PKG Fellowships: Beatriz Aldereguia (G)
I began my career in social justice knocking on doors. In the summer of 2012, having just completed my sophomore year, I took a leave of absence from Wellesley College and joined President Obama’s re-election campaign as an organizer in Charlotte County, Florida. At the time, Florida was the most contested state in the race, with pundits and strategists alike arguing that no candidate could take the election without its 29 electoral college votes. My team headed into the streets every day to meet voters with enthusiasm, respect, and empathy—and by election day, our work had increased Democratic votes in my precinct by 40% over the previous three presidential cycles.
More than anything, my experience in the 2012 campaign taught me valuable lessons on the power of communities to drive change, so long as these communities have the right tools. This conviction drove me to the City of San José this summer, where I joined Mayor Sam Liccardo’s Office of Technology and Innovation (MOTI) as a PKG Fellow at MIT’s Priscilla King Gray Center for Public Service and a Sloan Social Impact Fellow to launch a strategy around community engagement and policy for the City’s data equity project.
At its core, data equity seeks to bring big-data insights into the work of government, setting equity as the City’s north star for service allocation. Our team of data analysts partners with departments all over the City who offer direct services and programs to San José residents, working with these departments to set clear equity goals, develop unique metrics to track these goals, and measure historic performance against these goals. During its first year of operation, data equity has done complex analyses to identify who in the city is getting access to programs that provide resources for childcare, housing, and even timely street maintenance in San José. Most importantly, the analyses have also given our team a clear picture of who is not getting access to these services.
Once these gaps in equitable access were identified, however, our data equity team had no mechanism to turn these findings into policy. What was driving the gaps in access? Which communities were being affected by which access barriers? And finally, what changes to programs and services could help ensure that the residents who need them most could take advantage of them?
That is where our community engagement team came in.
Over the last two months, we have devised a community engagement strategy from scratch to give the people of San José a voice on what changes the City should consider for its programs and services. Some of our strategies mimic best practices from the work of other cities who have been kind with their time and open about their successes—and failures. Others we have pioneered ourselves, relying on skills from past experiences in public service and a growing sense of attunement with San José’s diverse communities.
Our work to date has focused on our most mature data equity project, a partnership with the City’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services (PRNS) department to analyze a scholarship program that provides low-income families discounts for after-school care and summer camps. Since the community engagement team is made up of fellows who are only working with the City for a short summer, it was important that our work set data equity up for future success by meeting two main criteria: first, we needed to yield tangible policy proposals in the short term and second, we needed a model for community engagement around data that data equity (and partnered City departments) could replicate and take to scale for other programs and services.
With this in mind, we launched a 360-degree community engagement campaign to understand which barriers prevent parents in San José not just from accessing the City’s childcare subsidies, but childcare support as a whole. We identified and reached nearly 400 community stakeholders who work with parents and youth, work with underrepresented communities, or serve as a hub of resources and services for low-income families in the City. We held meetings with over 50 of them to present the findings from our data work and hear their perspectives on where City services are falling short. We also hosted roundtables where we brought community stakeholders and City program managers together, held focus groups with low-income families, launched a survey in six languages, and phone-canvassed parents who have accessed these childcare subsidies in the past to better understand their user experience.
As someone seeking to build a career at the nexus of policy and service delivery, my time at the San José Mayor’s Office has been nothing short of edifying. In just ten weeks, I have bolstered concrete skills around bringing community stakeholders together to re-design policies that better meet the needs of city residents. But more critically, my work this summer has allowed me to better understand the challenges on the ground in reaching people whose work hours, childcare responsibilities, language skills, disabilities, or even mistrust of government may keep them from accessing resources they desperately need.
The antidote to these barriers, I have come to believe, is to approach policy-making and service delivery with extreme ambition. If equity is the goal, then government cannot shortchange access by citing budget deficits, procedural hurdles, or lack of staffing. Instead, we must continuously look for, acknowledge, and redress inequities in our policies.
Where to start? After my last ten weeks marrying policy with community engagement in San José, I firmly believe that this work is done best when the community not only contributes to policy change, but also becomes its greatest champion. As for government’s role, it all begins by putting in the time, staff capacity, and genuine effort to understand the lived experiences of the communities we serve.
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