Financial security is out of reach for many Americans. For scores of households an inequitable distribution of resources and growing economic instability has pushed them to the financial brink, particularly in the nation’s urban centers.
Inspired to tackle issues of economic inequality and also to empower marginalized young people, The Economic Justice Partnership (TEJP) has, since 2022, hosted financial literacy workshops with middle and high school students around Philadelphia, as well Penn and other college students, specifically targeting those who identify as first generation or lower income.
The initiative, a Projects for Progress winner in 2022, was created by Wharton School undergraduate Khushi Shelat, then-Wharton undergrad Solomon Thomas, and Brian Peterson, director of Makuu: The Black Cultural Center and a Penn lecturer. Shelat is a fourth-year student from Brisbane, Australia, majoring in statistics at Wharton, and Thomas graduated in May with a degree in management and entrepreneurship, also from Wharton.
“Like any other financial literacy program, it’s about where to get started. But it’s unique in that it is also about connecting with these students in terms of what they care about, and what their history is to help them understand the importance of starting,” Shelat says.
Another big difference is that, thanks to the P4P funding, that team is able to award $250 investment stipends to participants after they complete the workshops so they can put what they learned into practice right away.
From the basics of setting up an investment account, to giving a play-by-play on how interest accrues, to the essentials of budgeting, the workshops focus on financial empowerment. They also address the root causes of economic inequality, providing an unvarnished look at policies built on historic and systemic racism.
Peterson has focused on teaching urban financial literacy at Penn for several years, getting started with the popular Life 101 course that he co-teaches with NFL veteran and Penn alumnus Brandon Copeland. In the fall semester, Peterson taught the SNF Paideia class, Inequity and Empowerment: Urban Financial Literacy. He’s familiar with letting students know right away that it is OK to have uncomfortable conversations about race.
“Philadelphia is the poorest large city in America and that’s racially coded, so we have to have specific conversations to talk about how this happened,” he says. “We are also going to instill these baseline ideas that maybe you haven’t thought about in terms of habits and practices around investing and show that, in one sense, that space is democratized. But the wealth space is not, where people have hundreds of years of advantage and others don’t even understand how investing works. So, we create a comfortable, safe space to talk about it.”
The group’s fourth cohort, called TEJP Collegiate, wrapped up on Dec. 1, and included students from Penn, Drexel, Villanova, and La Salle.
This semester, the group also did a partnership session with Blues Babe, Grammy-winning singer Jill Scott’s foundation, and will be working with Philadelphia Youth Basketball starting in January.
Economic justice as equal opportunities
Unveiled in 2020, the Projects for Progress are managed by Penn’s Office of Social Equity & Community, which distributes up to $100,000 each to chosen teams of Penn students, faculty, and staff working to promote equity and inclusion in Philadelphia by addressing topics like health care, education, systemic racism, and environmental justice.
Shelat’s interest in urban financial literacy started as a side project during her gap year, when she created personal finance educational programming while back home in Australia. Coming to Penn, she signed up for Peterson’s Urban Financial Literacy course. “I came to him with some ideas on how I could continue working on something similar to that gap year programming, but here at Penn, and that’s when he, Solomon, and I connected on his specific idea for the Economic Justice Partnership, which aligned a lot with all the things that I’d been thinking about.”
For her, economic justice means an equal opportunity to financial understanding and financial education.
“The way that we also think about it in the context of the Economic Justice Partnership is racially informed financial literacy education,” she says. “Professor Peterson has done a lot of work in terms of making sure people feel comfortable having the real conversations around racism and financial injustice, and I think that’s a really big part of the definition of the partnership in general.”
Time is of the essence for the students they work with, she says.
“It’s important to look at this moment in time, as in how old the students we target are. From middle school-age all the way up to college is a really important time, because if they start thinking about investing in the right way, they can have that wealth accumulated to a significant degree as they grow older,” she says. “With inflation and the risk of a recession perpetually looming, it’s difficult as a young person to understand what to do and what our futures look like, so it’s important to open up those conversations.”
Peterson says the slides in the program that really resonate with the middle schoolers show the net worth of people like Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and LeBron James, and then he shows a slide of Elon Musk, side-by-side with how many billions he’s lost. “The last time I did, it was $4.4 billion. It’s a conversation starter for sure.”
Shelat says as an international student, she always struggled with financial literacy, particularly in the U.S.
“I didn’t know why all Americans seem to have a credit score, among other things, and I felt like I was falling behind compared to my peers as a result of that,” she says.
Economic justice through exposure
Thomas’ grandparents were small business owners in suburban Philadelphia, and he’d come from his home in Brooklyn to spend the summers with them. “My grandma was a salesperson, a small business owner, and a realtor as well, and she was always talking about money and numbers and she was always hustling,” he says.
Her work ethic inspired his own entrepreneurial spirit, leading him to apply to Wharton and he was eventually successful at getting into Peterson’s popular financial literacy course.
For Thomas, economic justice has to do with exposure.
“A lot of young people from minority, low-income communities don’t have exposure to different discussions around financial literacy, whether it’s banking or investing in retirement savings, because a lot of times their parents weren’t exposed to or aren’t as savvy with personal finance themselves,” he says. “Having the opportunity to gain exposure to these topics to such an important piece of your life. Because once you have exposure, if it piques your interest, then you can take it from there.”
Thomas adds, there’s a lot of history surrounding minority communities and the financial systems where they weren’t allowed to participate, and those effects linger. “There are a lot of programs that do financial literacy, but a lot of them don’t touch on that social justice and inequity piece. These two go hand-in-hand, especially when targeting the specific audience that we are targeting, I think it’s definitely important to get the message out.”
Despite graduating in May and now working full time in New York City as a business analyst at Capital One, Thomas is committed to sticking with the partnership he launched.
“I love personal finance just for myself and I love teaching, mentorship and helping people along their journeys and this project combines all my passions,” he says. Thomas notes how interactive the programming is, helping students set up an IRA for themselves after they finish the program or open high-yield savings accounts.
“Financial literacy is a lifelong journey,” he says. “You’re not going to come out of the course and learn everything and be an expert. But we want to get the ball rolling, and get them started on their journey, especially with the younger audience that we’re targeting,” he says. “We want to give them a head start.”
As for what the future holds for TEJP, all three agree that they are inspired to help it continue to grow.
They are looking to expand into more schools and are hoping to train Teaching Assistants to help with Peterson’s role as they expand.
“We’re still young and we’re still growing, and I am very excited to see where we go from here,” Thomas says.