Foundation honors community leaders

When it comes to serving the Latino community, Aida Cárdenas and José Quiñonez know how to do it best.

Cárdenas, who has successfully provided new economic opportunities for thousands of low-wage workers, mostly janitors while offering an effective way for employers to invest in their labor force, and Quiñonez, who has helped tens of thousands of low-income, mostly Latino residents into the financial mainstream by helping them establish credit, have dedicated a substantial part of their lives helping others build their own.

For their dedication, commitment and positive impact their work has had in the communities in which they live, they were selected as two of six recipients of the 2013 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards at a special luncheon at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Sacramento last Monday.

"I've always seen a strong need for helping immigrant workers. When I graduated from college, I started working as a union organizer, then a contract negotiator -- always fighting for the bread and butter issues important to workers -- most of them Latino," said Cárdenas, who works with Building Skills Partnership, a non-profit organization she founded six years ago and operates out of Los Ángeles.

The Mexican-American UCLA graduate who traces her roots to Jalisco, México, saw a need for helping janitors who work in high-rise buildings and industrial parks throughout California who toil through the night to keep work places clean.

"Many of them are immigrants who never finished grade school and are struggling to learn English while working long hours for low wages. For me, it was important to ask the question, what is going to end the cycle of poverty? And the answer was, investing in them and helping them build their skills," Cárdenas said.

Through the Building Skills Partnership, Cárdenas has offered workers a chance to invest in their futures by acquiring on-the-job-skills training while helping employers cultivate a more efficient and knowledgeable work force. Many of the workers who have obtained new skills and communication abilities have had better job performance and service.

"The goal in the end is to get these workers to move beyond a janitorial position," she said.

Through her work more than 4,000 janitors and other workers have completed an intensive course in English and have learned valuable workplace skills. Nearly 80 percent of participants have completed the program and many janitors have earned promotions along the way.

Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) who introduced Cárdenas with the prestigious James Irvine Foundation Award -- which includes a prize of $125,000 to go toward professional and organizational support -- said the need to invest in immigrants is an important one and a priority.

"I understand first-hand the need for these services. I remember having to be the voice of my parents on so many occasions. This program will help kids avoid translating for their parents but at the same time, allow the immigrant population to be visible and present," Lara said.

Janitors, he said, can sometimes be the most vulnerable. "They are the heart and soul of our communities who clean our offices, take out our trash and keep things in order and they deserve their place in our society."

Quiñonez, who continues to help immigrant families through his non-profit organization, Mission Asset Fund, which operates out of San Francisco is pulling immigrants out of the shadows by helping them establish credit and other financial services.

"Most of the people I work with are undocumented and there is virtually no way for them to purchase a home, a car or anything without credit. So we were able to formulate a system where groups of people can come together and give loans to one another like in Mexico--through 'tandas'," Quiñonez said.

The 'tandas' idea lead to the creation of the 'Lending Circles Program' -- which formalizes social loans and provides financial education to participants. When loan repayments are made, they are passed on to credit bureaus that in turn, build credit that can, over time, establish and improve the financial standing of participants.

When credit has been established, most of the immigrants Quiñonez works with are then able to rent homes, apartments and have access to low-cost loans and at the same time, avoid predatory lenders.

But what is most important to Quiñonez is how participants navigate their way through the financial world.

"They feel recognized by the system. Because most of them are undocumented, they sit on the sidelines of our economy so giving them an opportunity to establish credit and then have that turn into a credit score transforms their lives," Quiñonez said.

The UC Davis and Princeton University graduate, who came to the United States at the age of nine from his native Durango, México, said his upbringing and experience has helped him understand the needs of the undocumented community.

"It is really important to unleash the economic and social potential of our people and right now we are living in a time where many are still in the shadows and we are arresting their development so its important to get them integrated into the system," he said.

For his work, Quiñonez was appointed Chair of the newly formed Consumer Advisory Board of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by President Barack Obama in 2011.

Assemblywoman Connie Conway (R-Tulare) who presented Quiñonez with his award highlighted his achievements.

"He is truly doing God's work by helping people provide for their families and is that not the American Dream? He needs to come to my district where there are many who could use his help," Conway said.

To date, Mission Asset Fund has helped produce $1.5 million in loans, saving members an estimated $350,000 in fees and the program is being carried to five other states.

An estimated 25 million people in the United States still do not have a credit score.

Both Cárdenas and Quiñonez plan to use their awards to help build their non-profits.

"It is a great opportunity to continue developing the organizations," Cárdenas said.

The James Irvine Foundation Awards, which selects four to six individuals annually say this year's recipients "embody the spirit of invention and ingenuity. They inspire and motivate during a time of great financial instability."

Other winners include Karen Christensen, Stuart Cohen, Jeff Oxendine and Jill Vialet.

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