Joanna Donohoe - Coordinator, Native Financial Education Coalition
Published March 1, 2005 | March 2005 issue
Understanding how to make wise financial decisions has always been an important component of accessing affordable credit and other financial products and services. Because Native communities have historically had limited access to the financial marketplace, financial education is especially critical for stimulating the flow of capital into Indian Country and helping Native people achieve their financial goals.
In the late 1990s, major agencies and nonprofit organizations with interests in promoting Native economic development began an ongoing conversation about the critical nature of financial education in Indian Country. The Native Financial Education Coalition (NFEC) evolved from the discussion. Convened by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 2000, the coalition is now an independent entity coordinated through First Nations Oweesta Corporation.
For nearly five years, the NFEC has brought together local, regional and national organizations and governments to promote financial education in Native communities. Native people have historically managed resources wisely—whether through hunting, fishing or harvesting. The NFEC's goal is to help translate those traditional resource management skills to today's financial market.
By working collaboratively, NFEC members seek to increase awareness about the need for financial education in Native communities through outreach, policy and research. They look for ways to build the financial education capacity of Native governments and organizations by offering instructor training and information about national financial education resources. They also support each other's efforts to promote financial management skills through sharing and collaboration
Vickie Oldman, a financial education trainer and NFEC member, is passionate about bringing basic banking and financial management skills to Native communities.
"This education is needed because we as Native people are tired of being victims of predatory practices in our surrounding communities," she says. "If we want our communities to grow, financial education can be the foundation for bringing more resources to the community and keeping them there. We will become educated homeowners and business owners, and feel empowered to make our dreams come true."
Oldman, who is Navajo, has worked with other experienced trainers in preparing more than 800 instructors to teach financial education courses in Native communities. The training uses the Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families curriculum, which was developed by First Nations Development Institute and the Fannie Mae Foundation.
NFEC Chair Elsie Meeks, executive director of the First Nations Oweesta Corporation and a member of the Federal Reserve Board's Consumer Advisory Council, is amazed by how much the Coalition has been able to accomplish.
"Thanks to financial support from some of our members, we've really been able to have an impact at the local level," she comments. "We've facilitated pilot programs at tribal colleges and through youth initiatives. And we've raised awareness about how important financial education really is."
Financial supporters of the NFEC include the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Fannie Mae Foundation, Merrill Lynch, Washington Mutual and Wells Fargo Foundation. Through collaboration with the National Endowment for Financial Education, NFEC recently launched a new Web site at www.nfec.info that will serve as an information clearing-house for Native communities developing financial education programs.
The work of the coalition is conducted through five committees, which were formally organized in 2003. In addition to training, NFEC members target tribal colleges; youth initiatives; Earned Income Tax Credit outreach; and new asset education, which involves developing education tools for tribes that have relatively high incomes from gaming dividends or other types of distributions. (For more information on the Youth Initiatives Committee, a focus of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, see the sidebar below.)
"We are stressing an integrated approach," explains Meeks, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. "We've found that the strongest local programs tie their financial education to other efforts like Individual Development Accounts, homeownership, small business development or even free tax-preparation assistance. The coalition is encouraging Native organizations to look for partners at the local level to streamline the delivery of services to consumers."
And the consumers are responding. Oldman's enthusiasm rings through once more as she describes the reaction of her students.
"Many Native people easily grasp the concept of how our elders managed natural resources. Once they understand that and see how it applies to their finances today, it's exciting." she says. "Then, when they see how financial resources tie into their day-to-day lifestyles and choices, that's even more powerful. People begin to understand that those choices are major factors in determining how many resources they have."
By helping Native communities develop the capacity to deliver this message, the NFEC hopes to bolster the foundation for strong tribal economies and financially savvy Native people.
Since its formation in 2003, the Youth Initiatives Committee (YIC) of the Native Financial Education Coalition has begun to play a role in bringing culturally appropriate financial education to the next generation of Native Americans.
The mission of the YIC is "to develop an initiative to promote the financial education of Native youth" across the United States. Committee members, led by co-chairs Richard Todd of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and Kimberly Irwin of the Social Security Administration's Phoenix office, built supports for the mission early on by crafting a work plan that has several key objectives. The list includes creating a process for adapting available financial education curricula to Native youths, building relationships with Native and non-Native organizations that have strong youth or financial education programs in place and organizing recognition events for both Native youths and their adult teachers and mentors.
Most of the objectives got under way in 2004, with committee members providing youth financial education materials from organizations like Junior Achievement, the National Endowment for Financial Education and the National Council on Economic Education (NCEE) to Native educators for their evaluation. In mid-2004, the YIC partnered with the Minnesota Council on Economic Education (MCEE) to support a pilot financial education program for Native middle and high school students at Heart of the Earth Charter School (HOE) in Minneapolis. With funding from the Beim Foundation and in-kind support from the YIC, the council trained HOE social studies teacher Bruce Turnbaugh on the NCEE's Financial Fitness for Life curriculum. Through the MCEE, a consulting educator who has experience with the curriculum offered feedback on Turnbaugh's lesson plans. The MCEE also provided tests to assess students' knowledge before and after each unit of the curriculum is taught. Turnbaugh, the MCEE and YIC members will work together to assess the pilot's results at the end of the academic year.
The YIC expects to expand its efforts in 2005. Additional pilot opportunities are being explored in other Minneapolis settings and in rural South Dakota, with support from the Wells Fargo Foundation. The YIC is also pursuing financial education partnerships with the Girl Scouts of America and Boys and Girls Clubs of America (BGCA). In a recently announced agreement, Schwab Bank will fund pilots for Native youths at four BGCA locations in Nevada and Arizona. To promote the sharing of experience and best practices in financial education for Native youths, the YIC plans to organize events to recognize outstanding achievement and will post brief summaries of existing Native financial education efforts on the Lessons Learned, or LesLe, Web site maintained by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago (http://www.chicagofed.org/webpages/communities/cedric/lesle.cfm). Through these and other means, YIC members hope to build their initial efforts into a broad, powerful program for delivering financial education across the Native youth population.
For information on joining the YIC, or to suggest a Native youth financial education effort for inclusion on the LesLe site, contact Richard Todd at (612) 204-5864 or firstname.lastname@example.org.