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Bethex FCU CEO Joy Cousminer & fromer Bethex VISTA Josie Martinez VISTAs gather at the Federation's 2005 Financial Literacy Day
(New York, NY 11/10/05) Ask any CEO from a bank or credit union; financial illiteracy is growing problem in America. But few will admit to being challenged in managing their own personal finances. On November 10th, a crowd gathered at the offices of U.S. Trust Company on West 47th Street for the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions’ 4th Annual Financial Literacy Day heard a personal account of financial illiteracy from…a banker.
“I was a newcomer in this land and, like many immigrants, was unaware of the obstacles,” recalled Michisuke Araki, President and CEO of Mizuho Corporate Bank (USA), who moved from Tokyo to Chicago in the late 1980s, before coming to New York. “With no credit history, no social security number, banks would not allow me to open an account, so I had to pay for everything in cash.” For Araki, this common immigrant experience had an ironic twist. “My lack of knowledge about your practices made me financially illiterate,” he said, “and I’m a banker!”
The Federation’s 2005 Financial Literacy Day, co-sponsored by U.S. Trust and the Mizuho USA Foundation, celebrated the diversity and success of New York City credit unions and community organizations that promote consumer financial education.
“What you are doing is very important,” said Natica von Althann, Chief Credit Officer and Chair of the Corporate CRA Steering Committee for US Trust. “The United States has the lowest savings rate of any industrialized nation in the world,” she said, “personal bankruptcies have skyrocketed and more than 30% of the population does not have a relationship with a financial institution.” Financial education is essential, she added. “Thank you for doing something that we in the financial community – and we at US Trust – think is incredibly important.
In addition to bankers, the event featured presentations from other Federation partners including government officials, credit union managers, consumer advocates, and community development organizers. Diane Lavigna Wixted, Executive Director of the New York Credit Union Foundation, described the Foundation’s efforts to promote financial education among high school students, and their role in the “New York Saves” campaign. Pauline Toole, Assistant Commissioner from the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs talked about progress in helping eligible low-income New Yorkers to increase their income through the federal, state and city Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) programs. Beverly Thomas, a Senior Analyst for Financial Institution Partnerships for the Internal Revenue Service described how the federal EITC program provided $42 million to 22,000 low-income New Yorkers last year, and how voluntary free tax preparation services have helped ‘unbanked’ people to open accounts at banks or credit unions.
Community development credit unions were well-represented at the event. Justine Zinkin from Credit Where Credit Is Due and Neighborhood Trust Federal Credit Union described their efforts to provide financial education and affordable financial services to residents of Washington Heights, West Harlem, and Inwood. Meagan van Harte from Lower East Side Peoples’ Federal Credit Union and Liliane Loya from Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union described their efforts to serve the financial needs of their communities as well as their members.
Deyanira Del Rio, Director of the Immigrant Financial Justice Project for the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project (NEDAP), said her organization takes a unique approach of combining personal financial literacy with discussions about community economic rights. NEDAP's financial education course, which is tailored to address the particular concerns of immigrants, youth and others, often serves as a springboard for community organizing and advocacy.
The final speaker, Josie Martinez, hushed the crowd with her personal account of her life and work as a VISTA volunteer for Bethex Federal Credit Union in the Bronx. As a single parent with no savings and a low-income, struggling to deal with a number of emergencies, “I was humbled, and I realized it could happen to anyone,” Martinez said. But her VISTA work at Bethex showed how financial literacy could transform the lives of credit union members – as well as her own. Martinez told the stories of three Bethex members who have moved from the brink of bankruptcy to the security of homeownership. “This is the power of financial literacy,” Martinez said, before closing with her favorite quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"Everyone has the power for greatness—not for fame, but greatness, because greatness is determined by service."
Cliff Rosenthal, Executive Director of the Federation, closed the event by recognizing the tremendous progress made by community development credit unions in the city, and thanking the Federation’s sponsors and partners. “This is a truly inspiring gathering of organizations that have shown their commitment to the serving the underserved in our society,” Rosenthal said.