Why is financial literacy a challenge for immigrant families?

April is Financial Literacy month. By now, it’s probably not surprising to hear that an overwhelming number of Americans struggle with financial literacy. For immigrant families, there are even more challenges, many of which are unique to the immigrant community.

  1. Low English proficiency - With all the acronyms and jargon in banks, FDIC, APR, CD, IRA’s and so on, we can fill up the alphabet several times over. Now imagine trying to understand these terms in a foreign language. Addressing this issue involves more than hiring bilingual bank staff, but also having bilingual materials, including websites and apps. Translating materials is also not as easy as typing terms into Google translate. More complicated terms like subprime and area median income are hard enough to explain in English, let alone a second language.

  2. Distrust of financial institutions - Many immigrant families have had negative experiences with banks from their home countries. This makes them less likely to want to build relationships with U.S. banks. The challenge of relationship building is worsened when banks don’t have the ability to communicate cross-culturally.

  3. Scams - Because of both low language proficiency and sometimes cultural understandings, immigrants can be more susceptible to scams and illegitimate practices. A common practice is one in which someone uses their ability to speak the same language as the immigrant community and builds a reputation as a “trusted source”. However, this same person might use this advantage to deceive immigrant families in to signing contracts in English and selling high-cost, predatory financial products which harm immigrant families.

ACDC is committed to equipping immigrant families with skills and tools to overcome these challenges and give families control of their finances. Our Building Blocks blocks program puts financial literacy at the core. Whether a family is looking to purchase their first home, save for their child’s education, or just rebuild their credit, our Building Blocks staff are eager to help.

Stories of Chinatown

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Chinatown is rich in history and stories. In this blog post, we’d like to share some stories and memories of Chinatown. Introducing Alice Lee, who is a Senior Vice President at Wellesley Bank. Wellesley Bank is a partner of ACDC’s First-time Homebuyer Program.

Name: Alice Lee

Where in Chinatown did you used to live?

“My family stayed with my aunt on Tyler Street for a short time.  We then moved to a three family building on Broadway (I don’t believe the street exists today).  The building was directly adjacent to elevated Orange line train tracks, and the back of the building was across the street from the old Pine Street Inn.  We were then among the first tenants at Tai Tung Village, as the Broadway building was scheduled to be demolished.”

Elevated train running through Chinatown

Elevated train running through Chinatown

 What is your favorite memory of Chinatown?  What are some of your favorite places in Chinatown?

“I have many fond memories of growing up in Chinatown.  Maryknoll Sisters (neighbors of the old Quincy School) hold a particularly special place in my heart.  They were exceedingly kind to new immigrant children like me, who struggled with learning a new language and adjusting to a foreign culture and way of life.  I spent many after school hours being tutored by the sisters.

Another favorite memory is Kwong Kow Chinese School.  I attended when it was located on Oxford Street, with Mrs. Emily Ng as my teacher and headmistress.  Mrs. Ng was herself a recent immigrant at the time.  She instilled in her students the importance of retaining our Chinese language abilities and cultural values.  I learned from her much more than reading and writing Chinese.  After graduating from Kwong Kow, I joined an alumnae group and participated in classical Chinese dance.  We performed at numerous events including August Moon Festival and First Night.  Many of the ‘Kwong Kow Dancing Girls’ formed lifelong friendships and remain close to this day.

What I love about Chinatown is its capacity for change and inclusiveness.  When my family first arrived, Chinatown was inhabited by mostly elderly, Toisanese speaking men.  We experienced the wave of Cantonese speaking immigrants, followed by immigrants from Vietnam, and more recently, Mandarin speaking immigrants from mainland China.  Each group brought unique talents and ideas, and built new businesses.  The community’s success is possible only with willingness of existing residents and new immigrants to work together.   I’m also proud that the Chinatown community extends goodwill toward individuals other than Chinese/Asians.  Non-profits like ACDC and Asian American Civic Association (AACA) offer assistance to anyone who needs it, regardless of their ethnicity.  I think it’s an excellent way to promote and grow our community.”

The construction of Tai Tung Village in 1972.

The construction of Tai Tung Village in 1972.

 Have you or has your family benefited from affordable housing?

“My family has definitely benefited from affordable housing.  I’m almost certain the building on Broadway was owned and designated affordable housing by the BRA (Boston Redevelopment Authority).  Being the first occupants of a brand new apartment at Tai Tung was wonderful.  That was our nicest home after arriving in the U.S.  Since my parents did not have the opportunity to learn English, they had low paying jobs.  Being able to house their children in a nice apartment meant a lot to them.  They also felt comfortable among a community, including some relatives, who shared their language and culture.  Living in Boston allowed me and my siblings to attend public exam schools where we received top notch education free of charge.” 

 Thanks for sharing your story Alice! We are proud to work with you and Wellesley Bank to assist residents of Chinatown, both newcomers and long-timers. If you’d like to share your memories of Chinatown, please contact us.

Intro to BluePrints

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Most of us aren’t surprised to hear that that average American has over $5k in credit card debt and that 40% of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency. While in high school, students learn how to calculate derivatives and integrals, but most do not learn how to budget and save for the future. With only 17 states requiring a personal finance course in high school and 70% of parents having a hard time speaking to their kids about finances, it’s evident that most youth are ill equipped to be in control of their finances. And with skyrocketing student loans, now is as an important time as ever for people to be able to save their money effectively.

Enter Blueprints.

At the beginning of December, we launched our #WishlistWednesday campaign. We hope to raise enough to provide one scholarship to a high school senior in our Blueprints program. Our Blueprints program is a matched savings program, where for every $1 that a youth puts into the bank, ACDC matches $1. Over the course of 1 year, a youth can earn up to $1,000 in matched dollars that go toward future college expenses. After youth complete the Blueprints program, they will have $2,000 saved for college expenses!

All our youth participants come from immigrant families. Many of their parents are earning below the median income in Boston. Many will also be the first in their family to go to college.

Studies have shown that while financial education programs are helpful, the most effective programs emphasize financial capability. What’s the difference? Financial capability not only has an education component but also provides access to financial products and services, as well as opportunities for participants to practice what they have learned. These are key components for our Blueprints program. The 10 youth in our first Blueprints cohort will:

  1. Meet monthly to learn about financial literacy skills

  2. Set financial goals and timelines

  3. Meet with a mentor who will make sure that the youth is making progress toward their goals

  4. Deposit $25 to $75 a month into a savings account which will be matched by ACDC.

While we believe that the matched funds are a great incentive for saving regularly, we believe that the real outcome will only be realized years down the line when youth graduate from college, earn a steady paycheck and are in control of their finances their regular budgeting and saving.

Please help us reach $1,000 this holiday season so that we can provide a scholarship for one of our Blueprints youth!

A Reflection on Working with Immigrant Communities

Dinner and discussion with members of the refugee community in Bautzen

This year, I was part of the Boston team participating in the Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange (WCTE), an exchange program for practitioners from the United States and Germany who work with immigrants and refugees in their local communities. The program annually brings together over 40 individuals from nine communities to share best practices and innovative approaches at the local level, and this was the third and final year of the program.  In May, German representatives from five cities and towns visited Washington D.C., Charlotte, Boston, and Anchorage.  In Boston, our team - which included the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Advancement (MOIA), Hyams Foundation, and the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center (RIAC) - brought our visitors to East Boston, Roxbury, and Dorchester. I was particularly excited to give our guests a tour of Chinatown, delving into the rich immigration history, the emergence of community organizations and leaders, and the current challenges Chinatown faces.    

At “Ursprung” in Frankfurt, an initiative that engages teenage newcomers through woodworking and crafts.

Three weeks ago, the Boston team flew across the Atlantic and embarked on a twelve-day journey in Germany to learn from our counterparts in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Bautzen, and Teltow-Flaeming, with a closing conference in Berlin.  We met local government officials and nonprofit leaders who have worked hard since 2015 to provide housing, services, language courses, and job assistance to the unprecedented large number of newcomers who have landed in Germany in the last three years.  We visited some of the new housing that had been built with incredible speed (to this Bostonian), and met with volunteers and newcomers and learned about their grassroots initiatives.  Along the way, we also made friends with participants from the other U.S. cities and learned about their local work with immigrants and refugees.   

At “Thespis” in Bautzen, a theater workshop that engages with local German and refugee youth

One thing that struck me in Germany was that I did not hear the term “immigrant”.  People mostly used the terms “refugees” and “migrants” to refer to the foreigners who had landed in Germany in the last three years, and sometimes “newcomers” was used as well.  Germany does not have the long and rich history of immigration as the U.S., and people who we would call second- and third- generation immigrants in the U.S. are classified as having “migrant backgrounds” in Germany.  Words do matter, and “refugees” and “migrants” evoke a sense of placelessness and impermanence.  At the same time, it was heartening to see debates emerging in Germany about German identity and who is/can be a German, just as American society has expanded this concept to people being able to self-identify as African-American, Mexican-American, Vietnamese-American, and so forth.  I was especially inspired by a Cameroonian-German woman and a Rwandan-German man I met, both of whom became elected officials in their respective towns and face racism and discrimination in their daily work. I think back to our city of Boston, where 6 of 13 city councilors are women of color, with Ayanna Pressley having just become a Congresswoman-elect.

The 2018 WCTE U.S. delegation in Hamburg City Hall

Another concept that I struggled with during this exchange is “integration”.  There are many passionate practitioners in Germany and the U.S. working hard to ensure that newcomers have access to the resources they need to settle in and thrive in their new communities.  At the same time, the concept of German “integration” was telling in what Germany society believes necessary for it to continue to be a successful, cohesive whole.  “Integration” above all means learning the German language – as we heard endlessly on this trip – and it was striking in contrast with the U.S. emphasis on providing multilingual access to people with Limited English Proficiency.  On the positive side, integration also means accepting German and western values, including gender equality and LGBT rights. 

At ACDC, because we work mostly with immigrants who have been in the U.S. longer, we emphasize “empowerment” and “resident leadership” and don’t think of our work through the “integration” lens.  While it is important to make sure that municipal governments make their states, cities and towns as welcoming as possible to diverse populations, we believe the people impacted – immigrant and low-income residents – should have seats at the table where policy and funding decisions are being made, because they know best what their needs are and where gaps exist.  We also believe that as benign as any institution is, no one in power willingly shares that or gives that up, and it is up to underrepresented groups to advocate for themselves.  However, ACDC’s work in many ways IS about integrating immigrants – we connect our residents and constituents with the tools and resources so that they have access to mainstream systems of power and resources to thrive.  We register immigrants to become voters and hold voter education workshops so that more of them have access to elected officials; we encourage residents and youth to turn out for community meetings and planning processes so that their voices are included; we work with immigrants on their credit scores and financial literacy to increase their financial well-being and achieve homeownership.      

A final reflection – the most enduring and inspiring parts of this trip that have stayed with me are not the technical parts of the program, but the deep personal connections I made along the way.  In our work, we sometimes become preoccupied with numbers, deadlines, and budgets – the everyday grind – and it can be easy to lose sight of the humanity of the people we work with.  On this trip, we had opportunities to engage more deeply with some newcomers, which for me was an invaluable mental shift from discussing statistics and policies to humanizing the “migrant/refugee” issue, and seeing people not as helpless victims, but humans with the dignity and capacity to be change agents themselves.   

No Secret

Local writer Cynthia Yee shares with us a few excerpts from her new creative non-fiction piece, “No Secret”

116 Hudson Street in Boston’s Chinatown.  Image courtesy of Cynthia Yee

116 Hudson Street in Boston’s Chinatown.

Image courtesy of Cynthia Yee

I grew up in a world of secrets and transgressions, surrounded by mystery, embraced by hope.  Breaking rules was not so bad if somebody loved you.


MaMa was a baptized Catholic, but not for the reasons one might think.  She wanted to adopt a boy.  She learned that, in America, Catholic Charities gave out boys.  MaMa felt it was her duty to provide a son to pray to my Dad in the afterlife, and she had four daughters.                                 

Two nuns visited us and asked about the photos on the wall.  

The first nun pointed to the four photos of my real and fake Grandparents.  

“Who are they?”  “Do you pray to them?”  and then told us we must not do that.  

“They are asking who the photographs are, MaMa.”  “They want to know if you pray to them,” I said.  

MaMa smiled, as if the nuns just could never understand, not in a thousand years. 

The nun then pointed to the sewing machine. 

“Do you sew on that machine?” “Do you sew on Sundays?” and then told us we must not do that, too.

“They want to know if you sew on Sundays,” I said to MaMa.  

MaMa smiled her friendliest smile, the one reserved for Americans, and said, 

Sis-See Dah ah, U li-kee Gar Fe?”  my MaMa’s version of “Sister, you like coffee?” and she offered them fresh cups of coffee with cream and sugar in our best cups and saucers.

After coffee, the nuns got up to leave.  They gave us a present, a framed painting of a pretty white woman with pink cheeks and long brown hair, wearing a veil and a flowing dress, floating above a bush, with a circle around her head, her hands clasped together.  They said, “This is Our Lady of Fatima.”  MaMa smiled, nodded, and took the framed picture from them. She hung it next to the black and white photos of my real and fake Grandparents.  I don’t think MaMa knew the right answers to the nuns’ questions, but whether Immigration or the nuns came to visit, we were now all set.  MaMa believed in the promises of America and in Heavens’ blessings, in equal measure.  

My Dad said, “We don’t need a boy.  We live in America now, and the King of England has a daughter and she is the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth.  Even the President of the United States has daughters.  My daughters are fine.  Cynthia is fine.”  MaMa smiled at me, and said, “That’s why you are a Little Girl Emperor, because your BaBa thinks like that.  Like an American.”


Well, Sally was a sight that made you stop what you were doing, and take notice.  Everybody, up and down my street, had black hair.  Unless they were old.  Then they had gray hair, or no hair.  Sally, on the other hand, had red hair some days, pink hair other days, orange hair, when she felt like it, and on some days, if she got the formula mixed up, she had purple hair with pink highlights.  She wore a lightweight housedress with a collar, four buttons in a row that ran down the front, beginning at her chest and ending at her middle, and a flair skirt that swirled.  Her round breasts hung low, almost down to her waist, and she wore shoes with thick heels. She had the look of a disposable doll, frumpy and well filled out, a doll one would not miss much if it disappeared. On sunny days, she wore sunglasses with bold red frames.  Nylon stockings rolled up at her ankles and red rouge smeared on her cheeks, she looked a bit like the clown I saw at the circus the nuns took us to see, but she was not the smiling kind of clown.  Her face wore an unwavering seriousness, and her walk spoke a focused determination. All the women on my street sewed at home, but Sally did not sew, and she did not stay at home. She followed old men home.

I watched this happen over and over again.  The old man, signaling her, looked to his right, then to his left.  He caught her eye with his eye, a whisper, or a small wave of his hand.  Then he looked away.  He pretended not to know her.  She followed. I thought it a call and response game. The old man slithered off, hands in his pocket, glancing over his shoulder.  Sometimes I felt the signal coming before the man made it.  The old men tried not to look obvious.  That was the first sign.  Trying to look invisible.  I did not blink.  The men slinked away and Sally followed, muttering under her breath.  Never too close.  

Sally’s visits to old men in the attics and rooming houses of Chinatown, and following old men home, made me wonder what she did exactly.  She answered to “Rose” and sometimes to “Mary.”  I wondered if the nuns had named her Mary.  They gave that name a lot to Chinatown girls registering for the public school next to the convent.  Jesus’ MaMa’s name came up when we got toys at their Christmas party, and so did Mary Magdalene, a loose woman.  Children called her Sally.  “Here comes Sally in the Alley!  Three bucks a throw,” we chanted as she walked down the street on one of her missions. No matter that she did not live in an alley.  She lived in a red brick row house, like mine, next to the convent.  We didn’t know what a “throw” meant.  We liked rhyming.  A Lo-Fan, a barbarian, a white woman, a woman with neither husband nor children, living in Chinatown, alone.  Sally stood out.  

This is a work of creative non fiction.   

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant law restricting immigration to the United States based on ethnicity.  It outlawed intermarriage and barred paths to citizenship.  The Chinese adaptation to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the creation of a system of paper sons, whereby young boys were claimed as legal sons by Chinese American fathers.  These young boys and young men came to work and sent home remittances to support their families and clans.  Though the Exclusion Act was eventually repealed in 1943, allowing 105 visas per year for the Chinese, the repercussions of this Exclusion Act continued for four generations.  The Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949 further exacerbated the fracturing of Chinese American families when diplomatic ties between the United States and the Peoples Republic of China were suspended.  The men who came to work became stranded and many lived in the attics and rooming houses of Boston’s Chinatown.

Cynthia Yee, who grew up in Boston Chinatown, honors these sojourner men, many of whom were her neighbors and relatives, and who lived and died alone.  She thanks Alysia Abbott, author of “Fairyland,” and in whose Memoir class, Cynthia originally sketched out the “Sally” story.  “Thank you, Alysia, for reminding me every time we met, how much you liked my Chinatown stories, even remembering my Sally story, long after the class had ended.”  Cynthia also thanks Professor of Narrative Journalism, Mark Kramer, for advising her, even though he said, “It feels l like I am feeding a baby bird who keeps turning its head.”  To him, Cynthia says, “I listened and collected every word from your mouth, like pearls. Thank you.”

Cynthia looks forward to sharing with us her next piece “Don’t Look” soon!