The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
ROCIO: Welcome to Cafecito con MAF. Since 2007, MAF has worked to bring low-income and immigrant households out of the financial shadows. How do we do this? By building on what is already good in people’s lives and listening at every step in their journeys. Today, we invite you to do the same!
Hi everyone, my name is Rocio Rodarte and I’m a policy and communications manager at MAF and your podcast host for today’s very special episode. This is our first podcast ever. And throughout the first season, we’ll tell the story of how MAF and the people we serve responded to COVID-19. The pandemic has been an unimaginable struggle for everyone, including immigrants and small business owners like Diana.
DIANA: It was scary to hear about it. But I didn’t really have any expectations. I didn’t really know how it was going to impact every single area of our lives. I think it hit home once I had to close my business. I was like, Oh my God, nothing’s permanent. You could have a job and might feel like you’re set, but something like this could happen and it throws everything off. And your life depends on it. Your kid, your dogs…everything.
ROCIO: Diana was just one of many people trying to adapt to this new reality, one that has been especially unforgiving for immigrants left without a social safety net.
And while COVID-19 may have shocked people with its impact, this, unfortunately, isn’t new. But more on that later. First, I’d like to introduce you to today’s guest and the person who’d know best. He’s none other than our founder and CEO, José Quinonez.
JOSÉ: Hi Rocio. So glad to be here talking to you about this important topic.
ROCIO: Yeah, thanks for being here. I’m here with my cafecito and really excited to have this conversation with you today. So—
JOSÉ: I’m on to my third cafecito of the day.
ROCIO: Same! I didn’t want to out myself, but same.
Focusing on those left last and least
ROCIO: I’d love to start this conversation by talking about the work MAF has done in the last year and a half in response to this pandemic. We raised $55 million for our Rapid Response Fund to provide more than 63,000 grants to students, workers, and immigrant families all over the country. Forty-eight states in total. This number is a huge feat, but it’s also really sobering. It demonstrates a massive gap in equity, one that organizations like ours are going to be meeting for years to come.
José, for an organization like MAF which has historically focused on credit-building loans, what did this shift mean?
JOSÉ: You know Rocio, every time I think about what we experienced in the past year, I’m always in awe about the amount of work that we were able to produce so quickly. And it’s incredible. Just to look back and really see that we touched over 63,000 people by giving much needed grants in a time that they were being excluded from receiving assistance from other sources.
It’s mind boggling, frankly, how a small nonprofit organization headquartered in San Francisco was able to be in a position to disburse so much money to so many people.
But not only that, it’s not just about the 63,000 number — it’s about how specific we were able to target those grants, that aid, that help to people who were excluded from receiving financial assistance. People who are low-income, immigrant, people that were really contending with a lot of barriers in their financial lives.
Because it wasn’t just to anybody. We didn’t do an application process that was first-come, first serve. We didn’t disburse this money on a lottery basis. It wasn’t to everybody who submitted an application. We focused this very critical aid to people who were the last and the least, the people who were excluded from receiving other sources of help.
Every time I think about that, I’m blown away by it. Because I’m like, “How did it happen?” How were we able to step up in such a way, and to be so thoughtful in focusing on those communities?
And of course, Rocio, it was 14 years of work that actually led to that point of us making it happen, in the way that we did. There’s a lot more to be said about that because it didn’t just happen overnight.
It’s an incredible process. It wasn’t that we were transformed; it was actually that we were building up over the years to be able to deliver at this critical moment.
ROCIO: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I’m wondering if instead of a shift or a transformation, it’s more of a revamp. We’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s almost like we were kind of preparing for something like this to happen, and then when it happened, we were ready to go. We were ready to meet our clients where they were like we have for such a long time. Thank you for sharing that, José.
The cost of exclusion for immigrant families
ROCIO: And so now — the need was tremendous because millions of immigrants and their families were completely shut out of federal government [aid]. To paint a clearer picture of what this means, a family with two undocumented parents and two children was denied upward of $11,400 in much-needed federal relief during the pandemic.
That is huge. I mean we’re talking about families who lost so much — some even lost their entire income during this pandemic. And they were denied critical aid that could’ve helped them pay their rent, put food on the table, and feed their families. I just want to stress the incredible loss that that created in their lives.
But, of course, none of this is new. Because before the pandemic, many immigrant people were living in the shadows and pushed out of a social safety net that was not designed for them. A safety net that they pay into, every single year. It’s reported that in 2019, immigrant workers with ITINs paid more than $23 billion in federal taxes alone. And these are taxes that fund critical social safety net programs from Medicaid, to food stamps, to housing subsidies and insurance — the list really goes on. And they are programs that they themselves are barred from accessing, even when the whole world is thrown into crisis.
So, José, what is this context? This context of being barred from benefits to exclusion, mean for MAF’s work?
JOSÉ: I think this pandemic really showed a lot of the injustices that we’ve been fighting against over the years. So the idea of people being denied services in their time of need is not new. This has been the case for immigrants for years now. Even when they are the ones paying their taxes and contributing to the tax base, they’re actually being denied assistance left and right.
There was a public charge policy from the prior administration that really sent this ripple effect of fear that people were now more fearful of reaching out for assistance when they need help because they did not want to be deemed a public charge. That could go against their petitions for legalization at some point. And so that fear kept a lot of people from accessing help especially when they need it.
But that’s just one point. There are many others where people were actually excluded from receiving help. You mentioned that $11,000 that could’ve gone to immigrant families. I think about that number a lot because it wasn’t just the fact of not receiving that $11,000. It was what happened after that, because in not receiving $11,000 to help them stabilize their financial lives during the midst of a pandemic, it meant that they had to access that money somewhere else.
What basically happened was that people were forced to use all of their savings. They were forced to acquire loans in any which way they could, from maxing out credit cards or getting loans from family and friends just to pay rent and buy food.
So it wasn’t just the lack of $11,000. Now they’re $11,000 in debt. And that debt is not payable just right off the bat. It’s going to take them months and years to pay that off and with that debt comes interest, comes other fees, comes other things where people are digging themselves deeper into a hole that could’ve been prevented by having access to that money just like everyone else in America, people that needed it.
ROCIO: José, you bring up so many great points that I would love to run with every single point you said, because there’s so many thoughts I have for sure. But the thing that I want to come back to is the idea of timing, and how timing is everything in people’s lives. Last year, what we did with the Immigrant Families Fund — we stepped up to give people cash at the specific time where they needed it the most so they could pay their rent that same month.
And just thinking about this debt while they are being excluded from all these benefits that could help them catch up in the process is just an array of problems that I think we need to continue to put out there and address.
Inspiring others to step up
ROCIO: And so, that’s why the work we’re doing is so important. Because if we don’t show up, who will? I actually wanted to ask you about this, José. How do you inspire people to step up to the plate?
JOSÉ: I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I think for us, of course, we did step up with this Rapid Response Fund grant process in the past 18 months. But we couldn’t have done this ourselves of course. We had to work with philanthropy. We had over 65 different partners in philanthropy that really stepped up with us, because they were the ones who had the capital, they were the ones who provided us with the funding so that we could direct it to people who needed it.
So we had to build those partnerships in a way that mattered. I think for us, it was just a question of saying, “Look, we’re here to do this work, we want to do this work, we have the capacity to do this work, we have the technology to do this work.” But more importantly, we had the relationships with the actual clients, trusted relationships so that we can say that we can actually deliver this money now, in the moment that they needed it, and doing it in a way that is efficient, that is effective, and also dignified.
And I think because of that, because we were able to communicate that—not just from Rapid Response— but from over the years. I think foundations were able to trust us with their capital. We had foundations, we had family foundations, we had community foundations, we had corporate foundations, that we never worked with in the past. They leaned on us to make sure that we were able to deliver that money to people in a timely manner.
To me, inspiring people to step up, really is about making sure we had a very solid foundation of trust with our clients and our partners. Because we were essentially just a conduit of their desire to help people.
Launching MAF’s Rapid Response Fund
ROCIO: I want to take a step back and rewind to March 2020 when the Rapid Response Fund didn’t yet exist and COVID-19 was just starting to hit the U.S. in a major way. Jose, even before the pandemic struck here in the U.S. and the first stay-at-home orders were issued, MAF was already preparing for what all of this would mean for immigrant families in the U.S.
Take us back to those days. I know it feels like an eternity ago, but, what was happening? What was going through your head? What were you feeling?
JOSÉ: It does feel like an eternity away. That’s what I call the “before times.” I do remember in February having internal conversations about, “there’s this thing that’s going around in China that’s popping up in the news and we should start thinking about how to prepare for something like that.” And I recall some conversations about that. But when it really struck home was when the mayor of San Francisco issued her first stay-at-home orders. That’s when we had to pivot from one day to the next day.
And I remember the order came in on a Friday and by Monday we had to sort of work from home. And by that day, over the weekend really, we had to come up with a plan with how we were going to respond to help our clients. Knowing that that stay-at-home order meant that people were going to lose income, they were going to lose money, they were going to lose hours from work, they were going to lose their jobs at no fault of their own.
Come Monday, we were already talking about how to respond to this crisis that we didn’t know much about. That same day, I was getting calls from foundations as well, saying “Hey, how are you guys going to respond?” Because at that point, over the 14 years of doing this work, we built that reputation already, so foundation heads were already calling and emailing asking how we were going to respond in this moment.
So because of that, we very quickly stood up that Rapid Response Fund — not knowing how, to what extent, or how much we were going to make this happen. But when we got our first grant approved — I think it was within Tuesday or Wednesday of that same week — it was a conversation with the head of College Futures [Foundation], because they wanted to support college students in California. So we used that grant so we could stand up this particular way of Rapid Response, focusing on college students first. And while we were doing that, we were building that whole infrastructure of helping other communities as well.
It was a moment of complete confusion. We didn’t know what was going to happen or how long the stay-at-home order was going to stay. But I think we knew deep down it was going to impact the people we serve the hardest. We knew deep down that undocumented immigrants, families — people that we work with day in and day out — we knew that they were going to be most hit by the loss of income and also because they weren’t going to get any support from the federal government. We needed to show up for them, and we did. This was one of those moments where we’ve been working for the past 14 years building our technology, our capacity, our staff, our skills, and our insights.
When I think back to that week, and being forced to work from home, not being in the office where we can huddle together, strategize together, it was pretty scary, frankly. But that fear, I just remember using that as fuel to make sure that we showed up who needed help the most.
Sense of togetherness
ROCIO: Everything you just shared, José, I think brings up a lot of feelings, as I’m hearing you talk. You’re describing confusion, chaos, uncertainty, fear — also hope and collective action. And so what I’m wondering is: of all the things, all the craziness that was happening, all the chaos and uncertainty, at that moment back in March 2020, what would you say is the most surprising thing that happened to you? Of all the things, all the balls that were up in the air, what was the most surprising thing for you?
JOSÉ: The most surprising thing, frankly, was how fast the sentiment dissipated, the sentiment of us being united, the sentiment that we needed to come together as a country, as a people, and how fast that went away. Because early on, I remember feeling that, I remember hearing that, I remember reading that from our leaders. Because we knew — it was a big unknown.
But as soon as this report that talked about the racial disparities, of who was getting COVID and who wasn’t getting COVID, I remember that that sentiment just kind of went away. That sense of urgency dissipated. The sense of coming together — that was just an afterthought now. Because this disease, this virus was impacting people of color more. And so, “it doesn’t matter.”
And other people were taking a step back from the urgency of “together”. And I feel like that moment was really the turning point in our fight against COVID, that if we would’ve kept that sense of togetherness, that sense of coming together — as a country, as a people — to battle this, I think we would be in a completely different situation than the one we’re in now.
I think we just crossed over the 700,000 people that have died just in the U.S. alone from COVID. I mean, 700,000 people have died. And I think that number wouldn’t have been that high if we would’ve kept that sense of, we need to be united in this fight against COVID.
That surprised me. And that hurt, actually. That hurt because it was the sense that, “Oh, well, if this is just going to impact people of color, then who cares?” And I’m sad that happened. That was surprising and hurtful most of all.
We’re still here
ROCIO: Thank you for sharing that, José. Everything you’ve just discussed — I feel like I’ve heard little bits and snippets here and there, and I still get chills hearing about that moment in time, hearing that experience of what everyone at MAF and yourself went through, and trying to step up and trying to garner support from others and trying to reaffirm and tell the world that there were people being excluded and we needed to do something about it. It sounds like you could easily write a book about that moment in time, those early beginnings.
And my question to you, José, is: what would you title that story? Given what you just said, in a few words?
JOSÉ: You know, I think about MAF in that regard and everything that we’re doing. I think what we’re demonstrating is: what does it take to show up for the people who have been left behind, people who have been ignored, people who are in the margins of society? What does it take to show up and provide something of meaningful contribution and meaningful support?
I think for me it’s something around: We’re still here. That despite this pandemic, despite the pain and the hurt, despite being pushed out. Not just during this pandemic, but over the years, over the millennia of being colonized twice over, that we’re still here, and we still matter, and we need to do all that we can to show up, and support one another, however we can. And when we do that, do better. When we think we’ve done enough, we do more.
ROCIO: So in a nutshell, it sounds to me like the work continues.
José, any last words for our listeners today?
Show up, do more, do better
JOSÉ: I want to thank you, Rocio, for having this conversation with me today. I know most of the time we just talk about work—
ROCIO: It’s fun work!
JOSÉ: It is, but it’s always great to sort of step back for a second and just reflect on all that we’ve created together, so I really enjoy that. I would say that as a message for everybody, this is the moment not for us to shrink, not for us to become invisible. This is the moment for us to show up, to do more, and to do better. And I think that’s our call to action.
But I think that’s something that we can all do, particularly in the nonprofit world. We need to do more, we need to do better for the people left behind.
ROCIO: Yes — show up, do more, do better, because we’re still here. Thank you so much, José, for speaking with us today.
And for our listeners, the work continues! Join us next time to listen to Diana — who you heard on this podcast just a few minutes ago — sharing her experiences of being a small business owner and a working mom through COVID-19. See you next time!
Thanks for listening to Cafecito con MAF!
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