How one moment led to a passion for public service
By Izzie Zahorian
As a user experience researcher and designer at Google AI, I spend my days advocating for the needs of users across emergent technology projects. Since January 2021, I have been volunteering with U.S. Digital Response because I am passionate about helping make government services as accessible, human, and efficient as possible — both for those seeking help as well as for the public servants and partners who deliver these services.
One of the most meaningful projects I have supported with USDR began when a call was put out for pro bono assistance to help Neighborhood Preservation Inc. (NPI) Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee with their Emergency Rent and Utility Assistance Program.
This was a complex project which involved a lot of moving parts and stakeholders. Four Memphis-based nonprofits came together to coordinate and streamline their processes to quickly deliver financial assistance to residents as soon as funding became available from the U.S. Department of Treasury’s COVID-19 Economic Relief Package. Together, these nonprofits help households facing financial hardship related to COVID-19 with rent and utility payments for up to 12 months.
Initially, I was brought on to help clarify the scope of the project. As the project progressed, I stayed on to support however I could. This included user experience research, service design, project management, and prototyping in close collaboration with NPI Memphis President Steve Barlow and fellow USDR volunteers. Together, we created a streamlined online application so that people who were struggling to afford rent payments or utility bills could quickly and easily find out if they were eligible for assistance through the program and apply.
There was a specific moment where the potential impact of this project really hit home for me. I was on a call with Steve Barlow, CEO of NPI Memphis, and while we waited for the rest of the team to join, Steve mentioned that he had just gotten off the phone with the local utility company. Applications for the Emergency Rent and Utilities Assistance Program had been open for a week, and in that time, Steve shared the applicants’ names with the utility company and was able to negotiate keeping utilities turned on for another month for more than 1,200 families.
“Twelve-hundred families,” I repeated to myself. “Twelve-hundred families who may not have water from their faucet next month, or access to gas or electricity.” On the other side of the application are people who have faced incredible financial hardship due to COVID-19 — through losing work or decreased hours, losing business, caretaking for their children, or medical bills.
Steve’s call was a point of reckoning for me — a reckoning with my own privilege, and how I contribute my skills, resources, and time. I came out of the call with the realization that I want to dedicate my life to public service. I felt — and continue to feel — called to contribute my time, resources, and skills to serve those in need, wherever and however I am most helpful.
While I am early in this journey, there is so much work to be done and many ways to plug in. One of the best ways I can think of is volunteering with USDR, where anyone with passion and time to spare can contribute their skills to helping improve critical government services, supporting and partnering with the public servants who administer these services as well as the public who benefits from them.
Volunteering with USDR has helped me realize the ways in which my skills can be applied to public service. For anyone considering volunteering, do it. There is work to be done. We need you.
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