The Blonka Movement: Teaching the Importance of Financial Literacy
Financial literacy might not be the sexiest subject on the planet, especially for high school students. But in a city where some estimate that one-third of adults lack even a bank account, financial literacy is crucial – and Aireial “Blonka” Mack has figured out how to make it at least interesting to young people.
Mack is founder of the Blonka Movement Nonprofit Organization, which uses classroom instruction and mentoring, among other methods, to help students progress on real career paths. While the organization includes everything from healthy eating to college application instruction to dealing with boil water advisories in its programs, financial literacy is the centerpiece. For many program participants, it’s something they’ve never considered before.
“A lot of young people are allowing social media to cultivate their reality, what they expect about life,” Mack observed. “We have to get them to put away their phones.”
The Blonka Movement partners with area high schools to bring its curriculum into the classrooms. But rather than diving right into the subject, Mack typically starts by doing some Q&A with the students.
“I ask them random questions about their backgrounds, like how many friends they have,” she explained. “This gets them interested.”
It also helps get attention when she frames the financial literacy discussion in the context of Jay-Z’s “4:44” album, on which he talks about financial credit. Mack takes this further by framing credit, and finances in a broader sense, in the context of a long-term relationship.
“I tell them, who they date will change over time,” she said, “but their credit relationship is forever.”
Initially, Mack did the instruction herself. The Blonka Movement now has volunteers who also participate, but after a few years of doing the work, she realized that there were simply not enough hours in the day to reach as many young people as she wanted. So, she wrote a book, “Book of Keyz Part 1,” which teaches not only about financial literacy but also other vital life and career lessons. The organization distributes the book as widely as possible, but demand always outstrips supply. Donations are accepted to print more copies, with the Movement matching the donations one for one.
Mack’s interest in this kind of work stems from her own life experiences. While she grew up in Treme, her mother was in the Navy, so she moved around a lot as a young child. One seminal moment was when she started receiving physics instruction in eleventh grade at Warren Easton High School. She had received basically the same coursework while in fourth grade in Norfolk, Virginia, and it opened her eyes as to how far behind the local schools – and students – really were.
After graduating with honors from Easton, Mack moved on to Southern University in Baton Rouge. After college, she started several businesses, worked in mental health, and in 2009, founded the Blonka Movement. The organization initially focused on feeding and clothing the homeless, then migrated into the schools.
Along with the classroom work, the organization emphasizes the importance of extra-curricular activities, especially music-related programs. “What are you doing to keep the kids off the street?” Mack asked rhetorically. “We work on teaching through music.”
Some students who participate in the programs are subsequently connected with local mentors, across a variety of fields and disciplines, who can further advise and steer them down potential career paths. Many go on to college; one participant recently received a full scholarship to Harvard.
Another aspect of her methodology is to recognize school leaders who are doing an outstanding job. This program began in 2017, honoring Band Director Lester Wilson at KIPP Renaissance High School. The awards draw positive media coverage for the schools, help inspire the students, and provide hard-working educators with a well-deserved pat on the back.
Mack is motivated by the potential she sees in these students who are faced with so many challenges, in schools that simply lack the resources to provide them with everything they need.
“I would like to be able to help more people, see more kids being helped,” she said somewhat wistfully, “but each time I walk away from one of the schools I see that we taught them something. I see that these kids can become change-makers.”
For more information, and to help support book distribution, visit www.blonkamovement.com.