Twice a week, a special kind of after-school club convenes in a classroom at City College’s Mission Campus. The group of high school students don’t play Grand Theft Auto V or design yearbooks, instead their conversation centers around things like savings accounts, pay-day lenders, and figuring out what exactly a FAFSA is.
On paper, the group is called New ERA (Economic Rights for All), a project of Mission SF Community Financial Center, with the goal of promoting financial education among youth in the Mission and throughout the city. More than a money club or a finance class, New ERA is a co-ed team of banking activists. It’s kind of what the teen cops of 21 Jump Street might look like if they rescued their peers from paying overdraft fees. They’re even gearing up to check if any cash-checking locations in the Bayview are operating in violation of city law.
“It’s greedy, this whole economic system,” said Irene Cuellar, a member of New ERA and a senior at Leadership High School. “We shouldn’t be ripped off.”
Since its beginning four years ago, New ERA consists of a rotating group of ten or so students recruited from local high schools who receive a small stipend and training in personal finance. The group then takes what they’ve learned to conduct outreach programs in schools and throughout the neighborhood on topics ranging from setting up a savings account to avoiding predatory lending schemes.
Though the teens decide on their projects, the group is helmed by Dairo Romero, a long-time financial rights advocate and former director of programs at Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), as well as two program assistants from Mission SF. For Romero, the group’s mission of spreading financial education is especially vital in the Mission where low-income and immigrant families don’t always have easy access to traditional financial services and turn to the neighborhood’s glut of high-interest pay-day lenders and check cashers.
Combating Predatory Lenders
There’s so many, in fact, that, in 2007, the Planning Department and Board of Supervisors approved a moratorium on new check cashing and payday lending spots in the Mission, the Haight, Mid-Market, and the Bayview. However, according to the last time Mission Local did a count in 2009, 15 pay-day lenders and 30 check cashers still operated in the neighborhood, respectively. Businesses like these take a percentage of checks cashed or charge fees.
Romero says that while financial savvy is as important for teens’ success as more traditional academic subjects, the city’s schools are are falling short on raising their students’ economic IQ.
“Nobody is teaching them how to save, how to cash checks without paying fees, and a lot of people don’t have savings accounts,” said Romero. “The most important thing is that [our team] gets the training, and then they go on and present to the youth in their community.”
At a recent Tuesday meeting, the team was strategizing for outreach. Among their numerous projects, they’re in the middle of conducting surveys with 250 students at seven high schools about financial health to find where their peers lack knowledge and access. They’re also gathering signatures for a petition to persuade the city that whenever a department pays out stipends to children and teenagers, such as programs sponsored by the Department of Children and Youth Services (DCYF), beneficiaries can have direct deposit and savings accounts established.
“There’s many studies that say if a student has a savings account from a young age, they’re more likely to go to college,” says Romero. He explains that without financial savvy, funds granted to young people get cashed at fringe outlets and may fail to be effectively saved for longterm goals, like a funding a college education.
In addition to their outreach work in the Mission, New ERA received a $5,000 grant from the Youth Empowerment Fund, a voter-approved fund run by DCYF, to conduct a large outreach effort to students and host an economic justice summit with high schools in the Bayview. Despite a 2007 moratorium on so-called fringe financial services in the Bayview, Romero tells the students he believes there may be new payday lenders opening there and it’s up to their group to map out all the financial services in the neighborhood.
“We need to figure out if the city is enforcing the ban,” said Romero to the room full of teenagers soon to be financial-regulatory sleuths.
“What they’re doing is illegal!” said Lorena Flores Mission SF program assistant and a recent alum of a similar program run by the organization. “You have the capacity to change things.”
For many of the students the stakes of their group’s work are highly personal. Most of the students in the room explained that they didn’t know much about banking before joining New ERA. Some said that their parents didn’t have bank accounts and others had seen the effects of predatory lending up close.
“I used to put my money in a briefcase,” said Anthony Hernandez, a junior at John O’Connell High School. “This experience has taught me a lot.”
“My dad would use those predatory lending services on the street,” said sophomore Marco Ponce from George Washington High School. “I feel determined to be in this program because people just aren’t well informed. If it wasn’t for us, most people wouldn’t get word about predatory lending or banks fees.”
After the group edits a questionnaire for their Bayview outreach efforts, tallies the results from their in-progress financial education survey, and decides on where to allocate funds from a fundraising project, they gather in a circle and play a game that involves trying to make each other laugh by saying, “Honey, I love you, will you smile for me?” Goofy faces and giggles burst forth.
“This is actually a fun experience,” said Ponce. “But we can also have success with our campaign. We can change this city completely.”