Despite everything that this year threw at us, we were able to launch our 2020 Community Fellowship program this fall. In this series, we’ll be introducing you to the 2020 Fellowship cohort, in their own words.
In the next installment of our Meet the Fellows series, we’re introducing Team Fort Collins. When Fort Collins, Colorado signed on to be one of our government partners, they wanted to address the following problem statement:
“How might the City of Fort Collins make its income-qualified programs available to eligible residents through a single user-friendly web-based application that includes income verification?”
To help answer that question, enter the Fellows: software developer Andrew Hernandez, UX designer and researcher Cydney Phan, and data scientist Grace Ra Kim. Now that the team has spent a couple of months in their new roles, we asked them a few questions about community work, digital equity, and what they’re looking forward to learning during this Fellowship.
What inspired you to apply for the Community Fellowship?
Andrew: I am a Filipino American and I come from a long line of pharmacists, doctors and people who want to help—my background as a computer engineer may be different, but the goal of wanting to help is still there. When I was an undergrad, I was blessed to have won hardware prototyping competitions that propelled me into the civic tech space. I explored a fellowship at Microsoft as a Civic Tech Fellow, and that’s where I found out about Code for America. I was inspired and empowered by Code for America’s mission to help with technology, when I found out about Code for America’s Fellowship program I knew I needed to apply after graduating.
However, before graduating, life threw a curve ball at me and I was shown how difficult life can be sometimes. There was a period of time where home insecurity was more than a possibility and I had to be crafty in my survival. Going through that trial while also attempting to complete my undergrad was eye-opening, it further fueled my passion for wanting to help—and so here I am!
Cydney: My background as an immigrant with English as a second language (ESL) upbringing meant that I was often singled out in primary education with assumptions that I wasn’t performing like other kids because of my ESL status, while simultaneously having to help my parents translate documents from a very young age. I also saw that treatment being applied to my parents, and how crippling that could be when there isn’t external resources for immigrant families. The Code for America project specifically with Fort Collins hits home because that’s where I grew up and was on the receiving end of trying to apply for rebate programs for my parents.
Grace: Currently as a sophomore in Harvard college, I realize I have just started my journey navigating through and building my foundational knowledge to work within technology and STEM. While pursuing my passions, I also understood the importance of finding ways to connect my work back to socially-driven initiatives to help our underserved communities. With Code for America’s incredible mission of helping create a government by the people, for the people, that works in the digital age, I knew that this Community Fellowship would be perfect for finding ways to connect my personal motivations for social work with personal development as well within technology.
What draws you to community work?
Andrew: As a kid, my dad would tell me stories about how life for him in the Philippines was very difficult, to say the least. And as I grew up in America, surprisingly, I found that some of the difficulties he faced were here too. Home insecurity, food shortages, etc., were things my father faced regularly—some of these things I also had to face, especially at the beginning of the current crisis we are in.
Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to find work to stay afloat and graduate as well. However, I had some friends who weren’t as fortunate. As I saw my friends and peers struggle, I also saw that technology wasn’t doing enough to help. The idea that there are still some problems in society that we haven’t been able to overcome, even with all of this technology lying around, is a huge part of why I devote my time to community work. I feel like we aren’t using technology to our full advantage when it comes to helping the community and I want to help with that.
Cydney: I’ve always been interested in looking at tech as ways to lift overlooked communities, so when I heard about Code for America, I thought that would be a really good opportunity for me to grow and really apply design skills to projects that I care about, and that don’t get enough funding because it’s nonprofit based.
Grace: Both my parents are immigrants from South Korea, and when they first came to the United States, they could not speak a word of English. In order to support our family, my father took construction site jobs where he worked over 12 hours a day in the scorching sun, as he came back home to our small apartment completely drained from the day’s work. There were many days when the money he brought home to our family of five was not enough, and our family struggled to make ends meet to pay for food and rent each month.
Coupling these experiences with being the first in my family to attend college, I have both immense gratitude and guilt towards the sacrifices my parents made for being able to come this far. I understand that the best way I can repay my parents and community for supporting me through this journey is to use my experiences and knowledge to make this same journey easier for others in the future. This led to much of my community work being within the education sector, having worked each summer to help teach students at my local elementary school in their summer school enrichment program. I want to ensure I will always be giving back to our communities, and uplift others to also rise in the journey I have taken.
Why is providing easier access to a Digital Equity application and other income-qualified programs to residents in your community important to you?
Andrew: As I mentioned a bit earlier before, I ran through a bit of trouble last year and it really opened my eyes to that word “struggle.” During this time of hardship, I definitely had to think outside the box plenty of times to make ends meet. Working two jobs, asking help from friends, working the gig economy, and so much research on how the government could help me were all things I needed to do to survive.
To that last bit, finding out how the government could help me during this time was a headache in and of itself! There were websites that asked for documents that I wasn't even sure I had, a whole lot of confusing legal speak and so many technical errors on their websites... it’s safe to say that the entire process gave me a bit of stress! Providing an easier path for people who were in my position is incredibly important for me because I've seen what it looks like when that path isn’t so easy.
Cydney: Well to come back to the first question, while my parents definitely had their struggles fitting into a different culture, they were able to build skills to survive and thrive within their circumstances. Not everyone is provided with that affordance, and that’s where the big question comes into play with the Digital Equity project. How do we as Fellows try to disseminate those differences and solve for them as best as we can? I think everyone within the Fort Collins Fellowship team has their own similar yet intrinsic experiences that drives the passion for this project as well.
Grace: My mother, despite her unfamiliarity with the language, people, and country, sought to find ways to support our family by walking to every city government office with her three kids, using a pocket Korean-English dictionary to translate each word in the sentences she needed to say. After several weeks of her persistence walking to these different offices on foot, she was able to find various centers that provided our family food relief and rent assistance.
Having watched my mother and father struggle from language barriers as well as applications written with word schemes harder than the logic problems on the LSAT, I knew something needed to be changed. It shouldn’t be this hard to get help from existing government programs, and these programs should make it a priority to ensure their application process is as simple and accessible as possible in order to reach the communities they are working to support. I am proud to be working on this critical issue with our Fort Collins team to improve accessibility through these income-qualified program applications, and hope we can pave the path for more initiatives to follow after our work in this Fellowship.
What are you most excited about, or looking forward to learning, during your Fellowship?
Andrew: I’m very excited to see a product through to the end! This would be my first real project that will affect people outright, and I’m excited to see what that process looks like. I know there's going to be ups, there’s going to be downs, however I’m the kind that very much enjoys the journey as much as I do the end result. Perhaps I’ve seen one too many Rocky/Creed films, but by the end of this project I want to have a Rocky montage of some sort!
Cydney: I’ve already learned so much about how to have effective conversations with government stakeholders. But this will be the first project where I actually get to see the full lifecycle of a tech product be initiated and completed, so that’ll be really exciting to see how it performs within the community and what the team can learn from the final performance review.
Grace: I personally am excited to see what new skills we all can learn throughout this process from each other! Although we have our respective roles on the team, we have already started to wear many different hats these past few months, where each of us gained a much broader perspective on how our web application will truly impact our Fort Collins community. I’ve learned so much already from Cydney and Andrew about UI-UX research, initial design planning, and project management, and I can’t wait to see how much more we will learn!