News and analysis
September 22, 2016

2 Nonprofit Leaders Among the 2016 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant Winners

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
José Quiñonez, founder and chief executive of Mission Asset Fund, helps low-income people build a credit history and financial security.
Two nonprofit leaders who work on behalf of immigrants were named to the 2016 class of MacArthur Fellows on Thursday.

Ahilan Arulanantham, director of advocacy and legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, and José Quiñonez, founder and chief executive of Mission Asset Fund, will each receive a $625,000 stipend over the next five years, money often referred to as "genius" grants given each year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to individuals breaking ground in the arts, sciences, and public spheres.

"It’s just shocking, and there’s no experience like this, because you don’t apply for it. There’s no way to know that this is on the horizon," Mr. Arulanantham says of being named a MacArthur Fellow. "I hope that it’s a way to shed light on the work that I and a lot of others have been doing in the immigrants’-rights world."

A Child of Immigrants

Mr. Arulanantham’s family history sparked his concern about the plight of immigrants. Before he was born, his parents moved to the United States to escape the discrimination and violence they faced as members of the Tamil minority in their native Sri Lanka.

"When I was 10, most of my extended family had to flee Sri Lanka because of islandwide anti-Tamil pogroms. A bunch of them came to live with us for about two years," he says. "Other people who my parents knew came and stayed with us for varying periods of time, all fleeing the conflict."

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Ahilan Arulanantham, the son of immigrants from Sri Lanka, is a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who helps refugees and defends human rights.

That experience led him to pursue a career defending human rights and aiding refugees. As a lawyer for the ACLU, he works to provide due process for people who are threatened with deportation. Defendants in these civil cases lack most of the rights granted during criminal cases, meaning they can be detained for years and do not have the right to counsel from a lawyer.

"Now there are thousands of children, many of whom fled extreme violence in Central America, who are going through immigration courts without lawyers. Some are representing themselves, which is obviously impossible," he says.

Mr. Arulanantham also works to challenge the no-fly list and government surveillance of Muslims and mosques.

"I would love to use the award as a way to highlight those problems and challenge people if that’s really consistent with our values as a country and the way we should treat people," he says.

Financial Security for the Poor

After starting his career in policy advocacy, Mr. Quiñonez was troubled by the way many politicos attribute poverty to some deficiency on the part of poor people.

"The conventional wisdom is there’s something wrong with people. We need to teach them, help them, and it puts the onus back on people," he says. "I wanted to demonstrate there’s a lot of significant value, a lot of good things happening in people’s lives that we don’t recognize."

He realized that many poor people are actually "very financially savvy" but don’t have access to the low-cost, high-quality lines of credit that he calls "a linchpin to financial security." Instead, they often lend money within their own circles of families, friends, and co-workers.

"If you think of the realities of poor people, they know more about international interchange rates than all of us do," he says. "They’re good about managing their money, but we don’t give them any credit for how they do their work."

So in 2007, Mr. Quiñonez created Mission Asset Fund to help low-income people from immigrant and other communities build their financial security. The nonprofit tracks individuals’ loan repayments within informal community-lending circles and reports that information to credit bureaus, which enables people to build a credit history. On average, program participants have improved their credit scores by 168 points.

The organization now has a network of partnerships with 53 nonprofits in 17 states and D.C. that are using the Mission Asset Fund model to help low-income communities.

With the attention that comes from his genius grant, "I really want to create a new narrative of the realities of poor people," Mr. Quiñonez says. "When given an opportunity that is safe and responsible, poor people do what we all would do. They are rational economic actors."

He and Mr. Arulanantham join a long list of nonprofit leaders who have received MacArthur genius grants. Past recipients include:

Alex Truesdell, founder of the Adaptive Design Association, which creates adaptations for children with disabilities.

Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a leader at Caring Across Generations, who seeks to improve protections for domestic workers.

Jeffrey Brenner, a doctor who started Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers to change how physicians treat chronically ill patients.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director at Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law firm that is creating a memorial to lynching victims.

Send an email to Rebecca Koenig.