Bridging the Economic Divide with Dialogue Education
Maybe you’ve seen it, too.
A personal finance lecture. Sterile, individualistic, detached from reality.
Few fields are willing to offend the principles of Dialogue Education (DE) like personal finance. For in talking numbers, the myth goes, we are talking absolutes. Budgets. Savings plans. Estimates that are either right or wrong.
While facets of finance are objective, money is more complex than calculations. And personal finance is more than money—it’s people, too. Especially for low-income learners, rhythms are unpredictable. Emergencies are rife. Work hours get cut and income streams stifled. For financial education to fit low-income learners, the course content must be relevant and immediate—and it must be hosted in a safe, respectful environment.
In our tenure equipping churches to offer empowering financial education to low-income learners, 3 key lessons learned emerge.
Money touches personal parts of us.
Implied in much of financial education today is this idea: if we can just expose learners to the right information, they will change. I don’t know about you, but like many learners in our courses, I best succeed at changing die-hard lifestyle habits through opportunities for trial-and-error and challenging reflection over time within a safe, accountable community.
Faith & Finances, our DE-based financial education curriculum, engages the cognitive (ideas), affective (feelings) and psychomotor (actions) domains of learning through simple, relational learning tasks. The very first session never fails to prove the importance of the affective domain—an aspect often overlooked in traditional financial education. Powerful, healing dialogue emerges as learners take risks, opening up about how financial struggle has affected their relationships. Each time I facilitate the course, tissues are close at hand. Tears often flow as learners connect in an accepting environment, laying the foundations for a financial learning community that supports one another on the journey to financial healing.
Process means as much as content.
As part of an outcomes-driven culture in the modern West, we can’t help but crave results. It’s in the water. Consequently, the majority of financial education still happens in overly structured settings that focus on efficiency and knowledge transfer, yet offer little real-life application. Especially for learners without high levels of formal education, new ideas need to be digested over and again, across time, and from different angles. By valuing the process of learning as much as the content, financial improvements can be celebrated as one sign of success in this work—but not the only goal of financial education. The process itself can yield surprising blessing to both the participants and facilitators—for we are all learners!
As DE practitioners of financial education, we must faithfully abide with our participants, creating an empowering space that embeds exploration and love in strong learning tasks. GLP Partner Peter Perkins wonderfully articulates the value of this journey:
"DE is not a set of tools; rather it is a way of thinking and being with learners. DE is not static. We as DE practitioners do not arrive; we journey into our practice…"
Authentic community bolsters learning.
When personal finance actually gets personal, friendships solidify. After weeks of purposeful collaboration, lively interaction, and structured dialogue, new communities begin to form. Social connections and resources are redistributed organically as relationships form—even across economic lines.
Faith & Finances facilitators integrate the concept that each learner, made in the image of God, wealthy or poor, uniquely adds value to the community with their resources. Even participants who are materially poor bring unparalleled gifts to bear on their world. As facilitators of personal finance, we draw out, build on, and celebrate these capabilities.
Traditional methods of financial education polarize, categorizing us as expert and amateur. This dynamic exacerbates feelings of inadequacy among low-income learners, while reinforcing a sense of superiority on the part of middle-income facilitators. This can stymie learning for everyone involved, widening the gap between people of different income levels.
In contrast, robust financial education embodies a community—safe yet accountable, uniting participants across socioeconomic lines. In an authentic, relational learning community, low-income participants are instilled with fresh ideas, social capital, and confidence to flourish. Middle-income participants also experience an epiphany, gleaning new skills and competence through friendship with folks across the economic aisle.
Holistic financial education is more than tips and tools for fixing money problems—it’s a process that happens across time and through working toward healthy, reconciled relationships in all areas of life. Transformative financial learning begins modeling that very process in the sessions together. This amazes learners at all income levels—many can’t believe personal finances can be fun, empowering, and even life-changing when done in restorative community. And as DE facilitators who are mutual learners, we prepare to marvel at how we’re challenged and changed in the process, too.
- Close your eyes for 5 seconds and envision financial education as a dynamic, relational process happening across time and in compassionate community. Share what comes to mind.
J. Mark Bowers is a humanitarian educator and a Certified Dialogue Education Practitioner (CDEP). An ardent advocate for friendship across socioeconomic lines, he spends his days community-generating, social-enterprising, and church-mobilizing in his under-resourced Chattanooga neighborhood.