Picturing financial security
- May 24, 2023
- UCI Community Credit partners with non-profit Abrazar and PhotovoiceWorldwide to capture community stories of financial struggle, resilience in photographs
The photos lining the community room at Santa Ana’s Delhi Center on May 12 may have seemed, at first glance, unrelated: a neatly lined, colorful row of a well-known children’s book series; a scrumptious bowl of sesame ginger shrimp with kimchi and cauliflower rice; a graduation cap with the inscription “undocumented, educated & unafraid.” Yet the meaning behind each shared a common thread: a personal vision of financial security for those who captured the moment.
The exhibit - "Embrace, Educate, Empower: An Abrazar-UCI Photovoice Project on Financial Security with Photovoice Worldwide,” part of Santa Ana’s “May Your Mental Health Thrive with H.O.P.E. (Hope Opportunity Progress Equity)” Community Health Fair - is the product of a multiyear effort spearheaded by a campus and community collective including UCI Community Credit, ABRAZAR, and PhotovoiceWorldwide.
Together, they’re using the power of photovoice - a community-based research approach through which participants tell stories about their lived experience through photography - to build alternative, more nuanced understandings of low- and middle-income Orange County residents' experiences of economic life and financial services.
“Photovoice harnesses the most important parts of being human - using the power of images and storytelling to be in relation with others,” says project co-lead Jenny Fan, manager of the UCI Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion, which served as a partner to UCI Community Credit. Additional UCI researchers on the project include principal investigator Bill Maurer, UCI anthropology and law professor and IMTFI director, and Melissa Wrapp, ’21 UCI anthropology Ph.D. and Community Credit postdoctoral project manager.
In fall 2021, the program landed a $750,000 National Science Foundation grant to bring together community organizations and credit unions to counter deceptive financial products and create trustworthy alternatives. They partnered with Abrazar - a local non-profit with almost five decades of experience providing family support services in Orange County - to explore the concept of financial security using photography as a medium. The project is UCI Community Credit’s second to use photovoice in its efforts.
“One of the unique aspects of this process is that we are co-creating and co-designing this project with the community,” says Mario Ortega, Abrazar CEO. “We embrace lived experiences and listen to the community's voice to evaluate our program. We are not taking the community voice as a transactional, ‘check the box’ form of community feedback that is still too often present in programs for the community."
Over several weeks, seventeen participants from Abrazar’s SparkPoint OC financial empowerment program - which is funded in part by Orange County United Way - captured more than 200 photos exploring the concept of financial security: what it looks like, how it’s created, and how it feels.
Bilingual training and share sessions, organized collaboratively by UCI researchers and SparkPoint financial coaches with PhotovoiceWorldwide, provided rich stories of struggle and resilience, probing topics including debt, housing insecurity, family, and mental health.
The sessions became a supportive learning community for listening, connecting, and collective meaning making for participants and researchers alike.
“Participating in this creative act, together, provided an intimate way to connect and build trust,” says Fan. “Many of our participants got the opportunity to be vulnerable in a space where they learned they weren’t alone in their struggles.”
The May Your Mental Health Thrive with H.O.P.E Community Health Fair was open to the public, with free fun activities for families, access to community resources, and vaccinations - attracting over 400 attendees - making it the ideal setting to celebrate and showcase the outcomes of the photovoice study.
One participant, Alejandra, shared a photo of the many books her son has read. “He wants to be a writer,” she says, “and I’m so proud of him and believe in his dream.” For her, the picture serves as a reminder that even in tough times, she’s working toward a bright future for her son.
Another participant - Genika - shared how she has learned to cook healthy, budget-friendly meals at home, thanks to lessons from her dad, which have cut down on the money she used to spend on takeout.
Ignaly, a financial coach, shared her own journey - as did many of her fellow financial coaches - navigating college as a DACA student. “I want my son and community to know that we have to look beyond our fears even though the future seems unclear. If we live in fear, we will never succeed,” her entry reads.
“It was empowering to participate in the project,” says Natalie Hernandez, also a financial coach. “Prior to this, I had never heard of photovoice and I believed that it was an insightful way to see responses others may have to questions and topics surrounding financial security. Depending on one's cultural background, discussing finances may be taboo, and I know for me it has felt that way growing up. I am grateful to have participated in this project because it allowed people to discuss these topics in a safe and judgment-free space.”
For Maurer, whose work as an anthropologist and director of IMTFI has continually connected the campus and community, the exhibit serves as an example of the type of inclusiveness all research should encompass.
“For years activists have popularized the phrase ‘nothing about us without us’ to insist that research and policy should start with the voices and concerns of the communities they are supposed to benefit,” says Maurer. “Our research partnership with Abrazar tries to live that commitment, not just to build bridges between the university and the community, but to recognize the university's responsibility to the community.”
Miss out on the exhibit? Check it out online at https://www.artsteps.com/view/63f4af4daac9e8ceaa426451.
-Heather Ashbach, Jenny Fan and Melissa Wrapp, UCI Social Sciences
-pictured: Visitors and participants in the “Embrace, Educate, Empower: An Abrazar-UCI Photovoice Project on Financial Security with Photovoice Worldwide” exhibit get a more nuanced understanding of low- and middle-income Orange County residents' experiences of economic life and financial services. Courtesy of Jenny Fan and UCI social sciences.
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