Community Leadership From Every Angle

Strength In Community: Team H.E.R

A lack of financial literacy can lead to a cycle of generational poverty. That’s what Alexis Russell, Amal Ali, Jessica Baicker, Tasheyah Thomas, and Ashley Jackson, also known as Team H.E.R., discovered while having conversations with their community in Hartford. And that’s why they are teaming up with local partners to create an afterschool program aimed at teaching middle school and high school students how to manage their money.

We caught up with three members of Team H.E.R, to talk about their project and the progress they’ve made towards tackling financial literacy. Here are their reflections.

Q: Thanks so much for joining us. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and who you are?

Alexis: My name is Alexis Russell, and I’m from Bridgeport, Connecticut. I went to the University of Connecticut, where I got my bachelors, MIS, and MBA. I currently work at Cigna and have a passion for social justice and bringing equity to the black community! 

Ashley: My name is Ashley, and I am a current University of Connecticut student! It’s actually my last semester, so I’m graduating in December. My passion is working with the youth. I also work at the Boys and Girls Club full time—so I’m always looking to work in anything involving the youth, youth voice, youth empowerment. 

Amal: My name is Amal Ali and like Alexis, I also got my undergrad in MIS and I currently work for a real estate development company in Simsbury. I have a lot of experience and interest in youth social justice and I’ve worked on substance abuse prevention in the past. Now with our CLC group we’re working on financial literacy, which is also really important to me.

Q: The Community Leadership Corps is a place-based program, designed to help you tackle problems that are close to you.  How would you personally describe Hartford? What are the challenging things about it and what are the great things about it?

Alexis: Last year my sorority had a theme for the year and it said, “Hartford has it.” And I really think that sums up a lot about Hartford because people here already have the innate potential. The people, the youth, everyone already has the skills and the gifts, but the question is…how do we tap into that? I would also use the word eclectic to describe Hartford because there’s so many different people in so many different cultures and I just love how you can see it as you go throughout the city.

I would definitely say a challenge is letting this community know that they have this light behind them and empowering people to move forward into their light.  I would also add that there’s a lot of resources in Hartford trying to tackle the same problems we are, but we are all  in different silos. I believe if people join forces to tackle these problems collectively, there will be more progress in achieving the common good in Hartford.

Q: So, the Obama Foundation is based in Chicago, and your work is in Hartford. Both cities are painted a certain way and have a narrative associated with them. What do people say about Hartford? 

Amal: Well, there are definitely a bunch of negative stereotypes about Hartford. People are like, “Oh that’s where poor people live,” or, “That’s the ghetto.” Also, that people from Hartford aren’t necessarily as smart or as educated. 

Alexis: Right. People will judge the way people talk.  A lot of people come from different backgrounds, so some people have an accent and oftentimes people associate accents with ignorance, when in reality a lot of times those people are extremely smart because it takes a lot to be able to navigate in a different country, a different space, and also be able to stay intact with their own culture from home.

I think that the people here are very educated. I just think that they need more help, with having access to more resources. As Amal mentioned, we’re having a financial literacy program and bringing those resources to the youth and to the community, so they know what’s available to them and they know how to navigate their finances and things of the sort.

Amal: Those negative stereotypes affect the people who actually do live in Hartford.  And, we learned in our interviews that people felt like a lot of these resources aren’t necessarily for them. And I feel like it’s because the community has internalized some of this negativity about themselves. 

Alexis with her success coach, Monique

This experience taught me we all have our strengths and that I don’t necessarily have to do everything on my own. ”

—Alexis Russell, Community Leadership Corps Member

Q:  You all had different ideas of what challenges you wanted to work on before beginning the program. How did your group come to the decision to do your project on financial literacy, specifically targeting middle schoolers?

Amal: Well, I think that the idea of financial literacy affected us all differently in our lives. For me, it was definitely something that I wish I learned a long time ago. I came across it because we were just talking about how kids in school are never really taught important life skills such as college readiness or about credit cards and interest rates and different things like that. 

Alexis: We all originally really had a passion for youth, which is how I think we all got paired together. And we originally came in thinking we were going to be able to tackle a million and one problems. For example, we wanted to talk about emotional intelligence. We wanted to talk about college readiness… you should have seen this list. It was very extensive. And then Monique, our Success Coach, was like, “I get that you all want to tackle so many different things, but let’s be realistic. Let’s take a step back and pinpoint one thing that is very important.” 

This problem seemed to be at the point for everyone and kind of centric in everyone’s lives. So, that is how we landed there. One more detail I want to add, we’re currently trying to tie in how financial literacy can connect to emotional intelligence as well. We’re going to be talking about financial literacy, but also kind of tapping into the mind and understanding the youth when we connect with them.

Amal: I think another thing that we really wanted to tackle was generational poverty, and we thought that lack of financial literacy was really one of the main issues that was causing generational poverty. We actually put that in our group’s mission statement—which is, Providing youth access to the resources they need to create sustainable change and break the cycle of generational poverty.

Q: We know that each of you come from different backgrounds and didn’t know each other before this event. What has it been like working as a team?

Alexis: It’s been super good. One thing that we realized in the last training is that they said we should have assigned different roles. So someone should manage the finances, someone should be able to do marketing, and someone should do project management, and so on. We realized that with the different roles that they had on the screen, we were already inadvertently doing them. We all had different skills and areas of expertise, and I don’t know if our success coach planned for that to happen, but we came together and used all of our strengths to be the best thing that we could be. 

So right now we’re just trying to find the best way to align our schedules because everyone is so busy with work. But outside of that, I would say that the chemistry of our team has been super awesome.

Q: What was it like working within your community for your project? 

Alexis: Jess and Amal are really good at keeping us grounded and taking a step back and figuring out the community needs. Oftentimes, especially for myself, I would have ideas and I’m like, “Oh this sounds great. We should run with this.” One of the struggles is realizing that this is not a solution for me. This project is not specifically for me. I think understanding and realizing that we had to stay true to the community needs instead of our needs was very important.

Amal: I agree, and I think it was a real turning point for us. I think Coach Monique really helped us get to this point of realization where we’re like, “We need to get over ourselves and what we want for the community and what we think the community needs, and delve into the data of what people say that they need and want.”

Q: I love that. So tell us where you landed. What is your group’s project?

Alexis:  So, our end goal is to have a five week program for youth–a financial literacy program–that either meets on a weekly or biweekly basis. We’re using this tool called Trello. It’s a project management app that allows us to have visibility and transparency in what everyone is doing and working on. We’re planning to implement our project this spring, and we’re going to be doing it after school. 

We’re also piloting this with a high school class as well. So we’re going to be doing it with 25 middle schoolers and 25 high schoolers to figure out who would be the target audience and figure out who this will benefit the most.

We’re looking to have people that already had experience and connections with literacy to come in and speak about the different topics that we want the kids to learn about. We’re also trying to give the kids actual money. So we’re in the process of trying to find a bank to partner with. We already have a sponsorship from one corporate company, but we’re looking to possibly partner with others that are looking to invest in this program as well.

Amal: Yeah, we really wanted our students to have the bank accounts. Our community is extremely under banked and a lot of them don’t have bank accounts. It creates such roadblocks for people to actually have access to things that other people would have easy access to.

Q: You’ve been talking about things you want to teach others. What have you learned about yourself through this experience?

Alexis: Everyone on this team is a natural born leader. This experience taught me we all have our strengths and I don’t necessarily have to do everything on my own. I can be a team player. We all come from different backgrounds, and it’s beautiful to see us all want to come together to tackle one problem.

When I first came in I was skeptical cause I’m like, “Okay well some of these people come from backgrounds that are not as similar.” I’m from Bridgeport, which is a very underprivileged community. Making that assumption that just because people come from different backgrounds that they won’t be able to care as much or want to input as much, but realizing that we do all come from different backgrounds and realizing that we all have the same goal, same compassion, same care, has been an amazing learning experience for me.  

Q: Now that the program is coming to a close, do you all plan to continue engaging with the community once it’s over?

Amal: We are going to watch the trial of our program in the spring and figure out what to do next based off the feedback that we get. We plan on doing another program a little later in the spring. We also plan on doing it with an older group of students for the second time as well! 

Alexis: We’re also hoping that partnering with schools helps empower them to take on our project. We want it to be able to sustain itself. And I think with the infrastructure that we are setting up and have in place, it’ll be able to continue throughout the years.

Q: That’s really exciting! Do you have any advice for future Community Leadership Corps participants? 

Alexis: I would say my first tip is to truly get to know your team members. After realizing that my team members do care so much and that they’re such good-hearted people and very hardworking, just knowing all of their strengths and their weaknesses too, allowed us to merge and form together as a team. So I think that’s very important. 

Amal: I definitely agree with Alexis. I feel like during the first training, we really, really, really got to know each other well and hear our personal stories. It’s good to know that this is this person’s story and this is what is driving them to do their work and you can understand people better that way. I think you create a better connection. You build more trust with people and that’s what creates a successful group. 

I think some advice I have is to stay focused. Just keep reminding yourself what your goal is and why you’re doing it. This program is ongoing and we have to live our regular lives and go to work and do school and other things that are going on. It’s really easy to put this on the back burner. But I think keeping that motivation constantly is really necessary and pushing yourself to meet deadlines and actually meet up with your group and really get solid work done, is really important. Stay focused and stay motivated.

Q: Oh, and one last question. Your team name…why is your group called Team H.E.R?

Amal: It’s an acronym. The H stands for hope, the E stands for empowerment, and the R stands for resilience. We wanted to call it H.E.R, cause we’re an all women’s group and we’re super proud of that! 


You can learn more about the Obama Foundation Community Leadership Corps here.


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