“Trust is a difficult thing to earn and build, but our pilot program taught us that the social process of sharing photos and stories is a powerful place to start.”
—UCI photovoice research team
Community Credit is a collaborative research project at UC Irvine that seeks to connect minoritized and financially underserved communities with credit unions for the purpose of building trust and developing more equitable financial products that address the specific needs of the community. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator program. The UCI photovoice research team included Melissa Wrapp, UCI anthropology Ph.D. ’21 and postdoctoral project manager; Ellen Garnett Kladky, anthropology graduate student; Bryan Truitt, visual studies graduate student; and Jenny Fan, Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion manager. Photovoice is one method being used within this larger project, which also includes: listening sessions, ethnographic interviews, surveying, financial landscaping, decision modeling, deep data marketing analysis, and more. PhotovoiceWorldwide has been a vital partner to Community Credit, offering consulting, training, and facilitation throughout 2021-22. The following report, by Ellen Garnett Kladky, Ph.D. candidate, University of California, Irvine, details the team’s efforts. Original source: PhotovoiceWorldwide.
“Financial problems are often thought to be secret and shameful. Whether someone is facing big challenges such as bankruptcy or foreclosure, or is simply worrying about day-to-day concerns like paying bills, rising gas prices, or affording gifts for a child’s upcoming birthday, people often keep financial issues to themselves. As a result, many suffer alone.
This year, UCI Community Credit researchers piloted a photovoice project that aimed to incorporate community perspectives in an effort to build financial alternatives that create inclusion, increase trust, and fight financial disinformation. UCI embarked on this project seeking to better understand what people in minoritized communities needed from the financial institutions that serve them and how they assess the trustworthiness of institutions. But, in a larger sense, our team hoped that the photovoice project would serve as a building block for community involvement, a way to empower participants to craft narratives about their financial strengths and weaknesses, articulate their financial needs, and re-imagine the financial future for themselves and their community.
Pictured: Photos on the theme of uncertainty and resilience.
The photovoice pilot consisted of eight participant-researchers recruited by local community-based organizations (CBOs) that work with financially underserved communities in Southern California. Participants took photos in response to a variety of questions (some of which were generated by the group) covering topics such as financial strengths, trust, coping with financial adversity, and creating financial stability. In our meetings, we discussed each other’s photos, wrote captions, and identified themes, which included balance, sacrifice and creativity, and support networks. Meetings culminated in a public share-out session for participants’ friends and family, members of the research team, and CBOs.
Half of the participants were primarily Khmer-speaking, while the other half communicated in English. To make conversation possible, we relied on two Khmer-English interpreters. We also shifted from plenary group discussions to language-specific breakout conversations throughout our sessions. The process of interpretation can be time-consuming and imperfect, and at times we worried that not being able to speak directly might make it difficult for participants to fully engage with each other. However, to our delight, participants found that this diversity made the experience all the more meaningful. As one put it, ‘I’m Latina—I’m not Cambodian. But during this experience we shared our personal lives and learned how we are all similar in a way, no matter what color we are, no matter what race, no matter where you live.’
Pictured: “No safety, no freedom, not happy. Being in a home has limitations, the homeless look free.”
The process of discussing finances was often difficult. More than once, participants became emotional when talking about their photos. Some felt trapped, others faced eviction, others worried for their children. But sharing struggles and strengths was also empowering. Participants frequently noted that they were used to keeping these topics to themselves, and they found it reassuring to learn that others faced many of the same challenges. As one explained, ‘Being in this space, I am happy to know that I am not alone financially struggling; we are in this together.’ Additionally, the process of taking photos in response to prompts, writing captions, and determining themes gave participants confidence in speaking up about financial topics, asking questions, and turning to others for help.
Pictured: “My children are my sources of hope and resiliency. Saving is not for me, but for my children. In my home country, raising a pig was a way to ensure a future source of income. But here, the pig is savings. I teach my children to save every penny, so it will add up and help us in the future.”
This pilot program was insightful for our research team and our credit union partners as we work to develop methodologies for building trust within financial services. First and foremost, it brought into focus the fact that financial decision making and trust building don’t happen in a vacuum—they are completely entangled with other aspects of life. During our photovoice share-out meeting, one of the researchers on our team reflected, ‘This was a welcome reminder that while we sometimes like to separate out finance as its own domain, really it’s not separable from our relationships with our family, our religious lives, our cultural identities, and any number of other things.’
Many interventions aim to promote financial inclusion by focusing only on the domain of the financial, for example by offering new products or teaching financial literacy. But our photovoice pilot program revealed that to understand someone’s financial needs, and certainly to build trust in an institution, it is crucial to consider seemingly ‘non-financial’ aspects of their lives.
To understand someone’s financial needs, and certainly to build trust in an institution, it is crucial to consider seemingly “non-financial” aspects of their lives.
Ultimately, we plan to use photovoice as a part of the Community Credit toolkit, a set of resources to help credit unions and financially underserved communities form long-term, collaborative relationships. As a part of the toolkit, photovoice will be the first step in member-driven product design. As one of our credit union partners observed, ‘Credit unions often want to be more inclusive, but they don’t know where to start, and the perspective of their members, or the people they are trying to include, is often missing.’
Photovoice has begun the process of bringing those perspectives to the table. Enabling community members to tell open-ended stories and build confidence in discussions of financial topics will bring to light financial needs (and strengths) that might not have been visible otherwise. But the role of photovoice in the Community Credit process is not simply one of information gathering or community empowerment: it will also begin to build trust between members of financially underserved communities and credit unions through listening and connecting. Trust is a difficult thing to earn and build, but our pilot program taught us that the social process of sharing photos and stories is a powerful place to start.”
To see more photos from this project, check out #ProjectMonday features on Instagram:
To learn more about the Community Credit project, visit https://sites.uci.edu/communitycredit/.