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More than a check: MAF provides UBI+ for immigrant families, largest in nation

Have you seen the price of gas lately? My jaw almost dropped when I saw it climb past $6 and stay there.

Gas, food, housing — everything — is getting more expensive this year. Inflation is rising at its fastest rate in 40 years. Everyone is feeling the strain, but the people who are feeling the greatest pressure from inflation are the same people who always get left out, like the ones who were excluded from stimulus checks and the expanded Child Tax Credit. 

Undocumented families are routinely excluded from social safety net programs, despite the crisis of the moment or personal hardships they may be living through.

Millions of immigrant families are simply left to fend for themselves. Without income, people spiraled into debt during the pandemic, and now inflation is threatening their precarious economic recovery.

“We really need the help,” Rosa, a mother and MAF client, told us. “My husband had a heart attack about 4 months ago. He is still recovering and I am the only one who works part time. I have a 3 year old son and he needs things: clothes, shoes, food.” Families like Rosa’s need a little help to weather these storms, especially if they may be rebuilding from prior ones, barely recovering from one crisis before the next hits.

At MAF, we launched the nation’s largest UBI+ program for immigrants to help families recover faster.

We’re partnering with 3,000 immigrant families across the country as they rebuild their financial lives in the wake of the pandemic. Together, we’re learning what it will take to help people recover faster and prepare for what comes next. 

The Immigrant Families Recovery Program is providing $400 a month to immigrant families left out of federal COVID-19 relief for up to two years. This $30 million program is designed to deepen engagement with families we supported during the pandemic. To build back faster, we are providing participants with self-advocacy training to help them weather what may come next. And, we’re investing in research, engaging with a comparison group of 1,750 families to help us understand the true impact of cash aid and financial education. Follow along with us as we share research insights to pave the way for future change.

More than 1,600 families are enrolled and receiving their monthly payments. We are on track to complete enrollment by the end of summer. Families throughout the country in California, Texas, New York, and beyond have enrolled in the program, receiving monthly cash payments and relevant financial services. And we’re partnering with a coalition of San Mateo County groups, Daly City, and other localities to reach immigrant families in their communities.

Monthly cash payments can be transformational for families.

“We have put off a lot of necessities for a very long time in order to just take care of the basics. We try hard to not have our kids feel burdened or that they’re missing out, but it’s a struggle,” Sergio says. “I would love to be able to buy them music lessons, pay for a personal therapist for myself, invest in a college fund and start an emergency savings account too.” 

MAF’s UBI+ program for immigrant families is more than a check — it’s a recognition of their human dignity, a message that they matter and deserve security and opportunity to thrive in this world too.

IGNITE: Connect, Reflect, Innovate

IGNITE Partner Convening: We Shine Brighter Together

Like fireflies coming together in the night sky, we shine brighter when we’re together. In that spirit, Lending Circles providers from across the country convened for the first time in nearly two years for IGNITE: Connect, Reflect, Innovate. 

We gathered around the “virtual table” to reflect on the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, celebrate our partners who showed up for their communities, and learn from one another. With interactive workshops, guest speakers, games, and music, IGNITE was a day full of connection. We also unveiled a new offering for partners: MyMAF, a mobile app that puts a financial coach in people’s pockets. Read on for session highlights and event recordings.

Welcome & Fireside Chat

Incredible leaders Debbie Alvarez-Rodriguez from La Cocina and Ahmed Mori from Catalyst Miami joined MAF CEO José Quiñonez for a fireside chat on what it means to show up, especially when times are hard. 

Since La Cocina works with entrepreneurs in the food and hospitality industry, Debbie described how 100% of La Cocina organizations experienced some version of furlough, layoff, or shutdown in 2020. Despite this, La Cocina still managed to open the nation’s first women- and women of color-led food hall during the pandemic. How? By turning outward and launching a $2 million food security program that met the needs of the community. Ahmed described how Catalyst Miami likewise adapted to meet changing realities – launching a new program geared towards microbusinesses in the summer of 2020. 

Igniting the Fire
Created by Sara Yukimoto-Saltman, Graphic Recorder

After two difficult years, how can we keep our fire going and continue to show up, do more, and do better for the people we serve? Two ways: turn to community for solutions and rely on trusted partners who do the same. As Debbie shared, “There’s an expression… ‘you always have to find a way out of no way’… in the worst times, we in our community have the ability to discover and enact a solution.” 

Ahmed agreed, emphasizing the importance of working with partners who share a commitment to justice: “Hearing that folks in community want to create new systems in the cracks of the old..and in the cracks of the failed systems that oppressed them — that is ultimately what keeps me going.” Their fireside chat set the tone and energy for the day!

Sparking Innovation: Lessons Learned from Lending Circles

In Sparking Innovation, Marjan Nadir from Refugee Women’s Network, Rose Mary Rodriguez from Pathfinders, and Henry Rucker from Project for Pride in Living shared how they adapted their Lending Circles programs to meet the challenges clients were facing during the pandemic. Refugee Women’s Network even launched its first Lending Circle during COVID-19. Some of our partners’ learnings? 

Sparking Innovation
Created by Sara Yukimoto-Saltman, Graphic Recorder
  • During COVID-19, people had a greater need for building up savings. Lending Circles are a powerful tool to build a nest egg safely.
  • Local leaders and clients can help establish trust and buy-in with other community members. Henry explained how local church leaders and barbers became trusted advocates for Lending Circles in their communities.
  • Finally, participate in a Lending Circle yourself! When staff have firsthand experience, they’re better able to share the benefits to others. 

Shining a Light: Undocumented Immigrants during COVID-19

Millions of immigrant families were excluded from federal COVID-19 relief and had to dig into savings and take on debt just to survive. In Shining a Light, practitioners offered real and innovative ways we can support immigrants as they rebuild during the pandemic, drawing on insights from MAF’s national survey of immigrants excluded from federal COVID-19 relief. We can start by offering more social safety net support to immigrants, providing more assistance to people getting an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), and partnering with key organizations to reach more immigrant communities. 

The Glow Up: MyMAF in Your Pocket

As we rely more heavily on technology to stay connected, we’re thrilled to offer the MyMAF app exclusively to partners. Efrain Segundo, MAF’s Financial Education and Engagement Manager, demonstrated MyMAF’s financial education modules, actionable tools, and other exciting features to help communities take control of their finances.

The Glow Up: MyMAF in Your Pocket
Created by Sara Yukimoto-Saltman, Graphic Recorder

Why MyMAF? MyMAF is a tech tool designed specifically for the people we serve. It is bilingual, accessible, and culturally relevant. 

As one Lending Circles provider shared, “I can’t say enough how much I love this app…I love how aligned it is with our coaching approach.”

If you’re interested in bringing MyMAF to your community, reach out to [email protected] for more information.

Fueling the Hustle: Entrepreneurism during COVID-19

Small business owners juggled a lot during the pandemic — everything from closings to reopenings, changing guidelines, and capital challenges. Through it all, entrepreneurs navigated these challenges with creativity and determination. Two entrepreneurs, Tahmeena and Reyna, shared how Lending Circles helped them build credit and grow their businesses. 

Entrepreneurism during COVID-19
Created by Sara Yukimoto-Saltman, Graphic Recorder

Tahmeena used the $1,000 she saved through Lending Circles to purchase merchandise and start an online boutique called Takho’z Choice. In just three months, her small business was turning a profit. Reyna of La Guerrera’s Kitchen reflected how her mother had taught her about tandas, so she was familiar with the Lending Circles concept. Because Lending Circles allow people with ITINs to establish credit, they are an incredible resource. Reyna also noted the importance of providing immigrant entrepreneurs with mentorship and legal services alongside financial services.

Kindling Adaptability: Connection in a Virtual World

At MAF, we talk a lot about meeting people where they are. And over the past two years, that’s meant meeting clients online. How can we continue to provide relevant and timely financial services to clients in a virtual space? Casa Familiar’s Yessenia Sanchez and The Resurrection Project’s Sandy Guzman joined financial coaches from MAF to share best practices for “waving clients” into the virtual office—and how they kept things in perspective when things got tough. 

MAF Financial Coaching Manager Liliana Hernandez shared a quote from Mother Teresa that inspired her: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” This focus on serving the person in front of her helped take client-driven financial coaching to another level during the pandemic.

Music

A celebration isn’t the same without music, and we were fortunate to have not one, but two musical performances during IGNITE. DJ OME kicked off the day with a lively set that perfectly set the tone for IGNITE. One attendee shared that DJ OME’s set was a better way to start the day than coffee — and we agree! And Analia and Ruben, two MAF clients, gave an incredible mariachi performance to close out our time together. 

Keeping the Spark Alive

How will you keep the spark aflame?

At the start of IGNITE, José shared: “In our communities, there are always different crises. It requires leaders to show up and do something, and do more, and do better. And I appreciate the people who are just doing it.” It’s clear that the MAF partner network is full of leaders doing just that: showing up and doing the hard work. With their leadership, we can ignite the fire that transforms recovery into reality.


We’ll continue to learn from our partners and we can’t wait to celebrate them again during MAF’s Quinceañera — coming up this September 15th! Stay tuned for more opportunities to keep these sparks alive.

We’re thrilled to offer the MyMAF app exclusively for our partners. If you’re interested in bringing MyMAF to your community, please get in touch at [email protected] for more information.

Small Business Week

Honoring Immigrant Entrepreneurs during National Small Business Week

Everytime we run errands at a local grocer, eat lunch at a family-owned restaurant, or stock our personal libraries with indie bookstore orders, we are reinvesting in the communities we live in. Small businesses are the lifeblood of neighborhoods: Besides making our local landscapes special, small businesses keep money from the community, in the community

Of course, small businesses wouldn’t be possible without the creative people who started them, many of whom have endured impossible challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Navigating seas of red tape to access crucial financial support has been a struggle — especially for immigrants and people of color, who were disproportionately hurt by the design of loans like the Paycheck Protection Program. 

In the face of these barriers, MAF has seen incredible resilience and savviness from immigrant and BIPOC entrepreneurs. This #SmallBusinessWeek, we’re taking a moment to share their lessons and honor their histories. Behind every small business is a dreamer, entrepreneur, and neighbor, each with their own story:

Tahmeena

“At that time, I didn’t have a credit card. I wasn’t familiar with businesses or anything,” Tahmeena says. She had no credit history when she immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan. But she wasn’t discouraged. Tahmeena, who had been interested in fashion since she was a child, quickly saw a need in her community for cultural clothings and accessories that were common abroad, but difficult to acquire in America. 

On a whim, she brought back a few items after a vacation to Turkey to see if there would be any interest. And within a month, she had almost too many customers clamoring for more. 

So Tahmeena joined MAF’s Lending Circles through the Refugee Women’s Network to establish a credit score and grow her online boutique, Takho’z Choice, further. She took the $1,000 she saved through the zero-interest loan and used it to buy merchandise. In just three months, her small business started to generate profit, and her previously nonexistent credit score jumped hundreds of points.

Reyna

Reyna’s mother planted the early seeds to their business when she sold tamales as a street vendor in San Francisco. With the support of incubator La Cocina, Reyna and her mother opened La Guerrera’s Kitchen’s first brick-and-mortar in 2019, right before the pandemic forced them to close shop. After two years of pop-ups and online Instagram orders, La Guerrera’s Kitchen was finally able to find a new home in Swan’s Market in Oakland in 2022. 

For many, mentorship is an essential part of this process to take off — especially for immigrant entrepreneurs. Through the process of starting La Guerrera’s Kitchen, Reyna learned about marketing and projections, how to negotiate, and how mixed-status homes can build credit with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, or ITINS.

“I would have loved receiving this support at a younger age,” she says. It’s support like this that Reyna wants for all immigrants: “Let people know that, yes, you can be undocumented and still open a business. This is how you do it.” 

Diana

It took one look from her English bulldog for Diana to realize that she was destined for an entrepreneurial adventure. In the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, Diana was feeling stuck. It was difficult to find jobs relevant to her interior design college degree, and the gig she did get at a doggy daycare, she wasn’t satisfied with. “I knew I could do it better,” Diana says. “And my bulldog just looked at me, and I took off on my own.” 

That small look proved to be life-changing. “He opened up so many opportunities to me that I didn’t see before,” she says. Over a decade later, Diana is running her own successful doggy daycare business, a feat that she credits to her faith in her entrepreneurial dreams, and to the people (and pets) who helped her build that foundation of trust and support. That includes everyone — from her English bulldog to her clients to MAF. As a MAF client, Diana was able to save the money for a down payment on her first doggy daycare van. 

Trust and support are key for any small business owner, Diana says. Even beyond finding these things from your family or community, it’s important to have that faith in yourself.

“You are the boss of your life, not just your job. You’re not creating a job just for you, you’re creating jobs for other people, you’re helping your community, and you’re creating your life and your dreams,” Diana says. “You are the creator.”

Cristina's Story

Dreams Blooming In The Dark: Cristina’s Story

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.

Introductions

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.

Cristina's family business

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

Cristina

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.

Cristina: Thanks.


If you have a dream you’d like to bring to life, we’re here to support you. Check out our business microloans and financial services to find the tools that will work best for you.

Si tienes un sueño que te gustaría hacer realidad, estamos aquí para ayudarte. Consulta nuestros micropréstamos comerciales y servicios financieros para encontrar las herramientas que mejor se adapten a tus necesidades.

Laura Arce

Champion Spotlight: Meet Laura Arce

For Laura Arce, joining MAF feels like a homecoming. 

Her new role as a member of MAF’s board of directors brought her—in a symbolic sense—back to the Bay Area, where she was born and raised. For years after college, Laura had spent time elsewhere: on Capitol Hill, in Beijing, working for government agencies or small consulting or even big banks like Wells Fargo, where she currently serves as a senior vice president of consumer banking and lending policy. 

But in 2020, when COVID-19 upended everyone’s lives, Laura had a startling epiphany.

“I realized I was missing my roots,” she says. It wasn’t just because Laura couldn’t simply board a plane ride back to her hometown anymore. It was also because her professional career was borne out of the personal—and it was time for Laura to reconnect with her own origin story.

Laura grew up in a Mexican immigrant family in Oakland.

Her parents were nonprofit workers, and she spent a lot of her elementary school years hanging out around the Spanish Speaking Unity Council, a community resource center where her father worked. 

Laura cites her father as one of her biggest influences. That’s partly because of the early affinity for community work he instilled in her, and partly because of the fact that, as a child, she often witnessed the ways her own family was excluded from the financial mainstream. Her own grandfather didn’t trust banks. Every time he paid for a bill—phone, water, anything—he would take the bus downtown to its respective office and pay in cash. 

“That cost him a lot of time and extra effort. But he did it all of his adult life,” Laura says. It was risky to carry so much cash at once, but her grandfather would rather place his faith in dollar bills than a banking institution. Stamped receipts were carefully saved, and a passbook savings account was rarely touched. 

This process seemed “normal” to Laura until she started college at U.C. Berkeley. While Laura’s grandfather was saving stamped paper receipts and letting his bank account gather dust, Laura’s classmates were using credit cards to “magically” pay for their books and supplies. While her roommate’s parents mailed checks to their landlord, Laura was responsible for her own bank account. She was stunned at the incongruities between her experiences and her classmates’. 

All these differences were like lightbulb moments for Laura. “Who’s unbanked, who’s banked, who has credit, who doesn’t. There are clear disparities across race, ethnicity, income levels, even geographies,” Laura says. And her family lived at those intersections.

“Even in my case, where I had parents who were educated, and grandparents who had kids who could help them—they were underbanked,” Laura says. “They were outside of the financial mainstream.” 

Laura’s position on MAF’s finance and audit committees is a way of honoring her roots. 

“I decided I wanted to take everything I learned and built,” Laura says. “And I wanted to be engaged again in more community-based work.” Her role is the kind that marries a certain philosophy Laura has about closing the banking gap for people of color systematically excluded from financial services—like her grandfather.

“It’s not going to be one easy button that we all can press,” Laura says. “It’s going to take the private sector stepping up, and it’s also going to take public policy that supports those goals, as well as the effort of groups like MAF, who are willing to be out there and take more chances.”

And while Laura intends to bring her public policy and private sector backgrounds into board conversations, she’s also hoping to learn from her peers. “I’m excited to be in these meetings and hear all these conversations about how we address really challenging problems,” Laura says. MAF’s work as both a “national leader” and a community-based organization is the kind of perspective she wants to bring to her work outside of MAF, whether it be in government agencies or big banks.

That’s partly because Laura feels a responsibility. Throughout her career in the private and public sectors, Laura has often been one of the few Latina women in the room. “Part of my expertise is also my personal experience,” she says. Not everyone Laura has worked with has grown up in an immigrant community. Not everyone has had family members who didn’t speak English, or who didn’t trust banks. Not everyone will ask, “What are the parts of the communities that are left behind and not being served? And what can I do?”

But Laura will. “I represent that voice,” Laura says. “It’s really important to me, and I take that very seriously.”

A Guaranteed Income for the Indispensable

I have been listening to a lot of music during the pandemic, trying to make sense of our world. A global pandemic, raging fires, voter suppression, a recall election, and refugee crises are but a few of what’s top of mind.

There’s one song called “Sueño con Serpientes”—by the Cuban musician and poet Silvio Rodríguez—that uses powerful metaphors that I think speak to what we are going through today.

Silvio wrote this song in 1975 from a nightmare where he battles translucent serpents with a hydra-like tendency. Every time he slays one snake, another larger one appears.

Sound familiar? I replay the song in the midst of yet another COVID-19 surge. Months ago, we were beating the virus until the Delta variant appeared. The light at the end of the tunnel was within sight! Now, we’re in the thick of the pandemic again. But all hope is not lost for, as the song goes, Silvio defeats the larger serpent when he proclaims un verso, una verdad.

I know. It’s soothing to think that proclaiming one’s truth alone can defeat the mightiest of serpents, or whatever monsters or pandemics we’re fighting against. Truth, it turns out, is necessary to strengthen our conviction but it takes a lot more to be a hero. Silvio hints at what that is by reciting this Bertolt Brecht poem at the beginning of the song:

“There are people who fight for a day, and they are good.
There are others who fight for a year, and they are better.
There are those who fight for many years, and they are better still.
But there are those who fight all their lives: these are the indispensable ones.”

Victory is not assured by winning one battle alone. It takes real work over time to be a real hero—making those that fight day in and day out, over years, and throughout their lifetimes, as the poem states, indispensable. 

In our world today, I think of essential workers as the indispensable ones, the real heroes.

Think about it. Even before the COVID-19 vaccines were widely available, essential workers showed up to work in agricultural fields, in food processing plants, and in restaurants when we most needed them. They showed up to work, risking their lives to keep our society going. Without immigrant labor, our food supply chain would have crumbled, causing untold panic and harm in society. 

The same cannot be said of everyone. Our federal government did not show up for immigrant families, instead ignoring their struggles as families lost income, depleted savings, and amassed debts. They excluded immigrant families from receiving relief that could have helped them stay current with bills and pay rent to stay housed. 

Seeing the injustice of excluding immigrant families from relief, our neighbors stepped up to lend a hand.

MAF raised $55M to provide 63,000+ grants to help undocumented families, workers, and students cover basic and immediate needs. But as we wind down our rapid response grants program, we know it was clearly not enough. The need was immense and intense. COVID-19 devastated the financial lives of families, and it will take them years to recover. 

We are ready to do more. At MAF we are moving from rapid response grants to providing long term support to families with children who are now excluded from receiving the expanded Child Tax Credit. Over one million immigrant children without Social Security numbers are not getting support. We are launching MAF’s Immigrant Families Recovery Fund with $25M seed funding to provide immigrant families a guaranteed income up to two years. Participants will receive direct cash, intensive financial coaching, self-advocacy training, and access to MAF’s suite of credit building and zero interest loans to help rebuild their financial lives faster. 

At MAF, we’re bringing all that we have to bear in the fight against poverty, just as essential workers did in the midst of the global pandemic.

And we want to do better. We plan to evaluate, study, and share what we learn from their recovery journey to inform and inspire policy solutions for meaningful systems change. 

Listening to Silvio’s music makes me appreciate the fact that, whether we’re slaying translucent serpents or battling fires or fighting poverty, it takes real conviction and hard work over a lifetime to ensure any victory. 

This has never been a one-time fight for us, but the fight for our lives. That’s our truth. 

Putting Heart into UpValley’s Lending Circles: Joleen’s Story

Joleen learned valuable lessons navigating the U.S. financial system from her parents and career working at banks and credit unions. Now she runs the Lending Circles program at Napa’s UpValley Family Centers to help her community do the same.

Joleen learned from her parents’ financial lessons.

Joleen fondly remembers sitting in the back seat of her father’s lowrider as her family went on a cruise. Life was a little hectic for the small family of five, but on Sundays they enjoyed quality time together at car shows.  

Joleen’s parents were young teenagers when they moved from Yuba City to Napa, California to raise their three children. Napa provided Joleen’s father with a good paying construction job while allowing the young family to be closer to familial support. Since then, Joleen has called Napa home and hopes to one day purchase a house so that her daughter can grow up there.

Joleen's family

As young parents navigating the U.S. financial system, Joleen’s parents found themselves using payday loans to pay bills since they were the only financial product available to them at the time. “My mom had so many payday loans, she would go hopping from one to pay off the other,” reflected Joleen. Joleen watched as her parents struggled to get themselves out of debt and become financially stable. “Being young and not having much money – it was a lot. Seeing that struggle and feeling like you’re never getting out of this hole.” Eventually, Joleen’s father earned his degree and secured employment which helped the family become financially stable. 

As her parents gained access to better financial products, they better managed their money. “I am so proud of my parents and where they are today,” shared Joleen. After living in apartments all of her childhood, her parents now have their own home. Through years of hard work and sacrifice, Joleen’s father now has a job in the medical field while her mother takes care of the grandkids. 

“What I took from my parents, I decided to obtain [a house] sooner. I really want that for my child. I want my own home, where she will have her own room.” 

Her parents’ growth taught Joleen how to manage her finances at an early age. Soon after graduating high school, she opened her first college credit card. She knew how to read through the credit card terms and fully understand what she was signing before she made a decision. 

Inspired by her mother’s time working as a banker, Joleen also worked at banks and credit unions.

Joleen loved helping clients get banked, although at times she felt limited by capacity and felt like she could not serve everyone due to cost. She was frustrated that even credit cards starting at 0% rates only had those rates for a short period of time, leaving clients in precarious positions when rates increased. On top of this, she struggled with the “shark-like” approach; employees were expected to push certain loan products on clients in order to meet monthly quotas. Monetary incentives served to motivate employees to meet these goals which Joleen thought translated to inauthentic sales interactions with clients. Instead of trying to provide quality service, employees were motivated to boost their own income. 

Joleen yearned for an authentic connection where she could really listen and serve people. She had not envisioned working at a nonprofit but – as she puts it – “life carried her this way.” 

Joleen and her daughter

Although Joleen always considered herself a numbers person, her real dream was to become a traveling makeup artist for a luxe makeup line. As a makeup artist, she helped clients feel good about themselves. She recalls clients feeling overwhelmed with joy and gratitude for her service. “What I loved about artistry was the feeling – the service I could provide. The feeling of making someone feel beautiful.” 

Joleen’s dream of traveling and providing this service on the road was about to become a reality when she realized she was pregnant. She recognized that being a traveling makeup artist meant leaving her newborn daughter for 21 days out of the month. Joleen’s love for her daughter set her on a different path. 

 “It’s crazy how having a child can change what your dreams and goals are.”  

A coworker approached Joleen about a new opportunity at UpValley Family Centers, a nonprofit organization that has served Napa community members through their cross-generational programs for the past 20 years. Her coworker thought Joleen’s heart and care for clients would make her a perfect fit for UpValley. It didn’t take long for Joleen to become UpValley’s newest Economic Success Manager. 

“The fact that I am able to provide a service, free of cost, makes it so much better. I am really able to connect with people and build relationships with people.”

In contrast to her time working for banks and credit unions, Joleen now uses her financial knowledge to coach and help clients reach their financial goals. Through a partnership with MAF, Joleen helped launch the Lending Circles program at UpValley. Now she connects clients to a 0% interest credit-building loan through the program. 

Joleen says Lending Circles opens doors for clients individually, while building community. 

UpValley Family Centers, a MAF Lending Circles partner

In her first UpValley Lending Circle, clients came from different backgrounds and spoke different languages. Despite their differences, they worked together to decide the distribution order for the Lending Circle, taking into account who would benefit from going first.

One member from the circle had recently moved from Mexico. She didn’t think she could establish credit but through the program she purchased a car. It was something that she did not think was possible – and it was because of Lending Circles that she did it. 

As a participant of two Lending Circles herself, Joleen has seen the impacts of Lending Circles firsthand. “Even though I can avoid a high-interest loan now, I was able to pay off my own car, no interest. I was able to do that with what I received [from the Lending Circle]. I loved that. My circle helped me pay off my car and boost my credit. And now Lending Circles are also helping me buy a home.” 

As Joleen works towards owning her own home, she relies on her family’s support. She is saving money on rent and building up her savings by living with family. For Joleen, the Lending Circles program has a similar feeling of familial support.

“It’s that same concept of, how can we help each other – regardless if it’s blood or not – to reach what we really want in life?”  

Joleen jokes that she would have referred clients to the Lending Circles program if she had known about it during her time as a banker. “Had I known, I would’ve been like I’m not trying to make a commission. Join this program instead!” 

Safe, trusted “Financial Empowerment Windows” for the Mexican Community are a light in these hard times

Mexican immigrants in the U.S. are more likely to be unbanked or underbanked when compared to other immigrant groups. At the same time, research shows that immigrants have high levels of savings discipline, and a higher percentage of Mexican immigrants—regardless of whether or not they had bank accounts—accumulate savings when compared to other immigrant communities. With 36.6 million Hispanics of Mexican origin living in the U.S., including approximately 12 million who were born in Mexico, having targeted, tailored financial products helps the community move forward financially.

Creating products, services, and approaches that are culturally relevant and appropriate – and meeting people where they are and building on their strengths – maximizes their potential for financial success.

In order to expand financial access for Mexican immigrants, Citi, a long-time partner of MAF, seeded a unique initiative that provides in-language services in trusted locations, called Ventanillas de Asesoría Financiera (VAF), or “Financial Empowerment Windows,” at Mexican Consulates across the U.S. The partnership, which includes the Mexican government’s Institute for Mexicans Abroad (IME) and a nationwide network of nonprofit organizations, provides free, high-quality, culturally competent financial education to the Mexican community in the U.S.

The initiative was crucial because the products that the marketplace developed were never designed for, or even conceived of, with Mission Asset Fund’s (MAF) clients in mind. Immigrants—particularly low-income immigrants—become secondary users.

MAF administers the VAF initiative nationally as part its mission to create a fair financial marketplace for hardworking families and to create scalable solutions, like the MyMAF App.

Providing one-on-one coaching to clients in safe, trusted spaces allowed MAF to learn more deeply about the financial lives the Mexican community living in the U.S., including the real fears Mexicans living in the U.S. have regarding what would happen to their financial assets if they were faced with deportation proceedings or other financial crises.

“The physical space in the Consulates is perceived by the community as a very safe place, and a place where you can receive information that is fair, and also the information you need. It’s tailored for you,” said Mexican Ambassador Ivan Roberto Sierra-Medel.

In fact, by meeting clients in those trusted environments MAF was able to elicit more honest responses and questions from the community. The feedback led MAF to develop a whole new curriculum related to financial emergencies to help community members better prepare for moments of crisis, whether they’re deportation proceedings, earthquakes, or pandemics.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of immigrants pay federal, state, and local income taxes, they aren’t able to access unemployment insurance, health benefits, food stamps, and other safety-net programs that U.S. citizens count on in times of need.

MAF’s curriculum includes a “Financial Emergency Action Plan for Immigrants” with simple, tangible strategies to prepare for immigration-related emergencies including tips for protecting money, homes, and other assets, and advice about how to prepare in times of financial stress.

“We didn’t stop working.”

Emergency preparedness is more than a catchword in California, where the threat of wildfires, earthquakes, and other disasters looms large.

According to a March 2020 report by the Migration Policy Institute, there are six million immigrants working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, risking their health to continue providing services during the pandemic, including providing medical and home-health services, cleaning hospital rooms, harvesting and producing food, and staffing grocery stores and other essential businesses. At the same time, the immigrant community, and Hispanic women in particular, have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19 job losses.

Fortunately, the tools and systems MAF developed to help people prepare for moments of crisis laid the foundation needed to respond immediately to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the shelter-in-place orders came through, MAF began hearing from clients who were losing their sources of income. In response, MAF moved quickly to stand up a national Rapid Response Fund to get much-needed cash to the low wage workers, students, and immigrant families left out of federal relief.

Launched in March, the Rapid Response Fund provides $500 cash grants to low-wage workers, students, and immigrant families left out of the CARES Act relief, including tax-paying ITIN holders and their U.S. citizen partners and children. In mobilizing a national network, MAF raised over $33 million to provide cash grants and recovery loans to 46,000 grants people nationwide.

Jesús, a client of Central City Neighborhood Partners, the nonprofit partner that provides services at the VAF in the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles, heard about the Rapid Response Fund and applied for a grant. Prior to the pandemic, he worked full time in the restaurant industry, sometimes holding two or even three jobs so he could support his family and reduce his debt.  

“The pandemic has affected us, Latinos and immigrants, more,” said Jesús. “Latinos are exposed more, precisely because we didn’t stop working. That is why sometimes you ask for help.”

“In this case, I saw the (Rapid Response) grant, and I applied. It helped me a lot because the table had more food on it, at least for a few days, and I was able to buy a few extras and pay for some things. And really, this was a big help.”

Jesús’s experience underscores the importance of having relevant, culturally appropriate services for the immigrant community.

 “Thanks to organizations like this who work with love, dedication, and professionalism. Thank you for telling people, ‘There are resources here. There is the possibility of help here.’”

“I can proudly say we are serving our community.”

While many organizations were forced to shutter operations due to shelter-in-place, the VAF quickly pivoted, creating a new approach to continue its vital work, including offering online financial coaching services and informational webinars about how to navigate the new reality.  

“Covid has been a challenging period,” said Sierra-Medel. “We have the strategy in place that all consulates keep delivering services, some of them in person and some of them remotely, because the community right now faces the most serious challenges.”

“COVID was almost the worst-case scenario for the Mexican community in the U.S.,” said Consul Julio César Huerta-García, Department of Community Affairs, Mexican Consulate San Francisco. “We worked with MAF to use technology, launch informational videos and webinars, and to be very proactive about providing information and resources to help during the crisis.”

“The Ventanilla is a light in these very hard times, and I proudly can say that we are serving our community,” said Huerta-Garcia.

Unlikely partnerships are key to success

The unlikely partnership behind the VAF initiative—the Mexican government, a global financial institution, and a network of community-based nonprofit organizations—illustrates of the kinds of deep, cross-sector approaches that are required to tackle the complex, systemic challenges facing low-income communities.

This article was written in collaboration between José A. Quiñonez, MAF Founder and CEO, and Marco Chavarin, Vice President of Citi Community Investing and Development, Northern California.

Growing Lending Circles Communities With 7 New Partners

For over a decade, MAF has developed financial programs rooted in the strengths of low-income and immigrant communities. In this spirit, MAF’s signature Lending Circles program supports people in building and establishing credit, saving money, and achieving personal financial goals.

But we didn’t stop there. We partner with nonprofits across the country so that more communities can access all the unique benefits of Lending Circles. In 2019, with support from the Wells Fargo Foundation, MAF launched the Lending Circles Communities campaign in search of nonprofit organizations interested in partnering with us to bring Lending Circles to their communities.

We had the opportunity to travel and connect with hundreds of incredible nonprofit leaders in San Diego, Phoenix, New York, Houston, Atlanta, and Charlotte. 

“Building credit is essential for people who want to escape the cycle of poverty. But the reality is that millions of people, due to a variety of circumstances, remain credit invisible and do not have access to affordable loans, credit cards, or means to save for emergencies,” said Darlene Goins, head of Financial Health Philanthropy, Wells Fargo Foundation. “It’s been such an honor to work with Mission Asset Fund and we’re excited to help bring Lending Circles to new communities and increase access to zero-interest social loans and education to help more people overcome financial barriers and build wealth.”

On the road, we heard countless stories of widespread financial insecurity and the complex challenges that nonprofits contend with every day. What struck us the most was the unyielding dedication to community – despite differences in geography, vision, and programming, the nonprofit leaders we met all shared a commitment to uplifting clients with safe, relevant, and effective financial tools. And the current realities of the coronavirus and economic crises have only deepened the need for impactful programs like Lending Circles. 

We’re thrilled to announce that we are welcoming 7 incredible nonprofit organizations to the Lending Circles Network: A New Leaf, Casa Familiar, Chinese Community Center, Common Wealth Charlotte, Neighborhood Ministries, Refugee Women’s Network, and SER Jobs. Beginning October 1st, this new cohort will dive into a month-long Lending Circles training program. After that, they’ll start doing community outreach and forming their very first Lending Circles. Read more about the new Lending Circles providers below and stay tuned via social media for updates on their program launches!

A New Leaf
Phoenix, AZ

A New Leaf is working to address the Phoenix Metro community’s most challenging issues including homelessness, domestic violence, poverty, and mental health. Lending Circles will be integrated into a diverse array of programming by staff and trained volunteers facilitating group education classes, workshops, and one-on-one coaching, as a tool for reaching financial and asset building goals.

Casa Familiar
San Diego, CA

Casa Familiar allows the dignity, power and worth within individuals and families to flourish by enhancing the quality of life through education, advocacy, service programming, art and culture, housing, and community economic development. They serve a predominantly Latinx community in the San Ysidrio neighborhood. Casa Familiar plans to integrate Lending Circles into their Financial Opportunities Center.

Chinese Community Center
Houston, TX

The Chinese Community Center (CCC), a United Way Agency, was founded in 1979. Since then, CCC has expanded its programming to offer comprehensive, wraparound services that address the needs of Greater Houston residents from any racial or ethnic group and at any stage of life – from early childhood to retirement age. CCC operates a Financial Opportunity Center and plans to integrate Lending Circles with their financial coaching programming.

Common Wealth Charlotte
Charlotte, NC

Common Wealth Charlotte’s mission is to support low-income wage earners to achieve higher levels of financial capability, less reliance on financial assistance, and ultimately, enhanced financial security. They pursue these objectives with trauma-informed financial education (TIFE), asset- and wealth-building strategies and programs, and access to non-predatory banking and financial services. 

Neighborhood Ministries
Phoenix, AZ

Neighborhood Ministries’ mission is to break the cycle of poverty in inner-city Phoenix. They have helped low-income Phoenix residents transition from poverty to economic self-sufficiency by providing workforce development, job training, and financial education since 1982. Neighborhood Ministries plans to integrate Lending Circles into their workforce development programming.

Refugee Women’s Network 
Atlanta, GA

Refugee Women’s Network (RWN) is an organization founded for and by refugee and immigrant women. For over 20 years, RWN has worked to lift up the voices and leadership of women at home and in their communities. Lending Circles will be an excellent complement to their core Economic Empowerment Program, which supports clients in job readiness, entrepreneurship, financial education, and more.

SER Jobs
Houston, TX

SERJobs helps individuals from low-income communities transform their lives through the power and purpose of work.  Through SER’s four core services of career coaching, occupational training, employment services, and financial empowerment, clients are provided support, hope, and the opportunity to achieve their career and financial goals. SER plans to integrate Lending Circles into their vocational training and financial stability coaching and mentoring.

MyMAF: Mobile Insights During the COVID-19 Crisis

When we set out to create our new MyMAF back in 2018, we wanted to build something that would live up to our values. We would meet people where they are: on the go, with researchers noting a significant rise in the number of households who rely on their smartphones to access the internet. We would listen to their journeys and needs, and offer bilingual, culturally-relevant content that reflected the realities and lived experiences of low income and immigrant communities. We would build on what’s already good and working in people’s lives: instead of prescribing another financial management or budgeting lesson, we would recognize people as the experts we know they are. We would provide a tool that empowered people to create a plan that was relevant and valuable for their lives, helping them build a pathway to reaching their goals – whatever they are.

In today’s new COVID-inflicted world, those guiding principles and tools have proved invaluable. As we shift into a new normal marked by virtual meetings and remote support, people need ready and accessible financial resources more than ever. They need tools to match the new remote world. Over the last few months, we’ve seen how MyMAF can be one of those tools.

Since April, activity in the MyMAF app has grown exponentially. Over the last five months, more than 9,000 people have visited MyMAF – accounting for the vast majority of the nearly 10,600 people who have used MyMAF since the app launched in late 2018.

At first, we wondered if people were only looking for more information about our Rapid Response campaign. More than financial empowerment tools, people need direct cash assistance today – so that’s what we prioritized providing them with. But as MyMAF user numbers climbed, we saw people actively engaging with content, building financial action plans—and making progress on those plans! So we looked closer: how is MyMAF helping people in their financial journeys during COVID?

  • A growing number of people are relying on MyMAF for financial tools and resources in Spanish. We count on getting information to people in ways that are accessible to them. That’s why we’re encouraged to see that more than 2,400 people are using the MyMAF app in Spanish – to access financial education modules, build financial action plans, and work through those lists. This reflects the communities MAF serves, who the app was built for, and who we’ve worked with over the years: the roughly one quarter of MAF clients who prefer Spanish over English.
  • There’s growing interest in quick and actionable content. People are using the app to access financial education, where and when they have time, on topics relevant to their lives. MyMAF offers four interactive content modules on the homepage, covering credit, savings, self-employment, and preparing for an immigration emergency. Between March and July, unique views of content modules rose more than 700%! MyMAF users can also access a separate online library of 30 financial education videos, offered in partnership with EverFi. We’ve seen a similar increase in EverFi video views through MyMAF—rising nearly 500% in July compared to March. Notably, views of content modules and videos both declined in August, and we’re keeping a close eye to see how MyMAF use continues to evolve.
  • People are looking for information about savings. Even as many people are dipping into savings to weather the current storm, people are looking ahead. Many are interested in how they can build savings now so that they’re prepared for the next crisis.  Across MyMAF’s financial education modules and EverFi videos, information about savings is the most frequently or second most frequently viewed content. This lines up with what others are reporting too: According to a survey by BlackRock’s Emergency Savings Initiative, 52% of respondents reported that they have increased the amount they put into savings or have begun saving more in order to be prepared for the future.
  • People are making plans – and acting on those plans. The number of users adding items to financial action plans has increased more than 250% (from average 60 users each month up to 210+). And about 50% of users are completing items on their action plans.
  • Credit, credit, and more credit. Credit is on the top of people’s minds today – how the crisis is going to impact their credit, and the lasting effects it will have on their financial lives and opportunities. In a recent report from Finicity, 61% of people who have been financially impacted by COVID-19 are concerned their credit will be negatively impacted. In MyMAF, we’ve seen a huge surge in users who are adding credit-related actions to their financial plans. The top three added and completed action items all relate to credit: setting a goal to check their credit score, learning more about the factors affecting credit, and setting a credit goal.

We want MyMAF to continue to be a useful tool to help people navigate the new COVID-19 reality. As we move forward, we’re committed to ensuring that our programs and services remain relevant. So, we’re keeping the channels open. On a daily basis, we’re talking with and intentionally listening to clients to understand their challenges and needs. Their stories and journeys will inform new content, features, and tools in future versions. We’re excited to see what’s next, and we hope you’ll be there with us.

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