Around the Institute

Rising to the Challenge

November 17, 2016  • Gina Caneva, Alexis Smith, Gabriela Morales & Daniel Rogers

Key Points

  • The Aspen Challenge asks students to design solutions to the problems within their own communities. Below, three participants from MoneyLYFE, one of the 2016 winning teams, and the COO from the financial organization who issued a financial literacy challenge to them, share their stories of how they rose above and beyond to address the financial challenges of their community.

A Coach’s Perspective

By Gina Caneva
Gina Caneva is a Chicago Public Schools teacher, librarian, and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy.

Last January, my principal came by my desk in the library of the Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a high school in Engelwood, and handed me a brochure with pictures of students commanding a stage, eyes focused on the crowd.

“Would you be interested in coaching this team?” he said. “It’s called the Aspen Challenge. I think it’s about student inventions and maybe nature? I haven’t looked at it all that much, but it sounded like you.” I quickly glanced through the brochure, intrigued by the students’ postures of determination and belief. After a bit of research and some YouTube viewing of past Aspen Challenge student presentations, I told my principal I would coach—and that it wasn’t exactly about student inventions or nature. We both were excited.

After compiling a team of eight students from three different high-school grade levels, four different ethnicities, and seven different Chicago neighborhoods, we held our first team meeting. I showed the students the same videos I had watched. In particular, our team was in awe of a Los Angeles team that had gotten communities across the city to pledge to help clean up the shorelines. “They did this in seven weeks? We can’t do that in seven weeks!”

They were curious and overwhelmed at the same time, and they hadn’t even heard about which challenges would be offered yet. If you had told any of us that we would have a similar impact on our own community of Englewood, one of the most impoverished areas of Chicago, we wouldn’t have believed you.

But then came the opening forum, in Chicago. After hearing all of the challenges, our team was most captivated by the financial-literacy challenge. During the student-led Q&A, the majority of students in the room defended the decision to use currency exchange check-cashing services over banking institutions. My students were shocked at how distrustful their communities were of banking systems. We would find out later that our team was the only team out of the 20 to choose that challenge. Team MoneyLYFE was born.

“We should have a bank fair,” team member Qiama Williams suggested at our next meeting. “We could have different banks in our gym like a college fair. People could sign up for an account at the fair with an actual banker.” The group agreed. Team Captain Gabriela Morales took charge and delegated the team roles. With a hard deadline of seven weeks, we couldn’t afford inefficiency.

Half of the team didn’t have a bank account before we began the challenge.

Meetings became more frequent, team members became more invested, and they started to bond in a way I haven’t seen in a non-athletic extracurricular activity or enrichment program. I have coached several athletic teams at the high-school level, but usually the squad has played together for years. I’ve also been a part of enrichment programs that focus on academics in which students excel. But the Aspen Challenge was unique: I had a team of eight students very different in gender, age, race, and neighborhood who had never worked together and who also knew little about the topic they had chosen. Half of the team didn’t have a bank account before we began the challenge. Yet they would go on to lead two bank fairs reaching over 225 people, teach classes to eighth graders in the Englewood community to inform them to make smart financial decisions, create a website, and use social media to communicate the importance of financial literacy to teens.

I often think about why they delved into the topic with such persistence. Sure, the trip to Aspen as the reward was an exciting thought. But really, we wanted to see if their ideas could become a reality for the Englewood community. The seven-week time period didn’t allow for doubt or negativity to creep in. If it ever did come up in a meeting, I would squash it and say, “YOLO people, YOLO.” (For the uninitiated to rapper Drake’s vernacular: “You only live once.”) We knew we only had one chance.

It is difficult to articulate the pride I had when our team took the stage.

It is difficult to articulate the pride I had when our team took the stage at the competition and became real-life versions of the students I had seen in the brochure and on YouTube. As an urban public school teacher for thirteen years, I’ve experienced amazing moments in my classroom, but never this fascinating. The experience has made me ask students for more ideas regarding the library and the writing center I run. I reached out to the same neighborhood elementary school we worked with in MoneyLYFE; besides teaching financial literacy courses there, our writing center plans to offer tutoring service on a daily basis. I am forever changed by the experience.

Life After MoneyLYFE

By Alexis Smith
Alexis Smith is a student at Lindblom Math and Science Academy and an Aspen Challenge participant.

“Hello, sir. Have you talked to someone from MoneyLYFE?” I gazed at the tall man patiently as I waited for his response. The stack of handouts in my hand burned to be handed out.

“No, I haven’t. What is it?”

My eyes lit up and my face split into a grin as I delivered my speech about the bank fair we were holding in the library of my high school, Lindblom Math and Science Academy, in West Englewood, as part of the Aspen Challenge. As I walked away from the man after attempting to sell him on why he should attend our bank fair—with promises of interesting information and cool gifts like t-shirts and wristbands—my mind went to how much being a part of MoneyLYFE has changed me.

MoneyLYFE aims to increase financial literacy in Englewood, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago.

I should explain what MoneyLYFE is. We are a student-led organization created as a response to the Aspen Challenge. MoneyLYFE aims to increase financial literacy in Englewood, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago, through visiting schools to teach students about the benefits of saving, hosting bank fairs to increase the amount of bank households, and creating interesting videos about finance. I served as an event planner for our bank fairs, where we talked to people about the benefits of creating a bank account while attempting to get them to create an account, and helped to create the curriculum we are using to teach students.

Our bank fairs helped me become a more adaptable person, connect with my community, and be more sociable. While planning the events, we encountered various problems. For instance, most of the banks we contacted had to pull out of participating because our fair fell during Tax Week. Only one, Marquette Bank, was able to attend. But its representative was able to talk to attendees, which led to some of them opening an account. Hosting bank representatives required the team to learn all about banking systems to teach our fellow students—sometimes not the most engaging of topics.

The biggest impact Aspen Challenge had on me had to do with our work in the community. The most interaction I’d had with most of Englewood before MoneyLYFE was my drive to and from school and trips to a park for gym class. Through MoneyLYFE, I was able to see the people behind the 44 percent poverty rate, which is what comes to mind when Chicagoans think of Englewood. I was able to interact with community members and grow as a person through our goal to educate people about the benefits of using bank accounts as opposed to currency exchanges, check-cashing services. I became more knowledgeable and aware of the struggles facing the people who surround me.

We helped people learn better ways to manage money.

At the same time, we had an impact on our community: we helped people learn better ways to manage money. We gave back about $100 that had been taken from people by cashing checks at currency exchanges, and 97 percent of our visitors reported that they learned something new while at our bank fairs. We will continue to work with Englewood to create a more lasting impact.

Before participating in Aspen Challenge, I would have never been able to approach a person so easily and attempt to persuade them to visit our bank fair. I would have preferred to simply sit in the corner and hand out snacks to participants. Attending meetings and sending out emails to get banks to send representatives to our bank fairs helped me become more assertive and eager to help provide knowledge about managing finance to people who need it. Because of Aspen Challenge, I was able to approach strangers with this improved confidence and say: “Excuse me, ma’am. Do you know what would look great with that Lindblom shirt? A MoneyLYFE one! Head to our bank fair in the library, and you can find out more about the ridiculous amount of money the currency exchange business makes from check-cashing fees.”

The Challenge in Aspen

By Gabriela Morales
Gabriela Morales is a student at Lindblom Math and Science Academy and an Aspen Challenge participant.

The Aspen Ideas Festival gave me the chance to meet and talk to different people from all over the world. At the Young Adult Forum, I met people my age from Colorado, Texas, Washington, DC—and even teenagers who had traveled all of the way from South Africa. Seeing the number of teenagers at the Forum made me realize how many connections the Aspen Challenge and the Aspen Institute have all over the world. I was thrilled to be a part of it.

How are we, high school teenagers, even going to be able to try to solve the lack of knowledge on financial literacy when we barely know anything ourselves?

At the festival, I attended at least two sessions per day where presenters talked about issues that ranged from American issues such as Black Lives Matter to global issues like teenage brides in Afghanistan. I was most drawn to sessions focusing on different parts of the world, like refugees from Syria. I did not want to attend sessions on issues that were happening in America – I hear about those issues every day when I turn on the news. I was inspired by the determination of so many speakers to solve an issue they took seriously, especially since seven other classmates and I have started to solve an issue that is important to us in our high school community: financial literacy. When we first created MoneyLYFE, shortly after the Aspen Challenge 0pening forum, all I could think to myself was, “How are we, high school teenagers, even going to be able to try to solve the lack of knowledge on financial literacy when we barely know anything ourselves?”

I told myself to push through, go with it, and work with my teammates. Because of our willingness to try, MoneyLYFE hosted two separate bank fairs and taught a financial literacy class, all in the span of seven weeks. The sessions at the Ideas Festival made me happy I had not given up on MoneyLYFE: the presenters I listened to never gave up, even though there were tough obstacles to overcome, and they had created some amazing solutions.

After leaving Colorado, I wanted to expand MoneyLYFE and teach financial literacy to more elementary schools in Chicago. I took a summer internship with Moneythink, an organization that aims to expand the knowledge of financial literacy to high school students living in the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park. At Moneythink, my job was to give my opinion on the lesson plans: they wanted to know how a high-schooler would feel. I took notes on the plans and applied them to the financial literacy lessons MoneyLYFE wants to teach elementary students. MoneyLYFE also plans to teach as many financial literacy classes we can at our high school, Earle Elementary School, and other neighborhood schools. But it is not only the residents of Englewood who need to know the basics of financial literacy—we want to expand to other communities. And without the invitation from the Aspen Challenge to participate, and the inspiration from the Aspen Ideas Festival, there would have never been MoneyLYFE.

My Own Challenge

Daniel Rogers
Daniel Rogers is the founder of A.M. Money and former chief operating officer of Moneythink.

This past year, I had the privilege to be a presenter at the Aspen Challenge opening forum in Chicago. My job was to challenge students from over 20 high schools to take on the task of understanding the perils of not using a bank for their financial transactions.

This event was something of a homecoming for me. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and it was always a struggle to realize my potential in spite of the poverty around me. I got on stage as the chief operating officer of a nationally recognized nonprofit focused on financial education, which I came to after a career that took me to institutions like the Department of State, Uber Technologies, and even the Aspen Institute as an ICAP Fellow for high-performing mid-career professionals in foreign affairs.

I viewed it as an honor, if not a responsibility, to show people the way to the other side.

I viewed it as an honor, if not a responsibility, to show people the way to the other side. The way I figured, I was still young enough to be relevant to the kids, and successful enough to be able to speak with authority. If one kid left that room and starting mapping out a better way to deal with their financial challenges, I would have been happy.

You can imagine my excitement when the MoneyLYFE team informed me that they had accepted my challenge and went full-steam ahead, making something happen. What they did was downright amazing.

Of course, there was another aspect of their ambitions—the financial institutions themselves. Every single bank that agreed to show up to their fair bailed out. Twice. Until one finally agreed. I tried to step in, since many of the banks were funders of the organization where I worked. Tepid would be a gracious word to use for their response.

This reminded me of my own struggles as a poor kid growing up in the South Side and the specific role financial institutions played. I vividly recall my first semester of college after leaving the US military and being sucked into an overdraft protection scam where my bank had processed all of my monthly bills—conveniently, a mere hour before my student-aid check cleared. There was also the time I had to talk my skeptical grandmother into co-signing on a private student loan in order to meet the match component of a scholarship I received to take an intensive language course I needed for my language requirement, a requisite for the job I would later get at the State Department.

I remember how incredulous I felt at all of this. Before enrolling in college, I served for four and a half years in the US military. In that time, I completed over two years of college coursework in my less-than-ample free time. I’d spend my time waiting to go out on mission in a Special Operations task force in Mosul, kitted up reading a history textbook so I could write the paper after we came back. Yet if I had been unlucky enough to not have a grandmother with a sufficient credit history, I’d have had to drop out of college until I saved up enough to take that course.

You’d think that someone could understand that I took my college studies seriously enough to warrant a few thousand dollars to help me get through that semester.

Crazy, right? You’d think that someone could understand that I took my college studies seriously enough to warrant a few thousand dollars to help me get through that semester. You’d be mistaken. Our banking system isn’t built like that, nor is our higher education system. We throw kids into it and hope they have the presence of mind to handle the rigors of solid education while having to juggle real-life financial difficulties while having no one in their immediate network they can rely on for support or advice.

That’s crazy. But you know what’s crazier? Many of them do. There are 400,000 students on the Pell Grant at the nation’s top 100 institutions. These are kids who are either way smarter than I am, or who have worked even harder, if not both. They might have to take a job, or take slightly longer to graduate than their peers. But they’ll sure as hell get there.

That’s why I decided to start a financial-services firm with some of my old University of Chicago classmates. Our mission is to make sure that kids like the students from MoneyLYFE will always know that someone will be there when they step up to the plate and do their part.

This is about investing in people who are undervalued in the market.

Our premise is simple: we will provide value to these sorts of consumers where other financial-services firms either can’t or won’t. This isn’t about being a charity. This is about investing in people who are undervalued in the market. If you tell me that the system doesn’t see value in working with kids like the ones from MoneyLYFE, then I’ll tell you that has more to do with the system being broken. We will do this by leveraging many of the analytical and technological tools of modern finance with some of the models of microfinance and other innovative financial systems around the world. I walked on that stage thinking that all I had to do was show a better way to these students, but I realize that there is still a lot of work to be done. I went there to give those students a challenge, but in the end, I found my own.