Raising Community Voices to Increase Credit for Bostonians

BY Marcia Tabenken

Jan 5 2023

Community voices are central to United Way’s approach to economic justice.

By empowering residents to identify priorities and create culturally responsive solutions in their own communities, we can leverage our resources for maximum impact and make a real difference for hundreds of thousands of people in need regionwide. 

Boston Builds Credit’s (BBC) Community Advisory Council (CAC) offers a prototype for centering community voices, giving those with lived experience a say in shaping BBC’s culture, operations, and implementation. 

Boston Builds Credit is a collaboration led by United Way, the Boston Mayor’s Office of Financial Empowerment, and Local Initiatives Support Corporation Boston. Partnering with a vast network of nonprofit organizations, financial institutions, policymakers, and community members, BBC uses credit building as a lever to promote economic mobility and equity in Boston, where over 200,000 residents have either no or poor credit scores. 

BBC’s Community Advisory Council (CAC) plays a vital role in this equation.   

"CAC members are your grassroots. They’re the street team. As residents who care about their community, CAC members can talk to residents about credit and wealth building and community members will relate to them."
Network Leader Brit Johnson who coordinates the CAC

Created in partnership with Union Capital Boston, which rewards community engagement to create opportunity and build community, the CAC is comprised of 30 residents from Boston neighborhoods where discriminatory practices that affect Black, Latino, Hispanic, and immigrant populations have resulted in disproportionately low credit scores. The CAC helps BBC staff and partners identify barriers to credit and develop solutions, while also working on their own wealth-building journeys. 

“When it comes to credit, our financial system severely punishes those with limited resources, leading to an endless cycle of financial repression and struggle,” says United Way Vice President of Economic Inclusion and Wealth Building Juan Bonilla. “We are disrupting that system into one that lifts rather than subjugates. We must move away from the patronizing approaches that treat people as if they are limited, incapable and broken. We must recognize the potential and strength in every single person we are trying to help, create the spaces where their voices are not only heard but respected and responded to, and ultimately open the doors for their aspirations and efforts to catalyze positive change for themselves, their families, and communities.” 

Throughout the year, CAC members meet as a group to talk about credit, host speakers on credit and finance, and provide BBC staff with input on various aspects of the BBC initiative. Individually, members work with financial coaches to build their credit and identify and move toward their financial goals. As a group, the CAC helps connect the broader community with credit building information and resources through community resource nights, co-hosted with Union Capital Boston, and through outreach to their own networks.  

In addition, some CAC members participate on BBC committees with United Way staff and network partners. All CAC members receive a stipend for their participation. 

In October, the CAC gathered virtually to reflect and celebrate their numerous accomplishments of the past year, including: 

  • Connecting hundreds of community members with credit-building education through four community resource nights 
    • Participating in the development of BBC’s racial equity assessment tool and process 
      • Providing invaluable input on their experiences working with financial coaches in the BBC network that lead to more responsive one-on-one coaching 
        • Giving feedback on website, marketing, educational materials, and public information campaign, leading to a more authentic look and feel of outward facing resources 
          • Proving input into BBC’s mission, vision, and core values 

            CAC members also shared some personal highlights. One reported achieving a perfect credit score. Another purchased a home. Many said they gained confidence, felt more in control of their finances and saw improvements in their lives. They also shared candid and constructive feedback that will inform BBC’s community engagement strategies going forward. 

            “We are very proud of our CAC members—the progress they have made for themselves and their contributions to the Boston Builds Credit initiative,” says Bonilla. 

            Based on CAC member feedback, future CAC participants will have more leadership development opportunities including financial skills building to enable CAC members to facilitate their own educational sessions with family, friends and neighbors. 

            Asked what message she would offer organizations and funders seeking to address the racial wealth gap at the population level, Johnson says, “Give the community a voice. Execute on what they’re advising. Allow them to be the leaders they want to be.”