In celebration of Black History Month, Common Impact is proud to highlight some of the outstanding Black nonprofit leaders we collaborate with and the ways they’re driving social change and equity through their organizations’ work.
Today we hear from Patrice Berry, Executive Advisor to Oakland’s Office of Mayor Libby Schaaf and Co-Founder of AssistHub, a tech-based organization that makes economic opportunity possible for everyone by eliminating the barriers that keep people from accessing the resources to which they’re entitled. AssistHub recently participated in a Common Impact pitch competition day of service where five teams of skills-based volunteers from PHLY generated ideas for a storytelling campaign for the nonprofit.
AssistHub was created with the goal of ensuring that everyone can discover public benefits and other resources available to them with dignity and without frustration. What accomplishments or challenges overcome at AssistHub are you most proud of?
Above everything else, I’m proud that we’re doing something about a really big problem. AssistHub is not the solution to some of the deeply rooted systemic challenges getting in the way of people accessing critically needed services, but we’re bridging the gap. Every day I talk to people who are so relieved that they reached us, and so far we’ve served nearly 30,000 Californians. I’m also proud that we grew so quickly. We served four times as many people in our second year as we did in the year prior, going from 5,000 California residents in 2020 to 20,000 in 2021.
How have the needs of your organization and the communities you work with changed over the course of the pandemic? What are your biggest priorities today?
When we first started AssistHub, we were actually solely committed to solving a problem we call awareness, a reference to how challenging it is just to find the right resources at the right time. At the time, we were laser-focused on quickly building the fastest path to the most relevant benefits available. But within our first six months, we learned that while we offered a clear path to benefits, once we directed people to a government product like the Employment Development Department’s (EDD) website, they would hit a wall of confusion again. So, we began providing some assistance via emails, through texts, and phone calls. At one point, I looked up and within four weeks we had served 6,000 Californians. For a short while, we barely kept up and our volunteer coaching program emerged to help provide more personalized assistance. One big “aha” moment was that we needed to automate our coaching process and build a product that also makes it easier for people to actually utilize all the help to which we navigated them.
Since 2020, we’ve digitized a lot of this content and we’re excited about a few products on our roadmap that will make it even easier to access this content and anticipate who needs what before our beneficiaries even ask. With this in mind, launching our beta is definitely at the top of our list of priorities. On that path, we’ll continue to center the voices of people who have lived experience with the challenges we’re solving.
How has AssistHub tapped into skills-based volunteering to increase capacity and deepen your community impact?
Most of our volunteers help reduce the “time tax” that benefits systems typically charge by sourcing referrals and facilitating warm introductions to other services like legal aid. They also assist families with planning how their household might survive as they wait for benefits. We also have a few volunteers who lead entire projects. For instance, Winnie Tsai of Bill.com has been leading our digital marketing strategy for nearly two years. In this role she creates ads, plans campaigns, advises our tests, and guides our overall strategy. We’ve also had volunteers consult for varying projects including market research, user experience, and storytelling. Each of these efforts have increased efficiency or helped us reach more people in the communities we’re targeting.
Over the past few years, businesses, foundations, and other organizations have made big commitments to increase support for Black communities, but critics have pointed to widespread lack of transparency or follow through. What advice do you have for how institutions or even individuals can take action on their racial equity promises?
It’s hard to be super specific, because I believe everyone has a different role to play here. Implied there is that everyone has a role, which connects to my first piece of advice: define your role and stay in your lane. Do too much and you risk not following through, creating even more discontent and harm. Do too little and the burden of managing what I’d call unimportant and performative work will undermine the entire movement. We don’t need lazy players on the field. If you’re in the game, make support of Black communities part of your bottom line and know your why; risk getting it wrong and risk losing people and money, and beyond that, “figure it out”. There is no lack of data, insight, and resources. We can do this. Also, listen to Black people.
In celebration of Black History Month, who are some of the Black leaders, activists, thinkers, or educators who inspire you?
One of my mentors, Alexandra Bernadotte, is a wonderful human and the founder of a successful tech nonprofit called Beyond 12. Alexandra has not only built something incredibly powerful, of which I’ve been a direct beneficiary, but she has done it in a way that honors the humanity and talent of everyone involved: students, her staff, partners, customers. I don’t just admire her for what she has accomplished; I am actually mostly drawn to her because of who she is and how she shows up as a leader. She is sharp and intellectually agile, serious about the work she does and how she does it, reflective, compassionate and patient. On top of all of that, she prioritizes her family and she cares for herself. When I watch her, I see what and who I aspire to be.
There are definitely others, but I can’t go without saying that my mother also inspires me. My mother is a counselor who specializes in addiction. Although she’s been counseling for most of her adult life, graduating from college was important to her. After sending me and my three siblings to college, she finally went on to become the first in her family to graduate from college at the age of 52. At 56 years old, she graduated with her Masters. She’s now thinking about a Ph.D. As a child, I used to watch my mom hold down part-time jobs and still pick up a book and take classes at a local junior college. And she and my father were constantly serving our community. She just won’t stop. I want to rest more than my mother does, but her lifestyle of continuous learning and service is one that I take pride in.