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Finance can be an intimidating field, especially for those of us at the margins who didn't grow up in an environment where financial planning and education were normalized. Our Finance Project Director, Monica Marie Avery, shares her experience of becoming a finance professional with an untraditional background and invites us to think about how people underrepresented in finance can offer a valuable perspective on transforming financial systems and practices for the collective good.
Join us for our next Finance Fundamentals: Understanding Key Language, Concepts, and Practices training.
I am an untraditional finance professional – meaning I am not someone whose upbringing was in proximity to the kind of wealth, family, or community who was inclined to financial planning and conversations about investing. I come from a low-income background, am a queer woman of color, a first generation college graduate, and prior to pursuing a career in finance I was involved in community organizing work most of my life. This lived experience has more overlap with how to stretch a dollar rather than how to invest one. As such, you might be asking, “What made you pursue a career in finance?” And the answer is my involvement in community organizing led me down this path and I’m glad it did.
Sometime in my twenties, I had the privilege of attending a panel hosted by worker-owners at the Evergreen Cooperatives. The Evergreen Cooperatives are a group of worker-owned businesses in Cleveland, Ohio that are committed to community economic development. During the panel, the worker-owners talked about how they felt about their jobs at the Evergreen Cooperatives. Unlike other workplaces, they noted they felt respected, their work had purpose, and they were committed to the success of the organization. I was moved by how this alternative structure allowed for them to maintain their humanity while working.
That made me start thinking even more deeply about money, people, and the kind of systems that can move us away from extraction and dehumanization and towards a regenerative economy. It was at that moment that I decided I wanted my movement work to relate to the economy.
Once I made this decision, I wasn’t sure how I was going to make that happen, but little by little, with lots of learning and support, I grew my knowledge and practice. I am now a proud MBA graduate, working with CompassPoint to focus on regenerative finance systems and practices.
I think we all have a role to play in reimagining financial systems for the collective good and that’s why I want to share a few things about being a “finance outsider” that I hope will encourage you to see the gifts and wisdom you already bring to this work!
Being an Outsider Can Help You Focus on the Collective Good
Finance professionals that come from work, lives, and communities where the priority is collective good have lived experiences that can help them enter the field with a different intention, a different measure of success. They can help challenge the notion of hoarding wealth, maximizing profits, and making individuals rich as the main goals of building financial knowledge and skills.
Recently, I watched a webinar that featured the Ujima Project. The Ujima Project “is a place-based investment fund, controlled by community members in the Boston area.” This fund was started by people with a community organizing background. From inception, their goal has been to create a mechanism for greater social equity. Since that’s the vision at the core of their work, the way they measure success is different from a traditional financial institution. As Ujima grows and brings on more members from a traditional finance background, Ujima’s untraditional bottom line enables them to repurpose traditional finance tools to incentivize collective gain and build community power.
As we shift our systems towards a bottom line that includes people and the planet, finance professionals from non-traditional backgrounds can step into these roles without having to unlearn practices that have held back our economy and in turn our society for so long. Instead, they can see solutions where others mired in a particular way of working may miss. We can help bring a transformative lens to this work.
Being an Outsider Helps Us Tap Into Abundant Resources Beyond Dollars
Growing up as a low-income kid, I realized quickly that meeting people and valuing connections is a way to connect with resources. In my previous life as a community organizer and activist, I remember working as an adult with young people from similar backgrounds who were also committed to community building. Those young people saw the value in every contact and connection.
Relationships can be a resource in and of themselves because they help us organize time and energy toward community goals. Bringing an outsider perspective to finances can help challenge the idea that the only things that matter are dollars and cents. There is an abundance of resources to be shared in community: political capital, cultural capital, and intellectual capital.
If you grew up at the margins of extractive systems, you may have had to be more creative about how you think about resources, and that type of radical imagination can reshape our financial approaches for the better. We can see value in things that are intangible to others.
Being an Outsider Helps Us Challenge the Idea of Perfectionism and Individual Leadership
I want to address the elephant in the room. Some who are reading this might be like, “Sure that all sounds good, but, you are probably good at math.” In truth, I am terrified of math and messing up calculations, especially when it has to do with money – and even more so when it comes to someone else’s or a whole organization’s money.
This fear is a dominant culture narrative that says we have to be perfect from the jump, but as outsiders we can challenge that idea, because we do know transformation takes practice. For me, this means I’ve learned to be bold about asking questions and looking for support so I can learn. Also, it has meant understanding that rarely (if ever) does anyone understand anything fully from day one. It takes practice, and that’s fine. I got it and so will you.
When lots of outsiders work together, we can help challenge the idea that we have to know everything from the beginning. As outsiders, we can normalize a culture where everyone is empowered to ask questions, financial knowledge is more democratized, and whole groups feel more empowered to understand how resources are flowing.
During graduate school, I quickly realized that the majority of my assignments were group projects. This meant I always had thought partners who brought new perspectives to the table, where we could help each other through moments of confusion. Similarly, I recommend looking for (and building) finance roles where you will be part of a team that can offer you support. Also, due to checks and balances, you will not be the only set of eyes on something, and there should always be a few people checking on what’s happening financially in the organization (one great reason to make sure you are investing time and energy across your team to build financial knowledge!).
Learning is Easier in Community
I see a direct connection between community organizing and the need to reimagine our economic and financial systems on the way to liberation. I want to see more of us so-called untraditional folks bringing our gifts and wisdom to financial leadership in social justice organizations and movements.
In my own work, I’m especially excited about working with folks most impacted by oppressive systems, especially people of color, who are looking to create and implement regenerative and participatory finance practices.
If you are interested in learning more about finances and feel like you’re an outsider looking in on these roles, one place you can start is our upcoming Finance Fundamentals Training on January 18, 20, and 25 (three-day training) This is a friendly space for anyone new to financial knowledge, regardless of your position or role in a social justice organization or movement building space.
I hope to see you there!