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Unbanked In NYC: How A Schoolteacher Is Bringing Cryptocurrency To The South Bronx

“Banking the unbanked” has become something of a cliché in blockchain circles. It brings to mind long queues of Kenyan farmers, migrant workers with no address, or struggling families with their savings in their mattresses. The last place one expects to find ‘the unbanked’ is in the heart of global finance – New York City.

But even in the world’s banking capital, there are still thousands of people cut off from the banking system. “[A] n estimated 825,000 adults in New York City lack even a basic checking account,” according to a 2015 report by the New York City Comptroller. “In some neighborhoods like Mott Haven and Melrose in the Bronx, over half of all residents are classified as ‘unbanked.'” 

However, some crypto users are using blockchain technology to provide alternatives to the legacy financial system. 

Carlos Acevedo is a high school English teacher in the South Bronx. Alongside his full-time day job, Acevedo has launched the Crypto Community Project (CCP). It’s a grassroots initiative to connect young people in his neighborhood to those within the crypto community, so they can learn first-hand about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology.

In early August, Acevedo staged a two-day workshop for twelve of his alumni students. He arranged for industry specialists from firms such as the Electric Coin Company (behind Zcash), Gemini, the Casa wallet, and the Flexa payment network to come and talk to the students about their areas of expertise.

So why is Acevedo doing this? Crypto Briefing had the opportunity to speak to him and some of his students about the CCP initiative. For him, this is about more than just spreading the good word of crypto to the next generation. In his own words:

“I want to help facilitate a Zcash-based economy in the South Bronx, to alleviate some of the economic exploitation that’s happening here, through the lack of banking services.”


Crypto for the Unbanked of South Bronx

South Bronx is an area where the median household income is a little over $28,000 per year, around half the state level. As with many low-income areas, there are few traditional banks, and only one branch per 20,000 people. Overall, the Bronx has the highest proportion of unbanked people in New York City.

Therefore, the financial services available for locals tend to operate outside the traditional banking system. There are companies offering check cashing, payday loans, and money remittances, but at extortionate fees.

So Acevedo’s CCP workshop provides multiple benefits to the students. First, it gives them access to an alternative financial infrastructure, as well as explaining the associated security challenges and legal implications. Second, it gives students the opportunity to consider a career in a new sector that’s hungry for talent.

One student, Emmanuel Ntiamoah, is just about to embark upon a Computer Science course at the University of Buffalo. He told Crypto Briefing how he’d come away from the CCP workshop with an understanding of how blockchain and cryptocurrency could open up new avenues. Ntiamoah is now actively considering ways he can stay connected to the crypto space throughout his studies, and is interested in learning more about the potential career opportunities in the space.

Thais Rosario also attended the workshop. She’s set to study history as an undergraduate, but says that she definitely wants to continue her journey into crypto. Thais is particularly passionate about the fact that decentralized networks create equality of opportunity among participants. So much so, she tweeted the President to tell him what she thinks:

Currency manipulation, inflation, and having a set of few people own massive amounts of money/power it is why cryptocurrencies are so dangerous. It gives power back to the people. — Thais (@Thais16388590) August 6, 2019

Tamile Burke left the workshop with an understanding of the value of cryptocurrency in managing personal finances. She says that wants to remain connected to the cryptocurrency space, and is eager to introduce the concepts to her friends and family.“The future of crypto depends on the ones who know about it now to get the word out there,” she told Crypto Briefing.


The Evolution of the Crypto Community Project

Acevedo discovered cryptocurrency back in 2014. Over time, he started to introduce the idea to his students during lunch breaks and found they had a healthy appetite for the concepts. A running joke developed: “Mr. Acevedo, when are you gonna give me a bitcoin?”

Acevedo waited until his students graduated. Once he could legally interact with them as adults, he gifted them a nominal amount of the privacy coin Zcash.

But why Zcash, and not BTC? Acevedo explained:

“In this neighborhood, security and secrecy are actually quite important. Should anybody know your bitcoin wallet addresses, then once people know how much value you hold, you risk putting yourself in physical danger.”

He summarized:

“Using a privacy-focused coin like Zcash protects against that risk.”

One of his students happened to be mentored by Washington Post journalist Heather Long. She covered the story, and from there, Acevedo was able to leverage the publicity to connect with key figures within the community. The Crypto Community Project was born, and now, Acevedo hopes to keep the momentum going.


Crypto For The Masses

The challenges of the unbanked aren’t the sole preserve of developing countries with limited banking infrastructure, or the South Bronx neighborhoods. A 2017 survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation estimated that 6.5 percent of US households do not have any kind of a bank account, and a further 18.7 percent have a basic checking account but use other financial products and services outside of the banking system. This represents over 30 million households using services such as payday loans, check cashing, and money remittance services.

Decentralized finance opens up the opportunity of accessing an entirely new financial services infrastructure – something that could mean far more to an unbanked person than to an average middle-income Joe.

“Poverty just means a lack of money and a lack of access, nothing more,” Acevedo pointed out.  “Cryptocurrency is a way of alleviating both those things. The crypto community needs to look no further than our own backyards to live up to banking the unbanked.”

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