Leading the Field: Betsy Valu Rohney
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 Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re lifting up the voices of AAPI leaders who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with Betsy Valu Rohney, a Jr. Qualitative Researcher for GetCalFresh.
You came to Code for America as an apprentice. How have you seen yourself grow over the course of your time here? What have you worked on that you’re particularly proud of?
As an apprentice, I came in with a bit of research experience under my belt. While that helped me, working with other researchers at Code for America really allowed me to expand my view of what research could really be. We often challenge our role as ‘researchers’ when we work with the communities we serve. Being intentional about why we’re doing research—and even questioning if it should be done in the first place—was very different from my academic training.
I’m particularly proud of the research I’m currently doing on GetCalFresh. We’re hoping to expand our outreach to more language communities, such as those who speak Vietnamese. We’re doing this by working with community-based organizations that directly serve the communities we’re supporting. That way, we can pinpoint how to better serve these groups and eventually, build long-term, sustainable relationships with them.
What are some big challenges you see in the field of safety net delivery right now? How could these systems more equitably serve all people?
Language access is one of the biggest barriers to getting services like CalFresh. Imagine having to deal not only with complicated paperwork, but also having it be in a language that isn’t your own! This creates hurdles and prevents people from getting the help they need. For instance, I’ve witnessed elders who have immigrated to the US and are monolingual or speak very little English. They struggle to adapt to life here and need to rely on relatives to help them fill out forms. I’ve done this with my own family, being both a native English-speaker and the daughter of an immigrant.
When thinking about language accessibility, I always ask myself: “Would my Tongan grandmother understand this?” While we’re a long way from recognizing Tongan as a language for government forms, I want to live in a world where that is possible one day—one where resources are available in every language. This is why language equity is so important in our work.
Translating applications and renewal forms from English to another language isn’t enough on its own. We need to communicate why people need to fill out forms in the first place and make that language as clear as possible. Having native speakers guide us on the language we use on the GetCalFresh application is so necessary.
You do a lot of work with Pacific Islander communities. How do you want to see these communities represented in the world of civic tech?
Pacific Islanders are one of the fastest growing populations in the U.S., yet we are often misclassified. Data within the broad Asian-American/Pacific Islander label—or AAPI—has misrepresented us, suppressing our unique challenges as Pacific Islanders. I would love to see us represented not only as ‘Pacific Islanders,’ but instead as the diverse community we really are. Disaggregating AAPI data would be more representative of who we are, just as it would be more representative for other groups within that label.
I’d also like to see more of us making decisions about our needs in civic tech. Not all Pacific Islanders are US citizens! Some are immigrants, some are US nationals, and then some, like those in the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, or Palau, are migrants under the Compact of Free Association (COFA). If we want to better serve this community, we need to understand the nuances of immigration status and how government services may not serve us equally, if at all.
Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are more likely to struggle with high incarceration rates and low educational attainment due to intergenerational trauma, a legacy of imperial colonization. And recently, our communities been affected by high COVID-19 death and hospitalization rates as a whole, with lower vaccination rates than any other racial group in Hawaii. Without a lot of representative data, it becomes difficult to address these issues at scale. Listening to our voices and creating opportunities for us to shape government systems is more important now than ever before.
What does it mean to bring your full self to work in this field?
Bringing my full self means being able to bring my own experiences into work. One of the best things about working at Code for America is that people are genuinely interested in my perspective. On GetCalFresh I’m often collaborating with people from different backgrounds, yet we all want to do the same thing: feed the people.
Our strength comes from inviting different perspectives and making actionable change. GetCalFresh has come so far since its origins and that’s thanks to all the people who have shaped it along the way. I’m really excited to see how inclusion has become a top priority on GetCalFresh and Code for America as a whole. I hold a lot of hope that we can build a strong social safety net for generations to come. Right now, I’m taking it one research report at a time.