Soundbites: Empowering Families Through Tech

Jesus Gerena of the Family Independence Initiative on assisting families achieving financial stability through a combination of community organizing and technology.


This is Tony Johnson with soundbites. I’m here today with Jesus Gerena from Family Independence Initiative, a Heron grantee, to talk about FII’s impact. Hi, Jesus.

Hi, how are you?

Very good.


Can you just tell our audience a little bit about the Family Independence Initiative, what’s the purpose, how it got started?

Sure, let me maybe say first the purpose. We’re trying to do away with the traditional top down approach of supporting people to achieve social and economic mobility, so rather than promoting a new program, service or intervention, families and their communities, which we partner with directly, are the change agents and our model is to invest in them and the solutions that they create for themselves. This is an idea that started about 15 years ago by our founder and CEO, Mauricio Lim Miller, he was sort of frustrated with the fact that in his social service work he had been able to make tons of individual impact on families, but not as a community. And so he began to think about his work differently and how the strengths of a community can really drive change.

So, FII was a recipient of an Enterprise Capital Grant. Can you talk a little bit about what you needed the money for and how it was used?

Sure, at that time and we continue to support our growth capital plan, our business plan, that we instituted to be able to grow and effect a larger policy change across the country. So, what we want to do is be able to disrupt the narrative around the working poor so that they’re better supported and invested after driving change inside of their own households and, again, inside of their communities. We wanted to advance our technology, we wanted to grow the families that we were partnering with, as well as we wanted to influence the sector. So those first two are the ones really where we’ve been concentrating and we’re beginning to begin that third part in activating a sector to be able to think differently and change the lens of how they’re looking at low income communities.

Today we are working with about 1,400 households, close to 5,000 adults and children, and what we hope is to double that this year, double that again next year and really are aiming to be able to achieve 20,000 households across the country that we’re learning from on a monthly basis.

Just want to back up because I want to make sure that it’s clear that FII is really a technology platform working with families to upload their data about what’s happening in their lives, what successes they have, so that other families can learn from them. Can you just talk a little bit more about that?

Sure, the interaction with families as we’re working on the bare micro level is the families opt in to participate by going to an online platform, sharing their goals, their incomes, their assets, their liabilities and so to begin to create a dashboard for their households, as well as, as it pertains to those goals, any actions that are taken to be able to create movement towards them. For us on the aggregate, what we’ve begun to see for our community, like San Francisco or Boston where we have been for over six or seven years, is really the path that people are taking and the successes and what it takes within their communities and their relationship in their networks, as well as what sort of investments for them to sustain that mobility for themselves.

I think the other piece is you’re a learning partner with us. For us that’s really critical. I think most foundations or donors are looking to be able to say, hey, this is our best guess at being able to solve this problem. Great, I want to make the investment and just give us a report on your programs and services by the end of the year. Where our relationship has been very different, you are participating in the way that we’re learning from our families and the impact that it’s having. But also, as we’re building our enterprise, right, and being able to continue to grow it, making sure that we have the foundation and the pillars necessary to be able to do so. That has meant hiring some critical staff, as well as investing heavily in our technology so that we have the platform that we want for the future.

We often get asked, what happened with the stakeholders that are part of our mission. We say we want to help people and communities help themselves out of poverty. Tell me a story, tell us a story about a community, a family. What does this look like on the ground?

Sure, I’ll share a little bit about East Boston, we’ve been there and so I started in Boston and I now work for the national organization. But my job initially was to go around and have these conversations with individual households and be like, “Hey listen. We want you to start sharing some of your most intimate data that you can and you’ll report it and put it online. In exchange for that we’ll pay you a stipend to compensate you for your time, for meeting with a group of individuals. In addition to that then there’ll be some resources you can access. All I need is your bank account information and your Social Security number.” You can just imagine people were like, you’re crazy. There’s no way I’m doing this. So, it took some relationship building.

I think about East Boston where we started with seven women who some of them were undocumented, others were struggling and in that line of going from a point of emergency, because of two or three jobs, moving above that line. They didn’t know what to make of us and just wanted to test and say, “Hey, is this real? Could somebody really see us differently and actually trust us to get that investment that we need to do more?” In the last six years, so we’ve proven that we could be that partner, and one of the women inside the group, her name is Beatrice, just two years into it and just looked at us and she was like, “When are you ready to take on 2,000 new families? Because I can give you the whole of East Boston.”

We never recruited again. It was because once we built that trust and they had that trust for themselves in this community, it really became easy for them to bring in others. We actually are holding back that community because it would overtake our growth plans in Boston. She’s a wonderful example where she, for the last six years, has invested heavily in different ways inside of her community and it’s her number one priority, her children and the network of support that they have. She’s been able to grow a business as well as find a permanent job that is reliable income, which she did not have when she started with us, as well as she has been able to stabilize her immigrant situation of not being able to have a green card.

So all of these gains have come, right, and it takes a long time. We’ve been able to see from beginning to end, or it’s not an ending, but her path in that way. Then the other thing that’s really impressive I think about Beatrice is, again, there’s this component that no matter what her personal gains are she ultimately is always thinking, what can I do for my community. I think that when we—and I have so many examples of this same thing—whether it’s in Boston, Detroit, New Orleans, Albuquerque, all the cities that we are, where overwhelmingly initially families come in and they’re like, “Yeah, I want to maybe increase my savings or buy a home or I want to improve my child’s education attainment opportunities” and without fail, eventually they all come back and say, “How am I working and supporting my community? What are the key relationships that I have in the networks that I’m supporting to be able to support that community and ultimately my household?”

I think that that’s a really different narrative than what is shared today about these communities.

Terrific, well thank you so much, Jesus.

No problem, thank you for having me.

For, this is Tony Johnson.

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