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What do “Financial Education” & “Stranger Danger” have in common?

(This is a great post is written by Melissa Gopnik, SVP Commonwealth)

Six years ago when I went  from working to prevent sexual violence  to working to prevent financial insecurity it felt like a major change in my life. What could these two fields possibly have in common?

This month I have been reflecting about this again since my inbox has been filled with both issues; April is both Sexual Assault Awareness and Financial Literacy month. They have more in common than I thought.

A central message of my presentations while at the rape crisis center was that survivors make the best decisions they can within the specific circumstances they are presented with. To prevent sexual violence, we all need to change those existing circumstances – for example, the legal, educational, and gender systems. Sexual violence is never the survivor’s fault.

A central message of my current presentations on financial security is that people make the best financial decisions they can within the specific circumstances they are presented with. To prevent financial insecurity, we all need to change those existing circumstances:  for example, the financial, employment, and class systems. Financial insecurity is never the individual’s fault.

I have faced the same resistance from both audiences – an instinctive belief that if people were “just educated” – if they understood how to budget, or not to walk alone at night –  that this would prevent bad things from happening. It would be comforting to be able to believe this; that if  my daughter understands the magic of compound interest or never walks down a dark street alone she will be financially secure and physically safe. But I would be fooling myself.

Believing that we can prevent bad things from happening by our own actions is natural.  Our collective narrative tells us that our future depends on what we do. The story we want to believe champions that we go from rags to riches through perseverance and grit. In response to this overwhelming narrative of individual agency, I find myself positing a seemingly extreme argument: that individual actions are irrelevant! I have seen the harm that is done every time a survivor is told, even subtly, that they should have prevented the assault, or when someone who is struggling to feed their family is told they are bad at managing their money.

And yet I also know from 35 years of working for social change, and my own experiences as a woman, that being and feeling in control and having choices in our lives is central to healing and hope.  The privilege of choice, as I wrote last year, is one of the most important and yet overlooked privileges.  What we often forget is that our ability to have choices is also dictated by the circumstances – the systems  – that we live within. 

What do “financial education” and “stranger danger” have in common? They both are examples of well-intentioned efforts that, given limited resources, are a misdirected use of time and money.  They are based on our wishes for how the world should work, not on what we know is needed to prevent harm and suffering.  Our focus needs to be on changing the systems we live within.

Changing systems is complicated and takes time but, as with any journey, it starts with taking a first step. Take 15 minutes to list the 3 systems that most affect your life right now – it could be your local school system if you have children; the criminal justice system if you have family who are incarcerated or who are returning citizens; the food system if your options for buying food are limited. Now, next time you interact with that system  – when you get a school form that does not have choices that represent the gender identity of all children; when you see that your employer routinely asks for criminal records checks for all positions; when you are looking for a vegetable and they don’t have it at the supermarket – pause and ask yourself if there is one action you could take to challenge the system. Could you ask a question of someone in authority?  Write a letter? Attend a meeting? Talk to your family or friends? Post on social media? Give money to organizations working to change that system?  

If you are in a position of power and privilege, do this same analysis for the systems that you have control or influence over: why do my school forms have the choices they do? Why do I have to ask about people’s criminal past and can I change what I do with that information? What can I do to change the food that I am selling? And when someone challenges what you are doing, pause, listen, reflect, and then take action.

These small actions may seem inconsequential compared to the suffering we see around us every day. But, as a long time activist, I have come to realize that a first small step in a different direction is how you go from feeling lost and on the wrong path to having hope and being on the right path.

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