Breaking the Cycle

Empower U offers financial literacy courses and self-confidence

One in 10 people in Edmonton lives in poverty. Fifty-three per cent of those living in poverty are women and 43 per cent are visible minorities.

In 2015, End Poverty Edmonton created a strategy plan that outlines 28 priorities to end poverty. One specific priority is to “expand the spectrum of financial empowerment initiatives.” And, for the past 10 years, United Way’s Empower U program has been doing just that.

Empower U started in 2012 when it joined forces with seven organizations offering financial literacy programs to women impacted by domestic violence, sexual exploitation or poverty. By joining under one initiative, they were able to save money and resources.

Laura Mushumanski at Edmonton Convention Centre’s Community Medicine Wheel Garden

Today, Empower U offers financial literacy, financial coaching and a matched savings program to individuals, primarily women, living in poverty. Ten community social agencies deliver the program with trained facilitators covering topics such as debt management, budgeting, investments and relationships with money. The matched savings component offers participants the opportunity to save a maximum of $250 which is matched at a 1:1 ratio by the Empower U program. Participants can then use this money to create an emergency savings fund or invest into an RESP, RRSP or TFSA.

From 2012 to 2020, there were 2,560 enrolments with 1,776 participants completing 10 to 14 sessions.

Karina Hurtado is the program manager of Empower U and has been with the organization for the past 10 years. Hurtado sees the importance of focusing on women who are experiencing poverty.

“When we are talking about breaking the cycle of poverty,” she says, “we are supporting women to get the information, tools and resources to share that with their families, kids, parents and friends – so I think it is a very impactful way to break that generational cycle.”

While the program teaches financial literacy, many participants experience a deeper emotional and healing process. A recent self- study of the program found participants felt Empower U was a journey of self-discovery that helped not only with their finances, but also their overall confidence. Hurtado shares that she sees participants “move from being scared or experiencing financial stress to being confident. Not just with their finances, but with themselves.”

Laura Mushumanski took the Empower U program in 2018 at the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women (IAAW). She says that before starting the program, she felt shame around her relationship with money. The supportive environment at IAAW immediately made her feel safe and connected to the other participants.

“When I went to IAAW, I was offered that unconditional confidence, that respect, and that these women who were there just really understood and got it and we didn’t feel ashamed from where we came,” Mushumanski shares. “It just made everything so much more humbling and so much easier to be able to learn from each other and just let our guard down. It was very beautiful.”

Not only did she get a better understanding about her finances from the program, she gained confidence in herself that applied to all areas of her life. “I needed something, that alternative perspective, something that made me feel like I was believing in myself again. It gave me that awareness, that enlightenment feeling,” she says.

From this positive experience, Mushumanski tries to create a safe environment for others in her life. “It is that domino effect, it just takes one person out of 25 to plant that seed and get everything going,” she explains.

Currently, she is completing her final year of her Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Alberta (with a major in psychology and a minor in Native studies). Once completed she will be going on to a Masters in counselling psychology. She also has a passion for writing – she is currently a contributor at Alberta Native News and is writing her first book.

While her professional hope is to one day be a modern medicine woman, her overarching goal in life is “to be the kindest and most compassionate, loving person that I can be,” she says. “A lot of people always have goals for success and things like that but I think that is what success is in my opinion.”

Hurtado says the goal for Empower U is to continue building financial stability and independence for the participants of the program. A financial coaching component, which allows participants to access one-on-one financial planning sessions at no cost, was added two years ago.

In addition to the 10 delivery partners, Empower U has six supporting partners and nine funding partners. Financial partners include ATB and Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF). Over the past 10 years, ECF has contributed $525,000 to Empower U.

One thing that we can all do to help, Mushumanski says, is show compassion and understanding. “Poverty isn’t something that we choose. It does not have anything to do with our identity. If you see people on the street, smile, show them some dignity,” she says.