Gillian White: First, congratulations! This is huge—how are you feeling?
José Quiñonez: I’m loving it. We should’ve been been talking about this issue years ago.
White: I heard that when you got the call about the award you thought it was a joke?
Quiñonez: [laughs] I did! The start of the call was odd. They wanted to verify my identity so they asked, “Are you José? Do you live here? Do you work there?” I thought it was a scam. It was one of those moments where time stretches. I know about the foundation, I know what they do, but I didn’t know I was under consideration. Then they started reading why they selected me, why I was getting the reward, and that was very emotional.
White: It’s a pretty big deal for someone who fights for the invisibility of a group of people to win such a prestigious, highly visible award. What does this do for the populations you serve?
Quiñonez: What I really want to do with this, what I’m hoping for, is that this will make people fundamentally question their assumptions of poor people—that poor people are lazy, or that it’s really their fault, or they just don’t know what they’re doing so we need to teach them. These assumptions are deeply entrenched and lead to the policies we create, the programs we create. We need to recognize that those assumptions are wrong. We need to stop blaming the victim.
White: What do you think people should blame, if anything?
Quiñonez: There are a lot of products that are designed to keep people in debt traps. There are services designed to keep people in perpetual poverty. Once we look at these structural elements we can start resolving it. But we’re not there.
White: I read your paper, “Making the Invisible Visible: A Strategy for Inclusion” where you talk about that. The first lines of that paper broke my heart. You wrote, “I was 20 years old when I realized that my mother had died because we were poor. She passed away when I was nine, too young to understand the complex and dangerous nature of life in poverty.” Can you tell me about how your personal history put you on this path?
Quiñonez: The issue really for me is poverty and what that means and how people struggle to survive and thrive under the worst of situations. I share that part of the story because when I realized that my mom died because we were poor, I was able to hone in on that as the actual problem: Poverty is a human construct. It’s something we’ve created. I use that as my inspiration and my drive to help people. I focused on financial empowerment and credit building as a tangible strategy to help people. I didn’t go to school to become a credit builder. I wanted to change the world. I didn’t think I was going to do that by being a loan servicer. But that’s real. Without access to credit people’s dreams go unfulfilled.
White: There’s certainly been more attention on the issues of the unbanked and underbanked and dangerous products in the past few years, particularly given the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s work and mandate. How do you think the country is doing when it comes to remedying that?