When José Quiñonez got the call that he was a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, known colloquially as the MacArthur Genius Grant, he originally thought someone was trying to swindle him.
“They started by trying to identify me and asking all these questions. ‘Is your name José Quiñonez?’ ‘Do you work at the Mission Action Fund?’ It wasn’t what you would expect someone to start a phone call with. I thought, ‘Is this is a scam?’”
But it wasn’t. It was a call to let him know that he had been chosen as a 2016 MacArthur Fellow and that he would be receiving a grant of $625,000 to be used at his own discretion. He would also be joining an elite community of past winners, including scientists, inventors, thinkers and artists. Previous winners have included political scientist Robert Axelrod, neuroscientist Sally Temple, and creator of “Hamilton” Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“Their recognition made me very emotional. It was surreal. It took a couple of days for me to accept that it actually happened.”
Jose Quiñonez is the CEO and founder of the Mission Action Fund, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco and dedicated to helping underserviced communities, such as immigrants or those in poverty, obtain financial security and build their credit.
By taking the informal practice of tandas and cundinas (essentially a loan one gives to their friends with no interest), for example, and formalizing the practice by creating “lending circles” between community members and signing promissory notes, the practice becomes recognizable by credit unions, allowing the participants to build up the credit they might need to take out loans or find housing.
“It’s a strategy based on people coming together because they trust each other,” Quiñonez explained, “and it calls into question the way that society sees these communities. They’re often perceived as broken or deserving of their struggles because people assume they made bad choices. These assumptions lead to ineffective products and policies—lending circles lead to a different way of engaging people.”
Quiñonez’s motivation comes from the fact that, as someone who immigrated to this country very young, he feels he can relate to the people he serves. To him, the most rewarding experience he had was when a woman finally built enough credit to find an apartment for herself and her daughters.
“The client had moved to San Francisco from Chicago with her daughters to escape her abusive husband. She was trying to remake her life, but she had no credit score, so no landlord was going to rent to her, and she was essentially homeless, bouncing between different apartments and sleeping in the hallways," he said. "It wasn’t until the Mission Action Fund was able to help her build her credit score that she was able to find an apartment. She came into the office beaming with happiness and excitement. We all got emotional.”
Quiñonez believes this award highlights the importance of making sure that despite disparate circumstances, everyone needs to have a chance at equal success.
“These kinds of awards often don’t happen to people like me: people who lived in the shadows,” he said. “We’re leaving lots of talent and ingenuity on the table. We need to do more as a society and do more for immigration reform to unshackle those In need and to help them find their potential.”