Sounds Good is the weekly podcast that hosts hopeful conversations with optimists and world-changers about the headlines we can be hopeful about — and how you can get involved and make a difference.

Meet The App That Helps People Find Public Benefits

About This Episode

Growing up in the racially and economically segregated suburbs of Maryland, Patrice Berry found herself wanting to work in U.S. policy making after experiencing firsthand how hard it is for marginalized folks to finish school, get assistance, and provide for their families. 

She now works for the mayor of Oakland, California, working to improve local and state laws. It was there that she was inspired to found AssistHub, an app that helps Californians access any public benefits they may be eligible for. As it turns out, there’s a ton of unclaimed public benefits that’s available to everyone: $60 billion to be exact — and AssistHub is working to change that.

Finding the intersection between technology and public good is something Patrice has done successfully. In this episode, Patrice talks about her work with Oakland’s local community-based organizations, the inspirations that drive her goals, and the misconceptions of what public benefits are — and how Patrice is working to deconstruct those misconceptions. 


Guest: Patrice Berry, founder of AssistHub
Visit AssistHub’s website, www.assisthub.org

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Transcript

Branden Harvey

Patrice, I am so excited to welcome you to the show today. Where are you calling me from?


Patrice Berry

I am calling you from Oakland, California. I am on a lonely land today.


Branden Harvey

You are the founder of the app AssistHub that helps Americans find and claim public benefits. And you also work in the Office of Oakland's Mayor. And to me, this is a unique intersection of tech, and public good, and government. Not everybody is usually up for something that's kind of a finger in a lot of pots. How would you describe what you do?


Patrice Berry

Where do I begin? So I will tell you what I was hired to do and then perhaps tell you what that looks like. I started working for the Office of Mayor Libby Schaaf in 2018, and at the time, the problem we were trying to solve is how hard it is for families to access federal and state financial aid. And so I have a background in College Access and Completion and I came in trying to eliminate barriers that keep people from accessing money to which they have a right, especially when it comes to higher education.


What that looks like is I convene groups of people in the community-based organization space in Oakland, folks in Higher Ed -- so our local colleges, we strategize together. We thought partner, we plan different ways to make access in college and persisting through college easier. And a system is related to that, you know, affording college is really hard. So when the pandemic hit, we started AssistHub in an effort to make it easier for our college students and for our families to get through really tough times.


Branden Harvey

Before you kind of came to this world of like, I don't know, serving your community. What were you doing before that? What led to you deciding to do this? Because I would imagine that it is an intentional choice to be in this space. It feels like a very mission-driven role. Like what inspired that mission?


Patrice Berry

I can take it back to the beginning. Perhaps I often say that I feel like I've been fighting in justice and equity my whole entire life. That's what it feels like. Grew up in a really small town in Maryland, and it was pretty segregated, racially and economically. And the public schools I attended were integrated, of course. But I really felt like opportunity wasn't. And one of the first times I remember sort of experiencing blatant racism was in the fifth grade, so that early, and I was placed into a so-called, quote, unquote lower track.

And I went home and I told my mom what happened on that first day of school, and conversations occurred. And a few days later, I was placed into the highest track. And I'll never forget all the questions I had at the time and the feelings of discomfort as I left the class of mostly black students to join this class where there was only one other black student. And that happened time and time again. Throughout education, I've only been in classes with one, maybe two other black kids, and I really have to fight to have a seat in those classrooms.


And my mom, I talk about her a lot, so forgive me, but part of my story is her story. She graduated from college when she was 52 years old, and so growing up, I watched her try to get her education. She took classes at a local junior college, and she never wanted us, my siblings and me to struggle the way she did. So she insisted we all go to college, and all four of us, we all went to college. But getting there was really hard, and I always felt like I had to fight the school system, fight to be in honors classes, fight to be seen, fight for information.


So by the time I finished high school, I had my heart set on being a policy maker or a Supreme Court judge because I feel like I got lucky. And that didn't seem right to me. So I'm here today, I think a lot because I don't think that we can leave the fate of people, the rights of people up to, "Oh, I know this person, and they helped me get here," or "My mom had enough time to care enough or to dedicate, you know, parts of her evening hours to making sure I did what I needed to do in order to get to college."


I just think that the system needs to protect more people in that. I think a lot of the work that I do today has its roots and my upbringing.


Branden Harvey

I just got goosebumps. Thank you for sharing that. I think that what I'm hearing there, too, is just this idea that, like you really did have to fight to get where you are today. And what a beautiful thing that you were able to do that. And you had a mom who is so supportive through that journey. But people shouldn't have to fight this uphill battle to get an education, to make it through life. And it should be a simple process. And it's really cool to see that you stepped in with the opportunity to say, how can I make this system better for more people?


How can I make it so that people don't have to fight to get here? I imagine you're still fighting because you have to create these new systems or change these systems. What does it feel like to take care of yourself in that journey of continuing that fight? But also you can't. It's got to feel overwhelming sometimes, I guess.


Patrice Berry

Oh, yeah. People ask me what the hardest part of building something is, and they allude to the business side, the strategy side. But my imposter syndrome is the highest it has ever been my whole entire life. And I am in spaces sometimes where I feel like I don't belong, where people are scrutinizing the merit of me being there. And this question you just raise about taking care of myself. I resonate right now because I have to. I'm my biggest cheerleader. I jazz myself up, all every single day.


I have a four year old and she thinks the world of me, and I fill up my community and my home with people I know who have every confidence in what I'm doing and who believe in the mission. And I try to protect that. And the pandemic has been really helpful because I've been really leaning into family and friends and community. And I think that is one of the ways that I take care of myself. Your family will never forget to remind you who you are and where you come from and what you're worth.


And that has been a blessing for me to just tap into that these days.


Branden Harvey

That's so encouraging. And I feel like I feel the same way to some degree and that the pandemic has given me such an ability to just really focus on my core community. And it is so encouraging to, I don't know, it's that idea that the people around you totally can speak to who you are on a much deeper level than maybe people in a professional setting or a public setting because they know you at your core. They've seen you at your lows, so they can remind you who you truly are at your best as well.

So that's encouraging to hear from you.


Patrice Berry

I also have a Peloton, by the way, not to product place, but that has been really


Branden Harvey

Life-changing.


Patrice Berry

Yes. Absolutely.


Branden Harvey

Who's your favorite instructor?


Patrice Berry

Oh, I did a robin class today, but I really love Hannah Franken.


Branden Harvey

See, I have the opposite problem where I used to have a Peloton in my office. And then because of the pandemic, I can't go to the opposite.


Patrice Berry

Oh no!


Branden Harvey

And so I haven't ridden the pandemic, during the whole -- I haven't ridden the Peloton during the whole pandemic.


Patrice Berry

Come over.


Branden Harvey

I will. Perfect.


Okay, so you are serving in this kind of public role. You personally understand the problem of not having easy access to public benefits, and I imagine you're seeing it in your professional settings. I don't know. I feel like we've never really talked about public benefits in the podcast before, so maybe we could start off by me just asking, what are some of the biggest misconceptions that people have about public benefits?


Patrice Berry

Oh, that's such a good question that I don't think I've ever been asked before. Some of the misconceptions about public benefits is what they are. So a lot of people think public benefits, they think welfare, they think unemployment insurance immediately. But public benefits include Social Security. It includes Medicaid, it includes food stamps and child care assistance, and another form of public assistance is federal and state financial aid, which is how I fell into this space. And I think another big misconception is that most recipients of public benefits did not pay into the system.


And I think I call that out because there's this narrative about the merit of people who need help and receive public assistance. And I like to challenge some of these misconceptions in everyday conversation when they surface just because the underemployed and unemployed workers that I serve through AssistHub are people who are really dedicated to supporting their families, who fell into tough times, who are still struggling through many years of systemic oppression. Some of them are seniors, you know, who need access to food or who are on Social Security.


And there's all kinds of people who benefit from public assistance. And one of the things that I really want to do and have no idea how I will get there, but I really just want to transform the narrative and tell more stories. People need to know who's on the other side.


Branden Harvey

I think I've been thinking about it a lot during the pandemic because I think before the pandemic, I maybe had a few friends or people I've known or kind of families that I grew up with that I knew depended on unemployment from time to time. But during the pandemic I feel like every other person I know collected unemployment benefits at some point because so many people lost work or had their hours or clients so significantly cut that they experienced this thing for the first time, and not only that, they also experience how hard it was to go through that process.


The system is so challenging to deal with. I'm hopeful that that alone can have some sort of an effect of changing the way that people see this. But I guess what other ways do you think that we need to transform the perception of those who are receiving benefits?


Patrice Berry

I think we have this unique moment of time to do something because of what you just said, but I can already feel the fatigue or the distractions creeping. And I think a lot of this is going to be political will, and I think people have to keep making noise beyond the pandemic as people look. And beyond 2021 and things open up, we have to keep this at the top of everyone's stack of papers. I think policy has is responsible for a lot of the poverty we experience in the United States, and to that point, policy can also help correct it.


But I think it's going to be a lot of people on the ground making noise, and a lot of legislators who are going to do their job that are going to help us correct this. One of the reasons why I'm so excited about AssistHub and all of the other tech products in the social safety net space is because I think we're demonstrating that there is a way that we can do this, that the problem can be solved. I don't have a tech background. I should not be building anything, anybody.


I joke about this all the time, but this is how easy it is to solve a really big problem in some small way. And if I can do it, you can do it.


Branden Harvey

I feel the same way about my job. Of course, I've run this podcast, but I also make a print newspaper called the Goodnewspaper. I have no business making a newspaper. I'm a millennial. No, millennial should be making a newspaper, but I kind of figured it out now. I guess I'm in charge of a newspaper and we make the thing happen. So it was just because I saw an opportunity to do good in this unique way, and it sounds like you saw an opportunity to do good in a unique way, and it was unique to you for developers and stuff.


It may not be unique to them, but for you, it's unique, and it solves this problem. Tell me about this choice to intentionally do something a little bit audacious.


Patrice Berry

When I joined the mayor's office, it was actually the first time in my career that I wasn't serving students and families directly, where I didn't feel directly responsible for an individual or hundreds. And it was the first time that I could where I had lots of time to process and to learn again. And a few things happen. In my first few years, I visited students at a college here in California called UC Merced, and we were in fellowship with one another, and students were talking about their challenges just getting food, not just nourishment, but food.


They look forward to eating. And that wasn't fried. And we started talking about snap, which is a term to describe food stamps. And some of them weren't aware that they might qualify. And that baffled me. But that's the kind of information discovery that would happen in everyday conversation every year since I've been supporting college students. And so we actually started thinking through, like, what can we do so that the hundreds of other students like you, the thousands of other students like you can also know that they might qualify for snap and get this money?


Branden Harvey

And really quick. One more layer beyond that, too. I think it's just that when these kids know that they've got food on the table and they're not so nervous about where their next meal is, I imagine that allows them to focus so much more on school, succeed, thrives, go on to better jobs. It's just the beginning of this long-term, cool cycle of positive action. But it starts with just somebody knowing that they have the ability to get those benefits.


Patrice Berry

Absolutely. And there's hard data to support that when students are fed, when they have housing, that they do better, that they've graduated higher rates.


Branden Harvey

Okay. Keep going.


Patrice Berry

Yeah. So that was one, that seed was planted, and I think that was 2018 or 2019. And I continued to ideate on this idea. One of my funders who's been supporting my work in the mayor's office, pulled together a group of other volunteers and colleagues to help me think through a potential tech platform. I joined a program called 4.0 Schools who has an Essentials Fellowship, an idea accelerator. And I actually went to that accelerator the beginning of March in New Orleans and practice my pitch and felt really good about this platform we were going to build with and for college students to help them connect the services.


And when I came back to Oakland, the Grand Princess, you know, two days later was on the shore with passengers who had COVID. So it was at the very beginning of the pandemic, and a week or two later, a funder I'm talking about reached out and said, "What can we do?" And so one of the things we thought of doing was just like making this product happen. And because of the moment where we were in, where folks were starting to lose their jobs, my college students were coming home.


They felt like they were creating burdens for their families who were also losing jobs. So money was a big issue. And we knew that, folks were going to need to connect to services. And so we just built this platform really quickly on Squarespace and using TypeForm and just shipped it. So that Genesis, I think, started way before the Pandemic, because this problem existed before COVID. But I think COVID really just pushed us to just do it.


Branden Harvey

I think that's so cool. And I think that a common theme between people who have come on this podcast and shared about how they started something, especially when they started something that was outside of their area of expertise is they always just shipped V1. Version one was built on SquareSpace with TypeForm. I would guess that that costs $60 per month for those two subscriptions. I mean, it's one of those things where it's like half of our audience is probably, you know, paid for Squarespace, and another quarter is probably paid for TypeForm.


There's super common things, but that's all you need to get started. And I'm sure that over time you'll say, what if we had this feature and then you'll add on something and add on something. But it started small, and I think that that it's such an encouragement that you don't have to go out and learn how to code. You can just build this thing.


Patrice Berry

Absolutely. I don't know what the developers are going to say in response to that, but yes, I do not think you need to know how to code to build something.


Branden Harvey

And I mean, the developers are building the thing that allows us to build a thing without coding. So I'll let them do that thing.


Patrice Berry

Facts!


Branden Harvey

They can keep their jobs, but I don't want to have to learn how to do what they do.


Patrice Berry

Very good. Very good point.


Branden Harvey

Okay. So tell me about AssistHub. You build this thing with a few apps online, walk me through the journey of somebody who who needs help. In fact, maybe tell me, why is somebody coming to the site in the first place? What's kind of going through their mind? What are they hoping to find? And then what's the journey once they get there.


Patrice Berry

Different reasons for different people. But one of the ways that we reach people is by paying just a little bit of money on Google Ads. People will type "help with bills" or "rent assistance" or "food assistance." And we are trying to meet them where they are. We also partner with community-based organizations to get the word out about AssistHub. Places where people typically go for help, a search engine, a friend, a family member of their school or their community network. And then once they're on assisthub.org, we provide some information for people who just want to browse.


But for those who are ready to get help, they can answer a few simple multiple choice questions. And what the platform does is aggregate what we consider to be the most relevant resources, and we create or build a personalized or curated checklist for them. And we are very deliberate about only providing folks with a handful of things because we know they're busy, we know they might be in distress, and we want to help them focus on taking action. And when folks receive their checklist, they can reach out to us and get coaching through the application process or ask us questions.


We are building more on the platform, which I'm happy to talk about. But for now, that's what people get: a personalized checklist and support through the process of actually obtaining those benefits.


Branden Harvey

I like that idea, too, that you're keeping it simple because it can feel so overwhelming when you have a million options on what steps to take next. And if you just say here's the small number of things that actually just feels so much more encouraging than having all of those options. I love that.


Patrice Berry

Yeah, absolutely.


Branden Harvey

What do you feel like is kind of the next evolution because it sounds like this is V1 and you're helping people. And then I imagine you see another way and another way to help people. How do you want to help people next?


Patrice Berry

Yeah, I think about this a lot, and right now we know that we're solving a really big problem and making sure we make it easy for people to find good information that doesn't depend on them knowing someone who does. And what we're trying to do because we know it's really important is also provide assistance along the way. So we had to literally shut down for several months because of the overwhelm in questions that folks were asking about the application processes. And so we're building video content and other scripts and templates people can use to communicate with their landlord or to follow up with a benefits administrator to request information about their application and kind of build an end-to-end self service platform so that regardless of whether a person is working on their application at 09:00 a.m., during business hours or 12:00 a.m., because that's the time that they have, they can get what they need.


And I'm really excited about the video content because it's just really simple. We got a lot of feedback from folks in the community that what we provided in the checklist was really easy to understand. But then we sent them off to the EDD website and they're confused again. And so the video content is going to help us prepare folks for what they'll see when they begin their applications and the other content. The templates, the scripts are things that we are hoping to provide to make sure folks will really empower to advocate for themselves, especially because lack of transparency when you have a rent payment or utility payment due is really frustrating and distressing.


And we think that is really something really small we can do. And I think beyond that, which is happening right now, very soon we'll be able to go to assisthub.org and get all of that. After that, we know that economic security, financial security is one thing, but building financial cushion and perhaps even pursuing economic mobility is another thing, and we hope that we can continue to support individuals and families farther along in their life as they use public assistance to meet basic needs today.


But then they can also use the technology that we have to find really good information very easily about how they can upscale and get a better paying job, or perhaps save or take advantage of some of the public assistance programs to buy a home. I think the racial wealth gap when I think about that and how it could be zero for black families, the median wealth for black families could be zero by 2053. I think a lot about how we can support folks in building financial capability with our platform as well.


Branden Harvey

This is so huge and so important, and I just love that you are kind of helping solve this problem that you see in front of you. And of course, this is just one solution required of many because this isn't just a problem where people can't find things on Google. It's not just that websites are bad. We've got systemic problems in this country, in our states, and those need to be addressed, too. I know that this is a little bit outside of the wheelhouse of AssistHub, but for those who are listening to this and they also care about tackling these deeper, systemic things, do you have any advice on kind of what things to keep an eye out for?


Kind of legislation wise, what to say to an elected official if they give them a call? Is there anything that you think on the horizon that you feel really hopeful could create some deep systemic change.


Patrice Berry

Yeah. And first to clarify, just in case it wasn't clear to folks, I think the system change definitely needs to be, needs to happen. And I see AssistHub and the other players in this space playing a really big role in that. When we have the data that we have about the people struggling so much at the frequency and scale, I think it's really going to help us push and in ways that engage our communities to be a part of how we advocate and what we advocate for.


And one of the things I like to tell my friends and families who don't understand what I do is to pay attention to budgets when they're released. There's, like, really short, relatively summaries of what a state budget is working toward. And so if folks just pay attention to that, they can scan to see where their states are spending their money. A lot of the public assistance programs are supported by federal dollars, but states like California have really stepped up where the federal government has not. And so those are things that people can ask their state legislators for when it comes to college students.

I think this is a big opportunity for us to not just make college more affordable, but also influence the ecosystem so that students have the legislative support they need to access resources. And so there's a program called the Hope Center out of Temple University in Philadelphia, who's doing a lot of work. So if you're interested specifically about how public assistance affects college students, which I'm really passionate about, that's a good place to start. And I recommend that.


Branden Harvey

That is super helpful advice. And I feel like that's very actionable. And I don't know about you, but I love getting to do good things that are kind of a little bit nerdy, like pulling out a spreadsheet or a crappy government PDF and looking through a budget process. It makes you kind of feel like a little secret superhero. So that's good.


Patrice Berry

Yeah. And I'm sorry to recommend, but I think it's so important people know where the people they vote for are spending their money. At least that.


Branden Harvey

Patrice, this is all so helpful. It's just so encouraging to hear this process of how you created this. I'm curious if you have some advice as we kind of wrap up this show for listeners who maybe you're seeing a problem that they've experienced in their own life are in their own workplace or in their own communities, and they want to make a difference. They want to step up. They want to create a solution that's maybe a little bit out of the box, but they don't know where to start.


What advice would you have to give?


Patrice Berry

I would say, pay attention to the thing that keeps you up at night to whatever that is for me. There's a statistic I read once that said an estimated $60 billion of public benefits go unclaimed every year, and I was just like, what the heck is that? $2.4 billion worth of federal and state financial aid go unclaimed. And that's not okay. That kept me up at night. So when you're feeling anxious in your chest or you find yourself coming back to an idea over and over again, in the shower, on the call or in the car, I think that's worth paying attention to and lean into that.


I'm not saying everyone should be an entrepreneur. It's hard, and I don't want to glorify it, but if you're already wrestling with a problem, you can't ignore. It's probably worth exploring the question, "What else can I do?" And I think with that, get curious about what other people are doing to solve that problem. Become a part of the work that inspires you. And I don't know. Learn as much as you can. If your spirit remains stirred, go back to that question. What else can I do?


And that's how I got here. I couldn't ignore it. And I kept asking, what else can I do as I continue to do more and more? And I think that's probably the best advice I could give. Your heart knows what you're supposed to be doing, and pay attention to it.


Branden Harvey

Patrice, those are such beautiful and perfect words, and I think that's the perfect spot to end this episode. Thank you so much for the important and good work that you do. And thank you so much for sharing it with us today on Sounds Good.


Patrice Berry

Thanks so much for having me. And thanks for the questions, it was an awesome opportunity to reflect today.

Episode Details

September 27, 2021

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Sounds Good is the weekly podcast that hosts hopeful conversations with optimists and world-changers about the headlines we can be hopeful about — and how you can get involved and make a difference.

Every week, Good Good Good founder Branden Harvey sits down with the people driving positive change against the world's greatest problems. Each episode will leave you with a sense of hope about the good in the world — and a sense of direction on how we can all be a part of that good. Episodes are released every Monday.

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