Launching Solidarity

Post written by Solidarity committee member Vanessa Marcano-Kelly. To learn more about Vanessa visit her at her website

Solidarity Microfinance: Empowering communities, reducing poverty

Imagine biting into a sweet, rich brownie. Bursts of cocoa and hazelnut invade your taste buds, as you crumple away the cute disposable package it came in. You smile; your chocolate craving is sated thanks to the woman at the farmers’ market who had these delicious morsels for sale. You noticed how friendly she was, her two children helping hand out the brownies, her carefully handwritten business cards and her tiny stall decorated with flowers. People were lining up behind you, commenting, “Tonya’s brownies are fantastic!” and you agreed. You saw a small sign: This business participates in Solidarity Microfinance – Des Moines.

The story we just told you is a dream in the making. Some of us were inspired by a potential borrower, Tonya, during an outreach session around empowering communities out of poverty through microfinance. As the group brainstormed on business ideas they wanted to develop, Tonya said she wanted to begin her own brownie baking business, with 20% of the proceeds going to help other families. She wanted to provide for her family, as well as support her community.

These values are at the core of the Solidarity Microfinance program that just launched in Des Moines, Iowa.

 “We decided to call the program ‘Solidarity’ because this word exemplifies the spirit of collaborating to achieve mutual progress,” says Alex Orozco, Solidarity Microfinance advisory committee member and VP / Community Outreach Officer for Bankers’ Trust. “Solidarity does not mean ‘help’, ‘charity’, or ‘aid’. The word evokes mutual progress through neighbors and communities working together collectively,” Orozco explains. “This is the word that best describes this microfinance program.”

 “Microfinance programs like Solidarity are important everywhere in the world where there are people with small businesses who need capital to maintain or expand their operations and their income,” Orozco explained. Though these types of program have existed for over 40 years in other countries, it wasn’t until 2008 that Grameen America began running these types of programs in the United States, with very successful results.

What is Microfinance?

In the 1970s, in his native Bangladesh, Dr. Mohammed Yunus began giving small loans to poor women in his community, to start small businesses. Not only were the loans repaid, but a culture of collaboration began to flourish among the women. They became accountable for each other’s loans, and shared in each other’s experience running their small businesses.  Dr. Yunus is considered the “father” of microlending; he is the founder of Grameen Bank, which currently has over 5 million clients among low-income communities in Bangladesh and many more worldwide.

Solidarity Microfinance is a program to empower low-income communities. Though it is open to all who meet the basic criteria, there is a focus on encouraging the participation of women of color. “Trusting and investing in women –in their education, in their businesses—has a multiplier effect. It means directly investing in our communities,” said Vanessa Marcano-Kelly, Solidarity advisory committee member.

In this sense, Iowa has a lot of catching up to do. “Iowa is ranked last in the country in regards to businesses owned by women per capita,” explained Orozco. “This problem is bigger when you talk about businesses owned by Latinas, immigrant, African American, Asian and other minority women,” he said.

Bringing microfinance to Des Moines

The journey to bring Solidarity Microfinance to our community began in 2011, after Orozco was inspired by the documentary “To Catch A Dollar”, which details the challenges and successes that Grameen America went through when it opened in New York in 2008. 

Solidarity Microfinance is a reality in Des Moines thanks to the work and dedication of many people and institutions. In February 2014, a group of three women from the Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines held two community outreach sessions to generate interest among potential borrowers. By March 2014, we got our office, located at 607 Forest Avenue in Des Moines. We hired our program coordinator, Ana Mancebo, who has been working with several team members on setting up our space, marketing materials, and outreach.

On October 9 Solidarity Microfinance hosted its Grand Opening to officially launch the program and celebrated the beginning of many successes ahead.

We would like to thank our generous supporters. We are also blessed to count on the hard work and leadership of individuals such Dr. Mark Edelman, Angela Ten Clay (Happy Medium), Emmeline Quinde, Dr. Catherine Brooke, Quintin Smith (United Way), Craig Downs (Iowa MicroLoan), Adam Hammes (President of Urban Ambassadors), Mike Thibodeau, J.D., a beloved community leader, the late Warren Morrow, among many others who commit their time to move our program forward.