Author Archives: Elena Chávez Quezada

  1. The High Cost of Being Poor: Financial Justice for All

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    The issue of fines and fees has, until recently, not been one that claimed too much of my attention. I got hit with my share when I was younger, of course — and they hurt — but I found a way to pay and put them behind me.

    More recently, I returned to my car just in time to watch it get towed away. I had parked in a yellow zone for five minutes while dropping my son off at daycare. I reclaimed it from the impound yard almost immediately, but parking in the wrong place at the wrong time cost me nearly $500.

    Again, as angry as I was, I could and did pay the fine — but what if I didn’t have $500 to spare?

    What if I needed my car to get to work and couldn’t afford to retrieve it from impound? I’d not only lose my job for lack of transportation but also watch helplessly as the impound fees compounded. Costs for which I would remain responsible, even if they exceeded any ability of mine to ever repay.

    Situations like these come about every day, in every city in America. While many people will grumble and pay the fine, others — many, many others — simply can’t. And because they can’t, they end up owing more, not less.

    That’s the way our world works, even though it makes no economic sense.

    The Weight of Unpaid Debt

    Fines and fees can be particularly devastating for those caught up in the criminal justice system. Booking fees, probation fees, ankle monitor charges — these all add up. If you can’t pay, then they trigger more fines. Maybe you lose your driver’s license or right to vote. Your wages may be garnished up to 65%. Maybe you can’t pay bail, so you lose your job.

    Compounding all this is the sense of shame. Consider the example of child support payments. If you’re a non-custodial father paying child support, and your ex-partner qualifies for and receives government benefits, your child support payments don’t even go to your child. They, instead, go to the government to repay your ex-spouses benefit debt.

    Your contributions become practically worthless to your own children. In California, more than 70% of child support debt is owed to the government, not to the child or their family.

    One woman told me her father was struggling to pay for his cancer treatment, but couldn’t make ends meet because he was still making child support payments for her — payments which went directly to the government. She told me “He’s going to die with this debt.”

    If you can’t support your kids, you’re more likely to withdraw from their lives. Then, if your kids don’t have your financial support, they’re less likely to have what they need to get ahead. All because of fines and fees that the government will never recoup anyway.

    The government holds on to an endless negative balance sheet of debt. In San Francisco, a study showed of the $15 million in criminal justice fees accumulated over six years only about 17% ever got collected — even with six-years of wage garnishment and attempted collections. In some other counties, studies have shown these fees can actually cost more to collect than they generate in revenue. They are primarily charged to low-income people who cannot afford to pay, keeping them from getting back on their feet.

    We’re ruining lives demanding money we know we won’t — and can’t — collect.

    It is time for this to change.

    Introducing the Financial Justice Project

    San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project — the first of its kind in the country — assesses and reforms how fees and fines unintentionally push people into poverty and make government a driver of inequality.

    The Project began as a declaration of intent, published as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, as written by San Francisco Treasurer José Cisneros in 2016.

    Treasurer Cisneros acknowledged that solutions exist that would work better for both government and for low-income people. He said:

    “I know San Francisco can do better. We need to hold people accountable, but do so in a way that is fair and just, and does no lasting harm.”

    We knew he was right.

    The Walter & Elise Haas Fund stepped forward to support the Financial Justice Project’s launch in 2016. Then, we joined Tipping Point Community in funding the Project’s first pilot study, which is investigating the results of forgiving fathers’ child support debt to the government, so that all future payments go to support the child. This study looks at how forgiving child support debt actually benefits children’s’ wellbeing and increases parental employment earnings — which ironically ends up saving the government money.

    Today, the Financial Justice Project — housed in the Office of the San Francisco Treasurer and led by Director Anne Stuhldreher— is advancing on multiple fronts. It works with community organizations, advocates, city and county departments, and the courts to enact reforms that result in meaningful change for low-income San Franciscans.

    In May, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to eliminate all local administrative fees charged to people exiting the criminal justice system. Last week, those fees were also waived retroactively, forgiving the debt of about 21,000 people. The SFMTA Board also voted to reduce towing fees for those earning below 200% of Federal Poverty Line. These were all initiatives of the Financial Justice Project brought to fruition in collaboration with community and government partners.

    These only-in-San Francisco changes are catching on, too. A statewide coalition looks to spread the elimination of criminal justice administrative fees across California. And the Harvard Kennedy School named the San Francisco Financial Justice Project as one of seven finalists for its prestigious — and influential — Innovation in American Government Award.

    Where We Go from Here

    The changes that have already taken place in San Francisco — and which are spreading nationally — are significant. They’re going to change the course of lives. But this process and this work is only getting started.

    The philanthropic community and the community at large can both help amplify the work of the Financial Justice Project. Awareness of policy changes is spreading, but community outreach helps to ensure low-income people know about, and take advantage of, the reforms that have recently passed.

    Across California, coalitions are coming together to reform the way fines and fees get assessed. These coalitions need our support, too. In your local community, reporting in on what fines and fees cause the most suffering helps the Financial Justice Project focus its energy where it’s most needed.

    To learn more and get involved, contact the Financial Justice Project or read its Fines and Fees Task Force Report. Once you know about the detrimental spiral these fines and fees inflict upon our low-income neighbors and realize the futility of assessing them in the first place, it’s hard to understand why anyone — or any city — would operate this way.

    San Francisco is changing. We hope we can help spread that change across the state and country, bringing opportunity and access to all.

  2. How Funders Can Better Serve Grantees

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    I was born in New Mexico and grew up in a large, hard-working family. My visionary Mexican-American parents pushed us to pursue a college education and to never settle for anything less than our very best. Their guidance led me to a career that I love and kept me part of a rich culture and community that I support.

    George Galvis, Executive Director of CURYJ, and Elena Chávez-Quezada

    When the Latino Community Foundation invited me to join a conversation with the members of its first Latino Nonprofit Accelerator cohort, I was excited — this was an opportunity to hear directly from Latino nonprofit leaders. The discussion session was billed as a “Candid Session with Funders,” and I came prepared to offer fundraising advice. Having been on the grantseeker side for much of my career, I thought I understood the challenges that grantees face today. I expected a tough but productive conversation.

    But the discussion floored me.

    Latino nonprofit leaders were frustrated, and rightly so. Not only do Latino-centric nonprofits currently get a meager 1.1% of total American philanthropic dollars, but their communities are under attack by the current administration.

    It’s rare to get the real story when you’re a funder. Nonprofit leaders who are struggling to keep their organizations viable don’t often risk their funding by telling program officers how philanthropy is letting them down. But at this Latino Community Foundation session, nonprofit leaders were able to share their truth — truth I needed to hear.

    I’m grateful these people trusted me enough to honestly share their experience.

    Five Ways We Can Do Better

    While many things I heard that day stuck with me, five of the suggestions the group had for funders rose to the top:

    • If the answer is no, say “no”
      When funders fail to say no clearly, respectfully, and without delay, they make things more difficult for nonprofits.
    • Go on site visits
      Funders need to meet with the staff and community, and also set expectations about their availability from the beginning.
    • Coordinate a community of support
      Proactively helping nonprofit leaders who will be losing funding is one potent way we have of maintaining continuity.
    • Make introductions
      When we know other funders who might be a good funding match, we have to make those connections.
    • Be reachable and responsive
      Remember: this is about people. If we don’t make ourselves available, we’re undercutting the point of the work.

    My responsibility at the Latino Community Foundation event was to listen — and the nonprofit leaders there needed to be heard. Now, I’m inspired to take action.

    What I’m Doing Now

    As a co-chair of two funder collaboratives, I am sharing these and other insights with colleagues in philanthropy. I’m working to ease the reporting burden of shared grantees by coordinating joint site visits and exploring how to align reporting. I’m increasing the time I allot and the lengths I’ll travel to participate in site visits. I’m striving to be as upfront as possible when funding is unlikely and to help organizations navigate a philanthropic landscape that doesn’t always make sense.

    After the Latino Community Foundation session, I went to visit all four of the organizations that extended invitations. I was honest about my funding limitations, but they were eager to host me nonetheless. I met the leaders and staff of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), One Day at a Time (ODAT), HOMEY, and Digital NEST. They were proud to walk me through the history of their organizations, point out the art decorating the walls that highlighted the strength and love in their communities, and share stories of the many challenges their participants and staff had navigated and conquered.

    As a sector, we need to take the lessons we’re learning here to heart and put people at the center of our work.

    In philanthropy, it’s not only our investments that matter; it’s how we show up for our community. It’s how we treat our nonprofit leaders. It’s how we learn from the organizations we support and how we translate that learning into action.

    This Is Who I Am

    One of the toughest lessons this Latino Community Foundation session taught me was to bring my full authentic self to the table. I opened up about my own family and our unlikely journey — from humble beginnings in Albuquerque, New Mexico to me and my four siblings, all Harvard grads, being featured on the Today Show. But that’s only part of the story. I learned it was equally important to reveal my family’s struggles – with addiction, suicide, and incarceration.

    That is the complete story. And all of it helps shape who I am as a woman, a Latina, a daughter, a mother, and even a funder.

    The time is now. For those looking to expand on this conversation with me, I recommend the new book, Unicorns Unite: How Nonprofits and Foundations Can Build Epic Partnerships. The work and this discussion is far from over. We must tackle it all together.

    We’re always demanding more of our grantees. We ask them to serve more clients, to increasingly diversify the support they offer, and to prove greater impact.

    Now, it’s time for us to demand more of ourselves.

  3. Explaining the Women’s Wealth Gap: Video

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    Understanding is the key to empathy — and effective action.

    For over a year, I’ve been blogging here about the W&EHF’s work with our collaborative partners to address and close the Women’s Wealth Gap. Now, explaining what that gap is, what it means, and what we can do about it just got a lot easier.

    Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap Initiative and Inequality Media have co-produced a short video in which I join former United States Secretary of Labor and current Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, Robert Reich, in presenting the issue in a way accessible to as many as possible.

    We hope you watch and share. Please visit Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap for more info.


  4. Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap, Together

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    Last June, I wrote about the shocking gap separating men and women when it comes to wealth — a divide that’s exacerbated when race and other demographic factors are taken into account. That piece referenced an early initiative that Asset Building Strategies founder, Heather McColluch, has been leading to address the growing problem.

    Since then, even in the face of national political headwinds, Heather’s efforts have continued to gain traction. I am proud to be an advisor and partner in this work. Together, we published a co-authored article on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. This past November, we held a national convening in D.C. — the first of many — and released the report linked below.

    This report, Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap, informs our national discussion and catalyzes our movement towards policy and practical solutions to build wealth for low-income women and women of color.

    As we march this Saturday, January 21, erasing the disparity in wealth is just one of the issues that we set out to achieve. This is a time of change for America and it is up to all of us, working together, to make sure it is change for the better, for all.

    It is our pleasure to share this report with you.

  5. Making the Invisible Visible at Mission Asset Fund

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    I’ve thought a lot about the qualities that most reliably form the building blocks of leadership lately. Intelligence, empathy, and humility surely make any such list but, to my surprise, what I recently identified in those whose work most inspires me was something else: vulnerability.

    Vulnerability is the root of empathy. It is the source of humility and it’s to thank for much of our intelligence.

    José Quiñonez, CEO of the Mission Asset Fund and now the inaugural chair of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau’s Consumer Advisory Board, exemplifies this strength from openness. His personal story, and the story of the Mission Asset Fund’s creation and ascent, present a window into the kind of leadership with which the Walter & Elise Haas Fund is honored to collaborate.

    José’s vision and action remove barriers to equity for our neighbors in the Bay Area and beyond.

    In his article, Making the Invisible Visible: A Strategy for Inclusion — a piece I highly recommend reading — José takes us along on his own journey from poverty and exclusion to where he is now, leading an organization that fights poverty by building on families’ strengths rather than focusing on their challenges. In doing this important and innovative work, Mission Asset Fund brings thousands of families out of the financial shadows and towards economic security.

    Making the Invisible Visible: A Strategy for Inclusion was written for and originally published by MIT’s Innovations Journal.

    Jose Quiñonez and the staff of the Mission Asset Fund
    Jose Quiñonez and the staff of the Mission Asset Fund
  6. The Real Value of Job Training


    In July 6th’s issue of the New York Times, Eduardo Porter presents sound arguments for increasing investment in America’s job training programs. His article — “Job Training Works. So Why Not Do More?” — moves between a wide view of the United States economy, over into the historical pros and cons of job training, and down to the personal story of one Brooklyn woman, a beneficiary of a job training program run by Per Scholas.

    To digest Porter’s work, he argues that job training is a far more effective investment than money spent on much lighter-touch job placement alternatives. While job placement assistance may be cheaper to offer, it doesn’t provide beneficiaries with skills that lead to economic security. The problems of poverty get disguised, but participants may find themselves in the same situation a year later.

    Job training — particularly when the training offered is geared to match in-demand workplace skills — is a different story. Yes, it costs more. Those costs, however, can translate to participants’ increased earning potential and long-term stability. Job training may also keep struggling people out of the criminal justice system, an outcome which saves the country far more than it would otherwise spend.

    Not only do job training programs help the unemployed find work, those aligned with high-growth sectors are best equipped to lift people and families out of poverty; they help connect people to living wage jobs and stable career paths. That’s access and opportunity. That’s economic security.

    The Walter & Elise Haas Fund supports job training through the work of grantees such as the Center for Employment Opportunities (different from the CEO mentioned in the NYT article), Stride Center, Jewish Vocational Services, Upwardly Global and Cypress Mandela Training Center, and more.

    Read Eduardo Porter’s piece. We hope you’ll quickly see the real value of job training programs and join us in supporting them, however you can.


  7. The Profound Impact of Children’s Dreams

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    The wishes of children living in the FESCO family shelter in Hayward — recorded by them in a list pictured here — had a profound impact on me.

    Homeless Shelter IMG_5492 (002)First, I was struck by the seriousness of some of their wishes: that people wouldn’t be so violent; that life would be peaceful; that they could grow up to be whatever they wanted to be. I was also moved by their simplicity. They weren’t asking for much, just a teddy bear to hug, or a playground, or a smile.

    I sadly noted that wealth got mentioned in 3 of the 15 wishes. This is such a grown-up thing to wish for. Its maturity — and what that early maturity hints at — clashed with the children’s handwriting.

    As I left the FESCO family shelter to pick up my children from preschool and take them home — where we would cook dinner in our own kitchen, take baths in our private bathroom, and sleep in our own rooms – I was filled with tremendous gratitude for the work of FESCO and all of the other organizations in our Safety Net portfolio. Times are tougher than ever before for thousands of homeless families across the Bay Area. With the median rent for a one-bedroom in San Francisco at $3,590, diminishing housing options, and one of the highest homelessness rates in the country, these organizations have their work cut out for them. They help ensure that families don’t slip through the cracks.

    Site visits such as this one reinforce that any and all support we provide to organizations that provide safety net services – food, shelter, clothing – is critical. It does not matter if that support is through the auspices of an organization such as the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, in collaboration with other volunteers, or individual. It is always personal.

    I only wish we could extend these children the opportunity to grow up safe and secure enough to see their wishes come true.

  8. Working Towards Wage & Wealth Equality for Women


    Women do not make as much money as men. This fact enters our daily discourse frequently — when it’s raised by political candidates, when female celebrities protest being paid less than their male counterparts, and when women of all ages and education levels try to make their paychecks cover the costs of life and family.

    While we know the wage gap is significant, the gap between genders when it comes to wealth doesn’t get nearly as much air time — even though it’s far greater. As a result, proposed solutions tend to focus more on income than on wealth. This leaves out a key part of the economic security equation for women.

    Wages may be critical to women’s daily survival, but it’s the compounding gap in accrued wealth that hobbles women’s long-term financial well-being.

    Income Gaps and Wealth Gaps

    Consider this data from a 2015 brief prepared by the Asset Funders Network. While never-married women who work full time earn 95% of what never-married men earn, this same group of women only owns 16% of the wealth comparable men do. The picture is even more sobering for women of color, with single Black and Hispanic women having less than a penny for every dollar of wealth owned by single White men.

    Let that sink in for a moment. Consider what it means for women — married, single, with or without children — and consider what it means for those working to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. While the gender wage gap is thankfully diminishing, we are failing to help women convert equitable salaries into economic security.

    This gender wealth gap exists due to complex reasons, but we can distill them down to three main factors:

    1. the income gap,
    2. women’s increased likelihood of being custodial parents, and
    3. women’s lack of access to wealth-building advantages, such as employment-related fringe benefits, government benefits, and favorable tax breaks.

    So women earn less and accrue much less even while their families are more likely than ever before to rely on their reduced economic resources. Two-thirds of mothers are either their family’s sole breadwinner, the primary breadwinner, or a co-breadwinner.

    Without a financial cushion to fall back upon — i.e. wealth — women and their families remain in a precarious financial position.

    Seeing is Believing

    The California Budget & Policy Center recently produced an eye-opening tool that illustratively ranks women’s well-being in California, county by county, across the dimensions of health, personal safety, economic security, political empowerment, and employment & earnings. Each of these categories gets further split out by six indicators, then standardized and combined by the Center to create dimension scores.

    By showing how each of California’s 58 counties promotes women’s well-being, this index highlights where we need to improve. While it does not yet capture data on the wealth gap, it remains a powerful tool we can use to increase our awareness, focus our energies, and redouble our efforts.

    What We Can Do

    Raising awareness of the women’s wealth gap is a first step.

    The mayors of San Francisco and Oakland, in partnership with the Women’s Foundation of California, are convening a Bay Area’s Women’s Summit in June to focus on women’s economic empowerment. I will be speaking about the gender wealth gap during a session on economic security, and at another summit organized by the Women’s Funding Network in New York City in July. I am working with the Bay Area Asset Funders Network to organize a local Funders Forum to feature the gender wealth gap. This issue will also be featured at CFED’s Assets Learning Conference this fall.

    I hope to see you at those events so we can exchange ideas and build collaborative momentum.

    The Walter & Elise Haas Fund’s economic security portfolio already supports relevant work through grantees including Oakland Promise, AnewAmerica Community Corporation, Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, and La Cocina. I am also involved in an early initiative led by Heather McColluch, founder of Asset Building Strategies, to advance policy and practical solutions that address the women’s wealth gap.

    As we increase our focus on this issue, we aim to bring promising new efforts to the forefront and to highlight broader strategies to increase equity for women.

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