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Financial Literacy All Stars

Dr. Per Cap’s 2018 Financial Literacy All Stars

First Nations Development Institute is proud to partner with Dr. Per Cap (aka Financial Education Consultant Shawn Spruce) during Financial Literacy Month to highlight the great work of some financial literacy heroes. Dr. Per Cap, as usual, provides his insight on all things related to Native American financial education.  

Dr. Per Cap’s Financial Literacy 2018 All-Star Picks

Spring is here and it’s time to celebrate national Financial Literacy Month by recognizing a new team of outstanding individuals who are working hard to expand financial education efforts throughout Indian Country.  It’s a tradition that each week in April I highlight the accomplishments of one totally awesome person who embodies the spirit of Native financial empowerment through selfless dedication, action over words, and an inclusive community vision. — Dr. Per Cap

Show All Star #4: Dawn Wesley, Financial Cent$ Educational Contractor "Money Matters with Dawn," Tlingit Haida Regional Housing Authority

Financial educators in Indian Country are no strangers to traveling long distances for workshops, classes and coaching. Native communities, especially out west, are notorious for remote off-the-grid locations that entail lengthy drives on rural highways. But Dawn Wesley, with the Tlingit Haida Regional Housing Authority (THRHA) [ ], takes it to a new level, logging enough annual miles to put calluses on the hooves of a Sitka Black Tail Deer. By car, float plane, ferry and skiff, she ventures far to bring financial skills to Native villages throughout southeastern Alaska.

“There’s one community where you drive 27 miles on concrete, then 17 miles on a road riddled with potholes,” explains the Juneau-based financial educator. “It’s beautiful. Many Native Alaskan communities I serve have around 400 members. There are no car rentals, hotels or restaurants, so I pack my own food. One village gave us an old cop car to drive while doing Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) work. It had a plastic back seat and everything.”

In another community, Dawn jokingly described a “Blair Witch Project” setting that involved hiking through pitch black wilderness to reach her cabin, steadying a cell phone flashlight to avoid stumbling in the brush. A typical year sees the tireless trainer on the go 200 days or more. It’s a life of travel she’s well-suited for, having grown up with a mother who worked on the Alaska Marine Highway.

Dawn joined THRHA seven years ago following a successful career as a mortgage originator. Originally hired as a loan processor, she had a quick introduction into the world of financial education when, two months in, she helped a family buy their first home. With Dawn’s background in insurance and mortgages, and her knowledge of southeast Alaska, she was immediately asked to build a homebuyer program.

“It started with budget coaching,” she recalls. “Then it branched out to classes, which identified a need for homeownership education. Within a year and a half we added a VITA site. I realized I couldn’t give our families the money they needed so I did the next best thing by helping them learn to save it.”

In addition to saving communities hundreds of thousands in tax-filing fees, Dawn credits the VITA program with teaching her the value of strong partnerships, a “must-do” for a staff of one. This includes partnerships like the one with the University of Alaska Southeast, where an accounting professor doubles as a VITA site coordinator and students volunteer as preparers. The locally-owned First Bank assists with homebuyer classes. These partners and others have allowed Dawn to create Financial Cent$, a comprehensive program that in addition to VITA and homebuyer education features credit repair, post-secondary education planning, and youth financial education. An offshoot energy conservation program, Energy Cents, teaches THRHA families how to manage their budget through extreme weather crises and high fuel costs.

The economic challenges facing many traditional villages play a pivotal role in Dawn’s approach to training and coaching. She cites an enormously high cost of living in most of Alaska, compounded by shrinking populations from outmigration, that lead to challenges with managing personal budgets. “Many villages have cyclical tourist economies which create a sense of haste when making financial decisions,” she says. “Our goal is to teach the process while building trust in financial institutions and the understanding that credit is an asset. It’s not just money that makes communities and families stronger.”

A single mother who raised three successful children, Dawn can empathize with families facing challenges. She also doesn’t mince words when reminding clients that they might encounter a few potholes on the road to financial security. For inspiration, she cherishes the memory of a 70-year-old woman who she assisted after a major financial difficulty. Later, the woman said that the best part of working with Dawn was that she never felt judged about what she had done.

Dawn also remembers the very first family she assisted at THRHA. Faced with a low FICO score, the couple worked for two years to clean up their credit and buy a home and then renovated it to add a small apartment. Later, the rent from the apartment covered 75% of the mortgage payment.

“They did everything we teach and it worked!” she says proudly. “That’s when I discovered I really enjoy this. It’s so heartwarming to go into these communities and help. It won’t always be 30 people in a room, but even just touching a few people is worth it. I could go make money selling insurance or making loans, but financial education makes me happy.”

As can be seen in the countless lives Dawn Wesley has touched while traversing The Last Frontier, her shared knowledge, commitment and friendship have made a lot of other people happy, too. Thank you Dawn, for all that you do!

Hide All Star #3: Jolene Cantrell, Senior Financial Analyst, Puyallup Tribe of Indians

Native to coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest, the geoduck is a large edible clam that burrows into the ocean floor. Pronounced “gooey duck” and derived from a Nisqually word meaning “dig deep,” a lucrative fishing industry centers on these remarkable sea creatures. Jolene Cantrell (Puyallup/Yakama) knows a thing or two about geoducks, also known as mud ducks or king clams. Among her many talents, she’s a licensed commercial geoduck diver with a unique appreciation for digging deep not only while harvesting the clams under water, but also while promoting financial literacy for members of the Puyallup Tribe [ ].

Born into a family of successful entrepreneurs, Jolene got her first taste of business and finance as a teenage cashier in her parents’ grocery store. By the time she finished college the family business had grown into gas stations, convenience stores and consumer finance shops. With two separate bachelor’s degrees in business management and accounting, Jolene handled the books for the family businesses while working part time as a substitute teacher. The experiences taught her the importance of financial literacy at an early age.

“I’ve always loved numbers,” she says happily. “The same principles that apply to a business and a tribe apply to an individual. Everyone needs to know how to save money and establish a budget. We have to continue to succeed as a tribe and a big part of that is for our people to succeed on their own, too. Unfortunately, I see too many young people, and older ones, too, unequipped to share in our financial prosperity.”

Nine years ago, Jolene joined the tribal workforce. She was first employed in the internal audit department and then, for the past seven years, has been a senior financial analyst. Her primary responsibilities include budget reviews for tribal entities, financial reporting, and tracking revenue numbers for the Puyallup Tribe’s rapidly-expanding business interests.

She’s also the mastermind behind an annual financial literacy camp designed to address financial challenges facing young tribal members. The two-week summer learning event includes interactive workshops, guest speakers, the $pending Frenzy program, personal finance authors, and app-based daily quizzes that participants can answer on their phones.

“I think we’re making an impact,” Jolene says confidently. “I recently ran into a couple of kids from last summer that both just turned 18. They’re planning to be roommates in college because of what they learned. I know of a young woman who moved out of state with her husband and children. When her mother asked how she managed her young family’s financial affairs, she told her she learned from our program.”

In addition to the youth camp, Jolene partners with Chief Leschi High School to facilitate financial classes during the school year. Moreover, she networks among tribal programs to identify financial skill-building opportunities for adults. In the process, she created a list of local banks where tribal members can go for help with money matters.

“It’s important to focus on the financial literacy needs of adults, too,” she explains. “So they can pass the information down because kids aren’t learning it in school.”

Beyond building a successful career and pioneering financial education efforts, Jolene enjoys a busy, fulfilling life. When not braving cold, deep waters in search of elusive geoducks, she continues to dig deep for lofty educational pursuits. She earned a master’s degree in public administration in 2012 and is just shy of another in elementary education, a discipline that comes in handy with her financial literacy undertakings. Along with her husband, who teaches the Twulshootseed language, the couple staunchly advocates for language preservation and enjoy nightly language discussions with their four children around the dinner table. The family also operates a summer fireworks stand, which provides her children with an opportunity similar to Jolene’s own childhood, in which her kids get a healthy dose of working and finance. Jolene’s family is a state-licensed foster care home, and they frequently share their happiness and stability with children in need.

“I like to see youth thrive whether at home, at school or in the workplace,” Jolene adds. “My goal is to get as many tribes as possible on board with financial literacy. We have other tribes, besides Puyallup, represented in our community. And I’ve had other tribes offer to volunteer at our camp just to learn what we’re doing. If Puyallup can become a hub for financial education, we could look out for everyone.”

Jolene Cantrell brings a lot to the financial education game: experience, wisdom and, above all, a big heart. The only thing missing is a name for her future financial education hub. I cast my vote for Geo Bucks! Thank you Jolene, for all that you do!

Show All Star #2: Denyse Carr, Revenue Auditor, Laguna Development Corporation

In volleyball there’s a popular phrase: “better the ball.” Anyone who’s seen a libero dig a blistering hard line spike or go horizontal for the pancake can relate. At Laguna Pueblo, the phrase comes with a twist thanks to Denyse Carr (Laguna Pueblo/Hopi). A standout volleyball player in high school, Denyse has taken what she learned on the court and applied it to a career. I call it “better the borrower” and here’s why.

Six years ago Denyse became an assistant loan officer at Native Community Finance, a Laguna-based CDFI. Fresh out of high school, the eager teen cut her teeth processing loan applications and performing administrative duties. Within a year she transitioned into a loan officer and, eventually, a financial education trainer.

“I was our youngest staff person and younger than a lot of my clients,” she explains. “Early on I was looked down upon because I didn’t have much experience. But I knew I could do the job and wanted to be an inspiration for people my own age.”

Denyse’s straightforward and honest approach won over clients. She assisted borrowers with budgets and credit reports, taught classes and workshops, and in partnership with the tribe, introduced a new first time homebuyers’ class. Like bumping a tough cut shot, she worked hard to “better her borrowers” by stressing that a home’s value is worth sacrificing dinners out and trips to the movies.

“It’s an amazing feeling when you have the satisfaction of helping a dream come true,” Denyse says proudly. “I worked with people my own age along with elders and seniors. I especially enjoyed seeing eyes light up when people learned something new about their finances.”

Once Denyse ran into a younger couple who she jokes she’d “known since diapers.” She encouraged them to check out a homebuyer class and introduced them to mortgages, land assignments, and construction types. Later she supported them in buying a home and helped them during the final walk-through on the property and closing of their own mortgage.

Another time she helped a couple whose purchase was delayed because of a policy change.

“They were trying to be patient while living in a rental unit that was set to be torn down,” she recalls. “It was really rewarding because you could see the weight and worry lift off their shoulders when they were finally handed the keys to their new home.”

Always an innovator, Denyse holds an impressive resume that extends beyond homeownership and lending. This includes a project with the Laguna Higher Education Department to design a financial literacy class for college-bound students. In addition, she’s coached Individual Development Account savers and done Volunteer Income Tax Assistance.

Then last fall she accepted a new challenge by signing on as a revenue auditor with Laguna Development Corporation. Still serving her community’s financial needs, she’s traded in her trainer’s flipchart for spreadsheets and accounting software. She concedes that she no longer has the pleasure of working with clients but thrives in a new environment of debits, credits and operating budgets. Her primary focus is keeping an eye out for formula issues while looking for variances in accounts that include Laguna Development Corporation’s food and beverage operations, cashiers, table games, travel centers, hotel and my personal favorite – Laguna Burger! Still committed to financial education, she sees an opportunity for Laguna Development Corporation, as a gaming entity, to create its own financial education classes, as opposed to making referrals to outside gambling-addiction services.

Denyse has also recently embarked on another exciting challenge: parenthood. As the proud mother of Mariann, her one-year-old daughter, she’s learning a lot about herself and a new type of formula – the kind that comes in a bottle.

“Being a parent is a whole different experience,” she adds. “My daughter has made me realize how strong I am. She’s my own little customer to train and teach.”

When not busy working and raising her child, Denyse runs 5Ks, plays in two volleyball leagues, and devotes time to religious practices. And she’s a student herself, working on an associate’s degree in business and construction management, an experience that has only strengthened and clarified her vision for Indian Country.

“I would love to see more educational tools for youth who choose to attend a large university,” she shared. “We’re not taught about the reality when leaving the Rez. So we need expanded resources for younger students and older ones, too. We are smart, we are prepared, and we are self-sustainable.”

Denyse Carr has far exceeded her original goal set at age 19. She isn’t just an inspiration to people her own age, she’s an inspiration to people of all ages. Thank you Denyse, for all that you do!

Show All Star #1: Cora Mae Haskell, Asset Development Coordinator, Four Bands Community Fund

If you’ve ever been stranded in South Dakota during a howling January blizzard only to snuggle later by a cozy campfire in July, you’ll agree with Cora Mae Haskell (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe) when asked: What’s the best part and worst part of life in the Mount Rushmore State?

The weather!

Raised on 160 acres on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, Cora Mae loves the four seasons, beautiful scenery and friendly people. She also loves teaching those friendly people about their credit. In rain, snow, or sunshine I might add. One of four siblings, she grew up in an era when families only used cash, an upbringing that molded her into the caring, outgoing and prudent person she is today.

“It wasn’t easy, but our parents did well by us,” says the former academic administrator and teacher. “They taught us patience and understanding. Success isn’t something that happens overnight.”

With a master’s degree in education and curriculum and a bachelor’s degree in business education, Cora Mae is a perfect fit as the asset development coordinator at Four Bands Community Fund. After serving as the dean of academics at the former Si Tanka/Huron University, she joined Four Bands in 2003 as a personal finance coach for workshops and business plan classes.

“It was my first foray into financial literacy and I really liked it,” Cora Mae explains. “I had people who really wanted to learn. To see their interest while learning financial concepts was inspiring. Moreover, I noticed a gap in knowledge between people of different generations that needed to be addressed.”

Click ahead 15 years and Cora Mae has now delivered business development and financial literacy workshops for hundreds of community members. She also provides financial coaching to new homebuyers in partnership with Cheyenne River Housing Authority, and was instrumental in establishing an Individual Development Account program. Along the way she’s won awards, such as 2008 Outstanding Entrepreneurship Educator by the Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education. She’s also had leadership roles at the national and local levels as co-chair for the Native Financial Education Coalition, in board positions with the Native CDFI Network and South Dakota Indian Business Alliance, and as a former board member for the Eagle Butte District 20-1 school system.

However, her calling is working in the community to improve people’s credit, which she views as the foundation for a family’s financial security.

“I’m really passionate about teaching credit-building,” she says. “A lot of people don’t realize they have a credit score. My job is to get them to a point where they can go to a traditional lender because most of our small business loans are to borrowers who can’t qualify for mainstream loans. Savings, budgets, understanding ‘wants’ vs. ‘needs’ – they all factor into good credit.”

Even more impressive are the touching stories and hard data that highlight the success of Cora Mae’s pupils. People like Aaron Runs After, a single parent, who used a Four Bands credit-builder loan to raise his credit score by a whopping 90 points. And Jackie Dunn, who while raising grandchildren nearly doubled her credit score in only a few years.

“Without Four Bands I would still be in serious debt and not have a line of credit for a new vehicle or have credit cards in my name,” Dunn stated after working with Cora Mae to purchase a home.

If we could only bottle Cora Mae’s recipe for financial success, we’d have a dish sweeter than a bowl of blueberry wojapi!

But all work and tasty wojapi aside, family is still what’s most important to Cora Mae. Happily married for 38 years, she and her late husband raised six children on the family farm where she grew up, a homestead always bustling with gatherings and activities. Naturally, she loves summers in South Dakota and travels to motorcycle rallies and annual Fourth of July family reunion campouts near Pierre. At home, she has two dogs and a cat and enjoys gardening, reading and solving crossword puzzles, which she says are a great way to relax after a long day. She also makes time for her grandkids’ sporting events and is active in her church.

“It’s rare that I don’t get a call on weekends from friends and family,” Cora Mae adds. “Often they have financial questions about credit or starting a business. There’s always a teachable moment. I remind them that a person’s gotta be in it for the long haul, but it’s worth it.”

Like all great community leaders, Cora Mae Haskell’s actions speak louder than words. She leads by example, stands firm in her beliefs, and yes – she’s in it for the long haul, too. Thank you Cora Mae, for all that you do!

Dr. Per Cap’s 2017 Financial Literacy All Stars

First Nations Development Institute is proud to partner with Dr. Per Cap (aka Financial Education Consultant Shawn Spruce) during Financial Literacy Month to highlight the great work of some financial literacy heroes. Dr. Per Cap, as usual, provides his insight on all things related to Native American financial education.  

Dr. Per Cap’s Financial Literacy 2017 All-Star Picks

Spring is here and it’s time to celebrate national Financial Literacy Month by recognizing a new team of outstanding individuals who are working hard to expand financial education efforts throughout Indian Country.  It’s a tradition that each week in April I highlight the accomplishments of one totally awesome person who embodies the spirit of Native financial empowerment through selfless dedication, action over words, and an inclusive community vision. — Dr. Per Cap

Show All Star #4: Tom Robinson, Case Manager, People’s Partner for Community Development and Chief Dull Knife College

Mobile banking apps? No thanks. Online statements? Pass. Depositing a check using your smartphone? Nope!

How about simple, affordable financial products like savings accounts, bill pay and small loans paid through payroll deduction? And all from a trustworthy local business? Sign me up!

Sometimes “old school” is the best way to go. This is true even in the financial services industry where technology and innovation bring about change at a blistering pace. Sit down with Tom Robinson and he’ll explain why high-tech financial tools aren’t always the solution for folks living on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana. As a Northern Cheyenne tribal member and the case manager for People’s Partner for Community Development (PPCD), a nonprofit based in Lame Deer, Montana, he’s part of a driving force behind PPCD’s recent acquisition of Courtesy Cash. Courtesy Cash is a successful “mom and pop” one-stop financial services shop (try saying that four times as fast as you can!) that has served Northern Cheyenne citizens for more than 30 years.

Courtesy Cash offers money orders, bill pay, credit-builder loans, wire transfers, check cashing, savings accounts and a heap of other consumer-friendly services. It doesn’t take a financial genius to understand Courtesy Cash’s appeal. Neighboring stores appreciate how Courtesy Cash keeps their “cash” drawers balanced without charging to make change. A local electrical co-op rents office space inside the store to connect with nearby members. If that’s not enough, the business houses a museum loaded with an extensive collection of photographs, artwork and Northern Cheyenne cultural memorabilia dating back over a century. Overall it’s a community-focused grassroots business unlike anything you’ve ever seen.  Did I also mention it rocks?

There’s a commercial bank across the street from Courtesy Cash in downtown Lame Deer that’s been in operation for over 15 years. It’s a top-notch financial institution – but it doesn’t suit everyone’s needs. And this raises an interesting point: there’s a tremendous opportunity for businesses like Courtesy Cash to bridge the gap between consumer finance companies, who don’t always enjoy the rosiest reputations for fair dealing, and mainstream consumer banks, who often struggle to win customers leery of the red tape that comes with a formal banking relationship.

“I think Courtesy Cash works because people trust the business,” Tom explains. “People are loyal in this community and they remember where their parents did business. Even I have an account at the bank but I sometimes cash my checks at Courtesy Cash out of convenience. People need money orders, too, and the bank charges more for those than we do. We see great value in Courtesy Cash, but we also have big plans – ultimately, the goal is to grow Courtesy Cash into a credit union that integrates financial education into its mission.”

Tom credits a personal financial-planning class he took as an undergrad at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma for opening his eyes to financial topics that weren’t being addressed back home. After attending college, he was hired as the financial aid director at Chief Dull Knife College and then worked as a dorm supervisor at Saint Labre Indian School in Ashland. In 2012 he accepted a position with PPCD managing its Individual Development Account program.

He works closely alongside PPCD veteran Executive Director Sharon Small, and logs part-time hours at Chief Dull Knife College Extension Services with Director Yvonetta “Henry” Thompson. Tom considers both women mentors and the two organizations often collaborate. Tom is always busy. Managing student-savings programs, credit counseling, financial literacy training, volunteer tax preparation and assisting at Courtesy Cash are all part of Tom’s daily routine.

Tom cites his upbringing on a cattle ranch for his strong work ethic and sense of family and community. He regularly mentors local teens and enjoys spending time with his four-year-old twin nephews. He also has a knack for sports photography and owns an impressive portfolio of basketball, rodeo and Indian relay photos.

“I’d like to see more smaller and individually-owned businesses on the reservation,” states Tom when sharing his long-term vision for financial empowerment. “I’d also like to work more closely with youth so they grow up with a financial mindset. I feel a lot of the disparities we face as Indian people stem from financial challenges, but we can do something to change that.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Thank you, Tom, for all that you do!

Show All Star #3: Christine Doud, Business Leader, Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin

Few small businesses turbocharge a Midwestern Native economy like an honest, affordable automotive repair shop. Six years ago, Christine Doud teamed up with her cousin, a stock car enthusiast, to open an auto shop in her home town. A member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Christine had a vision and her efforts paid big dividends to the community — far beyond homegrown tune-ups, brake jobs and suspension work.

“My cousin was a mechanic at the tribal garage who raced cars on weekends,” explained the former social worker and high school guidance counselor. “He always dreamed of owning a shop and one day asked if I wanted to go in on purchasing some vacant commercial property. I said, “Sure, but not for the price they’re asking! The seller eventually agreed to our terms and we closed in a few days.”

Cash flow powers up a business like fuel runs an engine. The motivated, aspiring entrepreneurs secured $75,000 in start-up financing from NiiJii Capital Partners, a local Native lender. After purchasing two lifts, a tire balancer and some used office equipment, LDF Auto Clinic raised the overhead doors for business. Christine admits the first year was rocky. Between a full-time position as the executive assistant to the Lac du Flambeau tribal president and managing the shop on evenings and weekends, she regularly logged 65-hour work weeks.

The business was born with a straightforward “community first” philosophy: Never turn away someone in need. While this was an honorable mission, it proved a dicey business model.

“We’d write invoices and try to work with customers who couldn’t pay,” recalled the amiable business woman. “Before we knew it we were $7,000 in debt, most of which had to be written off. So we got stricter but still worked with people who struggled. I’d allow them to pay for parts and a portion of the labor when I knew families needed a vehicle. As long as people made an effort I was flexible. I actually got my pet Shih Tzu in lieu of cash payment.”

Word of mouth spread quickly and within 18 months the bustling shop employed three full-time mechanics offering the lowest service rates in the county to a strong loyal customer base. A motherly figure for many, Christine’s tireless generosity reached beyond her customers.

“Our mechanics were mostly tribal,” she added. “Once I hired a young man who had a knack for replacing rusted brake lines. I suggested he attend technical school while working part time at the shop, but he needed reliable transportation. I let him use the shop to fix his car so he could make the commute and offered him a bonus if he kept his grades up. Today he’s a certified service technician.”

Over the years, the list of folks on the receiving end of Christine’s good nature stretches longer than the Talladega Superspeedway. She’s loaned vehicles to community members to get to and from work, and connected people lacking education and job skills to schooling, training and employment programs. A big fan of ambition she once gave a shop loan to another business owner to purchase a tow truck. A mother of four and grandmother of three, Christine even took her son’s friend under her wing after discovering the youth had no driver’s license or high school diploma. After accompanying him to the tribal education office she taught him how to drive and let him use her car for his road test. The young man went on to earn a high school diploma and is working toward an electrician license.

Christine also served as a board member and vice chair for Wisconsin Native Loan Fund, an award-winning community development financial institution (CDFI) based in Lac du Flambeau. She credits the opportunity as a powerful learning experience that helped grow the organization into a statewide home lender for tribal communities.

In 2016, Christine and her business partner sold the auto shop to make time for other priorities such as family and volunteer work. Yet through a long career that’s seen plenty of interesting twists, there’s been one constant in her life.

“I can’t say exactly how or when I became an advocate for my community, but sometimes I feel I was put here to inspire people to pursue their dreams,” Christine reflected. “Whether I’m assisting behind the scenes or working upfront, the joy is in seeing those dreams come true.”

We could use a few more golden-hearted business leaders like you in Indian Country, Christine. Thank you for all that you do!

Show All Star #2: Susan White, Director of Oneida Trust and Enrollments, Oneida Nation of Wisconsin

It’s not all about money.

Sounds like a George Bailey quote from the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But it’s also the logic behind the concept of “Sustainable and Responsible Investing,” a money management strategy that looks into the social, political and environmental track records of companies when making investment decisions. As director of Oneida Trust and Enrollments, it’s a philosophy Susan White, a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, champions not only at work but also in life. Overseeing a deep pool of tribal investment portfolios that has grown sizably over the past two decades, Susan carries a strong voice across Indian Country and beyond.

“When I interviewed for my position the tribe had already accepted a socially responsible investment (SRI) aim,” explains the seasoned trust director who lists the 1946 Frank Capra film mentioned above as a favorite. “In 1994, we revised the investment policy statement and now work in solidarity with other tribes to support that aim.”

There’s a big stage for tribes that want to influence corporate America and exercise sovereignty through shareholder activism. While addressing issues ranging from excavation of Native burial sites by superstores to stereotyping of Native American imagery in college and professional sports, Susan has engaged major corporate players. As a result, companies like Honeywell, Peabody Energy, Bank of America and FedEx have reexamined not only their own business practices but also those of industry peers. She admits that securing support for causes such as the Washington team name-change can be a daunting challenge, but she doesn’t lose sight of her goals.

In 2010,  the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin received the Honoring Nations award from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development for their and Susan’s work. At the time she was co-chair of the Social Investment Forum’s Indigenous Peoples Working Group and said, “This award tells us we are on the right path. We hope that more tribes will use the power of their investment dollars to open doors for greater advocacy for Indian Country.”

Later in 2011, Susan received the SRI Service Award and was recognized by her colleagues for her professionalism, ethics and success raising awareness of responsible investing. Her work to engage and change corporate interests detrimental to Indian Country is truly making a difference.

To say Susan has a full plate is an understatement. A typical day might find the Old Dominion University alum presenting to tribal elders about their trust investments, collaborating on a quarterly newsletter to youth beneficiaries, negotiating lower fees from investment managers, and tirelessly forging partnerships among an extensive network of local banks, tribal departments and universities.

“Sometimes tribal citizens come to us for investment advice,” Susan commented. “We don’t have that authority, but I do give presentations on budgeting and minor’s trust processes. We also include personal finance tips in the newsletter that tie into the ceremonial season.”

She mentions a struggle when linking financial topics to the Oneida culture. When she makes presentations, she enjoys discussing traditional tasks such as planning ahead and farming to make concepts relatable.

“There are a lot of things I like about my job,” shared the former “Navy brat” who began her career in the securities division at a large bank on the East Coast. “I truly appreciate the supportive team I work with. My supervisor, the committee and my staff all listen to my concerns and address them. I also take pride when we are able to recover trust funds. We’ve had issues with our funds at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and I stayed on it until we received the funds due to Oneida. This has occurred twice and the closure was fun both times.”

Happily married for 30 years, Susan enjoys cooking and family gatherings like lunch with grandma, a regular convening of relatives who enjoy a good meal with her mother, the 86-year-old family matriarch. The youngest daughter in a military family with five siblings, she didn’t have a chance to learn how to cook while growing up, but has since honed a formidable set of culinary skills from cooking shows like “The Chew” and feeding her husband and two sons. Never far from her roots, she’s a senior warden at the same church where her parents were married and enjoys cheering for local teams like the University of Wisconsin Badgers, the Milwaukee Brewers and, of course, the Green Bay Packers.

And she has something in common with that other community hero, George Bailey, when he exclaimed: “I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that.”

I think it’s a safe bet Susan knows what she’ll be doing in the near and distant future, too: continuing her bold, unwavering mission of service and advocacy for her community.

YawʌɁkó, Susan, for all that you do!

Show All Star #1: Sonya Samuels-Allen, Homebuyer Educator, Nez Perce Tribal Housing Authority

“Take care of those knees!”

That’s sage advice not only for your health but also your finances since bad knees can cost a small fortune to repair and lead to other health issues that create even more bills.  Sonya Samuels-Allen (Nez Perce) knows this firsthand.   A former high school basketball standout, she’s the Homebuyer Educator at Nez Perce Tribal Housing Authority, a position she’s held since 2002.  During that time she’s been a huge champion for homeownership in her Lapwai, Idaho, community. She provides top-notch homebuyer training and counseling to hundreds of families, many of whom have gone on to close home loans with tribal assistance facilitated by Sonya.

“I’m just the coach, they do all the work,” says the proud mother of two teenage athletes.  “My families all overcome different obstacles, but debt is probably the biggest challenge.  Larger families with more kids often carry more debt, too, so it’s a giant accomplishment when they’re able to pay it off.”

While empowering her clients with debt relief, budgeting skills, and home maintenance tips, Sonya promotes a balanced lifestyle and that’s where the knees come in.

“I encourage my clients to take care of their health. It’s the same advice I give my boys,” she adds. “Basketball takes a toll on knees and so can life.”

A physical education major in college, Sonya’s first dream was to work in a tribal wellness program. But her tribe didn’t have a wellness program when she graduated so she signed on as a vocational education trainer, eventually becoming the program director.  When she was offered the homebuyer educator position she thought the job sounded interesting and made the switch.

Always faithful to her earlier ambition, she continues to hammer home the wellness message.

Sonya is a trendsetter in other ways, too.  In addition to assisting families to become mortgage ready, she connects both buyers and sellers to a growing secondary housing market on the Nez Perce Reservation. Selling a home has always posed a challenge on trust land and her work proves that anything is possible when creative minds mesh with self-determined wills.  She also provides training to high school and college students. She’d like to partner more with schools, but feels the new curriculum standards leave less room for financial skills workshops alongside academics.

When not inspiring healthy, financially savvy homeowners, community, family and sports make up a big part of Sonya’s life. She’s been a Lapwai School District board member for 10 years and she’s active in her church prayer group. Exercise, movies and music round out her hobbies. As for sports, her older son, Trevon, just finished his first season with the University of Idaho basketball team after leading his high school team in back-to-back state championships. Her younger son, Tru, played varsity football and basketball as a high school freshman this year and her husband, Alan, played college football.

“He’s the amped up one in the stands.  I’m chill,” Sonya says with a grin.  “We take my great grandmother who is 87 years old with us to games.  With a big extended family there are lots of cultural and traditional events that keep us busy too.”

In addition to her family and marriage, which Sonya admits has overcome a few difficulties while continuing to grow stronger every day, she reveals her biggest rewards come when her clients reach their goals and share their accomplishments.

“I’ll run into people and they’ll say, ‘Hey … guess what?  I’m saving and things are going really well!’  My job is to remind them how important topics like credit are because good credit helps with everything, not just housing.  It’s all about balance: physical, mental, spiritual and financial.  When people are better able to help themselves, they are better able to help those around them.  Community and family are where the heart is.”

Beautifully stated Sonya, and thank you for all that you do!

Dr. Per Cap’s 2016 Financial Literacy All Stars

First Nations Development Institute is proud to partner with Dr. Per Cap (aka Financial Education Consultant Shawn Spruce) during Financial Literacy Month to highlight the great work of some financial literacy heroes. Dr. Per Cap, as usual, provides his insight on all things related to Native American financial education.  

Dr. Per Cap’s Financial Literacy 2016 All-Star Picks

Spring is here and it’s time to celebrate national Financial Literacy Month by recognizing a new team of outstanding individuals who are working hard to expand financial education efforts throughout Indian Country.  It’s a tradition that each week in April I highlight the accomplishments of one totally awesome person who embodies the spirit of Native financial empowerment through selfless dedication, action over words, and an inclusive community vision. — Dr. Per Cap

Show All Star #4: Cherolynda Bennett, Concerned Taxpayer, Navajo Nation

Tax season can be a bit stressful but otherwise pretty chill, so when Cherolynda Bennett (Navajo) filed her income tax return four years ago she had no idea her actions would prompt a groundbreaking class-action lawsuit.  In January 2012 Cherolynda, a home health aide driver, took out a refund-anticipation loan at S/W Tax Loans after filing at an adjacent H&R Block franchise.  Both businesses were located in a strip mall in Gallup, New Mexico.  Using her refund as collateral, she figured the loan – albeit at a high interest rate – would get paid off in a week or two when her refund was directly deposited by the IRS into an escrow account at the loan company.  However, a few weeks later, she called the loan company and was told her refund had not been deposited.

“They said I could come and take out another loan until my refund arrived,” the single mother of three recalls.  “I really needed the money, so I agreed.”

A week later she inquired again about the refund but heard the same reply that her money hadn’t come in.  Curious, she logged in to the IRS website and was shocked to discover that her refund had, in fact, been deposited four days prior to receiving her second loan.  Confused and concerned that something was amiss, she asked the loan company for an explanation, but was rudely brushed off by an associate claiming that the business still hadn’t received her refund.  Finally, after another week and yet another phone call, she was informed that her refund had been deposited and to come pick up a check for the balance (reduced by the cost of her loans).

Incensed by what she suspected wasn’t an honest mistake, the perturbed taxpayer filed a complaint with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.  A few months later she received a check for the extra fees and interest on the loan that shouldn’t have been made.  Not satisfied and worried that she hadn’t been the only borrower of an unnecessary and fraudulent refund-anticipation loan, she contacted attorneys at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in Washington, D.C.  She also testified before the New Mexico Indian Affairs Committee in support of proposed legislation for stricter oversight of the state’s paid tax-preparation businesses and small-dollar lenders. Attention escalated and led to an investigation that culminated in charges filed last year by the CFPB and Navajo Nation that confirmed Cherolynda’s tax-loan fiasco was not an isolated incident.  In fact the suit, the first ever joint legal action between CFPB and Navajo Nation, alleged that S/W Tax Loans had duped more than 1,500 taxpayers with its delayed-refund scheme to the tune of a quarter-million dollars in unwarranted interest and fees along with a slew of other unfair, deceptive and abusive loan practices. Many of the low-income victims were citizens of the Navajo Nation.  After settling, the defendants were forced to pay more than $690,000 in combined consumer relief and civil penalties. Ouch! Suffice it to say the business and individual defendants were banned from offering, marketing, selling or providing refund-anticipation loans, a predatory financial product if ever there was one, and dumped as a franchisee by H&R Block.  Turns out S/W Tax Loans and the H&R Block franchise were working in tandem to steer unsuspecting cash-strapped taxpayers into shady loans with outrageous interest rates.  And for the record, the larger H&R Block, Inc. parent corporation was not charged as a defendant in the lawsuit.

“People need to really do their homework before taking one of these loans,” Cherolynda warns. “Don’t hesitate to question a tax preparer if you know your refund has been direct deposited.  Don’t take their word, check online.”

She also has strong words for a business that preyed on unsuspecting Native taxpayers.

“The people working at the loan company were very unprofessional with horrendous communication and customer service skills,” she adds. “Their lousy attitudes were a big factor in why I took action. Anybody handling financial documents needs to be accountable, but I think they knew who they could take advantage of.”

There’s nothing cooler than an everyday consumer standing up for her rights. Cherolynda could have easily dismissed her bizarre refund-anticipation loan experience as a fluke and not bothered to follow up with authorities.  The fact that she didn’t speaks volumes about her character and regard for her community.  Her story is also a stirring reminder of how huge change can start by the efforts of just one person with a little chutzpah.  Thank you, Cherolynda, for all that you do!

Show All Star #3: Marcus Luke II, Housing Director, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR)

Marcus Luke (CTUIR and Yakima) is a big fan of the classic rock band Van Halen.  Hence the opening lyrics “Don’t want to wait ‘til tomorrow, why put it off another day?” from the band’s 1992 hit Right Now are apropos. Fifteen years ago the part-time musician woke up on his 30th birthday and found himself at a crossroads.  An expectant new father, he was living in his parents’ home with no assets to his name other than a car.  Frustrated and fired up, he stopped by the CTUIR housing office near Pendleton, Oregon, and inquired about purchasing a home.  He discovered he had to take care of some financial issues before he could qualify for a home loan, and was encouraged to enroll in a new homebuyer education course.

“I attended the classes and my finances just started coming together,” the old school rock ‘n’ roller describes.  “I realized I couldn’t live with mom and dad forever and the time had come for me to be independent and sovereign.  I started saving money and paid off bills.  Anyone can get their financial situation in order.  You just need to want it.”

Within two years he was mortgage-ready and purchased his first home on fee land just off the rez.  Then in 2005 he signed on as a homebuyer counselor at CTUIR Housing.  Soon he was teaching the same classes that spurred his success and providing credit repair counseling to fellow tribal members pursuing the dream of homeownership.  Marcus proved a relatable role model and mentor to the families he served.

“No one’s going to tell you how to live in your unit when you’re a homeowner,” was the message he hammered home.  “Plus you get a tax break and can refinance when interest rates drop. Indian people have become business savvy and own property, so it’s important to realize the value of owning a home and saving for retirement.”

In 2007 the veteran trainer attended a management retreat and, inspired by his own mentor, the housing department’s director at the time, he began working towards a management career.  In 2013, eight years of hard work paid off when he was selected as the CTUIR Interim Housing Director.  During this same period he was also elected to the CTUIR General Council.

“I took a few arrows in my back during my time on tribal council,” the proud father reflects.  “But I learned a lot and continued to stay focused raising my son and working toward the future.”

In 2015 Marcus was appointed the permanent housing director, nearly a decade and a half since embarking on his homeownership journey.  Today he takes pride not only in his personal success but also the success of the tribal department he runs and the accomplishments of his son, Aaron, who at age 14 and over six feet tall is a multi-sport athlete exceling at football, basketball and track.  While Marcus no longer teaches homebuyer classes, he praises the current trainer and the impact the program has made.

“Pam Ransom is our trainer,” he explains.  “She does a great job and since our homebuyer education program’s inception in 2001 more than 350 people, almost 25% of the community, have completed the course.  We offer other classes, too, like “The ABCs of Car Buying” and home maintenance. We also have a housing fair with a ton of resources.”

Since 2001, CTUIR Housing has seen a whopping 54 homeowners close mortgages on both fee and tribal trust land.  The department also recently completed a new, eight-unit rental development and plans to build a group of market-rate rentals for tribal employees.  Moreover, they are discussing infrastructure to lease home sites for home purchases.

Although he routinely worked 60 hours a week in his first year as housing director, Marcus maintains a simple yet family-centered approach to life: family first, then work.  So any time not spent negotiating with contractors, fueling homebuyer sovereignty, and tackling other administrative duties he devotes to Aaron.  Together the father-son duo is committed to sports, education, tribal culture and, of course, music.  In fact they are considering starting a band.  They probably won’t need much help either, since collectively they play over a half-dozen instruments.  Feels like the time’s definitely right. So thank you, Marcus, for all that you do!

Show All Star #2: Morgan Bear, College Student, Meskwaki Nation

Change can be tough.  Two years ago, young citizens of the Meskwaki Nation discovered just how tough it can be. Meskwaki Nation leaders restructured their minor’s trust program from a single lump-sum payout to a series of four checks spread out over a dozen years.  Morgan Bear, then a senior at Meskwaki Settlement High School in Tama, Iowa, and many of her classmates were less than thrilled.

“What a rip off,” the distraught teenager complained. “That’s not fair. It’s my money and I have plans for how I want to spend it!”

Like a raging Midwest twister, the new policy caused quite a shakeup on the Settlement, or the “Sett” as it’s known to locals. But when the dust finally settled (no pun intended) Morgan realized the decision was a blessing not only for herself, but also for her community.

She quickly discovered her first payment, although significantly lower than expected, was still difficult to manage.  Flush with cash, the high school graduate bought a new car before even opening a bank account.  Not realizing the ongoing costs of owning a vehicle, she barely had enough money left over to pay for insurance.  During her first year at Kirkland Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she had to rely on other sources of income to keep afloat.

Left with few choices, she was forced to manage while coming to terms with reality.  She sought guidance from her former high school business teacher, also a Meskwaki citizen and past minor’s trust beneficiary. Eventually Morgan opened a bank account and began setting some money aside.  She also learned to prioritize responsibilities such as rent, utilities and gas while separating “wants” from “needs.”  The strategy worked, and before long the savvy liberal arts major enjoyed a cushion of savings, which provided confidence and security.

Today, in retrospect, she’s happy the distribution was changed.

“I don’t know what I would have done if I’d gotten the whole amount in one check,” she shared.  “I might not have gone to college.  Money can really change people and cause you to lose focus on what’s important.”

Learning from past mistakes is a part of life and Morgan is grateful to her teacher and others who have supported her along the way.  This includes the nurturing staff at nearby Pinnacle Bank, a Meskwaki-owned financial institution, where she interns each summer, honing her newly-minted money skills by assisting tellers and customers.    She also draws strength from her mother and grandmother, having watched them overcome struggles in their own lives, and maintains a close relationship with her stepmom.

Moreover, she’s become a voice in her community for financial empowerment, speaking earlier this year to juniors and seniors at her former high school about challenges they will soon face.  She discussed her experiences at college, shared budgeting tips, and reminded students to get insurance before buying a car.

A game plan sprinkled with a little financial know how is a recipe for a bright future.  Morgan’s goals include a career in social work and becoming a high school guidance counselor at her alma mater – a dream she has had since childhood.  In the meantime she’ll continue to have fun playing volleyball and basketball, shopping at Hobby Lobby (her favorite store), and traveling.  In fact, she had a chance to walk the Great Wall of China during a trip last year to the Far East and wants to visit more countries soon.  She’s also preparing for her next minor’s trust payment at age 21.

“That one will be a lot more so I’m a little scared,” She commented honestly.  “I’m hoping it won’t cause too big of a distraction.  So I’ve been thinking about what I will do differently from my first payment.  I might be putting some back into the trust or investing it so it doesn’t dwindle away.”

Sounds like a great move!  Keep up the awesome work, Morgan.  It’s wonderful to see a young person with so many of her ducks in row.  And thank you for all that you do!

Show All Star #1: Eric Schmieder, Tribal Land Specialist, New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority

The point guard is the most specialized player on a basketball court.  A pacesetter and playmaker, he or she guides a team with vision, versatility and leadership.  It’s no wonder Eric Schmieder, Tribal Land Specialist with the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority (MFA), is passionate about college basketball.  As a tribal liaison for a multi-billion dollar quasi-public entity that administers federal and state housing programs in the Land of Enchantment, and point man for the New Mexico Tribal Housing Coalition — a partnership of regional tribal housing entities, lenders, builders and federal agencies — he’s the “go-to guy” for folks looking to foster homeownership on tribal trust land.

“The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA) passed in 1996,” the bolo-tied guru explains.  “It was an exciting time because tribes were empowered with independence and resources. However, there was a lot of confusion over policies and procedures. The New Mexico Tribal Housing Coalition was created by a group of stakeholders as a clearinghouse for information and ideas.  Almost 20 years later and we’re still going strong.”

In a dedicated career that spans nearly four decades, “Schmied” as he is affectionately known to colleagues and friends, started out in affordable housing when high-cut shorts were still hip on the hardwood.  Most of that time was spent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but he’s also run with Housing and Urban Development, Wells Fargo, and his current MFA gig beginning in 2007.  He’s certainly played his share of minutes, not only in the field but also on the lending and policy side, and he’s helped dribble the ball throughout much of the recent housing growth in New Mexico’s tribal communities.

For questions about leases, loans, underwriting, affordability, appraisals, training or just about any other housing topic, Schmied has the answers or knows where to find them.  He’s co-written training manuals and step-by-step guidebooks to navigate previously uncharted home purchase processes. He’s also lent expertise to cutting-edge projects, such as tax credit developments at Zuni and Santo Domingo Pueblos and a state-of-the-art, master-planned subdivision at Nambé Pueblo.  He also volunteers on a range of nonprofit boards and committees including Native Partnership for Housing and the Southwest Community Resources Board.  And while he admits there is still a housing crisis in Indian Country, he sees a bright future and envisions a day when more products exist to borrow on trust land, along with a strong market of homebuyers and sellers.

Raised in central Iowa with proud Amana heritage, the affable Midwesterner came to the University of New Mexico for grad school in the early 1970s, fell in love, and never looked back.  An infectious optimist who appreciates the homespun values of hard work, self-reliance and community involvement, he’s a loyal advocate and encourages first-time homebuyers not to fear the commitment of a mortgage.

“A home is still the best way for many young families to build wealth,” he advises. “It’s more than just a roof over your head.  It’s also an asset. Lenders don’t want homebuyers to fail and will work with people to stay in their homes. Plus a mortgage payment won’t change, whereas rent keeps going up.”

When not working tirelessly to expand homeownership on tribal trust lands, Eric can be found fishing near a family cabin in the Jemez Mountains or reading mystery novels on a newly-discovered Kindle at his cozy adobe bungalow in Albuquerque’s North Valley. His home – he is happy to note – has been paid off in full.  A rabid New Mexico Lobos fan with a taste for fiery hot green chile and local craft beers, he serves up the meanest backyard burger east of the Rio Grande and enjoys Sunday dinners with his two grown sons, daughter-in-law, and a pair of teenaged grandchildren about whom he laments, “they aren’t nearly as impressed with me as when they were little.”

No worries, Schmied, your Indian Housing family thinks you’re as impressive as a Steph Curry signature three pointer.  Game on!  And thank you for all that you do.

Dr. Per Cap’s 2015 Financial Literacy All Stars 

Dr. Per Cap’s Financial Literacy 2015 All-Star Picks

April is national Financial Literacy Month, so let’s celebrate by recognizing a few outstanding individuals who are working hard to expand financial education efforts throughout Indian Country.  In keeping with what has become an annual tradition each week in April, I will highlight the accomplishments of one totally awesome person who embodies the spirit of Native financial empowerment through selfless dedication, action over words, and an inclusive community vision. We’ve got five weeks in April this year, so here’s a bonus fifth All Star!

Show All Star #5: All Star #5: Dawn Hix, IDA Coordinator, Choctaw Asset Building

Nothing says freedom like free money.  That’s the idea behind a program called Individual Development Accounts (IDAs).  IDAs are a nifty wealth-building strategy that offers free money to account holders through matched savings to help purchase a home, fund a business, or pay for higher education.

“For most people the program means independence,” explains asset-builder extraordinaire Dawn Hix. “Their motivation is tied to things like freedom, personal choice and pride of ownership.  When a saver makes his or her last deposit and is ready to purchase a meaningful asset – that’s a great day.”

Make no mistake, Dawn has witnessed more than her share of great days since joining Choctaw Asset Building in 2009 – over 400 in fact.  That’s how many savers the Durant, Oklahoma-based IDA Coordinator has helped to complete the program while collecting deposits, teaching financial education classes, and facilitating asset purchases.  The combined personal savings add up to more than $700,000.  Tack on another $1.5 million of matching funds and we’re talking over $2 million of new wealth creation.  That’s an astonishing number considering that while IDAs are a proven model, they’re also notoriously tough programs to manage due to high participant dropout rates.

So what’s Dawn’s secret to keeping savers on track?

Aside from a well-oiled referral network that includes Choctaw Nation Housing, Little Dixie Community Action Agency, the Oklahoma Native Assets Coalition, and Big Five Community Services, Dawn works hard to build strong relationships with her savers and maintains a constant presence in the communities her program serves in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.  A lifelong educator, she spent 16 years as a high school business teacher with the Durant Public Schools before her current position at Choctaw Asset Building, a division within the Choctaw Nation Career Development Department.  Motivated by a genuine desire to see people succeed by realizing their dreams, she’s especially proud of becoming reacquainted with some of her former high school students who later become IDA savers.

“They’re great because I can still tell them what to do!” joked Dawn.

One of these individuals, currently a graduate student and employee at Choctaw Nation, stands out in particular.

“He was in my class during his senior year,” she recalls. “Then a few years after I transferred he joined the IDA program.   He saved for three years to buy a house, but when it came time to close there was a mix up and his down-payment funds were not available.  He called while I was in a meeting out of town and was really stressed.  Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with our advisor in D.C. who approved the close that day with pending funds.”

Never one to take personal credit for accomplishments that she feels are the result of dedicated partners and team effort, Dawn is always quick to mention others when sharing highlights from her career.  She also draws inspiration from her husband of 28 years, Tandy, who just happens to be a local banker (go figure!), and their two sons whose families include two grandchildren and a third on the way.

“A wonderful thing about working in the tribal world is that you don’t work alone,” she adds.  “We all work together for one goal: to help tribal members succeed.  I am so very blessed to work with a group of professionals who make it so very easy to reach that common goal.  There is no one-person show here.  I also have a large circle of friends and professional acquaintances to call on in times of need.  The Native world and the asset-building world are wonderful at sharing their experience and knowledge.”

Now that’s what I call a class act.  Thank you, Dawn, for all that you do.  The Native asset-building world is more than blessed to work with you, too!

Show All Star #4: Nikki Pieratos, Chief Executive Officer, Northern Eagle Federal Credit Union

Studies reveal that finances are a leading source of stress and anxiety for many Americans.  Sadly, there is often no obvious or ready solution to this problem. For the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa Indians in northern Minnesota – a community famous for its one-of-a-kind, canoe-harvested wild rice – that’s changing fast, thanks in large part to Nikki Pieratos.

Aside from what Nikki proudly describes as “Home to the best wild rice in the world!” Bois Forte is now gaining major props as a harvester of high-grade financial services and education.  It all dates back to five years ago when Nikki, a Bois Forte Band member, was hired to charter Northern Eagle Federal Credit Union.

“Before we opened I began hosting monthly financial education workshops,” explains the former high school history teacher with a Master’s in Public Policy and Economics. “We started with basics like budgeting and savings and expanded into advanced tracks on accessing credit, vehicle purchases, HUD 184 home loans, and college planning.  The fun and interactive classes were a hit with tribal employees because our tribal council allowed them to attend during work hours.”

Managing a tribal credit union has given Nikki an exclusive view into the value of financial literacy. She has observed firsthand the positive impacts that newly learned skills make in members’ lives. Over half of all community members have received some type of financial education through the Northern Eagle Federal Credit Union during the 18 months since its doors opened.  Innovation was the key with tasty offerings such as a “Planning for Per Cap” class in which summer youth workers create a two-year plan for their funds. Recognizing that a car purchase is usually on the menu for a millennial flush with cash, the curriculum includes juicy tips for car shopping and maintenance.  Teens are quick to catch on, with one commenting after class: “Awwww, I guess I won’t get a brand new tricked out Escalade … I had no idea that insurance was that high … or maintenance!”

An Administration for Native Americans (ANA) grant to fund more formal financial education programs has been another coup for Nikki. The grant funded a full-time financial education instructor, highly engaging financial simulation workshops, and a partnership with Minnesota’s largest nonprofit financial counseling service, LSS Financial Choice.

On an even larger scale, Nikki has high hopes for financial empowerment throughout Indian Country and envisions homegrown financial institutions that are in tune with the needs of Native communities.  Specifically, she sees an opportunity to create referral networks and partnerships with tribal departments such as housing, education and human services, noting the fact that financial issues run across every spectrum of a person’s life.  She also sees a role in promoting Native credit unions by providing other tribes with assistance on how to charter their own institutions.

“We certainly faced challenges when starting Northern Eagle,” Nikki adds. “So I can relate to Native people who want a credit union that offers a comfortable setting for members to access services and ask questions. As we grow, we would like to become more involved in state, regional and national asset-building discussions to share and learn best-practices.”

When not working – which these days isn’t very often – Nikki enjoys spending time with friends and family, especially her four and five-year-old nephews who she says add up to a better workout than a Zumba class.  But overall she maintains a great sense of humor and readily embraces the long hours, sacrifices and enormous responsibility that her career entails.

“I am not the greatest fan of accounting,” she jokes, “but I see it as a necessary evil to do the work that I am really passionate about: keeping the credit union open so we can serve our members. And we have the greatest members of any credit union—hands down!”

Thank you, Nikki, for all that you do!

Show All Star #3: Richie Sneed, Vocational Arts Teacher, Cherokee High School

Richie Sneed (Eastern Cherokee) isn’t your ordinary high school teacher.  It’s also not every day you meet a grown man who goes by Richie.  Then again, I can’t think of a name more fitting for a Financial Literacy All Star … unless you count rappers.  And although Richie Sneed isn’t a rapper, he is a rockstar auto shop teacher who crushes it with entrepreneurship and financial skills training at Cherokee High School (CHS) in Cherokee, North Carolina.  Box up a medley of high-wattage skills along with a dose of discipline and it’s no mystery why students line up for his class like a Pearl Jam show with general admission seating.  Take that 50 Cent!

Before hitting it big in the classroom, Richie found early success as the owner of an auto repair business.  The experience gave the master mechanic a strong appreciation for the financial side of fixing and driving cars.  So 12 years ago, when asked to create a high school auto shop program, he knew students needed to be just as handy using debit cards and QuickBooks as torque wrenches and volt meters.  The resulting curriculum that blends old school wrenching with engaging lessons on financial topics like car buying, shop management, and economics was an easy sell to students eager to learn real world skills they could immediately put to use.  So much so that Richie took center stage in 2013 by winning the highly esteemed National Indian Education Association Teacher of the Year Award for innovative applications of financial education.

While working on cars and learning about finances are obviously the main goals, many of Richie’s teachings extend beyond the classroom and shop, adding value to students’ lives long after the bell rings.

“Not all of my students will be mechanics, but they’ll all be adults,” Richie observes.  “So I tell them it doesn’t matter what you do.  If you apply the skills you learn here you will succeed in life.”

Note, too, that the CHS auto shop is a working business that helps to sustain itself by charging customers for tune ups, brake jobs and other repairs.  Moreover, students learn in a hurry what it takes to keep that business afloat by taking responsibility for their actions.  As a former Marine and hardcore fitness enthusiast, Richie also brings a no-nonsense attitude to the shop and doesn’t mince words when students don’t put forth their best effort.  On the flipside, he won’t hesitate going the extra mile for students that do.

“One year I had a rowdy group of students, only a few of whom wanted to work,” the devoted CrossFit practitioner explains.  “So I focused on those kids while the others just hung out and we put an engine in a Mazda wagon.  After earning $350 for the job, we went to Red Lobster and I told them to order anything on the menu.  We had a great dinner and afterwards headed to an electronics store with the money that was left over.  We went on a Friday evening and spent a lot of time talking about important stuff like what it means to be an adult and raise a family.  Later, the kids who didn’t get to go complained that it wasn’t fair.  I told them, ‘Well you didn’t work, so how would it be fair to let you share in the reward?’”

How about a couple of quarts of tough love to go with that oil change?  For hundreds of students to whom Richie Sneed has been not only a teacher but also a mentor and a friend, the answer looks like a standing ovation!

Rock on Richie, and thank you for all that you do!

Show All Star #2: Dante Desiderio, Executive Director, Native American Finance Officers Association

Quick wits, balance and discipline are just a few qualities that make a great wrestler.  I’m talking real wrestling folks — like in the Olympics — not costumed buffoons swinging chairs and taking dives.  And let’s keep it real because the skills mentioned above are some of the same traits necessary for a successful career in finance.  As a man who has kicked major proverbial tail in both callings, Dante Desiderio (Sappony) has more than earned his spot on this year’s Financial Literacy All-Star squad.

Dante’s a heavy hitter on the national scene, and as leader of the Washington, D.C.-based Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA) that is dedicated to trailblazing a new frontier for Indian Country into the world of economic development, he views financial literacy through a larger lens than most.

“A lot of people think financial literacy is managing a loan or balancing a checking account,” the former college wrestler explains.  “At NAFOA we view it as the ability to value assets and understand markets. This empowers tribes, individuals, and communities and inspires ongoing pursuit of financial knowledge.”

Whoa … that’s deep.  So how does it all work?  NAFOA rocks a three-tiered strategy for growing its next generation of tribal leaders.  It starts with a mini MBA boot camp for high school students.  More than 100 Native youth interested in business careers have completed the summer program that throws out textbooks in exchange for real world learning.  Next up is NAFOA’s Native American Career Success Program that provides internships at the corporate, government and tribal levels.  The third tier is the Tribal Financial Manager Certification Program, a professional development initiative created in partnership with Arizona State University that boasts more than 150 graduates.  Dante calls it a lifelong learning process and a “great way to empower a broad cross-section of Indian Country.”  I call it a first-class line-up of team accomplishments for someone who is no stranger to All-Star status.

And that brings us back to wrestling.  Before joining NAFOA, Dante fine-tuned his resume with highlights such as tribal policy wonk at NCAI, Certified Financial Planner, bank trust officer, and commodities trader (think options not cheese!). But before that, Dante enjoyed noteworthy athletic success.  As a high school wrestler in Pennsylvania he chalked up over 100 wins while going undefeated in dual meet competitions during his sophomore, junior and senior seasons, as well as two third-place finishes in the Pennsylvania state wrestling tournament.  This led to a full-ride scholarship to the University of Maryland and competing in a top 20 D1 wrestling program, where he dominated at the next level by winning two trips to the NCAA tournament in the 142-pound division.  Translation: He was one bad dude.

“A wrestling match is a battle of wills,” the proud Terp alum points out. “There’s no tougher sport and because it’s mostly an individual struggle, other tasks and challenges are easier after having wrestled.  The sport also teaches a lot of life lessons that carry beyond school and into a career, like putting forth maximum effort and commitment.”

Lessons learned on the wrestling mat have certainly paid off for a talented yet humble man, who was the first in his family to graduate college. And today Dante imparts this knowledge as fatherly wisdom to his two daughters, ages nine and eleven, both of whom are also active in sports.  Moreover, he finds time to give back to the community by assisting the Sappony Tribe with the creation of a new construction company and other economic development projects.  Now that’s what I call putting a shine on Indian Country’s new frontier like turtle wax on chrome.

Thank you, Dante, for all that you do!

Show All Star #1: James Smith, Assistant Finance Director, Native American Youth and Family Services

Move over Black Lodge Singers, there’s another drum group on the move and they’re all about business – literally.   Bulls and Bears might not be a typical name for a powwow drum group, but don’t tell its founder, James Smith (Fort Peck and Warm Springs), who came up with the catchy handle as a play on some classic investing lingo.  James is the Assistant Finance Director at Native American Youth and Family Services (NAYA) in Portland, Oregon. Unlike previous Financial Literacy All Stars working directly in the field, providing financial education isn’t in his job description.  And that’s what makes this guy cooler than a sunset grand entry in late August.

Powwow has always been a huge part of James’ life.  He was dancing tiny tot with a double bustle from the time he could walk and began singing as a teenager.  But in his early twenties he got bit by a new bug.

“I started following the stock market during the internet boom of the nineties,” reflects James. “I was reading financial news and watching CNBC.  So when I wasn’t sure what to study in school, finance seemed like a good fit.”

Click ahead 20 years and James is a well-educated family man who discovered a way to bond his love of powwow and finance like duct tape on a favorite pair of mocs.  It all started in 2011 when he wanted a name for his new drum that would reflect his unique background and personality.  Bulls and Bears, a financial idiom that refers to the opposing views of stock market investors, was the logical choice for a man with a master’s degree in financial analysis.   And in case you’re wondering exactly what the phrase means, Bulls are optimists betting the market will go up, while pessimistic Bears see a market on the downslide.

James and his drum hit about 20 powwows a year, mostly in Oregon and Washington.  He travels with his wife, Theresa, a teacher and accomplished artist, and his three children, Sophia, Harrison and Dean, all of whom dance.  Along the way, Bulls and Bears has built quite a reputation.

“Some of the emcees think the name is a reference to Chicago sports teams and the old Saturday Night Live skits – Da Bulls . . . Da Bears,” says James with a chuckle. “Another emcee introduces us at roll call as ‘Straight from Wall Street!’ ”

But there’s more to this story than a name.  James has been around the powwow scene for decades and he’s seen a lot of changes over the years, like bigger contest purses and promoters who now report payments to IRS.

“Drums get 1099 tax forms for any income over $600 as do dancers who win prize money,” he explains. “Unfortunately I run into people on the powwow trail who don’t keep track of this income which can really come back to haunt them if they don’t report it.  I tell them to hold onto 1099s and receipts for deductible travel expenses such as mileage, lodging and per-diems.  Basically I encourage them to treat powwow money the same as money they earn from a job or business.”

James also assists people he meets as casual acquaintances at other events.  He’s quick to mention that he doesn’t give specific investing recommendations or tax advice, but he does send folks in the right direction for answers.  Moreover he makes it a point to teach sound money skills to his kids, inspiring them to understand financial concepts rather than simply memorizing facts.  Hey, what’s not to love about a guy who takes his family on a picnic while describing how municipal bonds can pay for city parks?  Thank you, James, for all that you do, and oh yeah … take it away Bulls and Bears!