By age 32, Tamika Stembridge had conquered most of her career goals.
She had earned a law degree and an MBA, handled production and sourcing at a fashion house, worked in supply chain and human resources for a major corporation, and started an entertainment law practice. But she had higher ambitions.
When chatting about career ambitions with a woman she once mentored, Tamika shared her secret desire: “to be the president of Black people.” This wouldn’t be an elected position. It was simply someone who could improve the lives of individuals and groups in her racial demographic. In this ideal role, Tamika said she would use her education and experience to “help people better navigate the world knowing what I know about the systems, but at the same time, help to change the systems that exist.”
She would “represent, advocate for, and advance critical efforts for Black people” while paying heed to the unique struggles, history, and culture, she says.
One month after that conversation, Tamika got a chance to test her vision. She was offered an opportunity to work with dfree® Global Foundation, a nonprofit that fosters financial empowerment in the Black community.
Today, as executive director, Tamika fights for the economic prosperity of a population that has historically experienced higher unemployment rates, lower incomes, and less savings than their white counterparts.
“We have to understand the generational disadvantages that make the achievement of wealth more difficult for African Americans,” Tamika says.
“We have to acknowledge the historic and systemic barriers that arose with slavery and mutated into webs of discriminatory practices that we experience even today,” she says. “But at the same time, because nobody’s coming to save us, clearly, we have to take some level of personal accountability and responsibility to do things better.”
The organization uses a 12-step training program based on the premise of “no debt, no deficits, no delinquencies.” It helps participants eradicate negative actions and thinking patterns and instead take proactive steps to build wealth. Created by Rev. Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries in 2005, the faith-based program uses biblical principles to share lessons in areas such as budgeting, savings, investing, and giving.
Dr. Soaries’ premise is “debt is a form of slavery,” says Tamika, who as a child would sit in the church pew with her grandmother as he preached. He initially launched dfree® to help his Baptist church and parishioners in Somerset, N.J., free themselves from debt. In addition to focusing on the personal finance tools typically offered by banks and other institutions, he tapped into the emotional, cultural, and behavioral aspects of money management. Dr. Soaries encourages participants to examine the psychological reasons behind their spending and stresses the importance of creating a healthy mindset to break the habit of instant gratification.
The program, taught through both readings and classes, is distributed by churches, community groups, service organizations, and employers. More than 4,000 organizations have been trained in the dfree® method. In addition, dfree® shares course lectures digitally via the dfree® Online Academy.
Priscilla Rose discovered dfree® through her church in Vallejo, Calif. She has curtailed spending, increased her savings by $1,300, paid off $1,500 on her credit cards, and addressed other debt.
In 2012, dfree® launched its Billion Dollar Challenge to reduce $1 billion in Black consumer debt to achieve financial freedom. It provides tools and tips and aggregates the progress of users. To date, more than 10,000 participants have collectively paid off nearly $26 million in debt.
Tanetha Johnson joined the Billion Dollar Challenge in May 2019. Sixteen months later, she had paid down about $20,000 of her $25,000 credit card debt.
Now that she’s eliminated a big chunk of debt, she has a new goal: saving money to buy a beach house.
The challenge and dfree® program “gave me a different vision of what I can accomplish if I set my mind to it,” she says.
For participants of dfree®, doing things better not only means getting individual finances in order. It also means giving to others, helping the community, and supporting equality for all. The lessons taught by dfree® apply to anyone, but its focus is the Black community.
“We can’t undo what’s been done to us historically, but there are systems that have to change,” Tamika says. “We encourage people to vote. We encourage you, when you become more financially able, to give to causes and organizations that advocate on your behalf.”
The organization began with in-person meetings and has expanded to include a broad digital network comprised of a blog, e-newsletter, e-magazine, a podcast, and webinars. Once the coronavirus crisis took root in the United States, dfree® leaned on those channels heavily to keep its participants engaged and informed. In April, dfree® launched webinars on topics such as managing a budget, and managing stress, during COVID-19. More than 3,000 people registered for the first set of webinars, Tamika says. Since then, hundreds of people have continued to tune in each week.
The organization also worked with the #GiveTogetherNow campaign to disburse $500 cash payments to individual households hit hardest financially by the pandemic. The #GiveTogetherNow effort was spearheaded by Stand Together, which supports dfree® with funding and business management coaching, and the Family Independence Initiative.
For this campaign, dfree® identified 70 recipients in its network, and that process was incredibly eye-opening, Tamika says. The majority of dfree®’s community is in the middle-income bracket, so she was surprised to find so many struggling families. It made her realize that education and an individual’s best efforts sometimes aren’t enough to overcome hardship.
“Even with the best financial information, the best intentions, and the understanding of where your heart needs to be to manage your money well, there are some instances where knowing is not enough and there is a true financial need,” she says.
The spread of COVID-19 and the new focus on racial inequality in America have made Tamika even more aware of the need to foster change.
“We’re at a point in time where everything dfree® stands for is coming to a head,” she says. “We have racial and social injustice happening. We have the financial implications of COVID-19. When you talk about being built and prepared for a time, I think dfree® really stands at the crossroads of both of those things.”
In turn, dfree® will continue to double down on its efforts. “Our work is so essential to what it’s going to take to rebuild the country.”
The group hosted an all-digital conference in July titled “From Crisis to Clarity,” where leaders in the Black community discussed potential strategies and solutions for dealing with the spate of recent challenges. The organization will keep the advice coming. It’s “In the Black” webinar series will focus the rest of the year on helping its community navigate “what we’ve come to accept as our new normal,” Tamika says.
“As a community, we can’t fund change if we don’t have our personal financial houses in order,” Tamika says. “It’s why we work so hard to help individuals, families, and organizations to achieve financial stability — the well-being of our overall communities depends on it.”