Tamika Stembridge doesn’t know how to solve every racial injustice. But she does know where every solution must start: with the people who personally experience it in their daily lives.
That’s the key to Tamika’s daily fight against injustice. As executive director of the dfree® Financial Freedom Movement, she works with Black families facing barriers to financial security. She is constantly reminded of the generational disadvantages that make wealth creation more difficult for Black Americans – but also, she says, of people’s ability to overcome the barriers holding them back.
Tamika knows these challenges firsthand. As a law/business school student at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey (Camden), she quickly realized the financial implications of going from a corporate executive to a non-profit leader, to a full-time student in an 8-month period with no adjustments to her lifestyle or plan to pay off the credit cards, auto loans, and other personal debts amassed during undergrad and while working early in her career. When denied access to federal student aid during her second semester of school, reality set in for sure. She was on course for a financial disaster, only to be saved by qualifying for a scholarship that covered her tuition.
After paying off her debt, Tamika went from strength to strength. She went on to graduate from Rutgers University School of Law while earning an MBA in marketing, too. She rejoined the world of work and became a successful entertainment lawyer, strategic consultant, and entrepreneur.
Yet despite success at every turn, she had higher ambitions. She aspired to “represent, advocate for, and advance critical efforts for Black people,” she says, while paying heed to the unique struggles, history, and culture that tend to limit the opportunities available to people of color.
That’s when Tamika was introduced to the dfree® Financial Freedom Movement, which was founded in 2005 by Heal America Co-chair Rev. Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries. A prominent leader of the civil rights movement, Buster created dfree® in the tradition Dr. King to help achieve economic justice in America. Its 12-step training program is based on the premise of “no debt, no deficits, no delinquencies,” and seeks to empower people to take control of their financial futures despite the barriers that exist.
Tamika had found her calling. Today, under her leadership, dfree® training program is distributed by more than 4,000 churches, community groups, service organizations, and employers around the country.
In April 2020, when the pandemic cost tens of millions of Americans their jobs in a matter of weeks, dfree® launched virtual sessions to help manage the added financial stress. More than 3,000 people registered, and between August and mid-October of last year, all dfree® participants paid down a combined $1 million in debt at a time when the economy was still reeling from lockdowns.
Tamika believes dfree® was built for moments like the one facing our country today
“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. 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.”
For Tamika, the key to progress is the insight at the core of dfree®: Listen to the people who experience the problem every day, yet manage to navigate their way out, around, and over the obstacles. They’re the ones who can lead the way to the solutions.