EMPWR U financial lessons go beyond the numbers

EMPWR U teacher Johnetta Ruth Alston shares one of her financial lessons. Instead of just explaining basic budgeting techniques, she tells stories that teach life skills. Listen to her allegory that compares life and financial stability to growing Chinese bamboo below. (Staff photo by Ryan Wilusz)


Every year on Christmas morning, Johnetta Ruth Alston’s grandchildren were met with stacks of presents in the living room. But when Alston’s daughter lost her job, the family had to cut back. 

“There wasn’t no fat white man coming down the chimney because we didn’t have no fireplace in the first place,” Alston said.

But what they did have, she said, was love.

“What’s really important when we think about money, and the lack thereof in this community, is that we really start taking the time to teach our children it’s about each other,” Alston said.

Through her partnership with Durham Regional Financial Center, Alston is a teacher for EMPWR U, a new series of financial workshops for families through East Durham Children’s Initiative. 

EDCI starts working with East Durham children at birth to prepare them for college or a career. But the success of a child often begins at home, said Kimberly Fisher, director of community engagement at EDCI.

“A key factor in a child’s academic success is the parent’s involvement and the parent’s engagement,” Fisher said. “You cannot improve education in low-resource communities unless you tackle poverty.”

To help Durham families with the financial problems they may face, EDCI started EMPWR U with help from the Durham Regional Financial Center.

EMPWR U teaches parents about topics such as creating a budget, planning for emergency savings and owning a home.

The first workshop was in February, with two more taking place on the fourth Mondays of April and May.

But financial empowerment is not a new idea for Alston. It is a precious part of her family history.

Alston’s grandmother, who shares the name Ruth, finished school with a third-grade education. Later in life, she built her own home.

Alston said her grandmother deeply understood her line items, which are items listed on a budget individually. She would not spend a penny over on each one.

“I don’t care what you wanted or who wanted it, you didn’t get it,” Alston said. “Saving money was key to her. Whether it was $10 each month, it was going in the savings.”

Despite her grandmother relying on a Social Security check later in life, she still had more money than Alston, who was working a full-time job. This inspired Alston to figure out how she did it.

“I had to make sure that I understood the penny, nickel, dime, quarter, dollar,” Alston said.

And that is the exact mindset that EMPWR U hopes to pass on. The main goal is to achieve parent self-advocacy, Fisher said.

“When you’re in a community where a lot of people are struggling with the same financial issues, you can’t just call up mom and say, ‘Can you help me?’” Fisher said. “Because mom doesn’t have it either.”

But self-advocacy involves much more than just understanding the numbers, Alston said. It involves acquiring life skills.

Stacey Smith attended the March workshop after being denied a Habitat For Humanity home. Since she separated from her husband, Smith only has one income to provide for herself and her three young girls.

“I started doing my own hair,” Smith said. “I don’t do as much for myself because I always try to put my kids first so they don’t have to feel like there’s a big difference.”

But this children-first mindset and other life skills are not always apparent to the families who come to Alston. So she has her own style to make sure they understand and remember.

“My name is Ruth, and my grandmother’s name is Ruth, and we tell stories,” Alston said. “People learn quicker because they are going to remember the story.” 

These stories include memories of her grandmother and an allegory about Chinese bamboo.

“Everything that counts can’t necessarily be counted, but everything that can be counted doesn’t necessarily count,” she tells people in her classes.

Although parents can meet in small groups, EMPWR U focuses on providing individual attention to each person’s needs, Fisher said.

But some of Alston’s advice applies to everyone.

“Culturally, I don’t think we sit down and do the numbers with our kids,” Alston said.

She suggests that parents go to the dollar store, give the money to their children and make them pay. And if the heat turns off and the children are cold, she suggests parents bring them into their bed and use body heat for warmth.

“The struggle is what it is, but it depends on how the parents are nurturing,” Alston said. “See, that love bridges that gap. So in the struggle, if I got wise parents, we can get through this until things change.”

And for some of those who take financial classes with teachers like Alston, change does come.

“The reward is when they come back and tell me their success and that they still remember my stories,” Alston said. “That is priceless. You can’t pay me for it. That’s what makes my heart go pitter-patter.”

Alston is also the founder and CEO of JRuth Inc., which advocates for community members by helping with self-sufficiency, rental housing, employment and home ownership.

The next EMPWR U will be held April 25 at Y E Smith Elementary School, located at 2410 E. Main St. The workshop will be offered in both English and Spanish, and child care and food will be provided. For more information, call EDCI at 919-908-8709.

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Ryan is a UNC-CH junior journalism major from Statesville. He is serving as a co-editor of the Durham VOICE.