Building Resilience in Norfolk, Virginia: Building Financial Security One Conversation at a Time

March 4, 2017

The Cities of Service Resilience AmeriCorps program trains and supports AmeriCorps VISTA members to help communities prepare for catastrophic events and ongoing challenges. Serving in city halls, AmeriCorps members engage citizens and community partners to build and sustain resilience in vulnerable neighborhoods.


itting along 144 miles of coastline, Norfolk, VA is home to the largest naval station in the world and serves as the urban core of the metropolitan area of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina known as Hampton Roads.

Over the past 400 years, Norfolk has survived wars, plagues, and natural disasters, forging a strong, adaptable population resilient to change. Today, severe coastal flooding, economic disparity between neighborhoods, and a transient military population continue to stress the city.

The fact that Norfolk derives its economic life from its position on the coast places it in a particularly precarious position: A large portion of its population is employed by a single industry.

With more than 8,000 service members transitioning in and out of the military annually, the Department of Defense supports 40 percent of total regional employment — posing a significant risk to residents who need a diverse, vibrant economy to sustain themselves.

Norfolk Launches Plan to Become Coastal City of the Future

To overcome these challenges, Norfolk applied to the 100 Resilient Cities network in October 2015 and appointed Christine Morris as its first Chief Resilience Officer. Morris leads the city’s resilience efforts and launched Norfolk’s Resilience Strategy to tackle risks directly and collaboratively.

The strategy focuses on designing the coastal city of the future, creating economic opportunity independent of federal funding, and advancing initiatives that connect communities while reducing poverty.

To achieve those goals, Norfolk partnered with Cities of Service. One of 10 cities selected to participate in the Cities of Service Resilience AmeriCorps program, Norfolk received two AmeriCorps members to embed in city hall as full-time resilience staff as well as financial and technical support to implement initiatives that advance the Resilience Strategy.

Among Norfolk’s multi-pronged strategy, one initiative has seen early success. With 11.4 percent of residents without a bank account and 27.5 percent without sufficient banking services, Norfolk launched Bank On in January 2016. Inspired by Bank On Virginia Beach and part of the Bank On Hampton Roads collective, the initiative is headed by Susan Perry, who works with Morris to advance the city’s poverty reduction plan.

When an emergency arrives, people living paycheck-to-paycheck often lack the savings needed to cover additional expenses, and payday lenders tend to prey upon that part of the population.

“What we’re trying to do is break the cycle of payday lending and how that keeps people from being able to move forward. Growing the financial security of our residents increases the city’s overall resilience,” says Morris.

Bank On Program Helps Residents Build Financial Security

The 10-month course engages banking, insurance, accounting, and other financial industry professionals as volunteer coaches to provide comprehensive financial education and help participants reduce their barriers to banking.

By developing savings (for things like emergency funds), creating realistic financial plans, reducing debt, and improving credit scores, Bank On participants are more prepared in the event of a disaster.

Norfolk trained two AmeriCorps members, Pam Myers and Justin Burns, as Master Financial Education Volunteers and then embedded them in the Bank On program to serve as financial coaches alongside other volunteers.

While there are many coaches, the AmeriCorps members bring something special to the program. “That personal connection, we’re finding, is really key. They serve as a motivator and a resource to help [participants] reach the goals they lay out for themselves,” says Perry.

Bank On participant, Patrick McMillian, with his financial coach, David McElhaney.

Bank On participant, Adriana Montiel, with Councilwoman Angelia Graves. Photo Credit: Cities of Service

Residents Create Strong Foundations for Financial Resilience

The program is not just about saving money. Norfolk is working to ensure citizens have the financial resilience to cope with whatever situation may arise.

“When you’re coaching somebody, you’re letting them make the decisions. You’re empowering them to make a difference in their own life,” says Myers. The AmeriCorps members bring a new enthusiasm to the city’s poverty reduction initiatives.

“There’s just a lot of this can do-spirit. I think the spirit is catching, and the AmeriCorps members are a great addition to help us push that even further,” adds Morris. The first Bank On Norfolk cohort to complete the entire course graduated this past November with promising results.

“Prior to Bank On, my account was mostly in the negative. I’ve learned that with savings, I don’t have to use credit anymore. I have a zero balance on my credit cards and about $4,000 in savings,” says Patrick McMillian, a Bank On participant.

The participants from the first graduating class report an average increase of $3,858 in retirement savings and 56 points on their credit score while reducing their total debt by $15,207 per person. In addition, the city connects graduates to other community resources, such as the Virginia Individual Development Accounts program, which supports individuals saving for a down payment on a home, business equipment, or post-secondary education.

In the future, the city plans to expand the program. “Now they know how to save. We’re excited about the opportunity to build tracks so that folks can progress from one problem to the next and build their resiliency.”

With a financially resilient population, Norfolk is ready for another 400 years as a thriving metropolitan hub.

“Now they know how to save. We’re excited about the opportunity to build tracks so that folks can progress from one problem to the next and build their resiliency.”
– Christine Morris, Chief Resilience Officer, Norfolk

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Cities of Service’s work is made possible with generous funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Resilience AmeriCorps is supported by The Rockefeller Foundation, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and Walmart Foundation.