07/23/2014 03:07 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2014

Stephanie Raill Jayanandhan: Meeting Our Customers in Brownsville

"You went where?" say my friends when I tell them what I've been doing. "To Brownsville? Isn't it dangerous? Were you afraid?"

There are only two banks in Brownsville, Brooklyn.The lines at the Chase branch often stretch out the door. People in a hurry to get their banking done sometimes take the train to the next neighborhood over, where the lines are shorter.

A quarter of the population in Brownsville is unemployed, and almost half don't have a bank account. Many of those have probably never set foot inside a bank, and are afraid of not knowing the customs. It seems like a good place to start, if we want to learn more about how people making less than $25,000 a year think about and manage money.

Our first interviewee asks us to meet inside a store. At first I think it's our interviewee's store, but it's actually her friend's -- it's just opened, and she's helping out. People walking by wave and say hi when they see her inside.

She describes the growing sense of dread they feel as spring turns into summer. It's a feeling echoed by many of the people we talk to. Longer summer days mean that the young guys spend all their time outside. That's when territorial disputes blow up, and the violence happens. Last year, there were 72 shootings in the neighborhood -- more than one for every 1,000 residents. If the young people had more to do, they tell us, things would get better. Youth programs, jobs, more opportunities to bring structure to their lives.

On our second trip to Brownsville, our interviewee asks us to meet at an early childhood education center. We assume she's part of the staff. But when we arrive, the security guard doesn't know who she is.

We're graciously welcomed in anyway and offered a seat in the reception area, but it's clear the staff are trying to figure out who we are. A couple of different people come and ask us what organization we come from.

Eventually Kate, the Family Resource person, puts two and two together. She's worked with our program staff to recruit a group of parents and family members for us to talk to. And because there are very few public spaces to sit and talk in Brownsville, and almost no 'third places' like coffee shops where people can meet, she offered the school as a place to host our conversations.

On our way home we walk past the spontaneous memorial to Antiq Hennis, the toddler who was shot last year by a bullet meant for his father. It's covered in teddy bears and candles. I think about my own toddler. I think about Antiq's mother, about the hole that's been blasted in her life. I think about it all the way to the train, and all the way home.


Our interviewees have complicated relationships with their neighborhood. Some moved there to be near family, others because that's where public housing was available, still others because they could buy their own home and settle for the long haul. They all talk about the things they love about living where they do -- kids' grandparents around the corner, uncles and aunts a train ride away.

They're working hard to get good opportunities for their kids -- applying to charter schools, placing them in the Early Head Start program. One or two are working on their GEDs, studying alongside daughters and grandsons and friends.

Some of them are ready to move on, leave the neighborhood, but they're holding out until something happens: until their son graduates, until their daughter is settled, until their application for a housing transfer is approved. Others are staying on and changing their community from the inside: serving on committees, connecting people with resources, providing pastoral care for the people around them.

We talk to a member of the Economic Development Committee. She tells us about the credit union they're working to bring to the neighborhood, about the Hope Summit that helps residents express their vision for Brownsville's future.

It's one thing to talk to potential users of your product in the comforts of your office. But if we - the people who work in tech -- never go to places like Brownsville, we lose an opportunity to understand their lived experience. Hearing from them in places they feel comfortable and welcome allows for more meaningful conversations. Seeing what challenges users face - and what they have overcome. With a smartphone or a Kindle, access to the Internet, the right information, and the right, fairly priced products, we're all the same distance from the bank, the grocery store, or an opportunity to work.

Going to Brownsville is the highlight of my week, these days. Yes, sometimes I'm afraid. But being afraid isn't an excuse.