KTF Press
Shake the Dust
Equitable Financial Education with Irene Cho

Equitable Financial Education with Irene Cho

Season 3, Episode 3

Returning guest Irene Cho talks to Jonathan and Sy about financial education in marginalized communities, particularly for young people. They discuss the ways courses for marginalized students about money have to contrast with traditional programs, helping people build wealth without teaching them to love wealth, mental health and family dynamics around sharing money, and a lot more! This conversation, as always with Irene, is a lot of fun. Enjoy!

Shake the Dust is a podcast of KTF Press. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Subscribe to get our newsletter and bonus episodes at KTFPress.com. Transcripts of every episode are available at KTFPress.com/s/transcripts.


Jonathan Walton – follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Sy Hoekstra – follow him on Twitter.

Our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra – listen to the whole song on Spotify.

Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam – follow her and see her other work on Instagram.

Production and editing by Sy Hoekstra.

Transcript by Joyce Ambale and Sy Hoekstra.

Questions about anything you heard on the show? Write to shakethedust@ktfpress.com and we may answer your question on a future episode.


[An acoustic guitar softly plays six notes, the first three ascending and the last three descending — F#, B, F#, E, D#, B — with a keyboard pad playing the note B in the background. Both fade out as Jonathan Walton says “This is a KTF Press podcast.”]

Irene Cho: We want to promote how to buck the system without striving for the system. How do we help them understand the blockages and obstacles that are in place? How do we help them maneuver around that? But also, how do we help them understand that this is a system that we unfortunately have to work in because this is what has been set up.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]

Jonathan Walton: Welcome to Shake the Dust, leaving colonized faith for the kingdom of God. I am Jonathan Walton.

Sy Hoekstra:  And I'm Sy Hoekstra. We are going to have a fantastic conversation today about money and financial literacy in marginalized communities. We have an incredible guest here with us to have that conversation, a returning guest in fact. But before we get to that really quickly, please remember, if you like what we do on this show and you want to support us, please go to KTFPress.com. Consider becoming a paid subscriber on our Substack. That gets you the bonus episodes of this show. That gets you the whole archive of all of our newsletters and everything. That gets you our full free weekly newsletter, where Jonathan and I send you highlights from media that will help you in your discipleship and political education. So, please consider going to KTFPress.com, becoming a subscriber, and you can always get a free month by going to KTFPress.com/freemonth—free month to start your subscription. Okay, Jonathan, please tell everyone the wonderful person that we have back with us today on the show.

Jonathan Walton: We have Miss Irene Cho, who has over 29 years of experience working with and leading youth, young adults, leaders, and families. She speaks nationally, internationally, has written numerous curricula, consults for churches and organizations on engaging youth, youth culture, community development, and racial justice issues, and is an advisor on many organizational boards. She is qualified to talk to us and for you to follow her [laughs]. Let's be clear about that. Irene has helped developed a financial literacy course aimed at marginalized students, and I'm just, I'm really, really grateful that I can pass something on besides Dave Ramsey. Thank you so much, Irene, for being here.


Irene Cho: We avoid trying to incorporate Dave Ramsey as much as possible.

Jonathan Walton: Absolutely.

Irene Cho: And by as much, I mean, 100 percent [laughs].

Jonathan Walton: Yes. Yes. So much shade. No, no hesitation right there. So much.

Irene Cho: No hesitation!

Jonathan Walton: No hesitation [laughs]. And so with that, again, thanks for being here. What motivated you to create the Future Profits course, and what are its goals?

Irene Cho: Okay. So thank you so much for having me. I love being here and having these great conversations with y’all. I, technically speaking, didn't create the course. The organization that I work for, which is Able Works, they've been around for 15 years now. And my boss, the CEO and founder of the organization, John Liotti, really launched the organization with the mission and value of creating economic justice or fighting for economic justice in marginalized communities and under-resourced communities. And the launch of that was several fold in that they, in the city called East Palo Alto, which is now where Facebook is located. For those of you across the country to not know the context, there is a famous city called Palo Alto, which is where Stanford University is located. It is a very, very wealthy community neighborhood.

Right next door, there is a small little enclave called East Palo Alto, which they fought for to create their own community. So the history of East Palo Alto is really amazing and awesome and fascinating, all wrapped into one. One of the issues though, it was very heavily black. It has shifted now to be predominantly Latine. But one of the elements of it was that they didn't have a financial institution. They didn't have a credit union, they didn't have a bank, and so everybody from East Palo Alto had to drive 15 minutes over into Palo Alto and use banking institution, financial institutions over there. So Able Works, my boss really launched off by creating a credit union. And then from there, seeing the need amongst young people, really they were 15 years ahead of the time because there was no such thing as teaching about financial education.

I was not taught financial education information, any of those things. So they developed a curriculum that was to go into high schools and began delivering information to high school students. So it has gone through, I believe we're on our fourth iteration at this point. And so me coming in with curriculum writing background, I think it's been developing well. But over the course of the last iteration which was divided into four units, a lot of the teachers were saying they wanted a bit of a more buffet, pick your topic, type of a la carte type of thing. So we did an evaluation, and now we have 17 lessons. So it's a 20 lesson overall, but we do an intro, and we do two concluding for each semester. So as like a recap, we do Jeopardy games, they get very competitive. The kids are like, love it [Sy laughs].

Jonathan Walton: That’s awesome.

Irene Cho: They're screaming and yelling, lots of correction if the question is wrong [Sy laughs]. They learned, right? So that's just so fun to see. But it's really 17 lessons overall that we felt were the core crucial lessons for what we are trying to deliver and teach in the high schools that we are delivering at. So we're in several different locations all across Northern California and Central Valley, so we have two regions that we serve. Yeah, so we've got about a thousand students in Central Valley, we've got about 500 students in the Bay Area.

Sy Hoekstra: That is awesome. So we have seen a couple of the, well, a few of the lesson kind of guides, the plans. Lesson plans. Boy, am I not a teacher that I couldn't think of that word [laughter]. I have a lot of family who are teachers, constantly talking about lesson plans. And they are quite different than a lot of the other things that you see out there for teaching financial literacy. Can you talk to us about how it's different than what else is out there?

Irene Cho: Yeah. So financial literacy is technically not a new thing because banks have them written. They have their own curricula, I believe Intuit, who does TurboTax, they have a curriculum. Dave Ramsey, I believe has a youth curriculum. And then there are two online courses, one called Next Gen Finance, and then EVERFI, and then Jump$tart also. But Jump$tart is a little bit more focused on the teachers. So if any econ teachers, et cetera, want to take Jump$tart really focuses on training the trainers type of deal. The issue is none of these curricula addresses a lot of the systemic issues that exist for the financial situation that our students are in. So Next Gen Finance, I do want to say, because Tim Ranzetta has been very gracious in somewhat partnering with us and having conversations with us.

He also taught in East Palo Alto and saw the need there. So Next Gen Finance is actually a larger organization than we are, because we are really focused on just delivering in our, the local community that we're serving in the two regions. And so Next Gen Finance, because their objective is a bit wider of a net, they do have subsections and sub chapters, somewhat naming the systemic issues, but they do not deliver that directly in the classrooms. I understand they're in the south, I believe they teach some curriculum in the south, and we do know what's happening all across certain red states rejecting “CRT” content, which is not what we are. But we're not… you know. We know. I know that you know and all of us know.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, yeah.

Jonathan Walton: Yes.


Irene Cho: So because of that stickiness, they have it as a subset, an additional supplementary information, our curriculum is straight in there because we just basically, we don't care [laughter]

Jonathan Walton: Amen.

Irene Cho: because we want to basically name the factualities.

Obviously, we don't villainize anyone. It's not pointing fingers saying that, “Hey, this is your fault,” or anything. But we do name the systemic elements that exist. Like we have a lesson on housing, and so we do talk a bit of the redlining and also the classism that exists of why there's limited housing available, especially in areas like the Bay Area. There's literally a video from NowThis news naming Menlo, Atherton. Naming Atherton, basically which is where Steph Curry lives. And we saw the news, I don't know if some of you saw the news about Steph Curry blocking multiple housing buildings to be built in his neighborhood, et cetera. And low-income housing being built in Atherton, which is right a subset of Palo Alto. And so this is a very prevalent issue in the Bay Area.

And so one of the things that we really name are those systemic elements that need to be discussed. Again, rightly named as well as then how do we overcome this and what can you do about it? Some of the other parts is culturally speaking, a lot of immigrant families, Asian families, Latine families, they're very suspicious of financial banking institutions for legitimate reasons. And we don't, again, we don't shame any of that, we just name it. We validate their suspicions, a lot of like naming it because this is a curriculum to the students. So we say a lot of your parents have come, or grandparents have come from situations that would cause suspicion of these financial institutions. Here's how in the US there has been some protection like the FDIC Insurance, the coverage, et cetera.

But we also say, that's why it's important for you to stay on your bank. We name how Wells Fargo, even though they are a grant sponsor for us [laughs], it did provide us a grant.

Jonathan Walton: Did they really [laughs]?

Irene Cho: But we name it, they've actually been a great partner. One of the few that, of banking institutions that have been actually involved and engaged in community development work. So it's this weird juxtaposition of the big corporate policies and actions that they have, and yet doing the work on the ground. This disconnect in this wide, very large, one of the largest banking institutions that exists.

Sy Hoekstra: Right.

Jonathan Walton: Right, of course.

Irene Cho: So, again, America… Capitalism, hooray. So they are, and we are transparent with the students that yes, we are sponsors and grantees of Wells Fargo, and yet we're also going to name historically that Wells Fargo did get caught with their pants down [Sy laughs] of like overcharging banking fees, et cetera, to certain family members. So we name these things in the curriculum as we deliver the lessons.

The other thing that's a little different about our curricula, is we have a very specific script that we provide to who we call our coaches. We don't call the people who deliver the lesson teachers because technically our folks are not certified, and we have volunteer folks. We have gracious, amazing volunteers who give their time. But we need to provide cultural education for them because the heart and the intention is very amazing and beautiful. The need to make sure we explain why it's important that we talk about what's the difference between a traditional bank versus a credit union, what benefits are there that exist. Really emphasizing why we need to talk about what is good debt, what is bad debt? What are the debts that really affect and impact families of color in particular, school loan debt, payday loan debt, all those things.

So we name that and we really, then we have another lesson that we talk about where to find money alternatively such as lending circles, which I knew nothing about. I only knew it according to our Korean word, that said—I didn't know that there was a terminology about that. It was just some weird subset thing that immigrant families do, and they have like this little group where they [laughs] they do. And now I'm like, “Oh, that's technically, officially called a lending circle,” and financial institutions can back it up et cetera. And so it doesn't become this weird mafia-esque type of [laughs] lending that exists. And so I know there are a lot of amazing organizations that are trying to legitimize lending circles to make it safer so that more families can find alternative ways outside of going to a traditional bank where they'll get either a high interest or rejected.

And so we also talk about credit unions and how a lot of credit unions exist in your communities now to support undocumented folks who need to open bank accounts, et cetera, and why that's a really good stable way to start building your equity and building your assets, et cetera. And then we talk a lot about, we talk about investments, we talk about insurance, why insurance is important. Again, coming from very immigrant family contexts, and kind of naming again, the cultural elements of insurance might seem like a scam, and technically it is somewhat, right? It's a necessary evil that exists in our life. And yet in California this past year we had extreme fires, which let's talk about Allstate, not… now coming…

Sy Hoekstra: Evacuating the state

Jonathan Walton: Yes, State Farm and Allstate, yeah.

Irene Cho: Yeah, they're not…

Jonathan Walton: …insuring homes anymore.

Irene Cho: Right. Oh gosh. So there's that, but there was a flooding. I mean, there was all these things and like our storms, I mean, tons of people had their cars damaged, houses damaged because of trees falling down, et cetera. So just naming the necessity of insurance, even though it might seem like a waste of money. And then the big lesson obviously is about what is the best type of savings and then how to budget well. What does that look like? And so in the budgeting lesson, we really love it because we do a case scenario. A lot of our students don't think that they need to go to college or don't think that they need to really think about it. Their career trajectory, et cetera, they're just like done with life because life has been really difficult. So they're like, “I'm just going to graduate high school, barely made it by the skin of my teeth, I'm going to go get a entry level job.”

So we have them go through budgeting in the two regions. What does it look like if you've got a $17 hour job? Now you're going to budget. And they're like, “Oh shoot, I cannot afford to live in this neighborhood. I can't afford to live in this community, unless I live with seven other people.” And so it was, because students, I think, they have this idealism. It's beautiful, I love it. We support that, but it's really like, how do we help them take that ideology that they have of the dream? And we really do that as well. One of the lessons we start off the whole entire curriculum with is them vision boarding, which for me as an Asian immigrant kid, I never understood the value of vision boarding. I was always like, “Don't ask me what my five to 10 year plan is. Ask God.”

Life has been completely unpredictable and awful, so why would I do a vision boarding? I don't even know what's going to happen next year, you know what I mean? But we talk about the value of that, and we name that the life you want to live. And every lesson from there returns back. If you want the life you want to live, you need to learn about good debt and bad debt. If you want to live the life you want to live, you need to know about good credit behavior. If you want to live the life you want to live, you need to know about how important budgeting is. You need to know about what kind of investments are a bit safer. So we constantly really motivate, not just, and I think that's a different element of our curriculum as well.

It's not just, “Hey, you need to know about this financial information.” All of this is tied together of like, you want to live that life? You want to buy a home, you want to go out and travel a lot? You want to provide for your family? You need to seriously think about all of these different topics that we're talking about because that's going to help you get to the life you want to live. And so we really base it on that foundation. And then even the housing element, which was kind of the most depressing topic for us here in northern California and Central Valley. For those of you across the country, I'm sure you have read many, many an articles about it. We are struggling in the state of California with housing prices being so exorbitant, so high and just out of control.

So we really, we're trying to help them figure out, okay, if you want to rent, like just asking themselves serious questions. Can you afford a house? What do you need? In the budgeting lesson, we talk about that where they, again, we do a scenario of, if you got a $17 hour job, if you got a $55,000 salary job, do a budget. What does that look like? Can you afford it? And so what was really exciting was the light bulb going up in students' minds that, “Oh shoot, I need to strive harder.” And that is the motivation, right? Because what is the motivation to get an A when your life is in chaos and your family structure is unstable and you're not sure what's going to happen tomorrow. Why does it matter to get an A in econ or history or whatever?

And so to give a value that school is important because it is going to help you get into a college that you'd like, and you're going to be able to find a major that not only hopefully fulfills you, but also provides a good economic stability. And then how do you take that income, and then how can we help you build equity through means by which are not too risky? We name that in investments that, a lot of your families probably think investing is gambling, but what does this look like? And so again, a lot of our curriculum is about naming the truths and trying to overcome some mental blocks and obstacles and cultural blocks and obstacles that students can start reframing things. Like we did the retirement lesson, which some of our volunteer coaches were like, this seemed too far away.

But students loved it. It was so powerful because we named for them, again, a lot of students from marginalized communities, we name it right at the gate. You probably need to think about two retirement plans. You need to think about the retirement plan for your parents and you need to think about retirement plan for yourself.

Jonathan Walton: Right.

Sy Hoekstra: Yep.

Irene Cho: Because a lot of us, let's name the truth, we are our parents retirement plan. And in the first lesson, we have them go through what we call money statements, and 100 percent. Every time it makes me so… it just makes me smile at the generosity and hearts of our students that even though they're financially struggling and they see their parents financially struggle, 100 percent of the money statement saying, “I want to make money so I can support my parents when I grow up.”

One hundred percent say “strongly agree” or “agree.” Nobody says “somewhat disagree” or “disagree.” They all want to. And when we ask them why did you chose the answer “agree” or “somewhat agree,” they're like, “Because our parents have sacrificed so much and we see that, so we want to pay them back.” And so in the retirement lesson, we named that, that all of you said that you wanted to provide for your parents when they get older, you need to think about retirement. And so we have them do a breakdown with you start retirement at the age of 25, here's how it's going to compound exponentially. Versus if you don't think about this and you start at the age of 40. And it was again, so eye-opening for them, and that's what we want. We want them to think about these things early on, because I didn't think about these things early on.

I didn't care. I was a very… even in my ways of serving the community, I was like, I don't need to care about money. But you absolutely need to care about money because how are you going to help others when you can't manage your own finances or you're barely making it?

Jonathan Walton: So you, one of the things that I love about what you're talking about, because you're focused on marginalization. Like can we bring people who live in these outside economic systems into the dominant system without losing themselves in it and being consumed by it? And so it sounds like your students don't have resistance to “I want to plan for my parents.” “I want a plan to take care of the people around me.” But your volunteers might have resistance to acknowledging the systems and structures.

Irene Cho: Right. I think that's… Yeah, I would say, again, it's a bit complicated. A lot of our volunteers come from wealthier backgrounds. Some of them have finance backgrounds. And so this is where the education is required, where we need to teach our volunteers the cultural elements of it. Because their heart is in the right place. They're like, oh, retirement's a bit too early for them because our students are 17, a few of them are 18, in the middle of their senior year. And so 18 is technically young. You don't actually start, I think most advisors say 25 is when you should start retirement planning. And they're going to be going to college, most of them, if not about half of them have the desire to go to college. And then some will start, try to launch a business or get some kind of entry job.

And so they really won't begin to think about this. But again, for us on our end, it's about planting seeds because we know it takes time to break cultural biases about which they've been ingrained and taught.

Jonathan Walton: Right.

Irene Cho: Also on the subset, we have what we call… so our program, our financial literacy program is called Future Prophets. It's a play on word in that it's also P-R-O-P-H-E-T, like prophet, like prophecy. So how can we help you have a prophecy of financial gain and economic justice for your trajectory? But we have a subset from our programs called Future Profit Clubs, where we meet with students who during their lunch hour where they come, we've got a good 20 students that come every Friday or whatever day that they choose, and we have a subject that we talk about mental health and money.

Sy Hoekstra: Which is so great.

Irene Cho: Right. And the objective is not to get wealthy, the objective is to gain control so that you feel like you have choices. That you know what decisions you need to make in order to get the life that you want to live. In order to accomplish that. In order to attain that, versus the other way, which is… and we say one of the top factors that harms families of color financially is lack of knowledge.

Jonathan Walton: Yes.

Irene Cho: And so you having information, even if you choose not to care about financial information, at least you know that you have chosen that path, versus you didn't know at all and you now wish at the age of 40, you look back and you're like, “Darn, if only I had known how important it was that I saved money.” Like I didn't know, and so I got into debt when I turned 18 because credit cards, I wasn't taught the correct information and I didn't understand. So now I tell students all the time, your credit score, that golden ticket, it's a golden ticket. It is more valuable, and I'm sorry to say this, it is more valuable than your virginity [laughter]. Like you need to guard your credit score with your life[laughter]. This is the thing. It's going to help you rent an apartment, it's going to help you get a car, it's going to help you get a home. It's going to help you get equity. You guard that. And that's, again, we talk about that in the good credit behavior and we name it. Like for some, I'm going to throw my at least Korean culture. I don't want to clump all Asians together. A lot of families, because of necessity, they use their children's social security. I have also been in this situation and it screwed up my credit.

Now, I know I didn't go through as much, but my friends have had their parents use their social security number to get loans and then defaulted. So they now have a bankruptcy on their credit score. And so it's like how do we help students, especially from immigrant families and marginalized communities, say have boundaries with their parents because they have control while also still giving space to be generous? Like to understand what does that look like? And how to help your parents begin to build their financial credit situation. So 60 percent of our students have given us feedback on the surveys we do with them. We do surveys with them, everything we do is data driven. We don't just “fill it out” which I know a lot of nonprofits tend to do [laughter].

One woman I met, she came from corporate world and went into nonprofit world. She's like, “It's very squishy in nonprofit world” [Sy laughs], And I was like, “that is the perfect word to describe nonprofit assessment.” So we do everything by data, and our students, 60 percent of our students have come back and said that they have shared what they've learned with their family members, which is amazing. One girl, she shared with us. She said, “My mom kept getting overcharged overdraft fees.” And she finally sat her mom back down and was like, “We need to figure out a budget. You need to stop wasting money by paying overdraft fees.” Because we talked about that in the banking lesson. And she said, it's been a month later and my mom has had zero overdraft fees from this point forward, and we've like really worked. And so for us it's not just impacting our students' lives, but it's impacting their family lives as well as hopefully their community lives.

Sy Hoekstra:  So one specific question I think about that, I think is interesting around mental health and family dynamics. Because there's this phenomenon I think in a lot of marginalized communities, where someone does go out and get a stable job with consistent income because they went to college or whatever. And there used to be a community, kind of what you were referring to before, where everybody just kind of lends to each other all the time. Like if you're in trouble, I'm going to give you some money to handle your emergency, and then when I'm in trouble and I have a financial emergency, you're going to lend to me and it just goes back and forth. And now all of a sudden, there's somebody who is only lending and never asking because they don't actually need the money anymore, or they don't need it as often or whatever.

And that creates a lot of times difficult family power dynamics and a lot of emotion. And so I think the mental health component of what you're doing is super interesting and important. And I just, I wonder if you've had to talk to students about that or what that's been like or what kind of advice you give around that.

Irene Cho: That's a great question. I think because our students are still young and only a handful of them are technically working right now…

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.

Irene Cho: …they haven't felt the pressure or need to contribute to their family yet. We have a secondary program called Achievable, which we support community college students, usually first gen, in their first two years, so that they get set on the right trajectory. I did not know this before starting this position, that only 20 percent of community college students actually achieve their goals to transfer, complete an associates or certificate. So our program, we are at about a 75 percent success rate. They're on track to be successful, so we're really proud of that. But we do name that because we have to walk them through as they're doing community college.

Some of them have two jobs because they're helping pay rent and supporting their families. And so we name a lot of that mental health and talk about conflict management and boundaries and what that looks like. And so we go a little bit more in depth in our community college program and talking about what does it look like to make sure… in the budgeting lesson we talk about you have to pay yourself first, so we name that as well. We do use the 50/30/20 rule. I know that there's some just pushback on that, et cetera. [Jonathan inhales] Go ahead.

Jonathan Walton: No, you should… Some people may not know what that is, so…

Irene Cho: Oh, so if you look it up, when we talk about budgeting, it's pretty much the majority rule of thumb that's taught. Which is 50 percent of your budget should go to necessities like utilities, housing, food, 30 percent of your budget should go to wants. So anything that's like vacation or the new shoes you want to buy, whatever that's considered a want. Like you need a massage because your job is so stressful. Those all go under wants. And then 20 percent is your savings. And so it actually works, even though they call it the 50, 30 20 rule, it should work backwards because the ideology or philosophy is that the 20 percent you should pay yourself first. So you should put away 20 percent of your budget into savings. And so what we do is we do talk about the importance of that, and understanding that it is your money that you get to choose how you would like to distribute that out.

And again, it's not, we don't…. whereas other, I don't want to throw anyone under the bus, but there may be other financial curricula or teachings out there that say you should protect that money. What we want again to do, is to honor the cultural traditions and the cultures that you can provide for your family, but it is your choice to decide then if you're going to save 20 percent, that you can divide that up, 10 percent of that goes to your family, 10 percent of that goes to you, but it's just understanding the breakdown so that it's not just parents randomly asking for money here and there. A lot of our students choose to live at home even while they are in college or even while they're working. And so that means that their 50 percent of their budget goes to rent, which is supporting their family.

And it's just helping them understand… there's one video that I really loved, I forget the group's name, but they keep calling it Running the Numbers, and I really love that phrase. And so it's really helping students run the numbers to understand how much are you spending eating out? How much are you spending helping your parents pay for rent? How much are you spending, et cetera on these things. And just helping them break that down. And not shaming them, because I think a lot of western predominant culture aka predominantly white culture and privileged culture, and rural, white cultures are a bit different. We would consider them under resource as well. So, but the mentality that this is your money. This is my money, I've earned it, my family doesn't get to touch this.

And so kind of going back to your question, Sy, we don't want to shame that part. We want to honor it, but we want to help students understand that they are empowered. That they have the choice, and they just need to make the conscientious decision how much they want to sacrifice, how much they want to be generous, and how much they want to give. And that's okay, and that's good. It's being aware of what that looks like.

Jonathan Walton: Something that I really appreciate about what you're saying, is that it's empowering people to make a choice. Because so much of disenfranchisement, redlining, we are strategically hemming people in so that they don't actually have choices.

Irene Cho: Yeah.

Jonathan Walton: And so creating a space where people are empowered, we have choices, I think is great. The rub I'm wondering is, and this is a tension that I run into, is as I manage money and how I handle money, how do I not come to love money?

Irene Cho: Oh, yeah.

Jonathan Walton: And obviously, for us it's like we're trying to leave the accumulation, the greed, the goal of independence, at the expense of other people. And so how… I think you've mentioned it, but how does that look as people make their choices?

Irene Cho: That's a great question. So we do talk about how important it is in life to love what you're doing. It somewhat goes through, it weaves in and out in the curriculum, that money is not the be all end all that provides satisfaction. That you need to understand fulfillment in life, family relationships in particular, friendships, et cetera, all of these things. In the mental health club session, we talk about the sweet spot that exists and research has shown this. I've had friends who've done ministry work in very privileged high socioeconomic status communities, and the level of suicide, depression, isolation, abandonment, neglect, all of those things completely exists in those communities. My husband and I, while we watched Succession, we talked about this, where the level of, it's like [laughs] you're now in a state where you don't have to fight every day.

And what is it with humans than making their own problems and drama? Because it's like now that you don't have to fight tooth and nail for something and you have all this access, but you are dissatisfied, you then create this power dynamic, drama, struggle, fight for something that is somewhat unnecessary as well as… what's the word I'm looking for? It's not even false, but it's just, it's a puffed up element.

Jonathan Walton: It's construed.

Irene Cho: It’s construed. Thank you.

Jonathan Walton: It's totally construed. Yeah. Right.

Irene Cho: So you have that element of it. I mean, research shows there's a sweet spot where you don't want to be in such poverty that every day is such a struggle on the stress of your mental health. And there is a sweet spot by which you can live comfortably. You can have a cushion of savings and also allow space for generosity as well as being able to go on vacation. It's still like, it's so weird. Humans are so, we're so interesting, in that we do still require struggle. My husband and I, we talk about this too, psychologically speaking. There's a sweet spot. You don't want so much trauma in your life that it's like creating such harm that you cannot function, you cannot succeed. You're just struggling with all the elements of depression, anxiety, anger, bitterness.

And then the fallout of all of that, which all the choices that are made that we know about. And you don't want to be so without trauma that then you lack empathy, you have no compassion. You don't know what to do with your life, you're bored. All these things that exist when there's too much privilege, because you can't identify and understand other people's struggles and you're in this weird bubble. So there's a sweet spot of trauma as well [Sy laughs]. You need a bit, this is why people want to do marathons or do sport [Sy laughs]. This is why sports is so good, because there's technically a struggle that exists with athletics, right? You have to push yourself to gain control of that and push your body, and there's pain involved in there, but it's like good pain.

Which is so weird and anti-intuitive, but there's something glorious about that. Then you overcome that pain and you accomplish the thing that you set out. And so there's a sweet spot of finance as well where you're not quite so privileged that you don't have to think about it. Where your financial advisor can steal hundreds of thousands of dollars of money and you don't even know whether or not it came or went and all of these things, but you want this like cushion area that's like, okay, I have a good home and it's solid, and now I can think about how to raise my family in a healthy way, et cetera. So we really do promote that mentality with our students.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah. It sounds like, like my daughters will never know what it's like to be hungry.

Irene Cho: Right.

Jonathan Walton: They will never know that. And so we talk about how do you instill resilience in someone without suffering and trauma? And so you're really talking… I would call it strategic adversity.

Irene Cho: Yes.

Jonathan Walton: Like we got to go through some things without causing unnecessary suffering and harm. And so to bring your Succession point home, because I was literally having… I love Succession by the way. I love the show [laughter]. But to bring it home for people, it's like I've had conversations with people in the last few weeks where they have the degree, they have the money, and now they've lost their jobs, they’ve provided for. And their entire lives, they've been working to belong and to provide, and now they feel directionless. Because if they don't have to get a job to provide and they don't have to make money to belong, then what's the point? Because again, it seems like you're pushing people for concrete choices, in your vision boarding, is there a pattern or something that you've seen that a vision board leads to freedom? What does a vision board that leads to freedom look like [Sy laughs]?

Irene Cho: That is a great question because I, I was going to say I wanted to let you finish, but [laughs], I went through the same identity crisis in a little bit of a different way. I ended my last previous job, so I went through depression because things in my life finally settled down. My father had passed away, and then I didn't have this job position that I had had for 11 years, and we moved to a new community where I didn't know anybody. And I was like, I was trying to launch my company at that time, and I was having a really hard time with it because I, for the first time, did not know what motivated me to keep going. I was like, if I do not have external factors pushing me to set my day and set my agenda, what is me internally? What does it look like?

So it was really an internal question for me, of what it is that motivates me and drives me. Like, how can I find it internally? And I think we want to ask that question, that same question for students. Again, that's why even in the housing, we say to them, why do you want a house, in the housing lesson? You need to ask these questions. Did you say you want, is a house on your vision board because your family has told you this is what needs to happen? What is the motivation? So we do ask the philosophical question for them. Like as you think about what career you are going to choose, why do you want to choose going into tech? Why do you want to choose going into medicine? A lot of our students are wanting to become nurses, et cetera.

And because I think there's this belief or guarantee that that's a solid career. And so we just really ask… And if you enjoy that, then that's totally awesome. If you can find a career path that you find enjoyment in that also gives you the equity and stability that you need, then that's a match made in heaven. And we tell them as well, your career right now doesn't mean it's going to be your career necessarily for the rest of your life. You can have a career change in the middle, like as you progress. And then our community college program is really helpful. Like we've had several students, one student she wanted to do coding and she was going to go into tech. And then as she did it, she found she really does not enjoy it at all.

Sy Hoekstra:  Coding is very boring.

Irene Cho: It's very boring! And we helped her pivot, so now she's going into business major because she actually, she's been doing retail for her job. And she was like, “I really like managing people. I actually am really good at it.” She's finding out as a freshman and now she's a sophomore at community college. And so we've helped switch her through our academic advisor and what classes she needs to take. She's loving all of her classes now.

Jonathan Walton: That's awesome.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.

Irene Cho: And so it's that journey that we want to help students like in the majors with money thing, we also stress that just don't just strive after the money. Yes, you might be making $150,000, $200,000 out the gate if you do this, but you really need to ask yourself, what do you enjoy doing? And if you're just getting a job for the money, a lot of times it's not worth your mental health.

And so we do name that and we don't… I don't think we directly name that very profusely in every lesson, but we do name it as we say, the life you want to live, but then understanding as we unpack that. It's in every single, like there's the subtle message of it goes across because I think all of us understand that. Luckily all of our staff, program staff folks who deliver the lesson, they understand that. And so while yes, they also believe and they want to help their students gain economic mobility, they understand that you need to find fulfillment in the journey and in the process of all of that.

Jonathan Walton: I'm a fan.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.

Irene Cho: So we want to promote how to buck the system without striving for the system. That's really, at the end of the day, like when we were writing it, when I was editing it, that was my objective. Of like how do we help them understand the blockages and obstacles that are in place? How do we help them maneuver around that, but also how do we help them understand that this is a system that we unfortunately have to work in because this is what has been set up unless it collapses through an apocalypse and then we subvert and we start from the ground up [Sy laughs]. This is what's been set up for now. And so this is why in the, where do we find alternative money, we want to provide resources. Even for the housing lesson, we want to provide a list of resources that allow you to start with your equity.

But we name it too, like getting a house now in today's society, in the way the economy is working, having a house no longer guarantees an economic trajectory that it did 30 years ago or even 20 years ago, right? Because 2008 was dear Lordy, how long ago now? And so my husband and I live in Oakland right now, and we are constantly looking at houses. We are renters right now because we are trying to build the equity. Both he and I did not have the mentality of valuing stability in that way, and we are both regretting it. This is why I'm so passionate about this subject. And I gave a lot of my money that I earned to my family, in support of my family, and now that I'm getting almost to the age of 50 we really want to ask these questions, but it's frickin expensive in Oakland.

And so we were looking at a really beautiful house in Tennessee for the same price of 1.4 million that you could get a rinky dinky small two bedroom or three bedroom, like, I don't know. It was like 2000 square feet in Oakland. And it was like a 9,000 square foot home in Tennessee [Sy laughs]. And I was just like, okay. But as an Asian American, I mean, my husband's white, so it's fine for him. But as an Asian American, I was like, I turned to my… And the house was so beautiful, and I turned to him and I was like, but my question is, do I want to live in Tennessee as an Asian American?

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, yeah.

Irene Cho: And so that's, it's okay that we talk about that, the truth of all of that.

Jonathan Walton: Right.

Sy Hoekstra:  So you've talked about this a little bit, but I want to know what you're hearing from the kids. You do data driven feedback from the students. What are they saying?

Irene Cho: Really good things. They love it. They are glad. Even students who… [laughs] we've had students on the survey give us in the open ended questions. They're like, “I hate school. We should just learn about financial education instead of our other classes.”


Jonathan Walton: Amen.

Irene Cho: So it's been good. Some of the lessons, we're editing, we're going through revisions. We're not overhauling the whole thing like we did last year. But like the insurance lesson, there was just so much to cover with insurance. And so we are cutting some down where we're not going to talk about medical insurance just because of where they're at, because they are either covered by their parents or they will be covered if they go to university. And so we just talk about the basic terminologies of what is a premium, what is a claim, et cetera, all these things. And but we are going to talk about auto insurance, and then we will talk about renter's insurance because they may go off and move out, some of them. Most of our students are staying at home because economically it's just better for all of them.

So yeah, that's happening. And then again 65 to 70, depending on the school, percent of our students are Latine students. And so the culture is stay at home until you get married. So that's beneficial for our students. Again, that's a reality, like this is a good time for you all if you're working you can save up money when you're young. So we want to name that, don't spend all of your money because this is a good time while you're not fully paying rent on your own. But they loved the banking. Again, we named how important it is. You can get a bank account even if you are undocumented, you just need your ITIN.

Sy Hoekstra: Yes.

Irene Cho: There are credit unions that support undocumented folks and families. So if you open a credit union account, you could probably even also get a loan from a credit union if you're undocumented.

So those are things that we named that cough cough Dave Ramsey does not name, because most financial curricula out there is like, “So go with your parents to open a bank account.” Like it's super simple, and so we name that, like some of you, we name, some of you are in the foster care system. Some of you have guardians where it's your grandparents. Some of you have parents who are undocumented and your parents will not step foot in a bank. So what does that look like? How can you go to a financial institution that allows your parents to feel safer …

Jonathan Walton: that’s awesome.

Irene Cho: …and maybe you can actually open account with your parents And so a couple of our students have said, “I went to a credit union and I opened a credit union and I went with my parents and I had them open a credit union bank account as well.”

So those are just really fun things that we hear back from our students. Again, the retirement lesson, I was petrified. I thought they were going to be like, “Why do we need to know about retirement?” So many of our students were like, “I'm so, so grateful that you taught us about retirement. These are things that I need to think about now, early.” So they're giving that feedback, which is just so much fun.

Sy Hoekstra:  It's just so useful. Is the reason they like it.

Jonathan Walton: Yes. Yes.

Sy Hoekstra: I mean, it's like when I got to that section in that one lesson plan that was like, here's the kind of tax ID number you need to get as an undocumented person. It's like yes, thank you.

Irene Cho: Yes.

Sy Hoekstra: Somebody is saying this to kids who need to hear it. Like it's just information that's… I mean, a decent chunk of this stuff, I didn't know when I was [laughs] trying to get started with a bank account or whatever.

Irene Cho: Yes, totally.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah, right.

Sy Hoekstra: It's just stuff more people need to know and tailoring it to what they need to hear is so great.

Irene Cho: Yeah. The bulk load of the work is doing the research. So NerdWallet names that as well.

Sy Hoekstra: I love NerdWallet.

Irene Cho: They have articles talking about it—I know, we do too [Sy laughs]. And so we do utilize the resources externally and we have in each lesson an “also what” section where we're like, Hey, we have vetted and sifted through all of the stuff, and here's our top 20 things in regards to this subject matter that you can go and look at more videos because our lessons are 40 minutes. So I mean, imagine trying to teach insurance in a 40 minute segment. It's really tight and we need to make sure there's an activity. So then that takes that away from content time. So there's a lot of these things that we are doing, because again, our lesson is a bit of an overview lesson, which I know that there are other curricula out there that students can go to, but they won't go to it.

And it's so different. Like we had a school that was using… and I will name it, it's EVERFI. And she was like, “It was fine. The content was fine,” but because it was online and they were kind of doing it on their own, the students were not engaged with it.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah.

Irene Cho: And so having a person in the classroom where it's like a workshop, we have slides, we're interacting with the students, we're giving them space to ask questions. We're giving them space to push back and answering these questions. She was like, it's just, sold. It's so different having somebody come in and deliver the lesson. And you know, we've been asked a lot about then why do we not do teachers, like teaching the teachers or training the trainers.

A lot of times the teachers, they love that we're coming in and delivering these lessons, because that's 40 minutes of a classroom time one day out of the week [Sy laughs] where they're just like, “Phew, I could grade papers, I could do things.”

Jonathan Walton: Yeah.

Irene Cho: They're in the classroom, and our teachers are very engaged and interactive. But just being able to have that mental, like a little bit of a sigh of relief while our coaches are delivering the lessons is super. Well see, the state of California, we do know, like I know Ohio has mandatory financial education. The state of Washington provides incentives. And so California is in the movement right now. There's a couple of bills that we're keeping an eye on. It's still not going to be fully mandatory in the sense of like we give 17 lessons. So we're in the classroom the entire year.

And versus I believe some of the bills that are being proposed, it would be one semester of mandatory financial education, which it's just not enough. And so we're going to try to, if that happens, it won't be for another four years probably, but we'll see how the economy turns and shifts and how we would expand, et cetera. What we would do.

Sy Hoekstra:  All this has been so great. We really appreciate you having here talking about money and all this with the marginalized at the center. That's how we want to talk about everything. So we really appreciate this whole conversation. And I would just like to know where can people find you or Able Works or future profits online or whatever you want them to find. Where can they find it?

Irene Cho: So go to able.is. I love our website. And so from there@able.is, you'll see programs. We're revamping our website right now, so hopefully by the time this gets released out the website will have gone live. So it's still available now, but it might shut down for like a couple of days while it's getting revamped. So able.is, our financial curriculum. Our financial literacy program is called Future Profts. Our community college program is called Achievable. We have paused our, we had a single mom’s program, I want to relaunch it as an entrepreneurial program potentially…

Sy Hoekstra: oooh.

Jonathan Walton: Mmm.

Irene Cho: … called LiveAble, where we can help maybe do a cohort of kids graduating from high school and wanting to launch their own business. So like going through a year long program where then they can at the end of the year begin launching a business on their own.

Because we've got a lot of students, social media [laughs]. The student who wanted to do coding, she was like, “I want to be a coder or an influencer.” The range was so wide [laughter]. And so, and that's the thing too I think with students. We really want to help them be realistic. Because you don’t know. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer and now that I know what actually law work is, I would've been a terrible lawyer [Sy laughs]. And so I would've hated my job. I would've hated my life. And so, part of the thing we want to really help kids is understand what does this job actually look like on a day-to-day basis…

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.

Irene Cho: …that you would find enjoyable or not enjoyable. So yeah, I think there's, that's some of the issues with young people. They have this idealistic understanding of what that job is, and then the day-to-day grind of it is completely different than what they saw on television or what they were told. And so yeah, we're trying to do that so see if maybe this LiveAble program... So that's my little pipe dream that I'm hoping we can launch in like a year with everything that we're doing. So yeah. And then for me personally it's, all my social media is IreneM, as in Michelle, Cho. C-H-O. So if you just do that, then you can find me on all the platforms.

Sy Hoekstra:  Some highly entertaining social media content coming from Irene Cho.

Jonathan Walton: For sure.

Sy Hoekstra: I can promise you that [laughter].

Irene Cho: I feel like I have calmed down a little! [laughs].

Sy Hoekstra: It's still entertaining [Irene laughs]. You can be calm and entertaining [laughter]. Irene, thank you so much for being here. We really appreciate it.

Irene Cho: Thanks always for having me.

Sy Hoekstra:  Please remember to take a look at KTFPress.com/free month to sign up as a paid subscriber with a free month at the beginning. Get the bonus episodes of this show, support everything we do at KTF Press, and get our weekly newsletter. Our theme song as always is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra. Our podcast Art is by Jacqueline Tam, and we will see you in two weeks.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]

Irene Cho: Right? And I was a little bit… [loud sound of thunder]

Sy Hoekstra:  Who, where was that? Was that you, Jonathan?

Irene Cho: Was that thunder?

Jonathan Walton: Uh…it has opened up in Queens.

Sy Hoekstra: [laughs] Okay, well...

Jonathan Walton: It is raining, and uh, Jesus might come back [laughter].

Sy Hoekstra: That's not the first time—Oh yeah, see now it's happening in Manhattan too. Irene, I will just quiet that while you're speaking so you can feel free to finish your thought and ignore any further sounds coming from our microphones that are caused by Jesus.

KTF Press
Shake the Dust
Seeking Jesus, confronting injustice–Shake the Dust features candid interviews and informed discussions that guide us as we resist the idols of America.