MAF’s MacArthur Fellowship and Fight for Social Justice


What MAF CEO Jose Quiñonez thought was a prank call was actually the news to inform him that he had won a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the MacArthur Genius Grant. The fellowship provides pioneers in the arts and sciences a grant of $625,000 to use at their discretion. After learning all about lending circles, we chatted with MAF about what they’ve been up to since receiving the fellowship.

HipLatina: How have things changed for MAF after receiving the MacArthur Fellowship?

Adina Hemley-Bronstein: I think that our CEO and founder Jose said it best:

Adina Hemley-Bronstein HipLatina

Adina Hemley-Bronstein

“Throughout my career, I have always felt like an outsider, working and advocating for the invisible, the marginalized, those who—because of legal or financial status—do not exist on paper. So it is strange for me, being in the middle of so much attention.”

We talk a lot in our work about the importance of making the invisible visible—recognizing the ingenious things happening in our community every day, and using those practices as a way to connect people with the formal financial system. The MacArthur award was amazing for the attention that was put not just on Jose and MAF, but also on those practices that people generally don’t know about. People have remarkably creative ways of making ends meet. The award really gives us a platform to share these messages that don’t usually get a lot of attention.

HL: Why do you think MAF is so successful in bringing clients out of the economic and financial “shadows”?

AHB: I think MAF is a special place in that there’s a lot less of a divide between clients and staff. I think that’s a pretty unusual and important thing for a nonprofit to achieve. A lot of our staff members have participated in informal Lending Circles in their own families and communities. So it feels like an organization that’s authentically rooted in the community, which is one of our core values. Our model works because we’re recognizing and building onto something that people are already doing and they’re already good at. It’s not about taking some concept of how to become financially stable and imposing it on clients. It’s about walking the walk and that’s something we’re proud of.

Karla Henriquez HipLatina

Karla Henriquez

KH: I think the clients are my favorite part of my work. We’re providing the tools but really all of the work is done by them. We’re empowering them and showing them that they’re the ones keeping up with their payments. It’s all about them, so it’s worth it when we see the improvements in their credit reports after they go through the financial education sessions when they join.

HL: I remember hearing Isabel’s story during the MAFter party event which was very impressive and empowering. She started with very few financial resources and has now gone on to have a very successful and popular restaurant. Her getting on stage to speak in front of such a large group was a great display of how she has really emerged from the shadows to become so successful. This was the first year you held the Lending Circles Summit and MAFter party—what influenced you to organize these events?

Isabel Story

Isabel Story

AHB: The idea of the summit was to convene and celebrate our national network of nonprofit partners. A lot of people, particularly in the Bay Area, think of MAF as a local organization. That’s great since it shows we have a strong presence in the community. But we have grown to be the hub for a national network of Lending Circles partners. We’ve got over fifty partner nonprofits that provide Lending Circles in their own communities all over the country. Together, we’ve helped low-income people lend and borrow over six million dollars without any interest! It’s been a goal for a long time now to bring everyone together and get in the same room. First to celebrate that we built this network, which is a remarkable achievement on its own, and also have a chance to share best practices and learnings that people have in their own communities. For every community, Lending Circles take a slightly different form and are highly adaptable. We wanted that chance to learn from each other. There were so many great highlights. Karla facilitated a panel with four different clients who had been through Lending Circles with MAF and are now on our Member Advisory Committee. We also had a keynote address from Dr. Fred Wherry, a sociologist at Yale who is writing a book on a study he conducted on Lending Circles.

The MAFter party was about celebrating our clients. Having the event catered by clients who had gone through Lending Circles to build up their businesses was an amazing testament to the fact that Lending Circles provide more than just a loan. They’re a bridge to something even larger. Sometimes a loan leads to you opening a business or going to college. It’s really just the first step.

HL: Many of MAF’s lending programs focus on opportunities for DREAMers and those seeking citizenship. How is MAF planning to confront challenges with the upcoming change in administration?

AH: On a practical level, but an important one, we’re providing our clients with the information they need to make the best decision for themselves. We’re sharing trusted resources and offering our support. We’re encouraging our clients to seek affordable legal counsel so they can explore what opportunities they might have to adjust their status and understand their options. In a lot of ways, we’re in a moment of needing to recalibrate and figure out how we can best leverage our connections and our resources to meet the needs right now. We will be running Lending Circles for business in the winter for people specifically looking to start or expand their business in San Francisco. We see that as a powerful way for people whose status might make them really vulnerable right now to become empowered through self-employment. We’re trying to think of creative ways like that to help our community feel a bit more supported.

KH: I think for us it’s been important to gather information and be connected to what’s going on in the community. A lot of us are going to community meetings or rallies because we want to be a resource for our community by being ready for whatever the new administration will do. As hard as it can be, I’m very inspired by our DACA participants. They’re not giving up. We’re acknowledging our disappointment, but still making plans for what we’re going to do next. So it’s really about coming together and supporting each other in our communities. We’re trying to get ready for whatever lies ahead.

MAF’s #EverydayHeroes campaign is working to raise $20,000 by Inauguration Day so that they’re fully prepared for whatever happens under the new administration. You can click here to donate. You can also check out MAF’s website and Facebook page for upcoming events and ways to volunteer.

Bill O’Connor is an editorial assistant for HipLatina and Latin pop fanático. He can be found on snapchat @wro6278 singing along to his favorite canciones as he travels from Mexico City to Mumbai.

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