Chloe McKenzie is combatting wealth inequality through a new paradigm for financial education and policy, one that is honest about the financial trauma Black girls and girls of color and their families face. BlackFem mobilizes cities, political systems, culture centers, and education systems to be the mechanism through which we maximize the wealth-building capabilities of Black women and girls, their families, and their communities.
The New Idea
Chloe McKenzie has designed, piloted, and spread a wholly new approach to addressing wealth inequities in America. At the core of her model is a whole-community, systems-changing intervention focused on Black girls and girls of color that reframes their entire financial experience from the perspective of understanding and healing from financial trauma. In doing so she challenges all of us – teachers, parents, educational leaders, cultural institutions, policymakers and more – to embrace a new wealth justice framework without which we will never get close to addressing the effects of centuries of economic exclusion, violence, and wealth inequality.
The racial wealth gap in this country is a result of generations of exclusionary policies imposed on Indigenous, Black, Hispanic, and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities that have prioritized white economic power, wealth and growth. And yet by and large we continue to address the problem as one of “financial literacy” – effectively shifting the blame on individuals while ignoring the larger structural reasons that contribute to and maintain vast wealth disparities. Chloe founded BlackFem as an alternative to what she considers a failed model. BlackFem teaches the concepts and skills necessary for communities to navigate financial systems, to fight back against unjust systems, and to change the way these systems work, improving outcomes for Black girls and their communities, and ultimately closing the racial and gender wealth gap.
Nearly every element of Chloe’s idea is different and deliberate. Her focus on Black girls and girls of color, for example, is rooted in Black feminist traditions that tell us if we target and uplift our most purposely ignored groups, we will successfully lift up and liberate all groups in the process. Chloe also believes we must intervene early because our social, economic, and political systems influence children’s financial experiences long before we think they do. Her model, meanwhile, is built around a new framework of financial trauma and wealth justice – and is more truthful about the financial realities for Black women and girls while working to transform the ecosystems that create the conditions for their lives. Her theory of change itself is different, as she emphasizes closing the wealth gap to close the education gap, among other inequities as opposed to the other way around. The way the educational content and programmatic solutions are delivered is also different, as Chloe has designed her school-based curriculum so that play and performance are embedded into existing class content to make it as easy as possible for teachers to implement. And finally, from the beginning, Chloe has understood that the classroom is a starting point – not an endpoint – for a new narrative of financial liberation that can ultimately permeate our collective consciousness and inform research and policy around the future of financial equity in our country. She emphasizes that education isn’t the only context where financial trauma is perpetrated or transmitted, which is why her model incorporates solutions for policymakers, cultural institutions, and families.
In the US, a white family’s net worth is about $100,000 on average, compared to $1,700 for Black families and households. A 2010 study on women of color and wealth by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development found that nearly half of all single Black and Hispanic women in the United States have zero or negative wealth. Currently, experts believe that Black wealth will decline to zero for the upcoming generation. But Chloe argues that the problem has already arrived, and that the urgency for solutions is already here. For every dollar that a single Black man has, a Black woman will own 42 cents. For every dollar that a single Hispanic man has, a Hispanic woman will own nothing.
Over the past six years, Chloe has dedicated time to examining the current structure (and flaws) of financial education. In her research, Chloe has found that there is a dimension that no one is discussing: the extra-economic experience, or the relationship that a person has with money, economic violence, and financial trauma that they or their families may have faced, and the ways money can affect a person’s life, well-being, and sense of safety. This extra-economic dimension accounts for the historical trauma, financial experiences, and unique struggles against wealth inequality that are actually the greatest influences on a person’s wealth-building capability – not their basic financial knowledge or literacy.
Currently, the financial landscape is not centered around the extra-economic experience. Rather, the finance industry focuses on economic growth, and faults people, rather than structural systems or financial violence, when they are unable to build personal wealth or capital. Financial literacy has been the paradigm in which wealth has been learned; a paradigm that works from the assumption that everyone has had access to financial capital in the same way that white families have in this country. The system as it exists does not teach Black girls and girls of color in particular how to intervene in our current inequitable macroeconomic system and build financial freedom for themselves.
Historically, schools have also experienced barriers that have prevented them from teaching the sort of financial education that they want to prioritize. Barriers to implementation include 1) lack of access to high quality financial resources, 2) organizational partners not being able to provide effective, culturally relevant financial education programming, 3) lack of strategy around integrating parents, teachers, and caregivers into the solution, and 4) lack of curricula that complement all dimensions of a child’s development, (i.e., cognitive, behavioral, social, and emotional development).
The gaps in affordable, accessible financial education for young girls of color and in the antiquated narratives of wealth have created an opportunity for BlackFem to transform the way that young students and their families understand and build financial freedom.
Chloe’s inception of BlackFem is based in traditions and theories of Black Feminism, which holds close tenets of intersectionality and is rooted in the fundamental belief that by liberating those systematically pushed to the bottom, everyone can be liberated. By helping Black girls and girls of color overcome wealth inequality, Chloe believes that the wealth gap can be closed for everyone. This is why BlackFem’s model is taught in all sorts of school environments to all children in the K-12 system, in policymaking environments, in culture-defining institutions, and within family structures. By originally focusing on schools, Chloe has discovered how to reach people in an early and regular way that helps students and by extension, their broader support systems (i.e., teachers, parents, and caretakers) understand principles of wealth justice. Equally, she has expanded her model to include transforming the ecosystems that create the conditions for Black girls’ lives because our political, cultural, and familial systems are the ripest contexts for financial trauma to be perpetrated, and therefore limit the wealth-building capability for the Black girls and women.
The current financial education landscape immediately explains the need for Chloe’s intervention. Before BlackFem, students received financial education at most once a month. With BlackFem, Chloe has created a curricular approach that integrates with existing content and ensures that students are receiving financial education five times a week, with evidence of increasing retention, as students have begun to display financial understanding in the 95% threshold. Most financial education curricula also do not go into classrooms for students with disabilities. Chloe and BlackFem are now the only financial education organization that has a curriculum that is accessible to students with disabilities. Chloe has also created lessons and curricula for students and communities where multiple languages may be spoken at home.
BlackFem’s curriculum is called the “WealthRise® Model.” Even its name shifts students away from traditional financial literacy paradigms. Chloe believes that financial education needs to help students distinguish between “worth” and “wealth,” understand and fight against oppressive economic systems so that they can heal and learn how to name the systems of violence they may be experiencing. Through understanding the current financial system, Chloe believes that students and their families have a better chance of healing and fighting back. Rather than placing the blame for financial insecurity on students and their families, BlackFem has created a new wealth justice model that acts as a transformative tool for Black girls and girls of color as they navigate, examine, and fight systemic and wealth inequalities. BlackFem has created new definitions and approaches so that communities can understand the multidimensional relationships between financial trauma, financial abuse, financial shame, material safety and material wealth – all terms that Chloe has developed and re-imagined. Further, by understanding what Chloe calls the ‘extra-economic’ impact of money, communities can understand the societal and personal influences that may impact their relationship to money. By having lessons rooted in reality, (i.e., role-playing what it’s like to be persuaded by a bank to accept an overdraft fee), students and their families learn how to push back blame from themselves and put it back on the systems that stifle opportunities.
Students at all grade levels that receive the WealthRise® curricula learn financial education five days a week during and as part of their typical classes, including math, social studies, and English. This model emphasizes the importance and wide-reaching impacts of financial systems in all areas of life. BlackFem teaches young people about credit scores, balance sheets, banking, borrowing and lending, taxes, policies, and the ways in which these systems are designed to perpetuate financial harm and trauma, particularly for women and girls of color. Students learn not just how to most effectively interface with these systems, but how to change the systems long-term and improve conditions for themselves, their families, and their communities. Curricula are customized for each school, so that, for example, if young people are learning fractions in math class, the WealthRise® program will allow them to practice fractions while learning skills that will enable them to build wealth and change harmful systems. Social studies curricula that already teach about taxes, laws, policies, and civic engagement will incorporate learnings from WealthRise about how these systems and tools can promote financial well-being.
The WealthRise® Model has proven to be very popular among teachers, as it is embedded within pre-existing lessons so that teachers do not have to worry about re-structuring to accommodate an extra lesson. Chloe has partnered with teachers’ unions and has worked to train and compensate teachers, ensuring long-lasting partnerships with a key stakeholder that greatly influences the success of such programming. Paradoxically, this key constituency of teachers and their unions are often the last ones to be communicated with when it comes to educational policy. But Chloe starts by winning their support and trust and has created an intervention in wealth injustice that is easy for teachers to implement, and that is now the financial resource of choice at their schools.
Currently, Chloe and BlackFem operate in 22 cities, with about 100,000 students across all districts receiving this new, groundbreaking approach to financial education, with the potential to impact over 1 million students over the next three years, based on current demand for this new approach. To date, the organization has partnered with 20+ school districts across the US, including DC, NYC, Rochester, Chicago, and Indianapolis districts, as well as districts in Delaware and New Jersey. They now have 38 cities awaiting the WealthRise® model, which can serve nearly 21 million families.
Teachers and schools are not the only stakeholders that Chloe works with. Parents are also an integral part of her success. In fact, parent pressure has been a key part of BlackFem’s scaling success. By organizing student caregivers, 90% of Chloe’s scale has been supported by word-of-mouth efforts. This is because this new approach not only provides support to students, but to their families as well. By providing workshops, resources, and even helping parents open their own bank and checking accounts, BlackFem has created a deep relationship of trust with community members who can also positively impact and support children's financial learning journeys.
Based on an evaluation of BlackFem by Oliver Wyman, a management consultancy, Chloe and BlackFem have created the only program that is focused on underserved girls of color, building capacity inside and outside the classroom, and is fully integrated into the classroom. A 2018 study from The Brookings Institute titled, “Recommendations for Improving Youth Financial Literacy Education” outlined six categories of success for financial education: participatory exercises, parental involvement, Common Core alignment, supported implementation, and cultural sensitivity. BlackFem is the only organization out of seven premier financial education programs evaluated that meets all five benchmarks. BlackFem is also the first and only research-backed financial education program that provides financial education for school-aged children, their guardians, teachers, educators and community, five days a week, in both an asynchronous and synchronous context.
Due to Chloe’s additional efforts in various policy spaces in Delaware and Compton, CA, BlackFem is also reaching 228K and 100K families respectively through new family programs that have been designed as a response to the virtual environment that COVID-19 has inflicted upon many. As a response to pandemic pivots, Chloe and her team have unleashed a new lever for ways that financial healing and learning can occur for entire family units in places beyond the classroom. Now, BlackFem is planning to create a two-pronged model that leverages both school and state policy engines to begin thinking about how wealth inequality gaps can be reduced through educational, state, and eventually, federal policy.
Chloe grew up in Prince George’s County, MD, one of just seven counties in America where Black wealth is higher than white wealth. Chloe describes learning about money’s power during her childhood. She attended private school, got a car on her 16th birthday, and received a lot of privileges due to the wealth her family had. But she also learned of money’s duplicative nature and learned what it was like to become independent at a very young age.
After college, Chloe entered the financial industry as a Wall Street trader at JP Morgan, where she traded mortgages, student loans, and car loans. During Chloe’s time on Wall Street, she quickly noticed that she was often the only Black woman on trading floors of over 300 people. After a medical emergency and a few honest conversations about her role and feelings of “moral bankruptcy,” Chloe changed paths and became a financial counselor at a homeless shelter. She became determined to use her financial background to help create wealth for communities. Chloe became a teacher and received her certification in education and received a graduate degree in Public Administration and Policy from New York University. She has also received sixteen Financial Certifications in the pursuit of making BlackFem a reality.
In 2015, when BlackFem became a reality, Chloe would run the show as a one-woman team, working 16-hour days, visiting two schools a day, all while writing and updating the curriculum, the program’s development, parent workshops, school outreach, and optimizing program execution. Chloe has worked tirelessly to see BlackFem succeed. And it has.
The accumulation of Chloe’s personal and professional experiences led her to understand the wealth gap in America more broadly, which led Chloe to pioneer work and research in wealth justice so that she can now shift the financial education paradigm in this country towards a model that advocates for more equity among Black women and women of color.
Chloe is also the bestselling author of The Activist Investor, a guide to creating systems-based change through careful investing.