We each have only one life. What do we do with it? Karen Law found her answer on a stage in a crowded community theater.
Karen is one of those people who commit fully to their values. Most recently, she committed to joining MAF’s Adelante Advisory Council (AAC), a committee whose members play a key role in building awareness and cultivating financial support for MAF. We’re thrilled to benefit not only from her broad skillset, but her even greater perspective.
Karen is not one to shy away from life’s big questions.
Having been diagnosed with cancer in her early twenties, Karen couldn’t afford to leave these questions to the never-arriving “someday.” Her core values were defined early on and crystallized further when she received a terminal diagnosis for her husband of 10 years.
“I accompanied my husband Eric through the final 14 months of his life; living life intensely and intentionally using the end as the starting point,” she recounts.
More than anything else, the value of community defined Karen’s life during this time.
As word spread in her network of Eric’s condition, the couple found themselves at the center of a web of care, support, and humanity.
Karen started a private Facebook group to share periodic health updates to a few friends and family. Soon the group swelled to over 900 members, each willing to do anything in their power to provide support.
“I felt I could just ask and someone would find an answer,” she explains. “That community could have done anything.”
Fourteen months after the diagnosis, Eric passed away. Karen reflected on the feeling she was now living for two lives. She looked to the rest of her years, knowing each day was to be treasured, and began to wonder what she had to offer the world.
Intuition provided an answer. Since the passing of her husband, Karen had found herself drawn to the potential of alternate resources, ignoring traditional boundaries between philanthropy, venture capital, and volunteering.
Like MAF, Karen realized the best of finance could be put to work in service of community.
“I’d seen how powerful it was to organize people around a common goal,” she shared. “I wondered, ‘What would it look like if communities came together like this when there ISN’T a crisis?’”
This question led Karen to founding Infinite Community Ventures, a fund that draws from across philanthropy and private investing to “build and strengthen communities through Sustainability, Equitable Empowerment, and the Arts.”
Resolved, Karen is putting her remaining years to work in service of community, passing forward what she’d received in abundance during her husband’s final months. She is now leveraging the resources, skills, and knowledge she has for those left in the shadows.
“Community to me is when you say, ‘Let me look at your problems as my own, and share what I have with you,’” Karen explains. “It’s really quite simple.”
In this, we at MAF see eye to eye. Karen first learned of MAF through her local community foundation. MAF was a grant recipient and we quickly saw in each other a shared understanding of community as a continual process of reaching out, listening, and connecting with authenticity.
“The MAF team was the only one who reached out to me and asked, ‘Who are you, and what’s your interest in financial empowerment?’ I have deep admiration for and am always happy to work with people who can see the bigger picture and spot opportunities.”
We are excited to welcome Karen as a MAFista.
While her experience stands on its own, Karen’s passion for showing up, in the truest sense, embodies the MAF spirit. She has lived it herself, after all.
The last performance she and her husband shared was Fiddler On The Roof. Eric led the orchestra and was also on stage as the fiddler. The theater on opening night was packed.
“This was the first time I experienced community. It’s hard to talk about death. But it’s easy to care by attending our show. So people showed up. I’ll never forget that.”
Cristina Velásquez inició un negocio durante la pandemia de COVID-19. Mientras se cerraban industrias enteras, ella y su esposo vieron la oportunidad de hacer realidad su sueño.
Cristina se entrevistó con la MAFista Diana Adame para hablar sobre esa decisión, de cómo los Lending Circles de MAF la prepararon para los negocios y el poder que tenemos dentro de nosotros para hacer realidad nuestros sueños.
Cristina Velásquez started a business during the COVID-19 pandemic. While entire industries were shutting down, she and her husband saw an opportunity to seize their dream.
Cristina sat down with MAFista Diana Adame to talk about that decision, how MAF’s Lending Circles prepared her for business—starting Blind-N-Vision—and more.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Diana Adame: My name is Diana Adame. I work here at MAF.
Cristina Velásquez: My name is Ana Cristina Velásquez. I go by my second name, Cristina. I’m from El Salvador. I’ve been running my own business together with my husband for four months. We manufacture drape curtains which people may know as Roman shades. I’m helping my husband more than anything with delivery. He makes the product and I deliver it.
Diana: Why did you decide to open a business during the pandemic?
Cristina: We started to discover what people were telling us — that when people worked outside, they weren’t at home much. They then started to realize that there were many necessary home improvements. Demand for curtains started to rise. And this was how we said to ourselves, wow, here is a real opportunity.
Diana: What is the most unexpected challenge you’ve had to solve in starting your business?
Cristina: Wow, I think the first challenge we had was accessing a space. Talking about San Francisco, there may be space but it’s extremely expensive. We needed a space that was quite large, which we didn’t have available in the apartment we lived in.
Diana: How did you find your space?
Cristina: I always say that God had a plan and will for everything. I have a friend whom I met 15 years ago. She works at a beauty salon. And, well, I knew that the back part of the store was being rented out. It’s now free, it’s still available to be rented. And the first thing I asked was, how tall is it? Very high, she said. I told her, perfect! And this was how my husband and I went to check it out and we fell in love with it, it was perfect for what we wanted to do.
Diana: After everything was finalized, after you’d spoken with your friend, what did it feel like to walk into your space for the first time after you found it?
Cristina: Very proud to say, wow, finally this is a reality. It was a dream but now it’s real and we can touch it. This is beautiful. Really, I feel happy and grateful to God.
Finding the Resources
Diana: How did you first hear about MAF?
Cristina: I believe it was back in 2015. That’s when the story began because that’s when I wanted to start building credit. It was the best decision that I’ve ever made. There, they took me out of the darkness. I used to not have good credit and now I have excellent credit.
Diana: How have MAF’s services impacted your business?
Cristina: What I’ve learned on the personal side, I’m applying to my business. To run a business, you need great credit. In the personal sphere, that has opened doors a little more easily to do certain things with my business.
Diana: These learnings are so valuable when you bring them into other areas of your life, right? Great practices. One question that I would like to ask is, what is the MAF platform that’s most comfortable for you? Which have you benefited from the most?
Cristina: I think the mobile application. I think there was one time, quite late at night that I completed all of the modules because I felt they were so fast and practical. And so, I really love the [MyMAF] app.
Seizing Your Dreams
Diana: My last question, Cristina, is: what advice do you have for others in a similar position with a dream?
Cristina: Dreams should not stay dreams. They can become real. Only we have the power to make them real, no one but ourselves because they are not only our dreams but also what we want for us, for our children, and for our family. And then we can say, sí se puede. I made the effort and now I am a testament that, yes, sí se puede. I was singing to my husband last night. [song] It’s a beautiful song that talks about knowing that dreams are yours and you can realize them, whenever you desire.
Diana: Thanks so much Cristina. Well, I think that you are the motivation we need today. I appreciate you sharing your words with us.
Elle Creel has been searching for a place to set roots. At MAF, she’s found fertile ground.
“I learned early on that finance is personal,” she reflected. “It’s not just functional, it’s deeply emotional.”
Elle is bringing this personal view of finance into her new role on MAF’s Tech Advisory Council (TAC). As a TAC member, she supports the MAF team by sharing insights, reflections, and best practices from her work in the fintech space.
Elle is a product manager at Chime where she builds offerings in service of people living paycheck to paycheck. Chime provides banking services that are helpful, easy, and free. These days Elle has her hands full managing an organization growing at break-neck speed.
“It’s been amazing to be a part of Chime’s growth and see us realizing our mission to enable financial peace of mind,” she shares. “I’ve been honored to work on products that make our members’ lives better.”
Elle led the launch of Chime’s high yield savings account and in the early days of the pandemic built the strategy for supporting members navigating unemployment benefits. She brings her experience keeping teams aligned through rapid change to MAF, where her learnings about how to scale organizational dynamics after an unprecedented year are particularly relevant.
Elle views finance as a distinctly human experience and is motivated by the way it touches people in real ways. This understanding is what drew her to MAF as she found inspiration in our community-centered approach.
“I’m excited to join an organization with strong roots in the community that’s working on a similar mission as I am, but from a different vantage point.”
As the daughter of a tax accountant, Elle learned how to balance a checkbook and log daily expenses from an early age. She watched as her mother sat across their dining table from friends and family members who came seeking advice. The guests brought their own financial strategies to the table, and learned new strategies to build on. These conversations, Elle saw at a young age, made a real impact. People who came to her mother’s table walked out the door with stable confidence, ready to chart their own financial futures.
Feelings of fear, insecurity, and uncertainty could be transformed through a listening ear and information. A single conversation, Elle learned, could make a difference in people reclaiming the reins over their own lives. This is precisely what Elle hopes to pass forward.
Elle’s passion blossomed through an internship at an early stage impact investor. She worked with a Kenyan startup offering small business owners access to loans. Most of the customers were individuals providing for their families. They had grit, dedication, and motivation in spades, yet structural barriers including lack of access to capital stunted their ability to grow.
“Just having access to financial services could be transformative,” she learned. “The role of capital in unlocking human potential became very real and tangible to me.”
This was a lightbulb moment for Elle.
Her professional skills and natural curiosity could be put to use for the good of others by working to improve “the essential nature of finance” in people’s lives. She’d found a path that allowed her to show up as her full self, going beyond the professional toolkit and drawing on the personal experiences that had shaped her upbringing.
“People need to feel peace of mind, that they have control over their financial lives. MAF is at the cutting edge of that.”
We’re excited to welcome Elle to the MAF team and offer her a seat at the table.
After a tumultuous 11 years, DACA—and the immigrants it supports—are under attack. Again. On Friday, July 16, a Texas federal court ordered the DACA program to partially end. We’ve been here before, and frankly, we’re tired.
We know from experience that the DACA program has helped recipients secure higher wages, pursue an education, and work toward their dreams. Moreover, its impact ripples out to the families and communities of recipients. Over the years, families, students, and business owners have shared with us the impact DACA has had in their lives:
Eleven years ago, DACA was, at best, intended to be a temporary fix to a broken system, a house of sticks to hold the nation over while we lay a concrete foundation for lasting immigration reform. Defending the DACA program and supporting its recipients is crucial. However, it’s not enough. It’s time to end that fight for good.
It’s time for citizenship for all.
Now is our time to be loud, be heard, and create real, lasting change by passing a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants. We’re fighting for the millions of immigrants – including over 640,000 DACA recipients – who stepped up to care for our nation’s sick, feed our nation’s families, and lead our nation forward throughout the pandemic. They are, and have always been, essential.
We need action. Here are five things you can do today to make a difference. Given the fear and uncertainty cascading through immigrant communities after the latest ruling, every action matters.
At this time, current DACA statuses remain valid, and renewal applications will continue to be processed. MAF remains committed to ensuring that the $495 filing fee isn’t a barrier. If you are eligible to renew your DACA status, pre-apply for MAF’s DACA fee assistance to cover the filing fee. If you are a first-time DACA applicant, we encourage you to consult a trusted legal service provider about your case.
If you know anyone who could be eligible for renewal, please invite them to apply! These are a few stories from clients who have recently received MAF’s DACA fee assistance.
“This grant is important to me because it will allow me to safely continue to support myself and my family financially. Through DACA and the associated work permit I am able to practice a career I care about with the employee benefits and rights I deserve.” — Delia
“This grant will help my family so much in giving me a chance to be able to renew my DACA without having to fall behind on other payments I have. It will reduce some stress we have right now trying to figure out how to pay my renewal. It’s a great opportunity because I will also be able to pay back on a payment plan which makes it so much more accessible for us to do so.” — Gloria
“This grant is really important to me so I can continue with my DACA card and be able to work and help my parents out, I also want to set money aside to go back to school and continue with my career to be a Pre-school teacher.” — Yaritza
It can be hard to know what and what to trust in an age of misinformation. That’s why we created a resource with the latest information on DACA. If you know anyone who is wondering what the latest ruling in Texas means for them, please share this page.
The main take-away: USCIS will NOT grant DACA status to first-time applicants if their applications were not already approved before July 16, 2021.
We encourage you to join us in contacting your member of Congress today to demand a pathway to citizenship for all immigrants. The Senate has already included legalization in its budget resolution, now it’s up to the House of Representatives to do the same. Writing your Representative is a fast, easy, and impactful way to make your voice heard. This resource includes a letter already drafted for you! Be sure to send your letter ASAP.
Add your name to an online petition from United We Dream. This petition calls on lawmakers to include a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants in the reconciliation package before Congress goes on recess in August.
The $495 filing fee shouldn’t stop young immigrants from renewing their applications. We’re stepping up with a national campaign to provide partial and full grants to cover the application costs for DACA recipients with the greatest need. But we can’t do it alone.
We’ve already raised $1 million. Join us and help us double our reach. Stand with immigrants today.
MAF is proud to stand with immigrant communities. Follow us on social media for the latest updates on how to show up and do more for immigrants.
A few weeks ago, the MAF team received a Slack message we didn’t expect to see. Our Programs Team had just disbursed the sixteen thousandth cash grant to immigrant families in San Mateo County. Over the course of a year, we were able to touch the lives of one of every two undocumented immigrant households in the entire county by providing unrestricted cash grants of $1,000. These dollars helped families keep a roof over their heads and food in their refrigerators when the federal relief efforts excluded our neighbors in their hour of greatest need.
The San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund was designed to provide aid to those left out of the first CARES Act and began with a total sum of $100,000. It ultimately grew to a $16 million lifeline for those left last and least. Yet it almost didn’t happen.
By many accounts, it should not have. Only through the dedication and conviction of a diverse group of partners, old and new, was the fund willed into being. Against many odds, we came together with leaders across non-profit, philanthropic and civic sectors to weave threads of connection into a fabric of support for those left in the financial shadows.
It was, put simply, a moment of neighbors helping neighbors. Here’s how it happened.
In late May of 2020, MAF CEO José Quiñonez received an unusual email. It was a request to support a rapid response fund being stood up by a local organization. He considered declining and moving on to the mountain of other urgent messages coming in. The MAF team, after all, had our hands more than full. We were focused on helping people across the country survive the pandemic through the Immigrant Families Fund, providing cash grants to families who had been overlooked again and again by federal relief efforts.
We knew, immediately, that immigrant families would be left last and least in this crisis. We moved quickly to create the Immigrant Families Fund to support families around the country who were facing higher rates of unemployment, eviction and death from COVID-19. This work pushed our team to its limits as we navigated the uncertainty of the pandemic and maintained our existing operations. There was no room for another feather on the camel’s back.
Something, however, pulled at José to respond to the request. For one, this message came from a long-time friend and ally, Stacey Hawver, Executive Director of The Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County. In addition to being a leader in the immigrant rights field, Stacey had been an instrumental partner in 2017 when we created the nation’s largest DACA application fee assistance program. We’d gone through the gauntlet together and knew she shared our values in working tirelessly to support immigrants with dignity and respect. We trusted one another.
Beyond the weight of Stacey’s word, this request hit close to home for José. It was personal. Since MAF’s founding fourteen years ago, our team members, partners and clients have called San Mateo County home. The county is simultaneously one of the wealthiest regions in the country and also has one of the highest rates of income inequality. When the weight of the pandemic was applied to this uneven social fabric, the consequences were devastating.
In an instant, the pandemic evaporated immigrant families’ most basic financial pillar: income to support their families.
More than one in three immigrant households in San Mateo County had no income at the height of the pandemic, a 10x increase from before the pandemic. This strain was particularly hard on immigrant families with young children. Nearly one in three immigrant families in San Mateo County have young children, and among these families, three in four reported that they were unable to pay at least one of their bills in full during the pandemic.
While we might not have known these statistics at the time, we knew, intimately, the challenges our clients there have faced over the years. The relationships we maintain with clients last through triumphs and sorrow. Ever since California’s stay-at-home order was issued in March, our phones rang daily with clients reaching out for help. José had heard one story that he couldn’t get out of his mind.
“I myself am a recovered COVID-19 patient,” said Rosa. “It struck me emotionally and I also lost my job because of it. I’m currently unemployed and have a son I have to look out for. I’m desperate and am in really need of some financial income to support my son and myself with food and rent. The pandemic has struck my life emotionally and changed my way of living, all for the worse.”
He had never met Rosa personally. He didn’t have to. MAF was created with the mission of providing timely, relevant services to those left in the financial shadows. Knowing that people in our own backyard were being left to suffer through the most extreme crisis in living memory was enough to act. We had to show up for our community, to do more, even if that meant pushing to the edge of our limits and beyond. It’s who we are.
Amidst the urgency of the moment, there was no time to waste. José fired off a response to Stacey, setting up a call to learn more.
The journey had just begun.
Soon after, José logged on to a Zoom meeting. It was the first time this group was gathering and there was a palpable feeling of potential and urgency. It turned out that the rapid response fund that José had spoken to Stacey about was one of a few funds being germinated simultaneously across the county. One leader at The Grove Foundation, José Santos, had the foresight to see how this could confuse families and turn away potential funders. He convened the groups together in the hope of uniting them in a single effort.
As Zoom profiles populated across José’s screen, familiar and new faces greeted him. In addition to Stacey, another long-time MAF ally on the call was Lorena Melgarejo, Executive Director of Faith in Action Bay Area. Lorena and her network of community leaders had also played a critical role during our 2017 DACA campaign and we respected their grounded commitment to lifting up the strengths in the immigrant community. Not only that, but Lorena had actually worked at MAF previously, and José knew she was a fierce advocate for our clients.
A brief round of names at the start of the meeting introduced two new partners: John A. Sobrato, a philanthropist based in San Mateo County, and Bart Charlow, the CEO of the non-profit Samaritan House. John, we learned, is a prolific donor who has joined the Giving Pledge and has a history of showing up for families in his community. Family plays a large role in John’s philanthropy: not only does he support causes that support families in the Bay Area, but his own family gives back to the Bay Area through Sobrato Philanthropies. John was also a long-time supporter of Samaritan House and was determined to lead a rapid response fund for immigrants in San Mateo after seeing a similar fund created in Santa Clara County.
Each partner was fully on board with delivering the grants as quickly as possible. The unspoken question on everyone’s mind, though, was: can we come together to make it happen?
The first call was a dive head-first into just that. José shared with John the details of MAF’s financial technology platform, explaining how we were leveraging our infrastructure to deliver direct cash assistance to immigrant families on a national level. The challenges in doing so were substantial, so MAF’s ability to hit the ground running in San Mateo County situated our team as the natural lead for disbursing funds. José reaffirmed a commitment he made to Stacey that MAF would manage the disbursal process at no cost.
Our goal, first and foremost, was to help people keep a roof overhead and food in their refrigerators.
We heard repeatedly that our neighbors in San Mateo County needed help, people like Milagritos.
“I have been struggling to feed my child who is 10 years old and as a family, we have had a hard time paying our bills and rent,” shared Milagritos. “I have been very stressed because of the job situation during COVID-19. I don’t know when I will be back to normal work hours because I clean houses and people do not want anyone in their homes.”
With Milagritos’ story in mind and the meeting coming to an end, there was a sense that the first hurdle had been cleared. Under normal circumstances, a collaborative might take months to form and a funder might require several rounds of requests for proposals, applications and interviews before making a funding decision. But we were operating in crisis mode. There was no time for business as usual, and John respected and trusted our organizations to serve families in San Mateo County quickly.
We leveraged existing relationships to rapidly forge bonds of trust. José began working the phones to speak with partners, funders and allies who already knew John and Bart in other contexts. He also communicated with both directly, scheduling 1-on-1 calls to get to know them better while emailing back and forth at two in the morning to keep the fund moving forward and get cash into families’ hands faster. The others did the same.
Within a week of José’s first call with Stacey, the new team convened a second time. We would go all-in on a single effort, the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund. The partners had arrived at this decision from a shared desire to serve the people in our community. There was no time to waste. Collectively, we had the capacity to serve people with dignity and respect. Our partner organizations would leverage their relationships and grounding in the local community to invite as many families as possible. John would lead fundraising and rally the philanthropic community in San Mateo County to support our efforts. MAF would manage the application, approval and disbursal process. Samaritan House and the Core Agency Network would follow up with grant recipients to provide wrap-around services beyond the initial $1,000 grant.
John then blew us all away. He raised our target from $1 million to $10 million and personally wrote a check for $5 million.
The grant was in our account within a day, much to the shock of MAF’s Finance Director. This was the largest individual donation we’d ever received. We weren’t alone in the surprise.
“We’ve never worked on anything at this scale, especially at this pace,” recalled Stacey.
Undaunted and energized, we all moved quickly. By the time we formally launched the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund in July, John had delivered a total of $8.9 million from individual donors, corporate foundations and the County’s Board of Supervisors. While this level of tenacity dropped our jaws, we came to learn it was par for the course with John.
“Here’s a man willing to shake the tree so that people he considers neighbors are taken care of,” shared Bart. “You could see it in his eyes.”
With funding secured, our partners hit the streets to get the word out to families, sharing information through strong networks of church congregations, hospitals, community resource centers and legal aid providers and through television, radio and more. MAF began hosting weekly Facebook Live sessions for clients and provided FAQ materials to partners. With a surge in COVID-19 aid scams rising at the same time, our focus on a single message from many trusted voices was instrumental in cutting above the noise.
The strategy worked. Within the first month, we had received more than 17,000 pre-applications, with more coming in each day.
It was a challenge handling the high volume of applications with limited staff resources, but our commitment to putting the needs of our clients first never wavered. We centered our clients’ experience throughout the application process, providing tireless, individual support to each applicant as needed.
“If you put out money, and in the middle there are flames and dragons, the money doesn’t matter because people cannot get to it,” explained Carolina Parrales, Faith in Action’s Lead Community Organizer for San Mateo County.
We designed every aspect of the client experience to be relevant, timely and grounded in their reality. We hired translators to translate the application into four languages, refusing a simple Google translate widget to ensure it was accessible to all San Mateo County immigrant communities. We developed two methods of delivering grants to people without checking accounts so the barriers many already faced—lack of a bank account—wouldn’t keep them from getting the relief they needed. And throughout the year, we checked in regularly with our partners to share updates and make sure we were getting the word out to families.
Together, we worked to overcome the “digital grand canyon” for some families. It was one thing to remind an applicant that they had forgotten to upload a photo of their paystub. It was another entirely to walk an applicant through creating their first email account, securely saving a password, filtering junk folders and explaining how to create online profiles. Hundreds of applicants needed this level of support and, together with our partners, we showed up. The Legal Aid Society team even hired a full-time staff person to focus exclusively on assisting applicants in this way.
Our partners provided hands-on support to clients, staying in daily communication with the MAF team to ensure no one was falling through the cracks. It was demanding work. We made it happen, refusing to let go of our conviction that every client feel respected, seen and supported through the process, regardless of whether we could provide a grant immediately or not.
“Help is about more than money,” shared José. “It’s about showing that we care, showing that we see them, that they’re not being left behind.”
One year later, the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund ultimately raised more than $16 million to distribute in its entirety as 16,017 grants to families.
The collaboration between our lead funder, John, and partners MAF, Faith in Action Bay Area, Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County and Samaritan House has touched the lives of half of undocumented immigrant families in the county. For comparison, California’s initial $75 million disaster relief assistance funding reached about 5% of undocumented immigrant families across the entire state.
We would not have been able to achieve this level of impact without John’s persistence in pitching, advocating, calling in favors, twisting arms and challenging even existing donors to step up again with more. He was as relentless as he was clear-eyed in his primary argument.
“If not now, when?” John shared. “Many of these people have helped us for many years. Now is the time for us to help them.”
It is difficult, though, to celebrate a job well done when it was born of the unspeakable, unjust suffering of the people we work with, who live in our neighborhoods and who we greet on evening walks. Words to describe this experience live somewhere between enraged sorrow and humbled gratitude. Yet even that falls short.
As the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund closes out, we know the work is far from over. The light at the end of the tunnel so many of us are looking forward to is dimmer for immigrant families. In San Mateo County, one in five immigrant families depleted their savings during the pandemic, while one in four had to borrow money to pay for basic living expenses. The mountains of debt families have incurred will take years to pay off.
For San Mateo families who had a household member get sick with COVID-19, they face an even longer road to recovery. They were more likely to have fallen behind on rent and utility bills than those families who didn’t get sick. Families who had COVID-19 were also 60% more likely to have skipped meals to make ends meet.
This financial devastation for immigrant families isn’t unique to San Mateo County. Through our work with the national Immigrant Families Fund, we know that families across the country are struggling financially. In our national survey of more than 11,000 grantees, eight in ten people reported that they were unable to pay at least one of their bills in full during COVID-19. Three in ten respondents have had to borrow money to pay back later, including carrying balances on credit cards. We’ll need to continue to support these families in their financial recovery, listening to their needs and working together to maximize impact for immigrant communities.
This will require more support, smarter strategies and more active collaborations. To inform these actions, we’ve distilled four insights from our successes and challenges with the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund, which can be applied to serve communities across the country.
1. Client-centered design produces services that treat people with respect and dignity.
“There was always someone applicants could reach,” recalled Stacey. “This was a commitment on José’s part to design a process that makes people feel respected throughout.”
Centering clients in service design comes from our conviction in lifting up the full, complex humanity of the people we serve. This means that from the way a client completes an application, to the way they receive services, to even the language used in every email, we center the lived realities of our clients. We know we’re succeeding when a client feels seen, heard and spoken to, in addition to feeling supported.
The follow-on impact of this success is services with high engagement and satisfaction rates. However, these measurements should always remain secondary to a focus on remaining timely and relevant to the lives of clients.
2. Coordination requires trust between collaborative partners.
“Collaboration and coordination are not the same animal,” explained Bart. “Collaboration is a good foundation for coordination. But coordination requires mutual trust.”
Effective partnerships begin with a shared vision but succeed only when they come together and deliver. Trust is required to navigate the inevitable challenges any partnership faces and we’ve learned that trust can be built when all partners see, value and respect the strengths of each other. When John stepped up with the first $5 million, he trusted that we would disburse it equitably and with dignity. We, in turn, trusted that John would respect our processes, team and technology.
Each partner trusted that the others would carry their weight, drawing on their expertise to accomplish our shared goal of serving our community. That’s precisely what happened.
3. Community begins with seeing the humanity in our neighbors.
“Growing up, I attended a Jesuit high school that espoused values in consciousness, competence, and compassion,” said John. “Those values have always stuck with me. We need to treat the neighbors in our community with compassion and respect.”
Language matters. It is no coincidence that today’s political discourse is fraught with ways of dehumanizing those left in the shadows. Language such as ‘aliens,’ ‘illegals,’ ‘foreigners,’ or even ‘janitors’ and ‘baristas,’ all serve to place distance. Yet each person has a name, a story and a place they belong. When we choose language that celebrates connection instead of separation, a thriving community is possible.
MAF has always been adamant in pushing for this shift in discourse, and John consistently carried this sense of community, compassion, and empathy into meetings with other funders. This is a shift we must continue to push.
4. Business-as-usual doesn’t work in crisis. We’re not out yet.
“The reality is that immigrant families face a long and arduous journey to financial recovery,” reflected José. “We’ll need more collaborations and public-private partnerships like what happened in San Mateo County to meet the needs of families.”
As any organization grows in size, there is always a temptation to focus on maintaining the status quo for its own sake. However, community-based organizations that exist to provide services have an imperative to never lose sight of the realities of the people they serve. If a legacy process is getting in the way of responding to a crisis, a new approach is required. This willingness to do things differently, to move swiftly and boldly, was essential to the formation and delivery of the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund.
And the crisis is not over. We must continue pushing ourselves to respond to the moment, to show up, do more and to do it better.
Nancy Alonso is no stranger to the unexpected. The Southern California native has faced more than her share of challenging and tragic storms. Through them all she’s kept moving forward, a captain doing what she must to steer ahead with her two children in tow.
Nancy’s story, at its core, illustrates how the financial system can distort itself into shackles on the dreams of hard-working people. It also shows how community can be the key to set them free.
Since having their first child when Nancy was 21, she and her husband had dove headfirst into the race of life.
They stretched each dollar to the next month’s paycheck, sometimes, making it through with breathing room. Most often, though, there were hurdles to overcome. Should they pay for the latest medical bill or the week’s groceries?
Nancy and her husband both worked hard, and both hustled to make ends meet. He would pick up cardboard outside his cousin’s restaurant to sell. She would take their two kids’ outgrown clothes to the flea market for extra cash. They did what they had to.
Yet far beyond the edges of the next immediate hurdle, a horizon of dreams beckoned them ever forward. Nancy and her husband saw a house of their own nestled on that horizon. One day, they knew, she’d leave her retail job to work as a medical assistant. Then they’d be able to breathe not only on occasion, but all the time. Day by day, year by year, they continued pushing ahead knowing that with each other no hurdle was too big.
Then, on October 9th, 2019, Nancy received a call from the hospital.
One month later, her husband had passed away.
In a daze, Nancy moved back in with her parents in San Ysidro as the world moved in slow motion around her. The shock gripped her as she shared a bunk bed with her son, entered the COVID-19 pandemic and helped her family through her father’s stroke in June 2020. Slowly, she began to pick up the shards of her broken life and build a new mosaic of her future.
Her husband, it turned out, had a modest life insurance policy. She’d never known about it because they never spoke about finances. Now, at last, she could afford to buy a home. But when she went to a lender to discuss a mortgage, she found out she had a poor credit score and couldn’t qualify. She’d never looked into her credit so this, too, was devastating news.
Nancy was stuck.
The financial system that had never been more than an afterthought was now the moat standing between her and a lifelong dream. She even looked into private apartments to get back on her feet. These, however, all required 2-3x income to rent ratios and she was not able to fill the salary gap her husband had left. Her kids still needed to be cared for and her previous medical assistant program had been less credible than she’d hoped. Nancy was finally at the doorstep of possibility, yet the hurdle holding her back was one of the biggest she’d faced. And this time, she was alone.
“That’s when someone told me about Casa Familiar,” Nancy recounted. “They mentioned a program to help me improve my credit score. But they are so much more.”
Casa Familiar, a San Diego-based community services organization, brought Nancy to one of their first Lending Circle programs.
She joined an LC to raise her score and was quickly able to do so. After 3 months, Nancy raised her credit score by 118 points.
Then she started asking questions. And the Casa Familiar team had answers. They helped Nancy access Social Security funds she’d never known about, shared resources on financial planning and helped schedule COVID-19 vaccinations for her parents.
“Every little thing I ask, they help me,” she glowed. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
Today, Nancy is on track to increase her credit score enough to qualify for a mortgage and is working to secure a job as a medical assistant.
Even though her husband is not with her, she carries on the dreams they’d held together, moving day after day toward the horizon they’d seen so clearly. There are still many hurdles to overcome, and Nancy is resolute that none will stop her. After all, she’s not alone.
“Mariana at Casa Familiar called to tell me she had a surprise,” Nancy shared. “Because I’ve been making all my payments on time, she gave me a bonus of $500 from a Kaiser grant. I cried because I was able to help out my parents more. For all the bad things that have happened to us, good things have happened too.”
Nancy continues asking questions, learning how to navigate a new world while passing on hard-won knowledge to her children, 17 and 13. In this way, she hopes, they will have a head start on the race of life she’d sprinted through for so long.
Regardless, the children already possess an invaluable gift of their own; grit and steel determination to chase after dreams. This inheritance was passed down by Nancy and her husband, together.
Marlena sat at her desk in April of 2020, unusually unfocused as the biology Zoom lecture droned on in the background. She eyed her phone, blank where she was waiting for notifications. Her finger tapped to the rapid beat of her nervous heart as, for the first time in a long while, she felt the grip over her ambitions slip. She always held the reins to her future firmly in hand. The world, though, was shaken and so was she.
Marlena is not easily shaken.
At the start of the pandemic, she was in her second year of studying biomedical engineering at Crafton Hills Community College where she blazed a path as a first-generation college student and woman of color in a heavily white, male field. She forged ahead in spite of prejudice, choosing to add it as fuel to her fire.
However, when her parents both saw their hours cut during the pandemic, Marlena was suddenly uncertain how she’d pay for the next semester’s books. So she reached out for help. Then she waited. The waiting was the hard part.
“Not being able to control everything around me was really hard to process,” she said.
Marlena first learned how painful losing control could be when she was 12.
Her father, the sole bread-winner of a family of six, worked for a company that got acquired. He turned down an offer to keep his job at a steep pay cut, which caused their mortgage company to come after them like a pack of vultures and sparked a lawsuit that left the family in financial ruin.
“We lost everything,” she recounted. “We lost our home, we had to move and it took us about seven years of living paycheck to paycheck to get back on our feet.”
Marlena’s experience taught her early that there is only so much your own two hands can influence. Sitting with her parents and siblings at their dining table through many hard conversations also taught her that finances are fundamental to building a future. She took these lessons to heart and threw herself into her studies, gripping the reins of her future with characteristic ferocity and discipline.
Marlena graduated with the highest honors from her high school as her class valedictorian and one year early. After completing her associate’s degree, she plans to transfer to a four-year university to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s in biomedical engineering. While her current accomplishments are remarkable enough, for Marlena, they’re just the preamble.
“My dream is to create the world’s first 3D-printed organs,” she shared. “I’m so passionate about my studies because I want to save lives.”
Anyone who knows Marlena understands that while she radiates passion for her field, her love for her family is, somehow, even more potent. She would never trade family for her own ambitions. So in typical Marlena fashion, she has gone about her academic journey with a mission to lift the financial burden of college on her family with unrelenting focus and dedication.
“I’ve probably applied to hundreds of scholarships,” she recounts. “I apply to the big ones and the small ones, too. I know every bit adds up. At one point, I was applying to two scholarships a day.”
Her hard work was paying off.
Between her scholarships and her parents’ support, she had made it through the first two years of study without compromise. Then the pandemic derailed her plans. Marlena was suddenly considering reducing her course load for the fall semester because of the cost. She then began searching for external resources and came across MAF’s CA College Student Grant.
The $500 grants were emergency financial relief for students in need, regardless of academic performance. Because of the sheer volume of demand, the MAF team created a financial equity framework to bring those left last and least to the front of the line. We prioritized those who had lost income, were financially strained and were marginalized from other funding.
Students like Marlena should never have to choose between their grocery bill and their books.
Students should have the time to study without worrying about tracking hundreds of scholarships. For this reason, MAF leveraged the best of technology and finance to deliver grants as effectively and quickly as possible.
Back at Marlena’s desk in April, she released a full-bodied sigh of relief. She’d just received an email from MAF that her application was accepted. By the end of that day, she saw the grant deposited into her account.
“Within 24 hours, I saw the funds in my account and I was able to buy my books,” she beamed. “Receiving the grant gave me hope. There are others out there investing in me and my future.”
With her family firmly beside her and a growing circle of supporters cheering her on, Marlena is well on her way to realizing her dreams. And it’s working. Marlena ended her semester maintaining a 4.0 GPA and will be graduating in 2021 with highest honors before moving on to UC Riverside on a Regents scholarship. She credits honoring her Native American great-grandfather and her faith as key inspirations in making it to this point.
“I know there are many others who are going through the same things I am,” she says. “If I’m able to encourage and inspire them to not give up, that makes everything worthwhile.”
At MAF, we know she will do just that. She already is.
As vaccines roll out, many of us see a light at the end of a long tunnel. But this light is dimmer for immigrant families who have been repeatedly excluded from federal COVID-19 relief.
As we look to recover, how can we show up & do more to help immigrant families rebuild their financial lives faster?
On Tuesday, May 11th, we introduced a vision for MAF’s future and gathered to discuss how all of us—across sectors—can show up and do more for immigrant and low-income families.
Reflecting on 2020
At the outset of the pandemic, the MAF team moved swiftly to show up in ways that mattered. We launched a Rapid Response Fund to support immigrant families who were hit hardest by the pandemic and denied federal aid. We delivered direct assistance to families left last and least to help them weather this crisis. Since the Fund’s launch in April 2020, MAF has distributed over 50,000 grants and counting to immigrant families, small business owners and students. Here is the behind-the-scenes story of how it happened.
Our Vision For The Future
As José Quiñonez, MAF’s CEO, said in the closing of the video, this work isn’t over, and we can’t do it alone. As an organization, we’re moving forward from the same foundation that has guided us the past 14 years: a community-centered approach focused on the people we serve.
Our community-centered approach is actually quite simple. We meet clients where they are and create programs that build on what is good and true in their lives. We work to scale solutions using the best of technology and finance because we know that financial security is foundational to every dream realized. And we use our learnings and insights to advocate and organize our collective power for systemic change.
This community-centered approach is our guide for doing good work that is rooted, timely and relevant to the communities we serve. It’s how we can realize meaningful social change. It’s not just theory.
We start by listening to our clients.
In the wake of the pandemic, immigrants are surviving on just 15% of their pre-pandemic income. Families are falling behind in utility bills and rent. Some owe thousands of dollars that will be hard to pay off in the future. In MAF’s national survey, we found that 4 in 10 families are behind in rent and at risk of eviction.
And it all could have been avoided. Immigrant families were denied up to $11,400 in stimulus checks.
Most families could have paid their monthly bills in full with $1,200. In other words the stimulus checks could have helped immigrant families cover their bills for nine months or more.
We respond to client realities with new products.
MAF is launching the Immigrant Families Recovery Fund (IFRF) with $25 million seed funding to put these insights to work helping families recover.
This fund will provide cash grants of $300 per month for up to two years to 2,500 families with children. MAF’s recovery fund will focus on undocumented immigrants across the country who have been excluded from federal assistance. We’re putting equity front and center to focus on marginalized families with the least income sources and most financial strains.
We’re going beyond cash grants. We are also providing direct, timely and relevant services to help families recover faster with financial coaching, education and self-advocacy training. We plan to evaluate and study everything about our engagement with immigrant families so that we can lift up what works, share stories and push for policy change in real time.
We scale what works.
We are also expanding the tried and true programs that work – we’re building on our long track record of successfully helping families improve their financial lives by expanding our credit-building programs even more.
We are investing over $6M into Lending Circles, our award winning program that is rooted in the timeless tradition of people coming together to help one another. We are investing over $10M in immigration loans to help people apply for citizenship, DACA or green cards. We also plan to invest over $9M in small business owners, entrepreneurs who need their first lender to believe in them and their dream.
We create a culture of engagement.
Financial security is not just about finance. It’s about power and voice. For this reason, we are investing in our technology to enable a culture of engagement for our clients.
The team is hard at work expanding our MyMAF app and SMS platform to provide relevant, accessible information about issues that matter. These technologies are empowering clients to take action from the personal to the national levels. Ultimately, clients can lead the field to better solutions.
This is our vision for showing up and doing more.
We’re investing $70M over the next three years to build our infrastructure and expand our programs to help immigrant families recover faster.
We know that the road ahead to building a more equitable future is a long one, but together we can make sure the light at the end of the tunnel is brighter for immigrant families.
So, how can you help by showing up and doing more?
We invite you to take a look at this webinar recording where we lay out our vision for the next three years.
You can learn more about how to support our programs by reaching out to our philanthropy team at [email protected].
We encourage you to follow along with us on social media for updates as we launch the Immigrant Families Recovery Fund.
Finally, share with us on social media how you are #ShowingUpDoingMore for immigrant and low-income families.
Building on MAF’s nationwide COVID-19 Rapid Response campaign, philanthropist Mackenzie Scott awarded MAF $45 million to provide direct relief to those hit hardest by the pandemic. Mackenzie Scott’s generous gift enables MAF to continue providing financial relief to immigrant families excluded from receiving help. Over the past year, MAF has already distributed direct cash assistance to 48,000+ individuals to help them weather the crisis—and today the organization is poised to do even more.
In spite of these efforts, the reach of a single organization like MAF is nowhere near enough to meet the staggering financial devastation faced by millions of immigrant families left out of federal relief. We need leadership and action at a national level to ensure the last and the least are a part of a sustainable recovery.
Congress has taken meaningful steps in recent months to expand the safety net when families needed it most.
The December 2020 COVID relief bill and 2021 American Rescue Plan extended the latest rounds of financial relief to more than 3 million people in mixed-status households left out of the 2020 CARES Act.Yet, an estimated 11 million people in immigrant families continue to be denied assistance even as they keep the economy afloat in essential work.
“As an undocumented person who has filed my taxes for twelve years, it has been hard to have to accept that in times when we struggle, we are unable to receive anything back.”
Juan, Rapid Response grant recipient
This exclusion comes at a time when our economy rests on the shoulders of essential workers who cannot access support to weather the pandemic even as they are suffering higher rates of COVID infections and deaths. Essential workers are immigrant workers and many have no access to relief. They are going hungry, falling behind on rent, missing monthly bills for no fault of their own.
More must be done.
In meeting this moment of crisis, Congress must advance desperately needed relief and include everyone—regardless of immigration status. Over the last year, we have seen how the health and economic costs of the COVID-19 pandemic have fallen disproportionately on the marginalized, excluded, and invisible. Congress must expand support to all immigrants, putting equity front and center to deliver relief to the least and last. This intentional focus on equity is at the heart of MAF’s Rapid Response Fund, and the means by which the organization has provided nearly $30 million in direct cash assistance.
“We’ve spent 14 years building scalable platforms, relevant products, and a national network of community based organizations to help low-income and immigrant families improve their financial security. Now, we’re using our platform as pipes to effectively and with dignity distribute the crisp waters of relief into the hands of those most parched, those who have been denied and forgotten.”
MAF CEO José Quiñonez
MAF’s capacity to act and scale quickly is a direct result of the partners who have and continue to believe in its vision of leveraging the best of technology and finance in service of those left in the shadows. Their sustained support has enabled MAF to pioneer new ways of meeting people where they are, in the fullness of their complexity and their humanity. MAF is now expanding its equity-centered work helping low-income and immigrant families directly during this unprecedented crisis.
MAF applauds Mackenzie Scott for showing up, with urgency and conviction, to do more for families relegated to the shadows. Now it’s time for Congress to do the same.
Immigrants are essential, risking their lives to keep our country afloat during this pandemic.
They have stepped up for us, and now it’s our turn to step up for them. If we really want a more permanent and prosperous path to recovery, Congress needs to eliminate the structural barriers that have long stood in the way of people’s abilities to reach their full economic potential.
Today, we have not one but five proposals on the table that could help us get there. We have proposals that would provide legal status and protections to millions of Dreamers, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, farmworkers, and essential workers and their families. While these bills can be the critical building blocks to move us forward, they are not the end goal. Congress must ultimately push forward with the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which offers a sweeping reform that would grant 11 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.
By removing these long-standing barriers which have for so long pushed millions into the shadows, immigrants can have the opportunity to rebuild their financial lives more fully and with dignity. They can have financial stability in their lives to rebuild their financial security, and have a fighting chance in a post-pandemic recovery.
Our work is far from done—it is our collective responsibility to urge our representatives to take immediate action. We need to offer relief and citizenship for all if we truly seek to rebuild an equitable world that works for all.
The attack on the Capitol was horrifying. Devastating. Yet the narrative dominating the headlines is only one side of this historic month. When we flip over the decaying face of hatred and fear, we see another face of our nation emerge, fresh as rain and hopeful as a dream. We celebrate, despite tragedy, because this vital face is powerful and dynamic. It continues to nourish those of us who believe in a world where all people can be accepted and can be loved.
The historic, unprecedented, monumental victories in Georgia bring us one step closer to that world.
Warnock, the first black Senator of the South, and Ossoff, the first Jewish Senator of Georgia, represent the hopes of a richly diverse community of supporters. Their victory ensures that these hopes might soon become manifest for those in the state of Georgia, the nation and, we can say without hyperbole, the entire world.
A victory of such epic consequence did not, could not have come overnight. It was instead the culmination of a decade’s long, herculean effort in organizing lead by the inimitable Stacy Abrams, Deborah Scott, Felicia Davis and many others from the “next iteration of organizers” who trace their heritage to the civil rights heroes of the last century. We lift up the names of these catalytic black women who lift up the voices of so many others, those who’ve been forgotten, denied and left in the shadows for far too long.
Their voice, their power manifest, is the shot heard ‘round the world.
While the incoming Biden / Harris administration has a daunting task before it, they will be able to accomplish more, govern better, and lead more boldly because of the groundwork set for them. Put simply, years of diligent, persistent base-building, coalition-gathering, table-setting and dedicated organizing was able to flip a red state blue and unlock an entire horizon of potential progress.
We cannot waste this opportunity. MAF is calling on accountability for the following policy promises in the first 100 days:
Expanded COVID-19 economic relief
Giving people cash assistance at critical moments in their lives can be transformational. It can be the difference between paying rent for another month, or falling into a downward spiral of financial struggle. Rebuilding starts with financial security. COVID-19 has devastated families’ finances, causing ripple effects of economic insecurities into other areas of their lives. People have had to skip meals, fall behind on their rent, and avoid seeking medical attention during a pandemic. Delaying relief will only make it harder for people to recover.
When the federal government offered relief, it excluded 15 million people because of their household immigration status. From day one, MAF has advocated for relief for all, regardless of status. MAF stepped up to offer cash assistance to 43,000 people.
From our research, we see the definitive impact cash assistance can make in people’s lives. In MAF’s survey of immigrants left out of CARES Act relief, we saw a 10-fold increase in the number of immigrant households who have no income today. If these families had been included in the CARES Act, more than one in four would have been able to pay off their bills in full for the month with as little as $1,200. We can’t continue to exclude our essential workers–we need relief for all.
We urge the Biden Administration to keep his immigration campaign promises. Reinstating DACA will be a great first step—but we can’t stop there. We need comprehensive policies that will protect and help all immigrants rebuild their financial lives post COVID-19. This means starting with a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom have lived in this country for decades and many counted among essential workers fighting at the frontlines of this pandemic.
This also means keeping families together, giving asylum-seekers the opportunity to seek safety, and ending discriminatory Muslim bans. If we truly want to rebuild this country after this pandemic, we need to invest in people. Let’s start by extending protections to our essential workers and their families–millions of immigrants who have stepped up for us in our time of greatest need.
The lesson we draw from Georgia is that these policies are only possible when built atop the victories of joyful, inclusive organizing. For this reason, we’ve been investing in the mobilization work necessary to create a true culture of engagement for all people, regardless of status. In 2020 we engaged our community of over 100,000 about the census and election, listening to their stories and needs. In 2021 we’ll continue to organize more boldly and fearlessly because the fight for the next election, the next mid-terms, the tomorrow of our dreams, has already begun.
The headlines may very well continue to be dominated by the scowling faces of loud, white men. Yet we’ll continue to keep our eyes on that other face, steady at the head of the march towards justice, the light of hope that keeps us warm in the bitter fight for equality, ever forward.