What It's Like to Win a MacArthur 'Genius' Award for Your Life's Work

What It's Like to Win a MacArthur 'Genius' Award for Your Life's Work

By Taylor Mayol


Because he just won a no-strings-attached $625,000 cash prize for his work.

By Taylor Mayol

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

José Quiñonez
2016 MacArthur Fellow
Founder and CEO, Mission Asset Fund
San Francisco, CA

I’m taking it a day at a time. I’m actually heading out to the airport in the next two hours for a conference in Philadelphia tomorrow with the Philadelphia Federal Reserve. I’m giving a presentation on a panel tomorrow and they have no idea about the news. So I’m getting ready for that. 

As you can imagine, it was surreal to get that call from the MacArthur Foundation. I was in my office and I had my daughter with me and had just set her up to watch some cartoons when the call came. I actually thought it was some sort of a prank initially. At the beginning they were trying to make sure I was who I am. Are you José Quiñonez? Do you live here? Do you work there? It was an odd thing. I’m very sensitive to privacy issues and I’m like, how do you know this stuff? Then when they gave me the rationale for why they had selected me for the fellowship, I became quite emotional just sort of hearing them talk to me about my own work. It was a moment of recognizing all that we are doing at Mission Asset Fund, but really recognizing my life’s work trying to uplift poor people in a way that we don’t necessarily think about in our society. Getting that recognition brought me to tears, frankly. That was three weeks ago. 

I’m hoping that this validates our work in a way. As a society we have to reassess our assumptions about what is happening within not just immigrant communities, but low-income communities. We don’t give them enough credit for their ingenuity, for their innovativeness, for what it takes to survive and thrive in poverty. We sort of assume that people are just broken or they’re doing bad things and making bad decisions, that something’s wrong with them. And then we build programs and policies and services around those assumptions. What we’re trying to do at MAF is actually say no, that’s not true. There’s more to it than that. We can actually build effective, successful programs, but we have to have different assumptions.

There’s a time-honored tradition of people all over the world of coming together, of helping one another financially. They don’t have access to formal financial services, but they come together to help each other and lend and borrow money together. The academics have termed these “rotating savings and credit associations” or ROSCAS. This activity has been going on for millennia all around the world. In Mexico, they call them bandas or cundinas, all throughout the Caribbean they call them sou-sous, and every country in Africa has a different sort of word for it. People come together in self-organized groups with family members, coworkers and friends and agree to put a specific amount of money into a pot. Each person in that group of people agrees to put in $10 or $50 or $100 — however much they decide on a weekly, biweekly, monthly basis — whatever terms they decide. So let’s say you have a group of 10 people and they each put in $100, now you have $1,000. Then they agree on who gets the $1,000 first. Then they do it again. The second time around somebody else gets that $1,000. They do that in rotation until everybody gets that $1,000.

It’s this widely known activity, but when academics write about it, they sort of write about it like, oh, how cute, look at the brown people doing this. Because they have these sophisticated financial instruments from Wall Street. Then they take a picture and it’s all nice. Well, actually it’s quite phenomenal when you think about it, that poor people are coming together and lending and saving money together, based on the sheer trust in one another and the relationships that bind them. Then when you look at that and juxtapose it with the mistrust we have in our own society with each other, with institutions — I mean, this is something to uphold and honor.

So what we did is figure out how to take that practice and build on it. We help people formalize those lending circles. That means we ask everyone in that group to sign a promissory note, which says, for example, I, José, promise to put in $100 and take $1,000 on this date. That promissory note essentially becomes a legal document that makes this activity visible to the financial system. That way we as MAF, as an organization, can record that decision, then service that loan and report that activity to the credit bureaus, so then it becomes part of their credit report and affects their credit score. Better credit scores can open up a world of opportunity in the financial marketplace. 

I’ve lived in the financial shadows. I’ve lived at the margins of society just like millions of people today. I came to this country when I was 9 years old, undocumented. But after a law was passed in 1986, I got amnesty. Because of that I was able to continue my education. I went to University of California at Davis, graduated with a master’s from Princeton, and continued to work in the nonprofit, social space. Because of my experience living in the margins and knowing millions of people are still there, I’ve devoted my career to basically helping people there. There’s a lot of talent, a lot of wisdom, a lot of energy, a lot that we could be doing as a society — but we are keeping them at the margins. I’m going to keep working.