Portland mentorship program aims to close racial wealth gap

Maddy Do has had a big year. She received a promotion, moved out of her parents’ house and purchased her first used car.

As she navigated those life changes, Do talked through her financial questions with her mentors and peers at SINE (Survival Is Not Enough), a mentorship and networking program for recent college graduates from communities of color.

“They really helped me walk through all of the changes with support and planning to not feel overwhelmed,” said Do, 24.

Established by Portland nonprofit The Contingent, the mentorship program helps young adults build wealth, navigate big financial decisions and become civically active leaders in their communities. In its first year, the program reported that more than half of its participants started paying down their debts, built savings funds, enrolled in retirement plans and earned raises at work. SINE is funded by businesses, foundations and government backers like Prosper Portland and Tillamook. SINE leaders say the program cost about $730,000 to run this year, and they intend to scale up the budget to over $1 million.

The program is aiming to close racial wealth gaps in a measurable way.

In 2020, the Federal Reserve reported that the typical white family had eight times the wealth of the typical Black family, and five times the wealth of an average Hispanic family. Those long-standing racial wealth gaps had barely changed since the last survey in 2016, the Federal Reserve said.

A 2022 report by the Coalition of Communities of Color found just over a third of Black Oregonians are homeowners compared to two-thirds of white Oregonians and that Latina women earn only 53 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

“The racial wealth gap describes the extreme economic inequality between white populations and communities of color,” the report said. “It explains the impact of four centuries of U.S. institutional and systemic racism that has led to the persistent disparities plaguing communities of color.”

In the first year of SINE, 80% of participants started paying down their debt and created an emergency savings fund, the program reported. Over half enrolled in a retirement plan. According to the Federal Reserve, 44% of middle-aged Black families and 28% of middle-aged Hispanic families have retirement accounts, compared to 65% of middle-aged white families.

SINE members start their first year of mentorship with a 5-week financial fundamentals course, before joining small-group mentoring circles with up to nine participants and several mentors. The group meets monthly to discuss not only how to build wealth, but also how members can build leadership skills and participate in their communities.

Do, who is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees and the first in her family to graduate from college, was among nearly 60 young people who participated in SINE’s pilot year, starting in spring 2021.

“In my culture, you just don’t talk about money,” she said. “There’s a social courtesy to that, but it’s been really prohibitive when you’re trying to build wealth and be a young person living in Portland and get your ducks in a row.”

Do can turn to the mentorship program with questions that she doesn’t always feel comfortable asking family. Mentors taught her that paying for her car in installments rather than all at once is good for her credit, she said, and encouraged her to ask questions about her bills and 401K.

Casey Pearlman, a mentee who works for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Economic Development Corporation, said the program fostered connections between millennials and generation Z professionals who are sharing a unique experience as they navigate the pandemic and virtual social lives toward the start of their careers.

“Having a group of like-minded people, with monthly check-ins and just having that support for my professional training was a huge benefit for me,” Pearlman said.

Do said mentors from diverse backgrounds were able to help program participants navigate varied cultural expectations.

“Sometimes there are a lot of dynamics that aren’t typical to dominant culture, there’s family expectations to help provide for your family or help contribute to financial expenses in the household,” she said. “Having mentors who understood that and have been children in that household is really helpful.”

The monthly check-ins helped Do stay on track with her financial goals. She also thinks the program helped her earn the promotion at work by helping boost her confidence.

“You can be your full self at work and people will appreciate you for it,” she said. “Being able to talk honestly (with the cohort) helped me heal a little part of me that always had doubt. That difference in me was really prevalent in other parts of life.”

The Contingent plans to track the success of SINE members for the next decade to study the long-term impacts of the program. Microsoft awarded SINE a technology grant to create a ‘social mobility scorecard’ to measure the wealth building, leadership and civic engagement among the participants over that time. Leaders hope to eventually submit their research to a peer-reviewed journal.

“It’s continuing to serve these communities to make sure that we understand what their growth looks like, but also what the opportunities look like to continue providing support,” said Nick Poindexter, director of mentoring, partnerships and recruitment for SINE.

SINE is currently collecting applications for its next round of mentorship. The program is open to people of color who have graduated from college within the last five years and are between the ages of 18 and 35, or who are pursuing a postgraduate degree and are under the age of 40. SINE is free to participants. Members have to commit to a five-week financial fundamentals course, monthly mentoring circle meetings and other program gatherings. Members don’t have to live in Oregon, but need to have a strong connection to Oregon or Southwest Washington.

Mentors and members interested in participating have until Aug. 1 to apply.

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Wealth Building