Thursday, October 4, 2012

Equity Express: Uniting Financial Management and Environmental Responsibility

By Karuna Mehta,
NeighborWorks America,
Green Strategies program fellow
Just in time for Energy Awareness month, we are sharing a blog about our new Equity Express class. The initiative responds to two major crises of our time – economic and ecological – by increasing the wealth of asset-poor households through consumer choices that are both financially smart and promote sustainable living.

As a young professional with a limited budget, saving money is always at the back of my mind.  While I’ve tried to abide by the same “save, save, and save some more” mentality as my parents, in today’s world it’s easier said than done. Many of NeighborWorks homeownership and financial fitness counselors encounter similar experiences counseling low- and middle-income clients who are hoping to buy homes or simply get out of debt. For most of us, it doesn’t seem possible to save money by committing to living a more sustainable, healthy lifestyle. 

However, hope is not lost on being both "green" and financially savvy. This summer, homeownership and financial fitness counselors from all over Ohio came together to learn how living a healthy, sustainable lifestyle can also help you save some green. The two-day train-the-trainer workshop, hosted in partnership with the Center of Neighborhood Technology, is called “Equity Express” and describes opportunities to save money in nearly every facet of our lives while improving our health and lessening our environmental impact. The workshop introduces counselors to an alternative way of teaching financial education and provides them with resources and materials so they can incorporate sustainable ideas and green living into their own curricula.

Creative Commons image
Equity Express emphasizes the importance of monitoring six areas: budgeting, energy, transportation, food, communications and “green lifestyle,” which focuses on how much “stuff” we consume and buy and how we dispose of it. The materials taught in each workshop are tailored to analyze the trends and events that are occurring in that region—for example, counselors from Cleveland received “Cleveland-specific” information while those from Cincinnati learned about the health and environmental impact in their own metro area.

While some topics, like those revolving around consumption and budgeting, were already common in a number of the counselor’s own curricula, participants also learned about managing energy costs through reducing wasted energy. They began assessing where transportation alternatives such as walking and biking fit into their lives, and reassessed how their affinities for certain kinds of food would impact their health and bank accounts in the long run.

Using resources provided by Equity Express, many of the counselors discovered large potential savings for themselves. Class participants were shocked when they took a look at their own utility bills and calculated the nutritious values (or lack thereof) of their favorite foods. Some even called their children and spouses during break to share the information they'd just learned.

Class participants with their certificates of completion
The workshop also gave as an opportunity to take a look around the office of Neighborhood Development Services (NDS) in Ravenna, Ohio, where the workshop was held. The executive director and his staff have committed to greening their organization, including taking out unnecessary lighting, enforcing recycling and limiting the amount of waste they produce.  NDS board members and staff have iPads to limit the amount of paper they use and their commitment to environmental conservation is inspirational. Not only is the staff creating sustainable housing, but they are “walking the talk” when it comes to their own daily lives, creating a more durable, healthy and inspired workplace for themselves.
At the Equity Express workshop, counselors realized the first step in teaching about a low-cost, sustainable life was living by these principles ourselves. We set goals for kicking our addictions to things like fast food and cheap clothes and electronics. Some people vowed to cook a little more often and eat a little less meat, others re-examined the differences between wanting and needing a new smart phone or television. Still others discussed carpooling with their co-workers and pledged to think twice before buying new stuff.

Budgeting and managing expenses is crucial for those who seek financial counseling or help with homeownership, and resource efficiency is also critical to "going green." Sustainable living improves long term and short term health, creates a more durable living environment and helps people save money in the long run, making it an incredible tool for promoting money management as well as equity. Financial workshops such as Equity Express incorporate the importance of sustainable and socially responsible living empower clients and inspire local and global action through simple changes in one's daily routine.