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Oakland Public Library Financial Literacy Program

Background on how the idea evolved and where it is headed next.

Photo of Trevor z Hallstein
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I had been looking for ways to become more involved in my local community this spring, and a friend of mine who is a prior IDEO employee suggested over drinks, “You’ve been interested in design thinking for a long time, why don’t you take a look at OpenIEO?” as a way to combine learning about design thinking with making a positive impact. To my heart’s delight, the topic that was in the research phase on OpenIDEO centered around community-based financial empowerment. I had been thinking critically over the last several years about the focus in America on self-reliance when it comes to financial matters. In particular, the shift from defined benefit to defined contribution plans has always struck me as a really poor policy move. In the course of reading through research posts, I learned about models that were working and could be expanded, such as Grameen Bank, and new ideas, such as better data visualization and improved transparency for financial products. I was impressed by the interviews on the OpenIDEO platform and the ways they shed light on positive experiences with microfinance in India to living hand to mouth in Mexico and I was touched by the how the interviews cut through statistics and numbers to highlight people’s individual experiences. One series of interviews really struck me, "Hilaria: A Tlaxcalancingo perspective: Financial responsibility from a maid that is part of the Acatepec, Mexico community and lives barely above the poverty line.”

I asked the interviewer from the OpenIDEO platform, Andreas Thoma, to se if he could find out a little more about retirement, and he asked Hilaria:

How do "retirees" provide for themselves in their community, is there a concept of "savings"?

Hilaria - No one retires, we can't! We have to keep working until we aren't able to anymore. Then our family will take care of us. My children will help me, they work as well. We don't plan far ahead financially, we just can't. I'm truly scared because I don't know what is going to happen to me in 1 or 2 years. I can plan ahead a week or 2 at the most. You just have to keep working and hope nothing happens.

I get a lot of energy out of face-to-face interactions, more-so than virtual, and so I had my antennae up for a local project that would directly help the community in which I live. I wanted to be able to practice the aspects of human centered design I would be learning, and so a local project would also make it possible to do interviews, speak to potential beneficiaries, speak to service providers, speak to friends working in the field, and work with IDEO folks. During the research phase, an OpenIDEO member in Seattle, Jennifer Peterson, posted about ‘Libraries as Financial Literacy Hubs’. A lightbulb went off for me, and I decided then to explore this idea. Fortunately, the supervising librarian at Oakland Public Library was very supportive from our initial meeting. She embraced the notion of providing more financial literacy resources to patrons, and observed that libraries are trusted places and that "Our goal is to connect people with resources.”. In her view, while many sites at OPL and other library systems do offer such trainings and programs, financial empowerment through financial literacy was something that the library would be interested in offering more of.

With this endorsement of exploring the concept, and Jennifer Peterson’s observations about libraries, I set to work to approach things from a human-centered design perspective. Over the course of six weeks, I sat in on financial literacy related courses at San Francisco Public Library and Berkeley Impact Hub, I talked to a handful of patrons, and I interviewed and met with about a dozen local service providers that ranged from places like Sage Financial Solutions, where I spoke with Saundra Davis who helped set up the Financial Well-Being program at South San Francisco Public Library ( , ) to Randy Weaver who coordinates Project Read, the Adult Learner program at San Francisco Public Library to get his feedback on ProjectMoney, a financial literacy offshoot of the Project Read program ( ).

Building on the human centered design process philosophy, I chose to heavily weight ProjectMoney at SFPL. As it was designed by adult learners for other adult learners, I felt it reflected empathy for other patrons. In addition to the qualitative research, I did digest a number of top down reports with eye-popping statistics, which served to highlight the importance of introducing programs to buttress OPL’s already strong roster of community courses, but the OpenIDEO staff, members, facilitators, and community impact fellows, all helped to reinforce the idea of stepping away from a top down design approach and of speaking directly with potential participants as much as possible to be able to understand hings from their perspective. The idea of stepping into their shoes reminded me of this very insightful Jack Handey quote, "“Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.”. But seriously, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be an exercise in landing in and telling people “Here’s what you gotta do.", it was going to be a process of really trying to see what they were going through, what their days were like, what tools and products would be helpful to them. Frankly, it was overwhelming and continues to be so. How do you offer courses that are helpful to a wide range of potential participants? Adding to this, Saundra Davis at Sage Financial Solutions reminded me, “Think carefully about what they are going to get out of it. Don’t waste their time.”. Some of the wherewithal to push forward came from a recent talk by Peter Senge who is a systems thinking inspiration for me, and his advice was, “Don’t wait to figure it all out to get started. Learn by doing, by taking a lot of risks. Life is real complex.” He also had a very good comment about research relevant to the first stage of the challenge, the Research Phase, and suggested in answer to the question, “What is Research?”, that “It is a disciplined approach to learn and understand, and a commitment to share. ‘If we do this well, what will we have learned that we can share with other people, that will allow other people to benefit?’” This is an aspect embraced by OpenIDEO that I really like. It encourages open collaboration and sharing and the ability to learn from each other’s efforts.

Along the way, there have frequently been doubts in my mind around whether or not the project would make a difference. The last thing I wanted to do was to help set up a program that might make the people setting it up feel good about themselves (namely, me), but which in practice wouldn't positively impact people’s lives. I struggled with the question of  what is the value of a 1-off course, and what can a person possibly learn in a 1 hour class that will lead to incremental shifts in habits? To get at this issue, the OPL and I thought it made sense to explore partnering with a variety of hyperlocal groups that could support people over many months or even years as they sought to dig deeper into certain areas that might come up in the classes, e.g.: credit repair, building up a safety net, planning for kids to attend college. We thought a good model would be to build a set of courses that taught concrete skills in the first part of the class, while leaving room at the end of the class to connect participants to hyperlocal service providers for more extended support. The online OpenIDEO community provided great feedback along the way, providing encouragement and expertise (to mention a few: Silvie Hibdon, Bettina Fliegel, Lindsey Boran, Shane Zhao, and Jennifer Peterson (the original idea poster who has stayed heavily invovled as the Oakland version of the idea has developed) all at various points made really insightful suggestions that helped moved the idea forward). The live OpenIDEO meetups provided several great turning points as we workshopped the idea. In the refinement phase, the creation and acting out of the UX Map helped ground the idea. The scenes which OpenIDEO volunteers acted out were helpful in that they helped me see how people would think and feel. Watching the volunteers take on personas of possible class participants and act them out awakened an empathic part of my brain that became better able to step into someone else’s shows and think through the experience from their perspective. And the acting was great; it was a real highlight of the evening! 

Next Steps:

We are now at the stage where the OpenIDEO Idea Team will put together a draft program and seek to pilot it at the Oakland Public Library Main Branch. Another hyperlocal provider, MindBlown Labs, helped to highlight the core areas one might want to include in a curriculum, and the suggestions match well with the San Francisco Project Money topic areas.

The draft curriculum idea is to provide three core classes:


    Budgeting is the basis for achieving nearly all finance-related goals


    Achieving most significant life goals require credit: buying a car, renting an apartment, buying a house, starting a business. Even less obvious ones involve credit: 40% of employers run credit checks.

Earnings Power

    Young adults generally do not appreciate how the level of education relates to lifetime earnings. For example, a high school graduate with no further education can expect to make $1 Million in their lifetime. A person with a higher level degree, for instance, a mediocre software engineer, can expect to make $5 Million in their lifetime. When young adults making choices about finishing high school or pursuing and advanced degree, they are not aware of the huge impact on their lifetime earnings power that they are making

A few other comments on the next steps are as follows:


The most important aspect of any financial literacy program will be that the instructors are well trained, and be aware that reality checks can be very painful. Instructors need to be prepared for the range of emotions that will emerge during sessions.


We will approach OPL again and seek to Pilot the program in the main branch, and use an agile approach to incorporate feedback, adapt the course. There are 17 branches in the OPL system so there is huge potential to help a large part of the community.

The Award

The award will, in fact, I believe provide the right amount of finances to assist OPL if they choose to follow up on the idea by providing funds for in hiring eperts to ‘train the trainer’ and get the program underway. I am glad to have been able to shepherd the idea along, I’m awed at the reception it has gotten, and I’m moved at the possibility of the programming to help people.

I am looking forwrad to this program making a difference, and to being involved in more challenges coming up.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Jean-Marc Mercy

Congratulations, Trevor! I like the idea of implementing a public library financial literacy program. Very practical. Keep it up!

Photo of Shane Zhao

You've been such a rockstar collaborator in this challenge Trevor! Thank you for not only your Financial Literacy idea, but for all the time that you've spent helping others become successful on the platform. Silvie and the San Francisco Meetup team also wrote up a great story that featured you in it: We're really looking forward to how the OPL Financial Literacy program will launch in the upcoming weeks. Keep us posted and see you in another challenge!

Photo of Trevor z Hallstein

Thanks Shane, it's been a real pleasure collaborating with everyone, and you've been great with fuzzy encouragement and concrete suggestions. Thx.