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Program facilitates economic mobility

State teams up with nonprofit for project

Karen Morales
Program facilitates economic mobility
Family Independence Initiative Executive Director Jesus Gerena. PHOTO: KAREN MORALES

The Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance and the City of Boston have partnered with the nonprofit Family Independence Initiative to launch a multi-million dollar three-year pilot program aimed at improving low-income families’ economic mobility, while gathering data on their efforts and outcomes.

The pilot project, named the Trust and Invest Collaborative, was unveiled at an event last week at the Museum of Science, Boston where the pilot’s collaborators, supporters and funders convened to share their goals and vision for the project.

Department of Transitional Assistance Assistant Director of Employment Services Tyreese Thomas speaks during a panel discussion. PHOTO: KAREN MORALES

Department of Transitional Assistance
Assistant Director of Employment Services Tyreese Thomas speaks during a panel discussion. PHOTO: KAREN MORALES

“We have systematically put those with more money in positions where they are rewarded through public and private systems such as the tax code, lending practices and the advancement of opportunity,” said Jesús Gerena, CEO of FII, at the launch event. “Our challenge to the sector today is to extend the same trust in investment to lower-income communities.”

Major funders of the Trust and Invest Collaborative are, Boston Children’s Hospital, Cambridge Community Foundation, and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.

FII first launched in 2001 in Oakland, California as an experimental alternative to traditional top-down poverty assistance programs, instead investing in family-owned solutions.

The nonprofit opened a Greater Boston site in 2010, which has grown into the largest site within FII’s national network, starting with 35 families and currently serving over 1,000 families.

The Trust and Invest Collaborative pilot will follow the same process FII has been implementing with low-income families through their programming, but for the first time ever, in a controlled scientific trial setting with 400 randomly selected families from Boston and Cambridge.

Data from the pilot study will be used to inform policy recommendations for local governments.

A collaborative effort

Jeff McCue, commissioner of the Massachusetts DTA, spoke at the launch event about his agency’s role in the pilot. “We’ve been engaged in heavy internal cultural shifts seeking to move us from an agency of compliance to an agency that enables our families,” he said.

McCue told the Banner that with the pilot program, he’s looking forward to learning more about how low-income families best succeed when given autonomy and resources. “There’s nothing more dangerous than an agency that thinks they already have all the answers,” he said.

Families currently receiving assistance through DTA will be given the option to enroll in FII to be a part of the pilot program.

A spokesperson from the Mayor’s Economic Development office described the City of Boston’s role in the pilot partnership. “The Walsh administration is committed to testing out new creative ideas to better serve Boston residents,” the spokesperson said.

“We are taking a head-first approach to closing the wealth gap in the city and creating pathways of opportunity for all residents to build wealth, stability and promising sustainable futures,” they added.

Samantha Hennessy, regional lead for, said, “We know systems change is possible with cross sector collaborations. We’re committed to using Google’s tech expertise to help accelerate impact by working with FII family partners and collect data using machine learning and natural language processing.”

At the event, Hennessey also announced an additional $1 million grant from to support the Trust and Invest Collaborative.

Since 2015, has supported FII with over $2.5 million in grants.

FII’s method

FII chief technology officer David Henderson presented the philosophical framework that guides the organization’s work. According to Henderson, in addition to direct cash investment, FII also provides families social capital. 

“These are the ways families support one another, and their actions carry real economic value whether it’s giving each other rides to work or watching each other’s kids,” he said, adding, “We also respect individual choice and control” in the various steps and initiatives families take to improve their quality of life.

Throughout the FII process, families log onto a private online platform to share and record the steps and outcomes they are experiencing. These may include how well their kids are doing in school, their health and activity levels or their interactions with other community members. 

Based on the steps taken by family members to improve various areas in their life, regardless of a positive or negative outcome, families are given an Initiative Score and are provided flexible spending dollars based on this score. Families can receive up to $2,400 in flexible spending dollars.


According to FII data, families in Greater Boston who have partnered with FII for two years, on average, see a 17-percent increase in monthly income, a $2,707 increase in liquid assets and between a $9,000 to $37,000 increase in total family liabilities due to increases in home, auto or student loans.

During the panel portion of the event, attendees heard firsthand stories from DTA recipients and FII family partners.

Marisol Tejera-Velazquez, FII family partner and former FII fellows coordinator, said she first received DTA assistance in 2011 when she decided to go back to school full-time while raising her 5-year-old son.

When she began partnering with FII, she was placed in a cohort of several other women for two years with whom she met with on a monthly basis to talk about one another’s goals and quality of life. “We talked about, ‘How could we grow?’ ‘What more could we do?’” she said.

At the time, not only was Tejera-Velazquez focused on obtaining a sustainable full-time career, but she also wanted to improve her health. “I used to weigh 285 pounds, I was dealing with diabetes,” she said.

With support from FII, Tejera-Velazquez started a walking group and joined a gym. “I was able to teach my son healthy eating habits,” she added.

Natasha Hunt, another FII family partner and community-building fellow, says she was a recovering addict and mother of four when she joined FII.

“I wasn’t sure I would be able to commit to FII, but it was one of the best commitments I’ve made to date,” she said. “It gave me the opportunity to be accountable for my goals and learn from others.”

With help from FII, Hunt started a social club for other sober community members, finished school and now works as a licensed medical coder.

Jessica Taubner, FII Greater Boston’s site director, also offered remarks at the launch event. She shared her own humble upbringing and experience growing up with government assistance programs.

“There were policies that were easier for us to access because we were white. People assumed my parents worked hard and could be trusted,” she said.

FII and the Trust and Invest Collaborative are “less about a silver bullet fix, but more about curiosity,” said Taubner. “It’s not about knowing, but about learning by asking questions.”

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