Growing up in Oklahoma, Christy Finsel, MSW ’04, an enrolled tribal member of the Osage Nation, was surrounded by the rich history, culture and traditions of different tribes.
“When I moved to St. Louis in 1994 for undergraduate studies, I did not realize how my world and interests would continue to intersect,” Finsel says.
After finishing her bachelor’s degree in social work and theology at Saint Louis University, Finsel taught high school theology at Ursuline Academy in St. Louis, while completing a master’s degree in theology. She wanted to continue social work studies, so she later enrolled in the social and economic development concentration at Washington University’s George Warren Brown School of Social Work. There, with the support from Sarah Hicks, MSW ’97, PhD ’08 (Finsel’s adviser who worked for the Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies), Karen Edwards (project director at the Center for Social Development) and others, she came upon the concepts that propel the main thrust of her current work — asset-building in Native communities. Since then, Finsel continues to merge her interdisciplinary interests.
Although many of her projects focus on Indian tribes, she also does asset-building in other communities. For the past nine years, Finsel has volunteered at De La Salle Middle School, a small coed parochial institution in the Ville neighborhood in North St. Louis City. Today she continues to co-coordinate a youth Individual Development Account (IDA) program that she designed and implemented at De La Salle in 2003.
At the school, eighth-grade students open custodial bank accounts, attend financial education classes and continue to develop their savings habits. If needed, the program also provides employment opportunities around the school and neighborhood. Each month, the De La Salle students deposit anywhere from $5 to $20 into their accounts. After six months, students have accrued as much as $120 of their own savings. A nonprofit then matches that amount anywhere from 2:1 to 5:1, depending on the funding for the year. Students can use the money to make purchases for tuition, books, uniforms or even school social functions.
The De La Salle program also provides financial education resources for the students’ parents. “Instead of just focusing on the students, we are trying to get parents to talk about money with their children in a different way,” Finsel says.
As the Region VII Assets for Independence (AFI) Regional Consultant for the Administration for Children and Families ASSET Initiative, Finsel is working to bring more asset-building programs to families. This work takes her across Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa.
Assets, of course, do not always involve money. Finsel’s Washington University studies and field experience also suggest a strong cultural component. She says that Native communities can consider assets more broadly to include spirituality, sovereignty, natural resources, community, education, culture and more.
One of the Native Hawaiian organizations that Finsel works with incorporates a language component into its asset-building program. “The piece of this that I’m really interested in — and think about most — is how to make the [asset-building] programs work in local communities, given the way they think about assets.”
Thus, Finsel is working on developing Children’s Savings Accounts, IDAs and peer learning projects with a variety of Native communities nationally who are designing programs with a cultural fit. Some of her recent contracts have been with First Nations Development Institute and the Administration for Native Americans to provide either project facilitation or training and technical assistance.
“It is exciting and a privilege to work with other asset builders nationally,” Finsel says.
These days Finsel resides in St. Louis, where with support from Osage Cultural Center advisers, she conducts research uncovering local pieces of Osage history. For a doctoral language project, she recently translated a mid–19th-century document written by Jesuits who ran an Osage mission in Kansas. “There’s a tremendous amount of Osage history recorded in St. Louis archives and museums,” Finsel says. “In the past, the Osage resided in Missouri. Increasingly, we have been connecting to our history here.”
Finsel is pursuing a PhD in religious studies at the Catholic University of America. Her work is focused on how Native worldviews affect how they build assets.
This year, Finsel has worked with Osage Financial Resources, Inc., on the Osage Reservation in Oklahoma to design and launch a non-AFI funded IDA program. She also recently agreed to lead the Oklahoma Native Assets Coalition. She’ll travel to Oklahoma for that work.
“I didn’t realize all the Osage connections when I moved to St. Louis,” she says. Tapping into such a rich history here and connecting to it professionally is something Finsel never anticipated.
Sheila Callahan is a freelance writer based in Larchmont, N.Y.