Afra Smith: Building Black Women’s Wealth

By Kristine Hansen | Photography by Hillary Schave, Shot on location at Madison Youth Arts Center (MYArts)

Back in 2015, Afra Smith found herself $30,000 in debt and saddled with a credit score in the 500s.

“Nobody ever talked to me about credit. The first time was the person at the end of the table offering me a credit card,” explains Smith.

Based off of her experiences and a desire to help Black women avoid financial pitfalls, Smith founded The Melanin Project, a business providing financial coaching and education about building wealth. She likes to share her own story to establish that everyone needs to start somewhere — and that Black women need to be actively involved in managing their finances.

“I have an alarm to sound that, yes, the system is designed to keep us down — but here’s my story — [and] here is a potential way [forward] for you,” says Smith, who also works as a manager of diversity, equity and inclusion at UW Health and the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. “We need to talk about where we are. I didn’t grow up in poverty. I am an educated Black woman. I began to look at data about Black women, and it was very eye-opening.”

For example, she found a 2022 study revealing that Black women are the largest consumers of subprime loans. They are also seeking higher education loans at unprecedented rates.

Extending education beyond The Melanin Project, Smith also organized the Wealth Literacy Conference, first held in Madison in 2023 to reach a more diverse audience. The second annual conference will take place on April 13 at Monona Terrace. With scholarships and low-cost registration fees, it’s more accessible than most financial conferences.

Speakers will not solely be financial professionals. “[I want to feature] individuals who have come from an array of backgrounds … to elevate their lives,” says Smith. She envisions presenters such as a single mother who has overcome poverty, a teen mom and an immigrant or refugee who has built a successful business.

“Speakers [will] share their personal-wealth recipes and what got them to where they are today,” Smith says. Session topics are practical, such as economic mobility and budgeting, while also tapping into mental health, such as unpacking trauma or returning to work after incarceration.

In January, Smith will also launch a budget planner that includes instructional videos to round out her offerings. Her entire program rests on her belief that to fix one’s finances you have to look at a person holistically — including their wellbeing — and not just their bank account.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy,” she says.

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