Josh Omolola: Why I'm Passionate About Financial Education
How does financial education fit into your life story?
We never really discussed finances in our home when I was growing up. It was clear, however, that I had one job to do: go to school, excel, and make something of myself. My parents showed me that they would give me infinite love and support, but that nothing would come to me for free, not even birthday presents. I remember one moment in particular as I approached my tenth birthday when I asked my dad what he was going to give me for my birthday, and he pointed at the light above my desk, the comfortable bed in my room, and the roof over our head.
I had to go earn what I wanted in life. What a valuable gift this ended up being, though I'm sure I was dismayed at the time!
Later, when I joined my county’s Student Government Association (SGA), I learned about some of the many issues that my peers were facing at school and at home, ranging from mental health struggles to surviving in a food desert, and even fundraising for a turf football field. It wasn’t until the end of my K-12 career, however, that I became focused on a challenge that would have ripple effects on my own life, on my classmates, and on students that I would never meet: financial education.
How did you first learn about the importance of financial education?
I had a great teacher, Mrs. Bistransin, who saw the necessity of ensuring all students leave high school with the understanding of managing a bank account, filling out taxes and applying for loans. She had a slogan for her class, “Financial Literacy: Don’t Leave School Without It.”
The more I read in Mrs. B’s class and at home the clearer it became that financial education was an essential (but often missing) part of the foundation for success. Without understanding credit, loans, money, career planning, and investing, success feels distant and abstract. Uncertainty over how to pay for school, transportation, food, and housing can leave anyone feeling hopeless and desperate for a way out. If enough people feel that uncertainty, they don’t maximize their potential, houses don’t get built, schools don't receive the necessary resources they need to produce world class citizens, and the cycle continues.
On the other hand, if you learn financial skills early, you can adapt them to your personal life and to achieving your dreams. Financial education was one way to solidify my path to success, and my peers’ paths, too. Beyond that, financial education could help us build the opportunity to be financially free. As Sean Carter (Jay-Z) once rhymed, “Generational wealth, that's key. My parents didn’t have %$#@ so that shift started with me.”
The goal became clear: make Personal Finance a graduation requirement in our school system so that everyone could benefit from it. As simple as that goal was, it will come as no surprise to readers that there were many layers of bureaucratic steps to take to ensure this happened. Particularly in large school districts like mine, change doesn't happen overnight. It can take weeks, months, and years of “no” until you get to “yes.” In our case, the change took place over years, and then accelerated in the span of several months while I served as the Student Board Member on our county’s School Board.
How did you get the graduation requirement across the finish line?
Well, Mrs. B had been calling for this change for years, so when we teamed up, we had a great foundation to work from. We knew that financial education for all PG County high schoolers would be a popular idea, so our strategy was to amplify the voices of as many supportive stakeholders as we could. I tapped into my experience on the SGA to help gather support from over 100 student government leaders, staff and parents. They kept the pressure on through the various speed bumps we hit along the way. Alongside some strong-willed school board allies, we did it! Personal Finance became a graduation requirement for all high school students in Prince George’s County, approved in early 2020.
Here’s a video of the moment we cemented the change for hundreds of thousands of young people attending high school my county.
What's next for your advocacy efforts?
The price of a financial education can probably be calculated, but its value is immeasurable. Financial education can be the start of a conversation about generational wealth, especially for families of color like mine. But by no means is it the end of that conversation. Empowered with this knowledge of finance, we can dream even bigger. We can set ambitious goals with a clearer path to success. The stories of our success can ripple infinitely in future generations, even after we pass away.
I’m excited to work with NGPF this spring on promoting financial education among more SGA Leaders, Student Board Members, and student-led nonprofits around the country. I believe these students, equipped with the right tools and mentorship, can replicate the change that my county made, and the ripple effect will continue in communities everywhere.