Carla’s first experience with a lending circle came long before she began working with Brown Boi Project, and long before she’d heard of MAF.
She knew them as “cundinas,” and she first encountered them at the Los Angeles clothing factory where she started working as a teenager.
She and her coworkers formed the cundina to support each other in saving money. They each agreed to make a weekly contribution of $100.
It wasn’t an easy amount to save. Carla worked overtime to ensure she could make each payment. Eventually, she saved enough money through the cundina to finance a trip to Mexico, where much of her family was living.
Carla had taken the factory job knowing that her ultimate goal was to continue her education, and soon she enrolled in night classes at a local community college.
Money was tight, and the classes were expensive, so she took on heavy debt to finance her studies. She didn’t realize that she could have qualified for financial aid.
Shortly after beginning her studies, Carla suffered a back injury at work. Her employers stopped giving her hours, and she eventually went on disability and became a full-time student. She transferred to UC Santa Cruz, and a professor assisted her in applying for financial aid. Carla loved her coursework in Feminist Studies and Sociology, but the burden of her growing debt lurked in the background. She began skirting calls from debt collectors. She scraped by this way for years.
She spiraled deeper into debt. Her strong credit score of 720 plummeted, dipping below 500.
From Cundinas to Lending Circles
Shortly after graduating from college, Carla came across an job opening announcement with Brown Boi Project, an Oakland nonprofit that brings together masculine-of-center womyn, men, two-spirit people, transmen and allies to change the ways communities of color talk about gender.
She knew right away – this job was for her. Brown Boi’s mission and values echoed her own identity and experience. She applied without hesitation. Competition was steep, with over 80 applicants vying for the position. But Carla was right about her fit for the role. As she tells it, she and the staff at Brown Boi “just kicked it off well.”
She’d landed her dream job. But her debt and damaged credit continued to limit her.
She struggled to find housing in Oakland that would accept her low credit score. Fortunately, Carla had a friend who helped her find an apartment. But without a credit card, she couldn’t afford to furnish her new home.
“All of those things are so emotionally draining and stressful. I was feeling depressed. Your credit score can almost feel attached to your own worth.”
It was at Brown Boi that Carla learned about the Lending Circles program that MAF manages. She was familiar with the concept from her earlier experience with the cundinas. The promise of improving her credit score through participation lifted her spirit – she began to imagine the relief she would feel if her life were no longer controlled by debt, her options no longer curtailed by her credit score. After so many years of financial exclusion, Carla appreciated that Lending Circles were open to her regardless of her credit score.
Carla brought the same discipline and dedication to her Lending Circle that she had brought to the cundina years before. After Brown Boi became an official Lending Circles provider, Carla seized the opportunity to become the lead staff organizer for the program.
Carla finished her Lending Circle with 100% on-time payments. She paid down her debt and even managed to build up savings.
But despite her perfect track record, she was nervous to check her credit score. She had come to equate a credit score with feeling disheartened, discouraged, and stuck.
For almost a month after the Lending Circle ended, Carla delayed checking her credit. The same month Carla completed her Lending Circle, she was invited to attend a summit for innovators of color at the White House. She took herself suit shopping, comforted by the fact that she now had enough savings to cover the costs.
Carla found the perfect outfit: a grey suit with a red tie. At the register, the cashier offered her an application for the store credit card. Carla was accustomed to declining these offers, knowing she would likely not qualify. But this time, she applied.
And to her shock, she qualified.
“I qualified at a $500 limit! I was super surprised. I said, wait… What? I qualify?!”
Buoyed by this news, Carla finally pushed herself to check her credit score. She checked: it had risen 100 points to 650.
She paid off the store credit card and applied for a different card that offered airline miles. Again, she was approved – this time for a $5000 limit. Her next goal is save enough money to fly her mother to Europe next year.
What the Future Holds
Financial stability has transformed Carla’s outlook on life.
“I’m gonna be real,” she says. “I feel good. I have a credit card in case of emergency. I’m less stressed knowing that when I need the money, it’s there.” She adds, “I feel more grounded, like my life is coming back together.”
Carla feels passionate about starting more Lending Circles and encouraging more open conversations about financial exclusion with people of color in the LGBTQ community:
“There’s a lot of shame. It’s often taboo to talk about financial struggles in our community… Sometimes we think we don’t have these types of problems, but we do.”
She now keeps her spending under 25% of her credit limit and pays off the full balance of her cards each month. These skills are practical, but they have a larger significance to Carla. She sees financial education as a powerful way of mastering an economic system that so often excludes and disadvantages people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.