From middle school classes to weekend workshops, there are a variety of trainings on financial literacy, focused on setting budgets and getting one’s financial house in order.
But the first annual Wealth Literacy Conference, taking place this Saturday at Madison’s Goodman Community Center, is designed to teach the sort of things those classes typically don’t.
The one-day event, which sold out in advance, will go “beyond the numbers” to help people from marginalized groups get the wealth education they otherwise wouldn’t, said conference co-organizer Afra Smith. That includes helping participants develop a new mindset about money, advance their careers and get the most out of their employers’ benefits packages.
“I haven’t found anything in existence that’s similar,” Smith said. “The idea was really to move the conversation from financial literacy to wealth literacy, because wealth literacy is transformational.”
Smith has experienced that transformation first hand. Just seven years ago, she was drowning in college debt, payday loans, bad credit and an upside-down car note. Today, she coaches others on their finances through The Melanin Project, the financial wellness business she started in 2019.
“I was always looking outward at someone else to fix things on my behalf. Just being bound by my life experiences being bound by racism and by other experiences of trauma, I didn’t realize that I had everything inside of me that I needed to be successful,” Smith said.
That’s the mindset she wants to share with others through the one-day conference, which she organized with Veronica Barnes, founder and CEO of the Madison-based financial literacy and career counseling organization Mindset2Money.
Too often, Smith said, people get used to the status quo in their professional or personal lives, ignoring the anxiety and depression that quietly plague them instead of taking the steps needed to feel better. “It’s like an alarm clock. You’re comfortable in your work environment. You don’t like what’s happening, but you just keep hitting snooze.”
A wealth of knowledge
At the conference, participants will meet mentors and experts who will explain things like how to look for professional development opportunities at work and take full advantage of employer-provided perks ranging from 401(k) accounts to LinkedIn membership.
Licensed therapist Dominique Pritchett, founder of Beloved Wellness Center in Kenosha, will open the conference with a keynote on the “mentality of wealth.” Executive coach Valeah Foy, founder of Valeah Rae Coaching, will close out the day with a keynote on how participants can address their own “limiting beliefs” and take action toward their goals.
Smith and Barnes designed the event for those who identify as Black, Indigenous or people of color, as well as women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and members of other historically marginalized groups, though it’s open to anyone who thinks they could benefit.
“I think our big focus was to ensure that individuals who would not normally have access to this information were able to access it,” Smith said.
In 2022, women in the U.S. typically earned just 82 cents for every dollar men earned, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, the median Black household has a net worth just 10% that of the median white household, according to a 2016 survey by the Federal Reserve Board.
Smith knows that there are structural reasons for that inequality — things like redlining and employment discrimination — but the conference isn’t focused on those. Instead, it aims to provide tangible ways that people on the losing end of those social problems can improve their own situations.
Accordingly, all the speakers at the inaugural conference are Black or brown. “That was very intentional, because we often don’t see ourselves with wealth,” Smith said. “For the first year, we wanted to make sure that we’re cultivating that inside of the space.”
Tickets for the conference’s 100 slots went on sale in February, priced on a sliding scale from $35 to $55. Many tickets went to other equity-focused local organizations that sponsored the conference. They can either give those tickets to those who participate in their programs, or they can donate them so that other community members can attend for free. Individuals still interested in attending can visit the registration page to sign up for the waitlist.
Attendees will receive a guide to relevant resources in the community, including programs for helping people buy homes or start businesses. That guide will also be available to the public on the conference website, www.wealthliteracyconference.org, following the event.
Smith hopes participants leave the conference with the tools and inspiration to meet their financial goals. Or, as she thinks about it, listen to the little voices in their heads that have been telling them to get back on the road to their dreams.
“That’s your navigation system saying, ‘Hey, we’re not moving in the right direction,’” Smith cautioned. “For many of us, we sit in that state for years. We’re in the rest area when you’re just supposed to pull up and maybe go and get something to eat from a snack machine and use the restroom. We live there. We’re living at the rest area.”