Lend for America Blog Post
By Aaron Bode ’17
This blog post was originally written for one of JIFFI’s partner organizations, Lend for America (LFA). LFA was instrumental in JIFFI’s genesis, and we continue to utilize their expertise as we expand our operations and footprint. From the LFA website:
“Lend for America empowers student leaders to build their communities through the creation of campus microfinance institutions (Campus MFIs). Our national platform supports students practicing microfinance in the U.S. by providing training, networking, funding, and research.”
You can find Lend for America’s published version of this post here; the version below is the longer, original copy of the post. Enjoy!
My name is Aaron Bode, and I am the summer intern for the Jubilee Initiative for Financial Inclusion, otherwise known as JIFFI. To hear more about our organization, I recommend reading Alec Schoemann’s blog from early June; I worked with Alec this past year and he did a wonderful job outlining our work. My focus for this post, however, has to do with a specific aspect of JIFFI and microlending as a whole: client interaction. As I delve into this topic and explain the situation of a recent JIFFI client, I invite you to reflect on the following question, and respond with your honest reaction:
If I begin to talk about someone experiencing poverty, who do you imagine in your mind?
Your answers may be different, but here are various responses I believe “the public” collectively holds: Single parent. Black. Young. Foreigner. Victim. Tattooed. Standoffish. Dirty. Resigned. Uneducated. Oppressed. Criminal. White trash. Lazy. Elderly. Unemployed.
As Americans, we like to believe in a society where the “American Dream” is accessible to everyone, and anyone who works hard can achieve at least a middle class lifestyle. Thus, people tend to associate poverty with a kind of personal failure. This flawed thinking has been analyzed elsewhere (for example, check out Inequality for All), but the relevance of it to this particular blog post is how stereotypical views of those in poverty impact client interactions in and outside the microlending process.
One of the great challenges when working with JIFFI is to connect with individuals by meeting them “where they are in life,” instead of dwelling on conjectures as to who they are or where they come from. To truly serve clients to the best of our abilities, it takes understanding and accurate characterizations of the lives those experiencing poverty live. This can only come from a) context and b) time spent meeting with each individual client.
Imagine hearing about a client without having access to either of these components. Let me describe Sarah to you. Sarah is a client I met with on June 26, and she is a mother of six who lives in a trailer park in a town outside of South Bend. Sarah’s car was completely totaled earlier that week, and she came to JIFFI looking for a down payment for a new vehicle. She is disabled and had not worked at a regular job in over a year. Her benefits are expiring in the next few months as well. Sarah was hoping for a “same-day loan,” a very rarely considered proposal.
Who are you imagining Sarah as right now? I’m sure at this point, any underwriting team’s mental state is somewhere between “skeptical” and “states-trusting-the-federal-government-under-the-Articles-of-Confederation.” As a reader, you’re probably cautious of a loan as well – Sarah sounds like someone who will struggle to make repayments, and your intuition may even have you questioning her responsibility.
Now let’s try to re-imagine Sarah with the full picture.
Where is Sarah coming from? JIFFI serves the greater South Bend community, where some progress is being made in the fight for financial inclusion, but many citizens still lack access to fair credit and the tools needed to navigate the complex financial world. Our client base primarily comes from this segment of the community – underbanked individuals who are looking for someone to help them as they recover and/or build from their situation. This means, however, that our clients come to us already striving for a better financial state, and want to use every opportunity they can to improve their lives. Before we even hear their unique stories, we know our clients possess zeal and determination. And what did I learn about Sarah’s personal situation after spending two hours with her?
Here’s a rewrite of my previous description, this time in a clearer and less jaded light:
This past Thursday, I met with Sarah, a mother of six college students/graduates who lives in a community outside of South Bend. Her children attend and have graduated from schools such as Indiana University, Valparaiso University, and Bluffton University. Unfortunately, Sarah’s car was completely totaled earlier this week while her daughter was driving, and after making doctor’s visits and talking with the insurance agency, she came to JIFFI looking for a down payment for a “new” car i.e. a used vehicle in good condition that she could afford. She had already spoken to two dealerships and was in contact with a trusted mechanic to ensure that the vehicle she would purchase would be fairly priced and of solid quality. Sarah experienced PTSD at a former job and had to take time off to recover and address her mental, emotional, and physical health. Sarah worked two separate three-month jobs as a way to prepare herself for returning to the workforce full-time, and she is starting a new job this upcoming week working as skilled labor. Sarah has planned ahead for expiring benefits and is setting aside that money each month for emergencies. And why did she want a same-day loan? Because the next day she was driving to her daughter’s college orientation in Ohio.
Indubitably, your perception and understanding of Sarah and her situation has changed. Sarah was absolutely wonderful to meet and work with, not just as a client, but also as an individual. I don’t think it’s shocking to hear that getting to know someone changes how you view them, but I do think it’s telling that I could only encounter Sarah’s resilience, earnestness, and nurturing attitude after considering her background and spending extended time meeting with her. Client interaction is at the heart of JIFFI’s mission – “To enable our clients to unlock their full potential through affordable credit solutions, financial empowerment programs, and supportive relationships” – and it’s through our connections with clients that JIFFI can contribute to a better understanding of who the people experiencing poverty in our community are. I hope outstanding individuals such as Sarah can transform our responses to my “initial question” in this post, and affirm the excellence of all clients and all individuals in South Bend.