot, align, and move quickly.” UndocuFund was launched within two weeks. Semillitas, a countywide program, took fewer than four years to launch.
“How we do our work is as important as the work we do. […] I’m proud of all that my team and our community members do to contribute to our efforts. This includes helping us determine more equitable organizational structures, programs, and leadership models.” The programs that emerged within these past few years were generated by conversations in halls of power, and public spaces more generally, that are forcing people to rethink the relationship between public benefits programs and asset building.
At present, the organization is currently developing Futuro, an asset building program that intends to foster the development of local worker-owned cooperatives and serves low-income Latinx workers, particularly women and immigrant workers, in the Salinas Valley. The program promotes “democratic business organizational structures, including the use of cooperatives, to accelerate income generation, provide access to markets and that strengthen local equitable economies, including those in agriculture and food systems.”
“Ventures is a vehicle to build the world and systems we want so that race, gender, or immigration status do not dictate income or wealth, everyone has a living wage and the opportunity to be a business owner (Futuro), where access to safety nets is not paternalistic (UndocuFund), where all children are valuable and worthy (Semillitas). All programs we’ve launched are transformational. We’re using tools that exist — college savings accounts, cooperatives, relief aid — and centering working-class families.”
Beyond Damage Control: Prosperity Being “Community-Owned”
In Maria’s mind, Ventures is merely a container that holds all the potential people power necessary to transform the community. “I am working to get myself out of a job so someone from the North Central Coast can lead Ventures. And at the same time, the work we do is not the agency itself. Ventures is just a vehicle for 501(c)(3) status. The real work change comes from people — the board, team, community members, and our volunteers make it possible.”
As Ventures’ current steward, she aims to ensure that how they do the work will always position them to be “in service to the self-determination of the community we are in.” What that means is honoring the expertise of “neighbors, parents, family members, workers […] that is made invisible by discrimination and sterotypes and the power dynamics of our systems. We need to be constant learners, listen to people when we’re being challenged.”
When she envisions the future to which she hopes Ventures will contribute, she sees a legacy of their impact that includes but also extends beyond the concrete “measurables” — like the dollar number amount in bank account savings that have been accrued by a child in Semillitas by the time they graduate from high school. Instead, she imagines what the lives of and around the children will look and feel like — the developmental milestones each child will have met by the time they turn 5 years old, the decreased likelihood that their mothers will suffer from maternal depression, the communities that they live in encouraging them to pursue postsecondary education, and much more for the 3,000 plus families and counting that Ventures has uplifted in some way so far.
“The systems we had pre-COVID are ones we have now. They will continue supporting these inequitable outcomes. If we want to learn, we have to transform, have to get past fear, have to get past self-comfort.”
“I’m no longer focused on fighting what is broken. I want to create the world we want. My time with Ventures has been spent on creating, assuming that we can achieve equity and justice. What does the world look like then? I want to focus on that.”
But this world may not be possible if asset building organizations continue to orient the bulk of their work around “poverty remediation.” While many organizations have and are undertaking essential, life-saving work to ensure people’s basic needs are met — including keeping people housed and fed, particularly during the height of the pandemic — Maria emphasizes that the asset building field also needs to think about widening the horizons of its work in the long term.
Instead of focusing more or less exclusively on “mitigating the current damage of the system,” one in which poverty is a feature and not a design flaw, she wants to see more organizations also supporting programs and policies that challenge and refute the baseline assumption that poverty is inevitable in our society. For example, within a society where resources — and to some extent rights — are allocated through a scarcity-based, free-market economy model, a minimum level of “natural unemployment” is expected, and, sans universal basic income (UBI) policies, there will always be some level of poverty. “The systems we had pre-COVID are ones we have now. They will continue supporting these inequitable outcomes. If we want to learn, we have to transform, have to get past fear, have to get past self-comfort. For institutions, this is hard.”
Maria hopes that more organizations in the asset building space will allow themselves to be more daring in their visions of prosperity for their service communities — which requires not only being bolder about their demands for their communities but also changing the way they work with them. “Reimagining is taxing but valuable.” This includes, among other things, leaving behind the extractive models of research that are prevalent in and that influence policy making in state, national, and international policy spaces. “We need to make sure we’re sharing knowledge back into the [local] community so they can use it to inform conversations and decisions.”
The positive changes she has seen in the culture of asset building work in recent years — such as increased awareness of “systems” thinking in policy analysis and solutions discussions, more people in policy and workforce development spaces supporting guaranteed income programs, and support for public banking institutions and worker cooperative models — has given her reason to believe the new world she is striving for is more than just possible. But while asset building work is becoming better at being “community-informed,” many organizations that undertake this work are “still learning how to be community-led,” and far from “the hope,” which is “for it to eventually be community-owned.”
Shirley Yee of YR Media | February 2022
“I led a very confusing cross-class life growing up.”
Shirley Yee served as the Economic Justice Director at MyPath, an organization that designs, tests, and scales program models that support cities, youth employment programs, and financial institutions to build economic pathways to prosperity for youth. After serving MyPath in this capacity for six years, she joined YR Media, a national network of young journalists and artists who create multimedia content for young people, as its Senior Director of Programs this past November.
“I led a very confusing cross-class life growing up.” She was raised on unceded Peoria territory in what is now considered a suburb of Detroit, in an Asian American immigrant family that managed a food booth — an upbringing that was marked by a unique combination of privilege and marginalization.
“I grew up in a big house (that my parents owned), but led a really working class lifestyle, unlike other young people who I went to school with. It was all about my family, working in our restaurant. It was like a secret life […] From 7th to 12th grade, I worked Monday to Friday, six hours a day, every week, for six years. My three siblings and I were the staff along with a few other folks. I mostly did homework between customers and after 10pm. Though I wanted to, I couldn’t join extracurriculars, like gymnastics or basketball, like my peers. I had no vacations. My siblings and I shared a car to get to work. I did get paid. It wasn’t an hourly wage though and I had to save half of it for college”
"It was like a secret life […] From 7th to 12th grade, I worked Monday to Friday, six hours a day, every week, for six years."
At the same time, Shirley recognizes the privilege of having been born in the U.S. and raised in an upper-middle class, majority-white suburb in southeastern Michigan, where she had access to an excellent public school system — which eventually enabled her to attend a well-respected university. “Those [specific experiences] create gaps in my knowledge about the lived experiences of others and how power works, in areas where I have power, like being U.S. born, having access to formal education through college, and having social capital and class access to networks of people I met through college.”
However, Shirley recognizes how her experiences of being a working minor can raise unqualified concerns about her well-being as a young person. “It’s weird to say it’s ‘economic exploitation,’ in terms of what I experienced with my parents. But I also understand that was out of necessity because of our class and access, because [we] were an immigrant family and didn’t have access to a lot of wealth building opportunities… in fact often had experiences of wealth stripping opportunities.”
Youth, Then & Now: Are You Listening?
For over two decades, Shirley has supported youth development, youth advocacy and youth organizing work in the Bay Area, often within a social and economic justice framework. In that time, she has learned about what is required to work meaningfully with young people. “If I didn’t understand the concept of adultism, that adults are given power, privilege, protection, and prestige simply for being adults, not because they’re smarter, not for any other reason, I would be terrible at working with young people. I would think I knew better. I would think, ‘They just haven’t learned enough,’ or ‘I need to open their heads and pour in the knowledge,’ as opposed to, ‘Young people are the ones who know the most about youth financial access and inclusion and what those barriers are to that.”
As the youngest of nine children, Shirley remembers what it was like not to be taken seriously. “What I wanted didn’t rise to the top, and that did help shape who I am about how young people are discounted and aren’t really considered [in decision making]. Nobody asked me what I thought or what I wanted for me.”
“If I didn’t understand the concept of adultism, that adults are given power, privilege, protection, and prestige simply for being adults, not because they’re smarter, not for any other reason, I would be terrible at working with young people."
As an adult that works with youth, she is always cognizant that she is in the “seat of power.” She believes that building trust with young people requires really listening to them and not making assumptions about what they have experienced.
“Most people I know didn’t work 20 to 30 hours a week in 7th grade. That’s not their experience mostly. Because they’re not aware of what that meant for me as a young person, I’m very clear that there are so many things I don’t know about people I work with. I can’t make assumptions just by looking at someone […] It’s really important to not make those assumptions, because I know those people didn’t have the same experiences I had growing up. And that shapes the way I understand the world, what challenges there are, and what solutions there are.”
The process of transitioning from youth to adulthood is different for each generation, with each generation facing a unique set of challenges. “Even though I was a young person, it’s not the same as now. And I don’t have the same experiences growing up as with the young people with whom I work.”
The most recent and upcoming generations have lived through more consecutive, unprecedented era- and generation-defining disasters — the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic among them — that have dramatically decreased their expected lifetime earnings and compromised their prospects for long term financial stability compared to previous generations. While older Millennials are slowly catching up in building wealth (though still lagging behind other generations during the same stage of life), they hold a higher debt-to-income ratio — which has and continues to jeopardize their ability to invest in home ownership and other wealth-building opportunities. By many accounts, Millennials are expected to live longer but retire poorer than previous generations — and the prospects for Gen Z may be just as grim.
Missing On-Ramps: The Young Adult Financial Cliff & Exploitation of Youth Workers
“A lot of people don’t think about when young people get their first paycheck. How do they cash [this piece of paper]? They might not know how.” Shirley shares a story about a middle school student in a summer work program who got his first paycheck via paper check. “He was super excited to spend it, went to the store and picked out candy and chips, went to pay for it. He gave them the piece of paper he was given. They said, ‘We can’t take this.’ He didn’t know. They said, ‘Go to the check cashier and then you can buy these things.’”
Youth of color face compounding barriers to banking access — as not only young people but as young people of color. Black and Latinx people are more likely than their white counterparts to depend on high interest financial services like check cashing counters and payday lenders. While Black and Latinx households comprise 32 percent of the U.S. population, they represent 64 percent of the country’s unbanked and 47 percent of its underbanked households.
This may not be that surprising given that there are significantly fewer banking institutions per capita in majority minority neighborhoods than there are in majority white neighborhoods. And even when communities of color have access to banking institutions, the banks that serve them are more likely to require a higher minimum deposit to open an account and higher minimum daily balances to maintain their accounts than banks that serve majority white communities. Recent surveys suggest that people of color pay as much as twice the amount of bank fees as their white counterparts. Consequently, in large urban areas, between 20 to 40 percent of the unbanked pay fees to cash their paychecks. Many of these individuals that turn to check-cashing outlets — that are overrepresented in low-income BIPOC communities — can end up paying as much as 12 percent of each paycheck to cash their checks.
“[Y]ou’re a young adult, literally transitioning from financial dependence to independence, and there’s nothing.”
Meanwhile, over the last couple decades, young people — often already excluded from access to banks and other financial institutions — have been increasingly targeted through predatory practices by credit card companies and payday lenders.
While there are designated programs supporting people during other transitional times of life, like seniors (Social Security) and young children (early childhood education), older youth and young adults are often neglected in the design of many social safety net programs. “[Y]ou’re a young adult, literally transitioning from financial dependence to independence, and there’s nothing.”
This oversight has had a devastating financial impact on young working people during the pandemic — particularly young BIPOC people that worked in the retail and service industries that were the most hard-hit by the pandemic. Unemployment and underemployment for young people (between 16 to 24 years old) — which is already consistently higher relative to the rate for the people 25 years of age and older — spiked from 8.4 percent to over 24 percent between spring 2019 to spring 2020, with unemployment rising to between 27 to 29 percent for young BIPOC working people.
Many young people who were unemployed as a result of the pandemic could not claim unemployment, because they often had not worked the requisite number of hours/earned a base level of wages over their period of employment (work history requirements) to qualify for benefits. Moreover, some were unable to access unemployment and other benefits provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (2020). Many of these young people (younger than 19 years old or those that were students younger than 24 years old) were considered dependents and therefore ineligible to receive the $1,200 stimulus checks issued through the CARES Act. At the same time, their parents did not receive the $500 check for dependents because the age cutoff for this benefit was 17. “They were completely left out.”
“What if you got kicked out of your home because you’re trans or gay or lesbian? What if you’re a young person in the foster care system and you’re a ward of the state? How are young people supposed to make a healthy financial transition if people aren’t thinking about them becoming financially independent? I want people to remember […] don’t just think of children as a dependent of their parents, because that’s not the case for so many young people.”
“What if you got kicked out of your home because you’re trans or gay or lesbian? What if you’re a young person in the foster care system and you’re a ward of the state? [...] I want people to remember […] don’t just think of children as a dependent of their parents, because that’s not the case for so many young people.”
While consideration of the particular challenges that older youth and young adults face in the design of social safety net programs is necessary to ensure that these programs meet their needs, Shirley believes that safety net programs without stronger worker protections and liveable wages will still leave young people without the requisite foundation for financial stability. “How do you have a strong start without a strong start? You’re starting from a deficit.”
“There’s a planned poverty, low wage, dead-end job path. And so it makes sense to me that young workers are not jumping to get back into the workforce and do a dead-end job. They need to know there’s going to be a longer term plan […] When corporations exploit people and only provide low wage work, there’s no incentive to build anywhere.”
She calls out the blatant exploitation of young people that is evident in the numerous “on-ramps” that our institutions have readily established to funnel young people toward work — including work permits for minors — without developing concurrent on-ramps to banking access and financial education. Before this legislative year, 29 states did not provide any required personal finance education for youth, though many states have recently sought to change this.
“Young people want to know about taxes, about credit, how to use money to make money, learn to manage money, to budget. But if we don’t give the tools, it’s like riding a bike.” She uses this metaphor routinely to discuss financial capability with young people: “The bike is the tool — a bank account, a credit builder loan, a credit card, a home loan. But if you don’t know anything about it or how to use it, you could hurt yourself. You need both the bike and the instructions […] When you’re earning money, you need financial education, hence financial capability. But we don’t have on-ramps to make it happen for young people. So it’s not surprising that people go to check cashiers, because that’s what’s in the neighborhood because of redlining.”
MyPath & Young People: Partners in Design
MyPath has developed a suite of financial products that aim to help youth access banking and financial education opportunities. “One of the things I love about MyPath, in our work, [is] that we design, we co-design, with young people.” Young people helped MyPath design the curriculum for their MyPath Money Platform — soon to be MyPath Next — an interactive app that educates youth about how to manage their money, grow their savings, and eventually build credit. “We are a youth-adult partnership organization, in the design and delivery. Young people are at the very center in partnership with adults. And we have a number of people on staff who used to be youth in the program.”
At MyPath, Shirley values having been able to collaborate with multiple cohorts of BIPOC young people from low-income communities to co-develop policies that address youth financial exclusion. She worked with a recent corps of youth to help them articulate barriers they face to banking — insights that MyPath used to create its national youth banking standards. “A lot of financial institutions say, ‘We need a utility bill in your name or a drivers license.’ Young people don’t have a utility bill. They don’t have a driver’s license. If they’re in the city, they take Muni. So our young people said, ‘It would be great if we could use our school ID, or report card address, or a letter from a youth workforce agency.’” MyPath’s youth workers have also pushed for noncustodial bank accounts, which are necessary when youth have reasons for not wanting to share an account with their parents/guardians. They believe: “‘If I’m earning on my own, I should be able to manage money on my own.’”
Last year, Shirley supported a group of young adults — ages ranging from 18 to 25 — to create the Youth Economic Bill of RYTS (Real Youth Troubles and Solutions), a set of nine policy recommendations outlining key strategic investments to help young, low-income BIPOC individuals transition from youth to adulthood. Together, they have engaged various stakeholders, including elected officials at the local, state, and national levels, to advocate for the policies in this bill — and have secured endorsements from the likes of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
At the programmatic level, MyPath has partnered with youth workforce organizations, like YouthBuild, to develop and scale programs combining youth workforce development with financial capability education that aim to guide youth through the entire process of securing employment, getting their first paycheck, establishing a bank account, and building savings. MyPath partnered with Year Up to pilot one such program 10 years ago. “MyPath has done an incredible job of scaling youth financial capability nationally.”
MyPath has also collaborated with municipalities to pilot combined guaranteed income (GI) and financial mentoring programs for youth. They have partnered with the City of San Francisco and Hilltop High School to develop a program offering pregnant teens and teen mothers guaranteed income along with financial mentoring. They are working with Santa Clara County to develop a similar program for young people exiting the foster system. The programs aim to provide participants with stable income while pairing them with financial mentors that will teach them financial planning skills that they can utilize to maximize their guaranteed income. With research partners, like the University of San Francisco, they are formally evaluating the impact of these programs, and the preliminary results are “thrilling”: “We’re hearing that it doesn’t just impact young peoples’ financial and economic understanding but their whole agency and trajectory about choices in their lives.”
“We talk a lot about financial capability, youth finances, and economics, but we want to make this a greater connection to youth financial capability and health and well-being […] Fiscal health does translate to health and well-being […] having more time to do things and to make more choices about their lives. […] So, what is that connection?”
Who Counts as a “Person” When We Make Policy?
Shirley previously sat on the San Francisco Guaranteed Income Advisory Group, which the City/County established to advise the Board of Supervisors, the Mayor, and appropriate City departments on various aspects of guaranteed income. She recalls a conversation about the importance of representation in policy making that she had with a staff person leading the work for this group at the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment: “Life doesn’t have to be this way. Poverty is not an accident. It’s planned. The people in power, policymakers, make the decisions, consciously or unconsciously, to support themselves or other communities. So, if I know the system was not built for me, it’s important for me to have a seat at the table and to make space for young people to be at the table” She emphasizes that it is essential to simultaneously ensure that the people already at the table “use our own voices, our own power, privilege, protection, and prestige to help open those doors.”
Policies with racist impacts were (and are) not always advanced by interest groups that make their harmful intentions explicit. But their expectation is that these policies will have disparate impacts on implicitly targeted groups. Shirley raises redlining as an example. “The government didn’t say, ‘We’re going to make this inequitable access around housing,’ or what have you, to certain groups.‘ They didn’t say that, but they did that.” She believes the ways in which harmful policy intent were covertly talked about in the past makes it all the more necessary for us to speak explicitly about race and racism as we move into an era of policy making that aims to be more intentional about addressing racial and other forms of inequality. “How do we address racial inequity if we don’t talk about race?”
“How do we address racial inequity if we don’t talk about race?”
In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man, was beaten to death in a racially motivated attack by two men in Detroit. The murder occurred at a time when the auto industry was in decline and anti-Japanese sentiment was at an all time high in the U.S. — when driving a Japanese car or looking like someone of Asian descent could put you in harm’s way. Shirley’s father — who at the time served as the unofficial mayor of the Detroit Chinatown — was at the center of the organizing efforts for justice in the case against the men who murdered Chin. However, witnessing the legal system’s indifference to Vincent Chin’s murder as a child encapsulated how unseen by this country’s institutions she has felt at times as someone of Asian descent. “[W]hen I learned about someone looking like me killed because of how he looked, and the men who did it got off with a fine, it deeply impacted me. It said to me, ‘This is not your country.’ […] ‘The laws are not for you.’ […] I felt like I didn’t matter as a human.”
Policy conversations that fail to interrogate who is and who is not considered a “person” in decision making spaces will inevitably fall short in working to rectify injustices and meet needs. Shirley’s personal and professional experiences have shown her the ways in which youth, women, people of color, trans individuals, and others within the LGBT community are often the “non-people” rendered invisible in these conversations. “We have to be able to talk about all those intersectionalities in order to create effective policies.”
She is adamant that policy conversations moving forward need to avoid the “one issue at a time” mentality that likely weakens movements and hampers effective policy. “We have to understand the intricacies of how people are impacted. I’m East Asian, and there are lots of ways even within Asian community, because I’m Chinese and Japanese and lighter skinned, that I have a lot of access and privilege. But also as someone who identifies as pansexual and a woman, though gender-nonconforming, and who grew up in a strange cross-class lifestyle — those intersections matter […] A justice involved person is not the same as someone who’s experienced homophobia.”
Keisha Nzewi of CA Child Care Resource & Referral Network | January 2022
“I’m a Black woman raised in a Black family that speaks up and speaks out […] My mom was my fiercest advocate and still is.”
Keisha Nzewi has served as the Director of Public Policy at the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network (CCCRRN) — a non-profit membership organization of 58 local child care resource and referral agencies that advocates for unmet child care needs at the local and state level — since 2016.
Keisha grew up in the small rural suburban town of Hanford, California, (in the unceded Valley Yokuts territory now known as the San Joaquin Valley) back when it was home to less than 30,000 people. “It’s not a thing to be discounted, being a Black woman in Central California. Things are hard out there, and racism is the root of almost all evil.” Belonging to a politically-active, staunchly Democrat-voting family has led her to become the advocate that she is. “I’m a Black woman raised in a Black family that speaks up and speaks out […] My mom was my fiercest advocate and still is. I could see her and my whole family speaking up when there is injustice for other people.”
Keisha’s family and many other Black families have long lived in the community where she was raised. But people often forget about some of the smaller communities of color in the largely conservative, rural areas of California’s Central Valley. “Most Black people are from Los Angeles or the Bay Area. I have a unique vantage point not having grown up around a lot of Black people, even though the small community I was around was a strong Black community.” She values that she has been able to bring a rural perspective to her work and to ensure that the interests of people in a part of the state that is “often neglected, often by choice” are still considered in policy making. “I’m a different Black girl than one who grew up in San Francisco or Oakland.”
As a Black woman who has worked in nonprofits her whole life — a member of one of the most underpaid groups in an already traditionally underpaid field — Keisha empathizes strongly with the teachers that she advocates for in her work with Mt. Diablo Unified School District (in the Bay Area), who are currently negotiating with the district for fairer pay. Keisha has been the Area 3 Representative for the district since 2020. “Teachers are angry at our school district. They haven’t had a raise since 2017, have the lowest paid salary scale of teachers in all of our surrounding areas, in five districts, bottom of the barrel.”
California’s Unmet Child Care and Provider Needs
Keisha’s turn toward child care advocacy was serendipitous. Her background was in public health and health education, with special attention to addressing social justice issues through public policy. She previously supported anti-hunger work for the Alameda County Community Food Bank — making school meals and food stamps more accessible and providing food and nutrition services for people struggling with food insecurity — when the opportunity to work for the CCCRRN presented itself. “In my work with child care, I always made more than someone that takes care of children. But no job I’ve had is more important than taking care of our youngest children.”
While she never expected to become a child care advocate, she knows she is meant to be doing this work. “[I]n my job I get to talk about the importance of understanding the racist roots of our childcare system, that even allows us to so poorly pay for people to take care of our kids. I love doing that.”
“[I]n my job I get to talk about the importance of understanding the racist roots of our childcare system, that even allows us to so poorly pay for people to take care of our kids."
Child care workers’ families are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as other workers’ families (11.8% compared to 5.8%, nationally). In 2021, home-based child care providers in California — who tend to be majority women of color — earned on average $27,632 a year. In most California counties, family, friend and neighbor (FFN) child care providers (unlicensed or license-exempt caregivers who provide care for the children of friends or relatives) that care for children part-time make less than $5 an hour — with some earning as little as $2 an hour.
Meanwhile, parents in California pay on average almost $17,000 a year (or $1,412 per month) for child care. In fact, a new report identifies child care as the highest living expense for households in all but five of California’s 58 counties — the ones that have the state’s highest housing costs (Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz).
“We always advocate hand in hand for increased pay for people who work in childcare and increased access, couches, spaces for parents. When parents can get rid of their child care bill, they have hundreds more in their pocket. When providers get paid, everyone is so much better off.”
In the recently passed 2020-21 California state budget, advocates were able to secure 200,000 new child care slots by 2025 — a dramatic increase from the roughly 6,000 slots created in the 2019-20 budget. Moreover, the budget increased the rate at which license-exempt (often FFN) providers who care for children part-time are paid to 70% of what licensed providers are paid, while increasing family child care provider rates to 75% of the 2018 Regional Market Rate. However, advocates have not lost perspective on the work that remains.
In California, two million families currently qualify for child care subsidies. Recent estimates also indicate that 57,000 slots were lost in the state due to the pandemic, while 6 in 10 Californians lived in a child care desert even prior to the pandemic. (A child care desert is defined as any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or more than three times the number of children as licensed care providers within the area). While the increase in child care slots is significant, it still makes only a “teeny dent” in the unmet need for child care in the state.
The Racism Rooted in How “Quality” Child Care Has Been Defined
The thinking around “pay for quality” in child care has shifted dramatically within the last several years. Child care providers in California are rated through a statewide system of locally-implemented quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS), called Quality Counts California. While working on setting fairer wage rates for child care providers who receive child care subsidy vouchers, Keisha and other child care advocates were lobbying for providers to be paid based on quality ratings under Quality Counts California.
However, Keisha and other advocates began to question how the way the rating system was designed — “by highly educated people, mostly women, and mostly white women” — impacted pay equity for child care providers of color. After a colleague referred Keisha to the “Mississippi Memo,” Keisha realized that they were on the wrong side of the struggle. The Mississippi Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights drafted (and submitted to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights) this 2015 memo based on testimony from hearings that it convened to consider the racial discrimination experienced by families and child care providers that were utilizing federal child care subsidy programs. The memo argued that the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) — a federal program established to help low-income families obtain child care — created criteria for care provider “quality” that would inevitably result in most Black, typically home-based, child care providers either not qualifying for subsidies or receiving substantially reduced subsidy rates compared to center-based providers. “Oh my gosh…It was a ‘We’re so wrong’ moment. […] It was the first way of unlearning, decolonizing my own mind in how we think about what’s ‘good’, what makes a ‘quality’ setting, what people deserve to be paid.”
“[I]n my job I get to talk about the importance of understanding the racist roots of our childcare system, that even allows us to so poorly pay for people to take care of our kids."
Quality Counts California more or less ensures that only providers with a Bachelor’s degree will be deemed a “quality” care provider, because of the premium their criteria place on formal credentials — despite the lacking correlation between having a B.A. and being good with children. Students of color are more likely to experience obstacles that prevent them from finishing college. College graduation rates for Black, Latinx, and Native American students currently hover around 40% compared to just over 60% for their white peers.
At the same time, it is common for many families with fewer resources to rely on friends and relatives to provide child care. Parents in rural communities, families of color, and low-income families rely predominantly on home-based child care providers. FFN child care is actually the most common kind of home-based child care with FFN providers making up the majority of child care providers in the country. (Home-based child care is any care that is not center-based or in an institutional setting.)
The benefit of California’s child care voucher subsidy program — administered through the state’s Department of Education — is that parents can use them to compensate their child care provider of choice, whether that provider is a licensed center, a family child care home, or an FFN provider. “Child care vouchers allow parents to choose the child care they need and want.” The program is a boon for families at a time when many people working in the child care space still believe that “quality” cannot be had if children are being cared for by a relative. “[M]any folks in our early learning and care system believe that being cared [for] by a FFN provider is not high quality care. Even though those same FFN [providers] or their descendants cared for them and their family members back in the day. There is no trust in parents to make the right choice, and there is no trust in Black, Latino, and immigrant families to care for their own children, even though they’ve been doing it from the beginning of time.”
"There is no trust in parents to make the right choice, and there is no trust in Black, Latino, and immigrant families to care for their own children, even though they've been doing it from the beginning of time.”
Decolonizing Child Care
In 2020, Keisha co-wrote a memo with Parent Voices CA and Child Care Law Center outlining why Quality Counts California perpetuates harmful and racist inequities that contribute to the racial and gender wage gap. The memo was the culmination of years of work that a working group — Coloring Outside the Lines — the three organizations convened in 2017 undertook to examine “CA’s subsidized child care system and the racist, sexist, classist inequities within it.” The memo drew attention to the fact that QRIS was designed with child care centers in mind and neglected the needs of home-based providers: “This is evident when looking at the tools used in the system, which are dogmatic and eurocentric.” Kiesha believes that the memo created momentum for child care advocates to begin pushing more boldly for equitable child care provider pay and the restructuring of Quality Count California.
This past summer, Coloring Outside the Lines convened parent focus groups to help them more accurately, and equitably, define “quality” in child care. The preliminary findings indicate what many parents already know: “It comes down to ‘love.’ It has nothing to do with QRIS.” The on-going focus groups will help them understand what parents need and want from their child care providers. The findings from these conversations will serve as the basis for recommendations they will offer to policy makers, child care advocates, and institutions — like CA Department of Social Services, First 5, and local agencies that provide child care quality improvements in their local communities — as guidance for how to “decolonize” Quality Counts California. “We also can’t tie [pay] to quality without having a baseline of pay that allows people to support themselves.”
Moving Boldly Forward Together
The pandemic and racial uprisings in the last two years have created many opportunities for change. The pandemic’s impacts on parents, children, and child care providers — and the questions it raised about essential worker wages even in “peacetime” — presented child care advocates the opportunity to help raise provider wages by tying pay to quality while redefining what “quality” means. Child care advocates are now working together in coalitions, like the Early Care & Education (ECE) Coalition (whose members include Child Care Law Center, Parent Voices, and CCCRRN), to raise awareness of how the policies regulating our child care system perpetuate and exacerbate racial inequalities in care provider pay and child care access. Ultimately, they aim to delegitimize and help eliminate policies that prevent all care providers from earning liveable wages and parents from accessing their choice of child care. Part of this work involves scrutinizing upcoming state budget and policy proposals for 2022 using an “anti-racist and equity lens.” “Anything in the social safety net around fraud [prevention] is racist.”
Many rules relating to child care subsidies were modified during the pandemic. For example, policy revisions allowed child care providers to be paid based on how many children were enrolled rather than days attended. Prior to the pandemic, parents had to pay for care everyday regardless of their child’s attendance. And since enrollment numbers are typically higher than attendance, child care providers were able to increase and stabilize payment for their services. “It allowed us to break down things that hold down families and childcare providers…making us be more bold in our actions. We’re so used to settling for crumbs. This year, we said, ‘No.’”
Keisha also believes we need to be more proactive in breaking down the barriers that prevent service providers and advocates working on different issue areas — like housing, transportation, and climate change, along with child care — from collaborating more effectively together. “We’re all working on separate issues but we all impact the same household or same individual.”
But that requires that they overcome the compulsion to work as if service provision and advocacy are and will always be a zero-sum game. “There’s this sense that we’re all fighting for a limited pot of money. That’s not right. Even this summer, when the budget was coming down […] How can we hold hands with everyone so we get this American Rescue Plan Act money? […] I don’t want people to cannibalize each other when we have limited resources.”
Kristin McGuire of Young Invincibles | December 2021
“In my family, we’re always asking, ‘What are we doing to better our position as a people as a whole?’”
CABC Steering Committee Member, Kristin McGuire is the Executive Director of Young Invincibles, a national nonprofit dedicated to amplifying the voices of young adults in political processes. As a Black woman raised by a single mother that provided for three children — who was often restricted from accessing work and other opportunities due to lack of access to proper childcare — she identifies strongly with the communities that she serves. “I feel like it’s innately in me to get my people free — not only Black people. I mean first generation college students, kids growing up in lower resourced single parents households, all those identities are part of ‘my people.’”
Civic duty and advocacy run deep in Kristin’s family. Her mother was one of a number of Black students that helped to integrate Reform Elementary School in the state of Alabama as a 7-year-old in 1969. Kristin feels obliged to carry and pass on this legacy of activism to future generations through her work. Her mission in life is to “demystify how policies impact people as everyday citizens” and to ensure that people like her — first generation college students, people who were raised in lower resourced environments — are valued as informants and partners in the policymaking process.
“In advocacy, we always have to remember we’re not advocating for, we’re advocating with. Community always has to be involved or it’s not advocacy. We can’t tell them what they need. People already know what they need. You need to take the time to ask them. They will tell you.”
From Information Gaps to Wealth Gaps
Kristin’s experiences exemplify how lack of access to information and discrimination can make food and other emergency and supplemental aid inaccessible to people who urgently need them. As an undergraduate, she went to her local California Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) office with several other students to apply for CalFresh when they were in need of food aid. College students tend to have higher rates of food insecurity compared to households in the U.S. — with between 43.5 percent to 59 percent of college students experiencing food insecurity compared to 13 percent of households.
“When we got there, the workers were rude, they were looking down on us. One didn’t run my application, because she said I had on what they thought was new clothes. She said she knew I was ineligible, and I had mismanaged my financial aid money.” It’s a memory that she draws on often in her work.
Barriers to information access are among one of the many “unseen barriers” that BIPOC students face. Students of color still routinely face discrimination from teachers that impact the quality of their learning environment and consequently their life trajectories, especially when students of color feel “teachers don’t believe in you.”
Kristin recalls how an academic rivalry between herself and another student in the 6th grade made this clear to her. “Everytime Rachel got an ‘A’, the teacher would announce it. But if I got an ‘A’, it was never announced.” Later, when it came time for the schools to administer Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Program testing, Kristin was admitted into the program while Rachel was not. “I can remember the teacher saying, ‘There must have been something wrong with the test.’”
"[I want to] make sure that people who come after me have access without these... I want to say unseen barriers, but they're not unseen to the people experiencing them. They're very visible."
She encountered these barriers again when it came time for her and her brothers to apply for college and figure out how to finance their undergraduate education. “High school counselors didn’t tell me about scholarships. We didn’t have it at home to know how to do it …That kind of marginalization, when information is withheld….Folks trying to predestine what was going to happen to my brothers and I based on our access to information.”
The disenfranchisement of communities often occurs and is exacerbated when people do not have access to the information they need to make informed choices for themselves, their families, and their communities. Given what her experiences have illuminated about the role access to information plays in creating racial opportunity and wealth gaps, Kristen knew that her work would center around eliminating these information disparities. “I wanted to make sure young people, when it came to … economic mobility, that we could try our best to control our futures.” She believes that education is key to helping communities develop economic security. She aims to “make sure that people who come after me have access without these barriers, I want to say unseen barriers, but they’re not unseen to the people experiencing them. They’re very visible.”
California’s Student Borrower Bill of Rights
Student debt has depleted Black and Brown families. Nationally, Black women take on more student debt than any other group (with an average of more than $41,400), while, in California, Latina women hold the most student debt. Almost a third of Black student borrowers make monthly payments of $350 or more, and half owe on average 12.5 percent more than they borrowed four years after graduating college. Moreover, Black women are more likely to default on their loan payments.
"I'm a student debtor. My husband is a student debtor."
That is why Kristin believes her most significant contribution to the economic justice field is the Student Borrower Bill of Rights (Assembly Bill 376). The bill, cosponsored by five organizations (including Young Invincibles, Student Debt Crisis, Student Borrower Protection Center, NextGen California, and Consumer Reports), was passed in 2020. “I’m most proud of that. I’m a student debtor. My husband is a student debtor.”
Education is the often only path to social mobility — a prevailing narrative for many people of color. But the lack of support they receive once after being admitted to college and the deficits in resources with which many of them start college almost guarantee that debt will be inevitable in order to collect the degrees they have been told are necessary to achieve professional success and economic stability. At the same time, these same students encounter barriers to employment and upward mobility in the workplace that prevent them from earning enough to repay their student debt. In sum, students of color borrow more to get degrees but are paid less once on the job — becoming ensnared in a “vicious” cycle of debt and “long default” that prevent them from building wealth.
AB 376 provides some relief to those trapped in this cycle by enabling individuals who have been victim to predatory debt collection practices to sue their debt servicers. It creates enforceable industry-wide standards for loan servicing companies and protects existing and future borrowers in California from predatory lenders. It also ensures that student loan servicing companies — like Sallie Mae, NelNet, Great Lakes, Navient, or FedLoan Servicing — comply with standards of legal and ethical debt collection practices. Many of these companies have employed practices that have frustrated borrowers’ ability to manage their loans — including misapplying payments, providing borrowers inaccurate information, and even steering them into more costly repayment options.
The first of its kind, the bill has created an impetus for other states to start developing their own student borrower bill of rights, as its influence starts making waves throughout the country. A Student Loan Borrowers’ Bill of Rights Act is also currently being considered in a few U.S. House committees. “It got in a couple news articles, but people don’t know about it. People will see the change in the law and understand something is different for them, but they won’t know why. But I’m happy to sit in the corner and smile like a proud grandma.”
Delegitimizing the “Starving Student” Norm
Within five years, Kristin has gone from connecting with homeless students about their needs to witnessing every community college campus being required to establish a basic needs center — just this year. During this time, Young Invincibles has played a critical role “making college a little more affordable” for students each year by providing young adults with the wraparound resources they need to succeed — support services that ensure they can afford textbooks, to eat and meet other basic needs.
Young Invincibles has played a critical role “making college a little more affordable” for students each year by providing young adults with the wraparound resources they need to succeed — support services that ensure they can afford textbooks, to eat and meet other basic needs.
Prior to 2016, the idea that students were supposed to be “starving” was a pervasive norm. But Young Invincibles’ policy wins have helped to denormalize the stereotype of the “starving student.” Young Invincibles has worked with Assembly Members Shirley N. Weber and Monique Limón to pass student hunger legislation (Assembly Bill 214 and Assembly Bill 453) that ensures college students have easier access to the CalFresh program on school campuses (e.g. making it possible for all schools to participate in Restaurant Meals Program, which allows on-campus food vendors to take food stamps). This past year, they also helped pass legislation that increases CalGrants available to low-income students (AB 132) and that ensures that the Basic Needs Centers and Coordinators that each community college in the state is required to establish is provided for in the state’s budget.
In the 1970s, California’s UC system was the envy of the world. But the gradual privatization of public education in the decades since has stripped federal and state funding for public universities in the state, resulting in tuition and fee increases over the years that have increasingly placed higher education out of reach for young people — particularly students of color and those from lower-resourced environments. California now spends less per capita of its GDP on public education compared to other states, despite having the world’s fifth largest economy. Young Invincibles has been helping to reverse the impacts of this trend through its work to “[set] students up to be able to build wealth.”
Building Out Our Social Safety Support Systems
Young Invincibles’ wins aside, there remains much to be done to help people build wealth — including ramping up our social safety net programs, where many families in need have been and continue to fall through the gaps.
Like Kristin’s mother, these families are composed of working individuals that are still unable to make ends meet, yet ineligible for emergency and supplemental aid programs, like CalFresh and Medical. She notes that policies like Universal Basic Income (UBI) would have greatly benefited her family as she was growing up, helping them to make ends meet and providing them with some discretionary income. By some measures, 40 percent of all households are one missed paycheck away from not being able to make ends meet. This kind of income insecurity was prevalent even before the pandemic. “It’s why we were able to support the first ever UBI bill [which] was heard earlier this year, even if it didn’t pass. Situations like mine are not unique, not exceptional.”
“College students [from these communities] are driven to certain careers… because they are their parents’ retirement plan.”
Income insecurity and the ensuing wealth gaps it contributes to in the BIPOC community has also raised questions about when, if at all, workers in these communities will have the means to retire, how they plan to support themselves and their families when they are no longer working, and consequently, what kind of supports should be in place to meet their needs. Within communities of color, it’s a common expectation for people to assume financial responsibility for their parents in their old age. This is necessitated in part by the well-documented racial retirement gap and continual increases in the retirement age to access Social Security benefits. “College students [from these communities] are driven to certain careers… because they are their parents’ retirement plan.”
As for how to tell how a community is doing, Kristin believes we should be looking to caretakers, children, and college students — who she believes provide an accurate indicator of the financial health of a community. “How many kids are having lunch? Who’s eating is a strong indicator of how a community is doing.”