The pandemic turned all of our lives upside down, but millions of immigrants and their family members were excluded from the very relief that could have helped. Without it, how did immigrants weather the crisis? And in the face of such overwhelming need, how did MAF get cash grants into the hands of those who would benefit most from cash assistance?
Hear how MAF launched our Rapid Response Fund firsthand from two MAFistas: Rocio Rodarte, Policy and Communications Manager, and Joanna Cortez Hernandez, Director of the Engagement and Mobilize Team. Together, they share behind-the-scenes stories of how MAF listened to clients, partnered with other trusted community organizations, and leveraged technology to get more than 63,000 grants to students, workers, and immigrants excluded from federal COVID-19 relief.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
ROCIO: Welcome to Cafecito con MAF. A podcast about showing up, doing more, and doing better for people. We’re on a mission to help people become visible, active, and successful in their financial lives. Join us!
DIANA: Offices were closed, banks… It was just like, if you find somebody on the phone, like MAF and many nonprofit organizations, they were shut down. So it was really hard to apply for this help on my own without a support system of: okay, I need this paper, I don’t know where to get it — those little details. It was hard to get finished from beginning to end.
ROCIO: That was Diana, a working mom and entrepreneur who you met in our last episode. Diana touches on a real crucial aspect for surviving the pandemic: support. Delivering support in the form of cash aid through MAF’s Rapid Response Fund was an enormous task — more than 63,000 grants and $55 million across the country.
But it was a task that had to be completed thoughtfully, with respect for people’s experiences through COVID-19. Joining me here today to talk about just that is Joanna Cortez Hernandez, Director of our Engagement and Mobilize team. Hi Joanna, how are you?
JOANNA: Hey Rocio, good morning, I’m doing well, how are you?
ROCIO: I’m good! Really excited to talk to you because you’ve been at MAF for a few years now, and you were here when we first launched the Rapid Response Fund, way back in March 2020. I know that probably feels like lightyears ago, but what do you remember from those early days? You know, what was happening on the ground? What did you consider as the big wins and challenges of the time?
JOANNA: Yes, definitely feels like lightyears ago. And it was within really that first week where we were working remotely where I feel like we were all talking about what was happening and talking about what we were hearing from clients directly — when we got on the phones with them, when they reached out to us via email. And that’s when we really realized that this is real. Folks’ lives are being impacted in many different ways.
And that was really the birth, if you will, of our Rapid Response efforts. We had three different Rapid Response efforts. We got kicked off with the California College Student [Support] Fund. That was the first Rapid Response effort that we kicked off. It kicked off in April.
It was…pretty wild because I remember that we set up an application. We were set with partnering with organizations and funders for this particular fund. And it was launch time, day one of opening up this fund. And within hours, I remember our phone lines were ringing off the hook. There were so many calls we were getting. There wasn’t even a break in between those calls. It was like, you would answer one call, you would hang up, and the phone would ring again. And so you’d answer the next call. And a lot of what we were hearing in those phone calls were folks who were interested in applying to that fund, but were having issues actually being able to apply.
And so we were obviously in a panic mode. But we decided what was going to be best for us was to pull the application, to figure out what was happening on the backend of our systems, and instead replace it with a sign-up form — a temporary sign up form. So instead of the ask being “apply to receive a grant”, it was “please submit your personal information — we’re going to contact you once the application is live again.”
Again, this was all in the context of the California College Student [Support] Fund which was the first Rapid Response effort but, nonetheless, was pivotal in our Rapid Response journey as an organization. And, being able to, one, meet the needs in the communities we serve, but two, also thinking about: How we can be better set up internally to be able to meet those needs. And rise to the occasion that these times just put us in.
ROCIO: Yeah, that’s crazy. And I think something I heard was that by July 2020, we had received more client inquiries in one month than in 10 years combined. Does this sound right?
JOANNA: Yeahhh. Yes!
ROCIO: You know, another thing I was thinking about it is — just to shed a little bit more light into the — who were the people applying? Who was coming to us? Who were you hearing from?
JOANNA: As an organization, we’ve been really intentional about serving low-income and immigrant communities, communities of color. And we knew that those were the exact same communities that would be hit the hardest due to COVID, that would have the least to fall back on. So those are the folks we continue to focus our work around, who we really center our work around.
So the folks applying for our Rapid Response relief were families with children; they were folks who were either sick with COVID themselves or had somebody in their household who was sick with COVID, had no to very little income as a result of the pandemic.
We heard things like, I lost my job due to the pandemic and I no longer have any income to support my family. And I’m very worried about how I’m going to pay rent or put food on the table for my children. There were many families who talked about the fact that their children shifted to online virtual learning. They were having to juggle — on top of the financial stress of the pandemic brought into their lives — they were also having to juggle that with being a teacher and helping their kids navigate online learning.
And so, those are just some of the points that I remember from the stories I heard and read throughout our Rapid Response efforts. Many I think are still very true today, right? Because we are still living through a pandemic, and folks are still being impacted by it in many ways, including in their financial lives. I hope that paints a picture for the folks we serve back in 2020 through the end of our Rapid Response efforts, but also, technically, the folks that we’re still serving today.
The scale of our Rapid Response efforts was incredible. More than 200,000 people applied for relief through the Rapid Response Fund we had. Rocio, just based on your experience at MAF and the work you’re doing within and even outside of the evaluation team — I know it was hard to think through a framework of, who we say yes to, when the need is tremendous. Can you speak a bit more about that? Why would you say MAF didn’t fall back on a first-come, first-serve approach or a lottery system? And, more importantly, how did we figure out who to say yes to?
ROCIO: Yeah, this is always a hard question to answer because the reality is that there was just such devastating need. And I think something we heard was that, if we had done a first-come, first-serve approach — so person one applies, we review the application, we give them the grant — we would have exhausted our existing funding at the time within the first 20 minutes. At that time we had more limited funding, we didn’t have the $55 million.
And what we knew was: Who are the people applying first? They are the people who knew about it right away, who had the technology to apply right away, who had the time, who were able to step away from the classroom, their work, in order to apply. That’s not the reality of the people we serve. People work during the day, they have children to care for.
There’s so much complexity to their lives. We really wanted to enact a more thoughtful approach to who was ultimately going to get this grant. Again, given the circumstances of a pool of limited funding. In an ideal world, of course we’d love to give everyone the funding. That was not the reality we were dealing with.
So we took a step and we ultimately devised a financial equity framework. Another big thing for us was taking into consideration structural barriers: Such as you’re not getting a stimulus check because you’re an undocumented immigrant, if you’re a student, if you’re a foster youth, previously foster youth or DACA recipient. So these were some of the structural barriers that we were taking into consideration.
Joanna, earlier you mentioned that there were some folks who lost their jobs or their entire income. We had to dig deeper and prioritize first those who had not just lost income — that was the original question — we had to ask specifically, did you lose your entire job? Do you now have a zero monthly income? For people who were supporting their families, that was the first original question, we had to dig even deeper to say, do you have small children under five? Do you have family members who have perhaps gotten sick with COVID? That’s another financial strain we took into consideration.
So for all these three broad categories that we had, we ultimately had to dig deeper in order to prioritize people who could ultimately benefit the most from the relief, as we like to say.
And something that I think is so striking when we reflect back on this is that, you know, the different parameters and pillars I talked about dealt with income, financial strains, structural barriers — but mostly financial really. Which is why we call it a financial equity framework. The crazy thing to us is that by using a financial equity framework, we reached more than 93% people of color. Again, to us that’s striking because we didn’t ask about race or ethnicity in the pre-application. But ultimately when we devised, when we really targeted people who had the most need, it ended up being people of color. And I think it’s just another way to think about how we target relief and how we offer support.
And for us, that’s just a huge takeaway to see that by focusing on finances, we hit on so many intersectional issues that so many low-income communities face.
JOANNA: Yeah, I think you hit on a really good point there, Rocio, about the intentionality behind the work. You said that there were these three pillars that we focused on as an organization to build out this financial equity framework. And we had to dig deeper in each of those in order to identify folks who had the least resources and who needed the most support.
ROCIO: Something else I wanted to say really quickly, Joanna, is also going back to — taking a step back and creating this financial equity framework in order to revamp our applications and give relief in this intentional way. That was done within like, a week and a half.
And I want to flag that because timing is everything for the way we do our work here at MAF. We wanted to give people timely cash assistance because they needed it ASAP. And it was a very complex framework overall, but at the end of the day, it was done very quickly. And again, going back to — we’ve been doing this work, we’re already in touch with clients, we talk to them, hear them, we listen to them, and that’s why we were able to do this so quickly. Because we already have this experience of working with them, of listening to them, and updating these frameworks live.
JOANNA: Yeah, definitely.
ROCIO: We didn’t do this work alone. We worked with incredible partners to reach more people. I know for example that you worked a lot with partners in San Mateo County, Joanna. Can you talk a little more about that? How did you collaborate with others?
JOANNA: Yeah, so, for our Immigrant Families Fund, we, as you said Rocio, we collaborated with San Mateo County to basically create the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund.
So we had this partnership where basically MAF — you could say — was an administer of this fund. We were the ones screening the pre-application, sending out the invitation to the full application, reviewing those applications, handling client inquiries about the fund and the application, making sure that the money was disbursed to folks who were approved for this fund.
But there was also work we had to do to get the word out, and that’s really where that partnership was key with San Mateo County. Because we’re an organization based in San Francisco. One thing that we know is very true in all of our work — I’m thinking of Lending Circles — is the fact that we are not the experts of things happening in places outside of San Francisco.
And so we intentionally partner with organizations in those other places so that we can get our programs, our services, our resources out to those communities who might need them. Because at the end of the day, those organizations know their communities much better than we ever will. That’s true of our Lending Circles program but it’s also true of our Rapid Response efforts. That is why we partnered with San Mateo County, because we knew at the end of the day, these three organizations — Faith in Action, Legal Aid, and Samaritan House — knew their communities much better than we did. Knew the community of San Mateo County much better than we did. So we partnered with them to make sure the word got out and that folks were applying for these funds and that folks had access to these funds.
But I know I’ve talked so much already about my experience with clients and with partners. Rocio, I’d love to hear more about your experience, specifically speaking and connecting with clients. Because I know you had the opportunity to interview so many of them as part of this large survey that we wrote out to immigrants excluded from relief. What was that like? Can you speak a little bit more about that survey? And even share more about the insights that you gained with just connecting with more of our clients?
ROCIO: Something that’s very important to the way we do our work at MAF is not just giving — we knew people had needs and we wanted to give them timely cash assistance so they could meet their basic needs. But another thing that is very important to the way we do our work, in particular our evaluation, is making sure to follow-up to understand how the product, the service that we’re giving to people is really impacting their lives.
For us it was very important to create a culturally relevant survey that would try to capture the complexity of their experiences during the pandemic. This is why we were very intentional. This was a multi-month process of designing a survey as we were giving out cash assistance to follow up: to see how are you and your family doing during the pandemic? Financially, emotionally, health-wise, socially. We really wanted to capture the complexity of experiences by asking different types of questions.
We started designing the survey in July; we kept refining it in August. By the time we got to testing it – testing is critical to the work we do. And keep in mind that most of these sessions were in Spanish, because that was the primary language that immigrants who had received our grant — their first language. And everything translates differently in another language, and everything gets longer — the sentences are longer in Spanish. And so, trying to make sure like: Is this too much text? Do you understand the wording?
And so I ended up doing about – more than 20 one-on-one sessions throughout the entire month. Most of them were in Spanish. I think it’s to date, it’s one of the highlights of the year and a half I’ve been at MAF, because it really was such a personal experience. Because these were Immigrant Family Fund grant recipients. Again, most of them were Spanish speakers; they’re all immigrants for the most part. Going into these sessions, I was a little nervous. Like, oh, I’m gonna talk to a stranger and ask them to answer all these very personal questions about their lives. I think something that just captivated me was just: how open they were to sharing their experiences. You know, at first they’re a little nervous and then they start going through the questions and they get comfortable; their answers start getting longer as it goes on. They start to get more personal.
At the end of the session, which on average took about an hour — just because we were taking our time with each part of it — one of my questions was always: is this too long? Did I lose you? I want to make sure we don’t have people dropping off as they’re answering these questions.
And they always look so surprised. They’re like: No! Isn’t there more? I want to answer more questions. But I remember there was a particular situation where one person was like, you’re the only one who is asking me about my experience during the pandemic. I want to be able to share more so others know what it’s like to be left behind.
And, that was generally the sentiment. I think that’s something that I found so heartbreaking. Because I could not believe — or maybe I could at a high level. At the end of the day, this is why we did this fund. Eleven and a half million immigrants and their families were excluded from stimulus checks, so there was a reason we were doing this, because they were excluded. But hearing it from one person, from two people, from 20 people, over and over again, saying like, no one else is asking me, I feel forgotten. You’re the only one who has asked me how I’m feeling during this pandemic. That was very touching. And again, I think it was a great reminder of the need to continue to power through — a reminder of why we do this work.
JOANNA: Yes, Rocio, and after hearing everything you’ve just shared right now, what just really comes up to mind for me is: Yes, listening to clients has always been at the center of our work. And that is how we’ve really risen to the occasion time and time again to meet the needs of communities that we serve — because we listen to those communities. And what you shared about the importance of that in our Rapid Response work, at a time when millions of people did not feel heard or seen I think is very important. And like you said, underscores the importance of our work and the people behind that work — you and I and many other MAFistas, right?
And it just makes me wonder — not wonder, think more about — how do we, through the incredible milestones that we were able to achieve through our Rapid Response efforts, from rolling out the application in the matter of a week, to being able to distribute more than $30 million in direct cash assistance by the end of 2020, to this large survey that was rolled that got over 11,000 responses… connecting all these dots is I know something that we’re in the process of doing and have been doing since the start of this Rapid Response effort.
And I think those dots to me are: creating this podcast, writing a research brief, which I know you are very well acquainted to. But I think it’s important for us as an organization to, and I want folks to know this, to be connecting these dots of all of these milestones of this important story, so that we’re able to continue to center conversations around what needs to be changing on a policy level for the clients that we serve that are experiencing and living through these hardships in real time. So I’m excited about where we’re going as an organization and talking more about our work and talking about it at a high level. Because I think there’s a lot of work that can be done, that needs to be done.
And we can’t do it alone. I think this is where partnerships come into play. Where policy conversations become ever more so important. So I look forward to all that’s ahead for us in that respect.
ROCIO: Thanks for tying that together so beautifully, Joanna. That is exactly right.
And for our listeners, today we talked a little bit about what it was like to take Rapid Response beyond MAF and our home base of San Francisco. Next week, we’ll actually be hearing directly from one of our partners who made this work possible, April Yee of the College Futures Foundation.
Be sure to subscribe to our podcast on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you listen to podcasts, so you can catch the next episode as soon as it’s posted.
And be sure to follow us online if you want to learn more about our work, join a free financial education class, or get more news and updates on Cafecito con MAF. We’re at missionassetfund.org and on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.