Why you should care
Because even 4-year-olds can start on the path to wealth.
Chloe McKenzie crouches on the floor, a gaggle of children sitting criss-cross applesauce around her.
“What do you do with an apple seed?”
“Water it!” the preschoolers chorus.
McKenzie, the founder of BlackFem — a nonprofit focused on teaching financial literacy to disadvantaged students — nods in response. The kids gazing up at her are bright and curious. But they aren’t here for storytime. This is an introductory economic lesson, and the students — from financially disadvantaged households in the D.C. area — will leave the classroom with an understanding of compound interest.
THE MEDIAN NET WORTH OF A WOMAN OF COLOR IS $5. I WANT TO CHANGE THAT.
BlackFem founder Chloe McKenzie
McKenzie hopes this lesson will lay important groundwork for the children to grasp the concepts of financial literacy, wealth and economic power, three categories that fall under the umbrella of “wealth justice.”
“A lot of people in [the financial industry] continue to think that wealth is just something that you put on a balance sheet, but there is [a] much deeper, more humanistic meaning,” says McKenzie, 27. This ethos is built into BlackFem, as well as McKenzie’s consulting company. While she earns a living by partnering with institutions on finding ways to close the wealth gap, she also provides $5 wealth coaching sessions for women of color.
Why $5? “Because right now, the median net worth of a woman of color is $5. And I want to change that. I want people, especially women of color, to know that you do enough, you are enough, you have enough,” McKenzie explains. Starting small is an essential reminder in a world where 40 percent of adults faced with an unexpected expense of $400 would either not be able to pay it or would sell something or borrow money to cover the cost. McKenzie wants to drive home the point that $1, $5 or $20 can be the building blocks of wealth. “Start there and then begin building,” she says.
Back at the D.C. preschool, as McKenzie wraps up her presentation, a 4-year-old tugs on her arm.
“I want to ask Santa for a savings account because I want my money to grow too,” she says, proving McKenzie’s theory that personal finance doesn’t have age barriers — a mantra she has spread to upward of 20,000 students across the country.
McKenzie is used to thinking outside the box. As a Wall Street trader with a degree from Amherst College, she was struck by the contrasts she observed around her. By day, she managed millions of dollars. By night, she volunteered at a homeless shelter, working primarily with women and mothers. When she was hit with a severe illness that required multiple surgeries, her perspective shifted.
“I was able to emerge from that with my wealth and health intact,” McKenzie says. “It made me realize that wealth [can be] power.” Following her health scare, McKenzie decided to pivot to teaching — and began planting the seeds of BlackFem, which was named as a nod to Black feminism.
In the cases of disadvantaged youth, “people think, well, they don’t have money, so how can they learn about money?” says McKenzie. “But I wanted to turn that thinking on its head. To say, actually, that’s exactly why they need to learn about money.” Her message to the students she meets is blunt: “Listen, because you come from a certain area or because you look the way that you look, you’re going to be exploited. Here’s how — and here’s how you can respond. Now go practice.”
Reshell Smith, a certified financial planner in Orlando, Florida, agrees with McKenzie that there needs to be greater focus on how race influences financial literacy. “From my work, I’ve found that women of color rely on family for financial information, instead of financial institutions. This financial information could potentially be outdated or misleading,” says Smith.
McKenzie tends to focus on correcting what she perceives as misinformation. “In communities of color, it’s this maxim that our parents or grandparents gave us, which is ‘You’ve made it if you’ve bought a home,’” she explains. “But that’s untrue. Ownership is wealth. Unless you own that home outright, it’s not wealth. I want people to think critically about the narratives we tell ourselves about money … because who is the person making those rules?”
BlackFem offers a multifaceted curriculum for pre-K to sixth grade: In the classroom, lessons about wealth are taught five days a week, using games, discussion and simulation as teaching tools. A summer academy helps BlackFem-affiliated teachers become certified wealth educators, better trained to integrate financial literacy curricula into their classrooms. And parent-focused workshops map what’s being taught to students, which allows the learning to continue at home.
Hannah Rawnsley, who has taught with McKenzie, was immediately taken by her drive and exuberance. When the two women were assigned to the same team for an icebreaking exercise, their challenge was to match 10 songs to their artists. “Chloe was so determined, so confident and so smart,” Rawnsley says. “She got them all, but what struck me was how much she really wanted us all to succeed together.”
Today, McKenzie is matching her program to state curricula — 12 so far. And she sees BlackFem extending beyond lesson plans into a movement: “What we’re doing is creating culturally responsive programming — reaching our students where they are, in the communities they live in.”
Financial literacy isn’t a solo endeavor. MassMutual’s Live Mutual Project applauds individuals and organizations focused on expanding financial literacy in their community. By creating connections in the community, the Live Mutual Project is committed to helping open doors to jobs, reveal practical financial advice, and uncover paths to reasonable loans and other resources to help meet our daily obligations and goals.