Financial Education That Fits Native Needs
Bethany Hawkins is combining her experience as a Native American with her financial expertise to reshape financial education to meet the needs of tribal youth.
Looking back on her childhood, Bethany Hawkins feels lucky to have a strong sense of connection to her Native culture — but she didn't always feel that way.
Hawkins is a mortgage advisor who has been with BECU for 15 years. Her family is Lakota, from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. She grew up among the Puyallup Tribe in Washington, attending Chief Leschi Schools.
When she saw classmates and their families struggling with addiction, health problems and their finances, she wanted to distance herself from them. At that time, she didn't understand the history of oppressive forces contributing to their circumstances.
"When I graduated, I was a little ashamed of my background," she said. "I ran away from it."
She grew to embrace her heritage as she learned more about her own culture and history. Now she wants to give back to her community by providing financial education that is respectful of Native cultures and values and meets the needs of tribal youth.
She recognizes financial education alone can't solve problems caused by centuries of racist laws and policies. But it can help empower people to make choices that stretch their dollars for greater longer-term benefit and better financial outcomes.
Financial Education Isn't One-Size-Fits-All
Hawkins is working with BECU's lead financial educator, Stacey Black, to develop a culturally relevant program that is geared for situations tribal youth are more likely to encounter than non-tribal youth.
"In the past, we would teach one budgeting class. That's it. It was the same for everyone," Black said. "We've learned that it's better if we find out who we're teaching in the class. What are they budgeting for? What do they want and need to know?"
Black has also seen an increase in requests for instructors who match the demographic of the audience. She works with BECU's employee resource groups to pair her expertise as an educator with the financial expertise of a BECU employee to whom the audience is likely to relate.
Planning for 'Big Money'
The development of an education program for tribal youth was prompted by a request from a local tribe that wants to help prepare youth to manage the large lump sum they will receive when they turn 18. The payouts are from tribal revenue that the tribe holds in trust for enrolled kids.
Hawkins is familiar with this scenario from her own classmates. She's watched as some tribes' per capita payments have grown as their casino revenue grows. It should be noted that the majority of tribes in the U.S. don't operate casinos, and of those that do, only a third earn enough gaming revenue to make per capita payments to tribal members, according to the nonprofit Partnership With Native Americans.
But for those young adults who do receive large payments, lacking money management skills and plans for their education and professional development, many of them burn through their money.
"If you grow up in a family that doesn't have a lot of money, and you suddenly get $20,000 or more as soon as you turn 18, that seems like a lot," Hawkins said. "Some kids don't even think they need to finish school."
One of the key points Hawkins hopes to reinforce with Native kids is the difference between income and wealth, especially since U.S. laws and policies have made growing and retaining wealth challenging for many Indigenous people.
Hawkins helped one recent tribal high school graduate think through his plans for his lump sum and ongoing per capita payments, considering upcoming and long-term expenses.
"We talked about how he was making good money, but he didn't own any assets that would increase in value or ensure long-term financial stability," Hawkins said.
During a recent class, she and Black talked to students about budgeting for fixed and variable expenses, savings goals and ongoing sources of income to help students maximize their money.
Basics of Banking Through a Native American Lens
Native Americans represent the lowest rate of households that use banks or credit unions in the U.S., according to the National Indian Council on Aging.
Reasons include difficulty accessing physical banking and ATM locations, lack of internet access for online banking, distrust of the banking system and poor credit history.
As Hawkins and Black work with tribes to develop a curriculum, they are mindful of these challenges. They can't assume students grew up with personal banking as a routine part of their money management toolkit.
"We need to cover basic banking needs all the way up to home loans and saving for retirement," Hawkins said. "I think working with a credit union might help with some of the trust issues because we work to serve our members, not shareholders."
Family and Community Obligations
One of the ways Hawkins is helping to shape financial education for Native youth is by being conscious of how students not only want to spend their money, but how they might feel obligated to spend it.
"Students might have grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins they feel responsible for," Hawkins said. "We might need to include expenses for supporting extended family when we're talking about budgeting."
Working in Partnership
As valuable as shared experience is, especially when teaching members of a historically oppressed group, Hawkins cautioned against overgeneralizing.
"I can teach from the perspective of what I know professionally and from my own community," she said, "but every tribe is a different culture and each one has different needs."
She emphasized the importance of listening to teachers, school administrators, community members and students. The goal isn't to tell them how to spend their money, but to give them tools and resources that can help them make decisions that work best for them and create a financially healthy future.