After more than two years of the pandemic, it’s up to all of us to show up, do more, and do better for communities who have been left behind. As we reflect on the Rapid Response Fund, what’s next?
In the final episode of our first season, MAF CEO José Quiñonez sits down with Efrain Segundo, MAF Financial Education and Engagement Manager. They chat about the Immigrant Families Recovery Program, MAF’s UBI+ program for immigrant families excluded from federal COVID-19 relief. Together, they outline a better way forward beyond cash, one that recognizes people’s human dignity and allows them to advocate for themselves in their next fight — whatever it may be.
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!
EFRAIN: Hi everyone, and welcome to our season finale! My name is Efrain Segundo, and I’m the financial education and engagement manager at MAF and your podcast host for today’s very special episode. Over the course of our first season, we’ve been reflecting on the past, talking a lot about how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted students, families, and immigrants who were excluded from stimulus checks.
DIANA: I had an awakening throughout that time, and instead of looking outwards, I started looking inwards. So I started a personal growth journey on my own. I feel like pre-pandemic, many of us were just telling ourselves we’re just busy, like we’re so busy working — we’re so busy. Post-pandemic you’re like, I really need to build these relationships because they’re my community. They need me, I need them. And community-building is vital.
EFRAIN: But today, we’d like to look to the future, and think about the incredible, inherent resilience people have demonstrated through these difficult times. Returning to our final episode to talk about just that is José Quiñonez, MAF CEO & founder.
EFRAIN: Good morning, José! How are you doing?
JOSÉ: Good morning! Doing well.
EFRAIN: Awesome. I’m really psyched to be here today to have this conversation with you about all the work we’ve done at MAF. And I wanted to start with this kickoff question, so: Over the course of this podcast, we’ve talked a lot about the last two years — the experiences of the people we’ve served during COVID-19, how we launched the Rapid Response Fund and provided emergency cash assistance, and how MAF and our partners showed up for people. As our Rapid Response Fund winds down, we’ve launched a new program — the Immigrant Families Recovery Program. This is the first guaranteed income designed specifically to help immigrant families excluded from federal COVID-19 relief as they rebuild their financial lives. We’re sending $400 per month to low-income immigrant families paired with relevant financial services.
So to kick off this conversation, the question for you José would be, as we make this big shift, what’s top of mind for you? And what is the vision for the program?
JOSÉ: I’ve been thinking a lot about that in terms of how we need to show up again for people past the pandemic, because I think we definitely need to sort of figure out: What are going to be not just the next emergencies, but how to help people recuperate?
I mean, after seeing how they were devastated financially — losing all of their savings, racking up a lot of debt just to survive. So questions like: How do we help people recover from that devastation? And really do it in a way to help them set up for future success? So I’m really excited by that because I think it’s going to give us more to do. It’s going to challenge us to be more creative, be more thoughtful, and really be more engaged with people to figure out: how else could we show up? While we continue to do our Lending Circles, to improve our business loans, and even this new guaranteed income program.
So what else can we do? And I think that’s going to come from being in deep conversation with clients and trying to understand how they’re going to recover.
EFRAIN: Have there been any big resounding lessons that you’ve learned from the Rapid Response Fund? Whether it’s something that we learned, or something that we’d like others to know about?
JOSÉ: One of the things I did take away from it was: it was great that we were able to show up and provide this one-time relief, right? And now of course, we’re working with over 3,000 families to provide them a guaranteed income for up to two years. But even that — it’s like, well, it’s two years, right?
But the reality is that they have to live with themselves forever. They have to be the ones as clients, as people to really advocate for themselves. Not just in the financial marketplace, but in society in general. We’re seeing the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment — this backlash against progress for people of color. We need to make sure we also think about self-advocacy past their engagement with us — with MAF specifically. I think about that because it puts our programs at scale. It puts it in perspective. It’s great we were able to show up for this one-time grant, it’s great that we were able to provide them with this credit-building opportunity.
But what did we do in that time to help change their mindsets a little bit? To help them feel a little more confident in themselves? What do we do to help them feel like they can have that agency to be able to call their member of Congress and demand that they vote on X? Or call their school board president to make sure that they pass particular policies — or whatever, right? How are we helping them have a sense that they too can do that as well as building their credit?
I’m grappling with that because money and finance is important, but I want it to be something as a way for us to help shape and educate and train people to advocate for themselves — beyond just building their financial security. And I think if we’re able to do that well, in the next coming months and years, I think we’ll be able to highlight a completely new approach of engaging poor people in this country in a way that could be really significant.
And I really want to ask you: What have you learned? How has your thinking about coaching changed in the past year, when we’re trying to do these self-advocacy trainings through financial empowerment?
EFRAIN: Staying true to MAF’s values and keeping the client first. My mom used to always say: La misma llave no abre todas las puertas. The same key doesn’t open up all the doors. Every key has its own individual door that it opens. I think that’s the best way that I like to think about carrying out the work, or contributing to the work that the program team does, the engagement team does.
Because we’re trying to figure out: What is the key for everybody? We do that through trials and tribulations, trying to figure out: What is the best, most accessible way for people to participate with this? What is the best thing that we can give them or help them find in that moment that will have the biggest ripples? And that’s one of my favorite ways of thinking about it. What stone can MAF throw in that pond that will have the best, everlasting ripples? The best effects over it. Because you’re right. It could just be a one-time grant. That might be able to pay a bill or two this month. But then what? And we want to address the “and then what.” We’re trying to figure that out.
I remember when I was coaching during the pandemic. It was a bit tough because you definitely heard about people’s tough times, but it kind of hurts because you want to do everything you can to help that person — but there are limitations to it.
By encouraging self-advocacy — by teaching people skills, teaching people a sense of feeling. Because I think beyond the grants, beyond the programs, beyond everything that MAF offers, I think we’re in the business of feeling. We’re in the business of helping people have realizations that the power has been with them the entire time. They just needed someone to show them that, “Hey, this is how you do it. That you can do this for yourself.” We’ll be right there with you if you have questions, so you feel comfortable and continue doing so. These skills will translate over time and over different fields.
JOSÉ: The idea that we’re in the business of feelings — I think that’s right on target. It’s not the facts and figures that we convey that are important to our clients. It’s about how we make them feel afterwards. When we treat people with dignity, with respect, with honor — that’s the feeling that they take to their next battle. To their next problem. To their next engagement.
And of course, along the way, we give them tricks on how to do that — how to engage. But it is about building that confidence that comes from that — feeling like they are worthy, that they’re humans full of dignity, that they are people just as deserving as all of us to be seen and heard in this world.
You and your team, what you do, is so integral to making that happen. Because you’re like the clutch, right? You’re the ones interfacing with people on a daily basis. You’re the one interfacing with people on a daily basis. And as you know, it’s actually harder to just listen and hear all of the pain that people are having to go through. It takes a special human being to do that, frankly. That’s why I respect you and the work that you and your team does because it’s a lot to take on.
EFRAIN: Yeah, absolutely. Big shoutout to the team because I think you’re absolutely right. It puts us in a position where we get to genuinely connect with people. And that’s definitely a blessing. Because while it might be difficult at times to hear about the difficult times that people are experiencing, it’s extremely rewarding, José, when we’re in a session with a client and you see the “wow” on their face when they find out a piece of information that they didn’t know befor or a skill. And they either realize that, one, it’s easier than they thought, or two, it applies directly to their life, and three, it’s like they know they can genuinely do it.
Let’s say somebody is completely brand new to MAF, somebody is brand new to this nonprofit world that we’re all a part of… how would you describe MAF’s strengths-based approach to someone completely new to our work? Or completely new to the world of asset-building, of clients-centered approach? How would you describe it to them? And how would describe this evolution from MAF’s first year to now?
JOSÉ: It sounds like a big question, but to be honest with you: It’s one of the most simplistic questions I’ve ever heard. And what I mean by that is this: It’s a question I’ve always had the same answer to for the past 15 years. It’s the same question, same answer. What is it that we’re trying to do?
And ultimately it’s about making sure people have an opportunity for real success. That we wanted for our clients to experience success. To have éxito in their lives. That meant they had to be at the center of our thinking, the center of our design, the center of everything. The question then was: Well, what do you do after that? You have to then apply our values of engagement. That’s what we’ve done since day one, which is about the idea of meeting people where they are.
You look at people as whole people. Not as some notion or some stereotype of them or some idolized version of them. No. You have to see people, see communities, and the whole sense of who they are. Both good and bad. You have to acknowledge the pain — acknowledge the barriers, the pitfalls that people fall into in life. But you also have to acknowledge the good things that people are doing. You have to acknowledge and recognize when they did not fall into that pit, when they were able to overcome the barriers. You have to acknowledge the good strategies that they have in order to survive in life.
EFRAIN: Absolutely. Man, that is spot-on. I think if people could apply this approach to any sort of profession, it would stick. And it would bring success. Because at the end of the day, it’s putting the person who you want your product to service, your thoughts to focus on — it’s on them. Because they are the masters of their own lives. They know it best. At the end of the day, it’s not up to us to go and say, “This is what your life should be.” It’s instead to ask, “What would you like your life to be, and how can we support you in getting there?” And I think that’s one of the biggest insights that I’ve learned throughout my experience in these Charlas, in all these fin-ed events and coaching.
One, José, is that people are incredibly resilient, incredibly resilient. Whether we are there or not, a lot of people are going to do their absolute best to strive, and to survive, and to thrive in their life. But it’s amazing the impact support from organizations like MAF, like many of our partners, like many community-based organizations, can have in that feeling that can push people to go even more.
I try to keep my mom top of mind because I see my mom in a lot of my community members and the people that we serve, because I grew up with it. So it makes me really happy to see the impact of the products and the services. But more than anything, José, I think, we bring authenticity to the game. And I think if you are authentic in no matter what your field or your profession is, you will see success and you will see impact.
Because authenticity itself speaks for itself. You see authenticity in our services and products, whether it be our coaching or Charlas or Talleres or Conversaciones Comunitarias or MyMAF. People go into our products and services, and they definitely feel authentic energy, which makes it gravitate even more to us.
So I’m really happy that this has been our approach for the last 15 years. I’m happy that it’s evolved and gotten better as we’ve gone through it. And I’m really excited to see what this energy will bring into the future.
When you look into the future, 15 years from now, when you look into the next 15, what are you feeling?
JOSÉ: When I was in college I remember reading/studying this book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. One of the things that I remember him mentioning in the book — and this kind of explains the idea that being resilient is part of our human condition. It’s not something that we are just because we’re just working and struggling. No, it’s that human beings by definition are resilient. That’s how we’ve survived through millennia.
Our whole educational system is set up in a way that presumes that our minds are like empty bank accounts. Them being empty bank accounts, it presumes that the teacher is the one that is depositing knowledge into our empty bank accounts.
Our whole educational system as a whole is built on that idea. And of course he’s very critical of it. He’s like, no, that’s not correct. No human mind is an empty bank account; no human mind is empty at all. Because we all have experiences, we all have dreams, aspirations. There’s a lot of wisdom in those truths. Just with that simple analogy, he was able to communicate this idea of the inherent value of our human existence as people. That’s, in a sense, what we’re trying to do with our work, sort of following with that tradition, or that idea that Paulo Freire set forth in that book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
But I think that the next 15 years, frankly, is well, how else can we show and demonstrate more of that? And how can we take our learnings, what we’re demonstrating to be working, and how can we show that it can be applicable in other cases? How can this lead us to developing a policy agenda? It’s about persuading others outside of MAF of the value of this mindset. The value that this is a good approach, a better approach, because it’s more natural to people.
And so I think it’s lifelong work that’s going to happen over many, many years.
EFRAIN: Awesome, thank you so much for sharing that, José. At the end of the day, it’s about providing more people with a sense of access to — to findings, to one another, to that energy — but most importantly, a sense of community. Right? And I think that people when they connect with MAF, it’s an automatic sense of community because it’s as authentic as it gets.
If you could provide a call-to-action, for the people who are listening to today’s podcast — I know that our partners are listening, I know that community members are listening, or someone who’s just interested in the work we do… Is there one call-to-action that you would like to leave them all with for the first season of this podcast?
JOSÉ: I encourage people to show up. To show up, to show up, to show up. And do more in their communities. Whatever it is that they’re doing. Whether they’re working at a nonprofit or at a foundation or in government, whatever it is that you’re doing, do more of it for poor people because they need more. And also, we need to do things better, right? So whatever it is that we’re doing: learn from it, improve it, be more efficient. Be better, do better.
EFRAIN: Definitely show up, do what you can, do better. And I think it’ll be easy to find that the world will be a better place as a result of it. Thank you so much, José. I really appreciated today’s conversation.
JOSÉ: Yeah, thank you!
ROCIO: Thanks for listening to Cafecito con MAF!
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