NYU Alumni in Government: Ashley Cortez & NYC Opportunity

Ashley Cortez is a Fall 2016 graduate of the Interactive Telecommunications MPS program at the Tisch School of Arts. She is currently a Training and Outreach Specialist at the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity).

How did you find your current job and what Wasserman services or programs did you use, if any?
A fellow ITP alum, Song Hia, was working with NYC Opportunity as a product manager for ACCESS NYC, a mobile-first designed website able to let folks understand what City, State, and Federal level benefits and programs they may be eligible for. Going to ITP, I was interested in how technology was being employed for social good. NYC Opportunity was one office in local government that was using Agile software development, human-centered design, and outreach methodologies to create a product portfolio with the aim of helping New Yorkers find assistance. When they were looking for someone to fill the role of talking about our products to New Yorkers, City agencies, and Community Based Organizations, I knew I had found something that merged my desire to be on the ground talking to folks and creating technology that had a social good component.

What’s your favorite part of working in government?
It’s great and humbling to know that the work I do directly impacts such a broad base of people. New Yorkers make up a 8.5 million, with 19.5% of the population living in poverty and another 44.2% living at or near poverty. That’s my pool of people to work with, and that is very humbling.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Working in government, something that impacts all aspects of our lives, is a lot more complicated than working on one product. When we ask to make change to something, we’re asking to make a change to a very complex system with lots of people in it who may have different approaches or perspectives of the goals they want to accomplish. It’s about having small wins that incrementally add up to a sea change.

Is there anything about your work that surprised you once you began?
I was pleasantly surprised about how much need, and want, there is in City government to put people at the center of every process. It goes without saying that City government has always wanted to hear from people, but I see this larger degree of workers really trying to understand, and grasp with, new ways of reaching people where they are.

What classes or projects did you work on in school that helped prepare you for the work in your current position?
My past life as social services counselor and community advocate helped me understand how to talk to people where they were, but it also highlighted the dire situation that government has around tech modernity and creating tools that are designed for all. My thesis project, Every Vote, was an attempt to universalize the voter registration process. This gave me a way to talk about how tech tools can be designed so that folks who need information, need to access benefits, or navigate a system, can do so without the need of a social worker or case manager as a gatekeeper to that system, and that things like time and resources don’t impact your ability to do so.

Were there any jobs or internships you held in school related to your current work?
The summer after graduation I worked with the United Nations in their Peacekeeping Technology division, headed by another ITP alum, Christina Goodness. It prepared me for what it was like working in technology in a large organization with many different goals.

What advice do you have for current students looking for jobs in government?
Work in government because you care about people. I’ve always thought it was cool that I can get up everyday and make actual impact on how the City is working to communicate its programs and benefits. In the end, I’m dreaming up ways that government can become less silo’d and more integrative in how we talk about programs, how we reach people with these programs, and how we ensure every person has access to these programs.

With the midterm elections coming up, why do you think voting is important?
It’s SO important. Bill de Blasio thought it was important to bring human-centered design to government websites and products, and now my office exists. We have to make sure that we’re electing individuals who want to hear from people, build new methods of communication, and figure out how to employ technology for the good of society.

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