Jennifer Rodriguez has proudly never had to ask for financial help. But when the Marshall Fire destroyed the Louisville home she shared with her parents, who are Mexican immigrants, as well as her older brother and four-year-old son, she knew she needed to reach out for assistance.
The family had moved into the rental five months earlier and, like many other families, lost everything—clothing, furniture, family photographs—within hours. Rodriguez opened an insurance claim but is still waiting to hear back from the company. The fires destroyed more than 1,000 residential structures in Louisville and Superior, exacerbating what was already a tight housing market. A search of area rentals showed prices three to four times higher than the $2,400 a month the Rodriguez’s were paying for the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home they lost, so for now, the entire family is living with Jennifer’s sister in Erie.
“I realized this is a battle bigger than I could handle,” she says. “I didn’t want to be so vulnerable that I had to ask strangers for aid, but this is beyond what I can do alone as a single mom, and my family needs help rebuilding.”
On the morning of December 31, Rodriguez created a GoFundMe page with a goal of raising $15,000. The post included a photo of the smiling family—Rodriguez holding her son alongside her parents, brother, sister, and nephew. Within 24 hours, just over $1,000 had been raised, more than she anticipated in such little time.
A day later, she noticed a significant spike in donations. Without her knowledge, the Boulder chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) reposted her GoFundMe story on their Facebook page, which has nearly 5,000 followers, with a note saying, “Please support Jennifer and her family! There are many, many families who need support right now. Let’s notice whose fundraising pages are getting far less support, and be sure to rally around BIPOC who have been impacted.” (SURJ, a white anti-racist group that organizes fellow white community members to actively support the Black and POC-led struggle for justice, did not return requests for comment.)
The repost was shared 24 times, and Rodriguez believes the added visibility helped accelerate donations. “That social media boost went beyond what I would have been able to raise alone,” she says. It also inspired her to double her family’s fundraising goal. To date, they’ve raised $31,150.
In the direct aftermath of the fires, donation disparity was the last thing on victims’ minds. “I was so focused on finding a place to stay and trying to get our lives back on track, I didn’t even think to look at other GoFundMe pages,” says Rodriguez. But unaffected community members, like Dana Romanoff, a board member for Engaged Latino Parents Achieve Successful Outcomes (ELPASO) and photojournalist whose work focuses on social justice and immigrant rights, noticed the GoFundMe sites of her white friends and neighbors averaging $1,000 individual donations, while families of color were receiving donations of just $5 and $15. (GoFundMe was not able to provide a breakdown of how many donations went to BIPOC families versus others.)
“Every story is traumatic and devastating, yet there are inequities,” says Romanoff, who helped create fundraising pages for acquaintances affected by the fires. (Roughly seven percent of Louisville and Superior residents are Latino or Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census.)
Unequal giving is consistently a problem with crowdfunding during times of crisis. In an analysis of nearly 165,000 campaigns established in the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, University of Washington researchers found that charitable giving increased in proportion to income, education, and wealth. The researchers linked the correlation to the fact that most crowdfunding solicits donations from existing social networks—and if your network is flush with cash, it’s better equipped to pass some of it on to you.
Other systems of inequality can compound the problem. The immigrant community faces many barriers to accessing resources, according to Joshua Stallings, North Regional Organizer of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. Even documented immigrants living in the U.S. with a visa, who own a home with insurance and who pay taxes, are not eligible for FEMA support if they haven’t received a green card or citizen status.
Robert Camacho Barranco and Vanezza Villegas Arreola are prime examples. The couple moved from Mexico during the pandemic, spending all their savings and retirement funds to purchase a house in Superior. Days later, the house and everything they owned was destroyed by the fire. Despite having started the green card application process, they are on an H-1B specialty occupation visa, so they do not qualify for assistance through FEMA.
The couple’s six-year-old son, Matias, attends the same school as Romanoff’s children. When Romanoff learned of their situation, she reached out and asked permission to start a GoFundMe campaign on Barranco and Arreola’s behalf (the couple also gave Romanoff permission to share their story for this article). “Like many of those impacted, Robert and Vanezza are not people who are accustomed to asking for help, but they realized they needed it,” she says. The GoFundMe site Romanoff created for them includes links to news articles where the family shared their story. Romanoff has shared it on her Facebook and Instagram pages. To date, the page has received 352 donations totaling $29,820.
The inequalities that appear in crowdfunding can be tied to individual prejudices, too. A University of Washington and Haverford College study found that race played a significant factor in the size of crowdfunding donations, with Black recipients receiving, on average, about $22 less per contribution. According to the study, such inequality could mean people from “marginalized social identities feel unwelcome or unlikely to succeed,” on crowdsourcing sites. The researchers also suggested that the lack of success could be partially explained by real-world biases creeping onto the crowdfunding platform.
Venkat Kuppuswamy, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern University in Boston, has seen those same biases appearing in his research about business startups. His work found that projects from Black founders raise 86.1 percent less than comparable projects by non-Black founders. The study found entrepreneurs of color needed to do more work to convince potential donors that their business was legitimate.
“We thought crowdfunding would shed traditional barriers to raising funds and be democratic,” he says, “but the moment you put up a picture or video on your site, offline biases translate online.”
Kuppuswamy says the outcomes likely play out similarly for charitable crowdfunding, as in the case of the Marshall Fire victims. Based on his research with start-ups, he says families of color affected by the fires are more likely to have success garnering donations if they provide compelling details on their story, including what they need the money for and what they plan to do with that money.
The De La Cruz family’s story mimics many of the dynamics seen in research around crowdfunding inequality. Pedro De la Cruz says he was so overwhelmed by the loss of his Superior home he never would have thought to start a crowdfunding site to help his family get back on their feet. He and his wife, Maria De la Torre, both Mexican immigrants, had been paying $2,450 a month for a six-bedroom rental and living with their three grown children, recently adopted baby daughter, and four grandchildren. During their eight years renting that property, the family befriended their landlord, Arturo Barrios; De la Cruz even did construction work on his other rental properties.
Days after the fire, Barrios reached out asking permission to start a GoFundMe campaign for the family. “When I learned they didn’t have renters insurance, I knew they’d lost it all,” says Barrios, who incurred his own financial losses despite having $300,000 in homeowners insurance. “I also knew the specific challenges they faced that I don’t think they would have told other people about when asking for help.”
On January 1, Barrios created a post that detailed how the couple had adopted a baby girl a few months earlier and that their granddaughter had autism. “This family doesn’t have anything left,” he wrote. “Any donation…large or small will be very helpful for this family.”
At first, donations were numerous, yet small—within 16 hours, the post had received 52 donations total, just over $3,000. But then SURJ, with its much larger network, reposted on January 2, garnering 31 shares. To date, the campaign has raised $49,284.
“I knew our community was generous and supportive but never imagined the outpouring we’d get from strangers,” says De la Cruz, who recently moved into a three-bedroom rental in Lafayette. “I’ve always tried to get up on my own when I fall on tough times, but my family needed help this time.”