Growing up in Adair County in rural northeastern Oklahoma, Brian Ross was a shy, soft-spoken teen until a high school speech class changed his life forever.
“My parents forced me to take speech to get me out of my shell and build confidence,” he confides. “I hated it at first, but once I got in there and became comfortable speaking I discovered that speech gave me a forum and an outlet for self-expression. Moreover, I realized the power of communication and how it could make a positive difference not only in my life, but also within my family and my community.”
Jump ahead a couple of decades and Brian has made good use of the skills he honed in his youth by serving Indian Country within the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, or OST. As OST’s recently appointed Director of Financial Education, Brian has plenty of opportunities to communicate responsible money management. The new position, created by Special Trustee Vince Logan, has raised the bar in terms of OST’s longstanding commitment to financial education, especially programs targeted to Native youth. Brian describes his job as part of a multi-faceted strategy to expand financial education opportunities throughout Indian Country and beyond, including:
- Building a unique platform from which to launch various financial education initiatives such as youth outreach, curriculum, and financial coaching.
- Supporting OST’s extensive field staff with financial education train-the-trainer workshops and related resources.
- Providing financial education for OST employees who serve as ambassadors and must set good examples in the communities they serve.
- Establishing a recognizable brand that effectively conveys OST’s mission of fostering financial education.
- Creating lasting synergy with partners that include tribal governments, nonprofits, schools, and other federal agencies dedicated to financial education.
These topics are personal to Brian. As a child he witnessed tremendous poverty and what he calls needless suffering in one of the poorest counties in Oklahoma. And while he acknowledges that financial hardships can be a personal choice, he believes the underlying cause is often a lack of knowledge and available resources. Later, while attending college, he became frustrated by the fact that no financial education services existed for students and he was forced to seek out his own financial role models. One of these individuals was his Cherokee grandmother.
“My grandmother had only a fourth-grade education when she was forced to leave school and go to work,” he explains. “She grew up poor like so many in those days and her parents couldn’t afford to buy her a new dress to go to church. She had to wear a potato sack instead. But she understood the value of a dollar and taught me to be conservative with my money because you never know when you might need it for something important. I hope I can set an example that inspires my 14-year-old son in the same way.”
In addition to money smarts, Brian also encourages young people to pursue their dreams. He followed his dreams in his early 20s when he moved to California to explore an acting career. The experience provided another opportunity to tap into his love for communication and culminated in credited roles in several feature films as well as a brief stint on the soap opera “The Young and the Restless.”
Brian has come a long way from the timid student who shuddered the first time he had to speak in public. When asked to provide any tips for others who struggle with formal presentations, he offered the following advice:
“I speak best when I’m able to tell personal stories. People relate to them better, especially the stories that they can see themselves in. It’s also important not to focus on yourself, the presenter, but on your audience instead. Focusing on yourself is distracting, but when you care about your audience and they can see it, you become a dynamic speaker.”
On a final note, Brian points out that, just like with public speaking, there are no magical solutions to handling money wisely. Furthermore, he says OST will not create any new financial education concepts or gimmicks with any of the aforementioned initiatives.
“A budget is a budget,” he explains. “Nothing we invent will take the place of hard work and personal responsibility, but we will strive to present the best tools available to assist people in making smart financial choices. I’d also like to point out that OST has a fiduciary responsibility to people with Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts and tribal leaders, but we don’t stop there because not everyone has an IIM account. I’m available to talk to anyone any time about financial education and I’ll even provide my cell number. I also encourage people to learn what’s available. Whether you are a tribal leader, an individual OST beneficiary, or any other member of Indian Country, we want to work with you and are building our resources with that in mind. OST plans to show up at every venue in 2015 in a big way.”
Interested in partnering with OST to bring financial education to you community? For more information feel free to contact Brian directly on his cell at (918) 977-0848 or by email at email@example.com.
By Shawn Spruce, First Nations Programs Consultant