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 Maria Peñaloza (she/her), a Program Manager on our safety net team. 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.
Can you tell us a little bit about your career path in local government before you came to Code for America?
I started my career in the nonprofit sector where I had the opportunity to directly serve immigrant communities, and found myself doing a lot of resource navigation for families—a process that I know too well as I served as the navigator for my family. Working in the nonprofit sector sparked my interest to create direct social impact through policy. After working in the City of Philadelphia Office of Immigrant Affairs during my graduate program, I found my passion for policy change advocacy, and wanted to continue this passion in the City of Los Angeles. In my time with the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, I oversaw immigrant and refugee inclusion programs and initiatives. Along with this, I also led policy and advocacy recommendations around citizenship, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and other immigration programs.
What drew you to make a switch into civic tech?
During the beginning of the pandemic response, I saw firsthand that local, state, and federal governments can be innovative and quickly to provide direct relief to families in need. In the City of Los Angeles, I worked alongside passionate individuals who were ready to help and meet the moment. Along with this team and the use of emergency declarations, we were able to deliver relief to thousands of families, whether it was through coordination with philanthropy, nonprofits, or government partners. While the pandemic heightened the digital divide, I also witnessed the need for all work sectors to be up to speed with technology. Having witnessed how technology played a crucial role in our pandemic response, I made the switch into civic technology to work collaboratively and strengthen partnerships with government partners. In the civic tech space, my hope is to help influence social policy and use my personal and professional experience to center people in the use of technology. I am a strong believer that the government can and should strive to be innovative and serve all communities.
I am a strong believer that the government can and should strive to be innovative and serve all communities.
Is there a project you’re working on now that’s sparking your curiosity and making you excited to try something new?
I’m currently working on benefits enrollment. I’m excited to work alongside my colleagues to support states in improving the experience of applying for benefits, whether it is by redesigning a state’s existing integrated benefits application or improving their current application so that community members can complete it on a mobile device. In my current work, I am curious to learn from caseworkers and clients themselves how we can improve the application systems in their state. I am also excited to try different tools of communication and programming to engage government partners, nonprofits, and other stakeholders.
A lot of work that involves serving people who are marginalized can take a heavy emotional toll. What keeps you going on hard days?
Throughout my entire career I have worked with marginalized communities and it has definitely taken an emotional toll. What keeps me going on hard days is knowing that the work that I’m doing is having a positive impact in many people’s lives. I always stay grounded and think about the big picture—that because of the work we’re doing, a family is accessing the services they deserve to help improve their life outcomes and overall well-being.
I always stay grounded and think about the big picture—that because of the work we’re doing, a family is accessing the services they deserve to help improve their life outcomes and overall well-being.
Hispanic Heritage Month encompasses the stories of so many diverse communities. What’s the story of the communities that made you you?
My story, similar to the story of many immigrant communities, has shaped who I am and influenced my career path. Growing up as a woman of color in a low-income and mixed-status family meant that laws, statutory interpretations, and public policy decisions dictated where my family could live, work, and go to school. While I thought I was the only person in my community who experienced hardship, I quickly realized that many people in my community shared a very similar story to mine. In navigating institutions of higher education that were not designed for people like me, I was able to acquire knowledge, networks, and tools needed to help me give back to the communities where I grew up. My communities have taught me to be resourceful, resilient, compassionate, y que siempre hay que echarle ganas.