For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. For Women’s History Month, we’re lifting up the voices of women leaders who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with Amee Covarrubias, a Code for America Software Engineering Community Fellow working in Oakland. At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the author.
Tell us about the project you’re working on through the Code for America Community Fellowship.
My team is in partnership with the City of Oakland, where we’re working to make it easier for unhoused neighbors to find and access services they need. As it currently stands, when someone who is unhoused needs a service—like housing support, food assistance, or healthcare—there isn’t a way for them to search through a comprehensive list of options. Instead, they often have to call multiple agencies to find information, delaying their access to services and putting a strain on service providers, social workers, and government agencies that are already stretched thin. So we set out to create Helping Residents Access, an app designed to give unhoused residents of Alameda County comprehensive information about services in their area based on their location, streamlining the process of getting them the help that they deserve.
Early on in the project, our team (Adorable Jasmine, Latorree Howard, and myself) decided on a guiding principle that would keep us driving the project forward: the Zulu phrase Ubuntu which means “I am, because you are.” Our team is composed of three BIPOC women with deep roots in the East Bay. We are interconnected with our neighbors because we are products of this community. Human dignity is at the center of all of our decisions and actions in this project.
Our team is composed of three BIPOC women with deep roots in the East Bay. We are interconnected with our neighbors because we are products of this community.
Which women have had the strongest impact on your journey to where you are now?
I’m most inspired by the life story of my grandmother, Socorro. She was forced into marriage at the age of 15 and was eventually left to fend for herself and her eight children on the streets of Tijuana, Mexico as a single mother. My grandmother had her sights on immigrating to the United States so that her children could have a fighting chance at a better life.
Every day for three years, my grandmother went to the US embassy in Tijuana to apply for an American residence visa. Every day, her application was rejected, but she kept returning until one day, her application was granted. I often reflect on this story because it reminds me that I stand on the many sacrifices that my grandmother and millions of women before me made so that I can live a fulfilling and successful life. As a Latina software engineer, I represent less than two percent of the technology industry. Stories like my grandmother’s empower me to be a community advocate and fight for equality within tech so that future generations of BIPOC women can have a seat at the table.
How did you know that coding was the best way for you to make an impact?
Before transitioning into tech, I spent many years in the social justice and DEI advocacy space. Then I briefly worked and lived on a ship through the Semester at Sea program. I sailed around the world with humanitarians in tech who were revolutionizing the industry and working towards the advancement of technology in the name of social good. After I returned home from my voyage, I was inspired to learn how to code and become a software engineer so I could utilize the power of technology to help people.
How does your presence in tech challenge the status quo?
In an industry notorious for its lack of inclusion and diversity, I’m sure that most folks don’t automatically envision the software engineer on this project to look like me. I’m a first-generation queer Latina from Hayward, California. I hope that my presence challenges harmful stereotypes in tech and motivates gatekeepers to address bias when hiring new talent.
Why is representation in tech important?
Here’s why: I’m a Bay Area native born in the tech capital of the world, yet I didn’t even know that programming was a career option for me until I was an adult. I hadn’t considered a future in tech because I didn’t know anyone in my primarily Latinx network who worked in tech. Now, I’m very vocal about my experience as a queer Latina software engineer because representation matters. I hope that my presence in tech can help others envision themselves in STEM.
I myself am motivated by the BIPOC women who are changemakers in the tech industry. As an early career software engineer, it has been meaningful to me that the CEO of the organization I work for is a Latina who has similar life experiences. Meeting women in tech who are breaking the glass ceiling inspire me to set my sights on bigger goals in my career and maybe be the CEO of my own organization one day.