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 Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re lifting up the voices of Hispanic and Latinx leaders who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with Frankie-Jo Gonzalez (she/her), a Client Success Advocate for GetCalFresh. 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 a little bit about how you found your way into the world of civic tech.
Prior to Code for America, I was working as a career, education, and financial coach for a nonprofit located in the Pico Union community of Los Angeles. Specifically, I managed a caseload of 45 parents, with whom I met individually on a monthly basis. My goal as a coach was to teach, guide, and empower parents as they worked towards goals to help meet their families’ needs. Some of the goals accomplished by parents that I coached included obtaining a college degree, paying off credit card debt, and starting their own business. Being a coach, I understood that investing in parents was so much more than just that—investing in parents meant investing in their children as well, in order to help set their family up for a successful future.
While our main focus was to help parents in the three areas mentioned above, I began to observe that many parents lacked basic needs, which became a barrier for them when trying to meet their action steps towards completing any long-term goals. When the pandemic hit, I found myself referring parents to even more local organizations and food banks so that they could receive basic needs like clothing, diapers and baby formula, and food. I also began using GetCalFresh.org more frequently during coaching sessions with parents. I laugh every time I think back on the hiring process I went through with Code for America—I didn’t realize at the time that I was applying to assist clients via GetCalFresh.org. I remember being blown away the moment I realized that the tool was operated by Code for America, the same organization I was applying to.
How does your background inform how you show up in the workplace?
At a young age, both of my parents migrated individually to Los Angeles from Mexico. They then met years later as young adults trying to earn a living working various shifts at the Original Los Angeles Flower Market. Throughout the years, I’ve witnessed both the struggles and successes that arose from their basic need for survival.
Growing up in the inner city of Los Angeles, there was never a day where I didn’t see or hear about substance abuse, gang-related activity, homelessness, and poverty. In our family of eight, there were even times where our utilities were shut off due to nonpayment. I remember my siblings and I having fun when we had to use candles and flashlights around our home before bedtime. Growing up, I considered this normal.
In college, I remember being invested in a course related to intergroup dialogue. The purpose of this course was for students of different social groups and identities to engage in meaningful discussions by creating an understanding of experiences, as well as finding new ways of relating in the world. Completing this course was the catalyst that has enabled me to show up as a mindful person.
Whether it’s engaging with clients, collaborating with my colleagues, or even hosting optional Zoom hangout sessions for our client success team, my experiences have taught me to always take a step back, ask clarifying questions, and never, ever assume. We are all unique working professionals who bring value to the world we live in. Showing up with a curious mindset helps me to identify how we can continue to navigate the system in order to create change for everyone, especially for the communities we serve.
I understand that clients are the experts of their own life experiences, so it’s also important for me to listen first, rather than to quickly try to solve their problems.
What are the most important principles to you when advocating for clients?
As an advocate, I like to be conscious of the ways in which our work impacts clients. I understand that clients are the experts of their own life experiences, so it’s also important for me to listen first, rather than to quickly try to solve their problems. When asked questions from the team, it’s important for me to reflect back on what clients have shared with us in order to bring their voices to the conversation. The volume of messages from clients can peak while working in live chat, so I never want to rush and dismiss clients.
It is also important to always create space to learn from the various identities and experiences of the clients we serve. Every client brings with them their own unique experiences. By learning from them, I can better understand their needs and identify barriers that stand in their way.
What’s a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, part of your job?
This is a common question for me, and I always have the same answer: the challenging and rewarding aspect of my daily work is always related to what I hear from clients. Everyday, I interact with CalFresh applicants who may be hungry, homeless, living with a mental illness, and so much more. At the same time, most of these applicants are unaware of the process that goes into the CalFresh application. For those who have already applied, they may be left wondering where exactly they stand in the application process. It frustrates me that applicants are left hungry because they don’t have access to the status of their case, and reaching a live county worker is more difficult than it should be.
When I hear their stories, I tend to put myself in their shoes and I ask, How would this make me feel? Would I also be a bit agitated if my only source to feed myself, and maybe even my children, just stopped one month? I would be furious, and because of this, I validate where clients are coming from. We may be on opposite ends of a screen, but I make it a priority to give clients the level of care and attention they deserve.
Since we receive a large volume of messages each day, I don’t always see returning clients. However, when a client does return, the client will generally express their gratitude for the support provided to them, which always puts a smile on my face. For example, there is a client who reaches out each month to ask about when she can expect to receive the emergency allotment for the month. The last time I assisted her, she thanked me and called me her “guardian angel.” Hearing this comment brought tears to my eyes and it will always be my reminder to never stop advocating for equitable systems.
How does your presence in tech challenge the status quo?
Prior to Code for America, I didn’t know much about working in tech. If I’m honest, I never even thought I’d be working in tech, mainly because my mind was fixed on false assumptions related to pursuing a career in this field.
While some of my identities, like identifying as a Mexican-American woman, categorize me as a minority, I feel very privileged to be working alongside my colleagues. By continuing to show up, I help create space for nontraditional tech professionals to explore, contribute, and thrive. Through our stories and experiences, together we can create a greater sense of understanding about the world we live in and how we can best navigate the systems we are trying to change.