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As far back as Renée Boucaud can remember, the women in her Trinidadian community managed the money. The husbands would work and hand over their paycheques, and the women kept an eye on where every dollar went and needed to go.

These women were part of an informal savings collective, where members contribute a set amount to a common fund on a regular basis, and then take turns collecting part or all of the pool to spend on whatever they need – from groceries to school books to a down payment on a home. The order of payouts is typically determined by the “banker lady” running the group, and can be organized by lottery or based on need. (The funds neither charge nor pay interest).

Collectively, they are known as Rotating Savings and Credit Associations (Roscas), and they have become a means not just for women to save in a disciplined way, but also to provide financial and emotional support to their peers, or even start their own businesses.

Over the past year and a half, Roscas and the banker ladies who run them have played an essential role in strengthening ties in communities that have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. For those who have essential jobs, and those who were laid off, these organizations have provided a sense of sisterhood built on a foundation of accountability and trust.

Today, Ms. Boucaud, a Montreal-based community outreach worker, is a banker lady who collects and distributes money for her susu – the name given to such informal banks in many Caribbean communities. But these savings pools, which are widely found in Black, Indigenous and other communities of colour around the world, go by other names, too: hagbad in Somalia, gam-iya in Egypt.

In India, for instance, more than 20 million women belong to groups such as the Self-Employment Women’s Association, where women advance peer-to-peer lending; in Niger, tens of thousands of women are part of the Mata Masu Dubara movement, a system of self-managed village banks.

In a sense, these funds operate much like loans, as each of the women are – at their respective turn – able to use the collective funds, and see their contribution back.

“It’s generational,” says Ms. Boucaud, who watched her Trinidadian mother work as a banker lady. “It’s been embedded in us. I knew about susu before I had a bank account and before I ever worked my first job.”

As a banker lady herself now, Ms. Boucaud says she’s found a sense of responsibility and empowerment in the position, which is unpaid. “You have people you have to answer to, who you care about, and it changes your priorities. I remember once thinking, ‘The hydro bill can wait; my susu can’t.’ Because that money could be for their daughter’s college fund or the house they’ve been struggling to buy, and when banks keep closing their doors in our faces, it’s important.”

Celia MacDougall, a Toronto-based therapeutic recreation specialist by day and banker lady by night, says Roscas “came from a time when we [people of colour] weren’t welcome in banks and couldn’t amass financial independence. If we don’t help each other, there’s no lineup of people who are willing to help us.”

It’s also a matter of access. Studies show there are fewer mainstream commercial banks in low-income, diverse communities in Canada. And according to a survey commissioned by the African Canadian Senate Group this past May, only 19 per cent of Black entrepreneurs say they trust banks to do what is right for them and their community, but 45 per cent said that Black-led organizations have been essential to their business. Almost all respondents said they started financing their businesses through personal savings, with only 15 per cent using a bank loan.

“Co-operative economies and mutual aid that are informal have been a part of our world for a very long time,” explains Caroline Shenaz Hossein, associate professor of global development and political science at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “People use co-ops and make them informal and under the radar when they are being threatened, or their survival depends on it.”

But COVID-19 meant changes to the way the groups operated. They could no longer gather in person, and so some turned to virtual exchanges and e-transfers, or doorstop drop-offs, while others put the entire operation on pause. Some dropped out entirely due to being unable to contribute, while others were more involved than ever, hoping to fill the gaps that unemployment had left. This meant some circles decided to share less or re-coordinate who might receive first, second, third and so on.

“So many of the women I work with lost their jobs and their income,” says Toronto-based banker lady Mabinty Bangura. “And so many of us needed things we could no longer get so easily to support our families. Whatever we did get went straight into our group for survival. That’s what it’s about now.”

The organizational, business and social skills involved in running a Rosca have some people arguing the role of a banker lady deserves more recognition.

“Banker ladies drive buses and clean our houses; we call them essential workers and ‘sheroes,’ yet we still pay them minimum wage,” says Ms. Hossein. “You think they’re only good enough to work in your grocery stores but these women are managing banking co-ops with over 50 members. We don’t hire them to advise us on how to make business and banking ‘inclusive,’ but we should.”

Being a banker lady is about “doing something with your life, for yourself and your family,” Bangura says. “It’s being independent, not depending on a man. It’s being able to provide when your child needs something. This work lets you be someone who brings something to the table. Someone who does not let her past, her story, hold her down. If this is what you want to do, tell yourself, ‘I am somebody, I am a leader, I am a businesswoman, I am the future.’”

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