From Humble Beginnings to MacArthur Genius

 José Quiñonez

José Quiñonez’s story starts in rural Mexico in 1971. The fifth of six siblings, Quiñonez lost both his father and mother by the age of nine—his father to violence, his mother to the ravages of poverty. Left with no family in Mexico, he and his siblings entered the United States on the Fourth of July, undocumented and facing an uncertain future. Fast-forward to fall 2016: Quiñonez (B.A., Chicana/o Studies, ’94) is awarded a 2016 MacArthur Genius Grant for his innovative work in poverty alleviation. Along the way, he attained U.S. citizenship through amnesty in 1986, attended UC Davis and Princeton University, spent six years working in Washington, D.C. and served as the inaugural chair of the Consumer Advisory Board for the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Herein lies genius: a story of innovation and heart

In 2007, Quiñonez became the founding CEO of Mission Asset Fund (MAF), a nonprofit organization nationally recognized for developing a program called Lending Circles which provides zero interest loans to low-income immigrants who can then open bank accounts, build credit, pay down high cost debt and increase savings.

Quiñonez recognized the potential to expand the work the organization was doing in the Mission District of San Francisco by starting with the strengths of the community first.

“We help hardworking immigrants to build and develop their financial security by first acknowledging their financial savvy,” said Quiñonez, who was among 23 recipients of the MacArthur award in 2016. “We think they are illiterate and they just don’t know enough, but immigrants actually know more about interchange rates than a lot of us do; they manage multiple budgets across countries, but we never give them credit for that.”

Building cultural traditions of lending and saving money, Quiñonez envisioned and led the effort to formalize these activities with banks and credit reporting agencies, bringing thousands of people “out of the shadows.”

“We recognized that there is a rich tradition in the immigrant community of coming together to lend and save money, which is a phenomenal activity that happens the world over,” said Quiñonez. “So we are formalizing it, reporting on the payment activities so that can be part of their credit history and thus improve their credit scores.

“We’re solving a real challenge in people’s lives of being credit invisible. Not having a credit report makes it nearly impossible for people to actively participate in our economy. They can’t get loans to buy cars, start a business or get an apartment and, in some states, they can’t even get jobs.”

Quiñonez credits his early recognition that technology would drive MAF’s success, often referring to the organization as a “nonprofit tech startup.” Today a network of 54 nonprofit partner organizations implement Lending Circles across 17 different states.

“We couldn’t have done this without technology,” he said. “What I did not want to see was a file cabinet, which was going to be the symbol of our failure because to manage that kind of paperwork is very expensive. We were looking for a system to accommodate our growth.”

Partnering with tech powerhouse SalesForce, MAF built a digital platform to enable other nonprofits to implement the program, which includes offering financial management training as well as reporting activities to banks and credit bureaus, in their communities.

“Our use of technology allowed us to look beyond the Mission, beyond San Francisco, beyond California, knowing that we wanted to export our program and work in different communities,” he said. “This is where we test and pilot, but we know the problems faced by the people here in the Mission are the same in Oakland or Fresno or Chicago or Miami or New York.”

Quiñonez knows firsthand what it is like to “live on the periphery of society,” and says that fighting for the dignity of fellow immigrants has been a driving force in his life. “That has really been the common thread running through my whole life. I have always wanted to be an agent of change. I wanted to bring my story out of my immigrant experience to tell a different narrative about who we are as a people and what we want to do in this country.”

Time at UC Davis key turning point

It was at UC Davis that Quñonez began to shape his alternative narrative. “I was fortunate to have tremendous support from professors, from staff, from students. I had this community of people that really rallied behind me and helped guide me,” he said.

As a freshman at UC Davis, Quiñonez led M.E.Ch.A (El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan, or Chicana/o Student Movement) and participated in 1991 as one of six students who participated in a hunger strike in front of Mrak Hall to raise awareness of a student-led movement to establish the Cross-Cultural Center on campus.

“We wanted to make sure that the administration was committed to creating a space for students of color to be comfortable,” he said. “Now 25 years later, I am amazed. I give the administrators and staff all the credit for making it happen.”

“Oh, it’s that call!”

Quiñonez says he is still trying to come to terms with the MacArthur Foundation’s recognition and its impact on him personally and professionally.

“I got this funny call from a number in Chicago, and when I picked it up they started asking me questions. I was about to hang it up thinking it was a scam, but then right away they announced themselves,” he said, reflecting on the moment when he got the call from MacArthur.

“I became very emotional when they described why they selected me as a fellow, describing the nature of our work and the impact on communities. It was this moment of recognition of how we are lifting up the good things that are happening in our communities. And so in this moment all of those things kind of came together. I understand that it’s a privilege to have such attention.”

In reflecting on his time at UC Davis and his personal and professional trajectory, Quiñonez said, “I never thought I—that radical rabble-rouser that was always demonstrating and slept in front of Mrak Hall for six days—would be recognized in this way. It demonstrates that you don’t have to be a certain kind of leader. Leadership and innovation comes in all forms, shapes and sizes.”

Donna Justice, director of marketing and communications in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science