Gina became interested in social justice through her original interest in art therapy, where she used her drawing skills to make connections with the people she helped. At the time, she didn’t know there was such a thing as design for social innovation, then she saw the DSI website. That’s when she knew she wanted to be a social designer and that what she was doing wasn’t on a big enough scale.
“I took a risk, it was a brand new program, but the website described everything I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew I wanted to do bigger things.”
At DSI some people were already in the social sector and arrived wanting to focus on specific issues, then there were ‘people like me’ who are totally open. Gina thinks at DSI if you arrive wanting to focus on specific topics you’ll still come out with different expectations because of the variety of people and opportunities you encounter there.
Gina wrote her application essay on accessible playgrounds for children with different abilities. When it came time for thesis, the DSI faculty helped her work at a more concrete but actionable scale, evolving from playgrounds to a digital approach. The way Gina approached her thesis problem is how she approaches any problem now. You have to understand the user first, and work within the constraints of the system.
She was hired at the US Digital Services at the Department of Veterans Affairs last January, “not because I have a healthcare background but because of my DSI background in Human Centered Design.” She works for US Digital Services – an agency within the VA under the office of information and technology.
Currently she’s working on Vets.gov, a single site using user centered design to help Veterans apply track and manage all the benefits they have earned, which she calls “very complicated and exciting.”
Gina says the organization is very flat, and agile. “They rely heavily on user research, they are literally building as they go, very exciting, a unique process. Design is happening at the beginning of the project and that’s new here.”
While the problem she’s working on is complicated and can be frustrating, the scale of impact will be enormous. “Even if we only move the needle a little, it’ll have a huge impact.”
The bigger picture – is that beyond the functionality of the website, the goal is get the vets to trust the government. When healthcare.gov desperately needed fixing, people jumped in and solved the website problems in a short time while saving taxpayer money. Now that’s become the model for what USDS at the VA are trying to do. Gina says the key to why designers are sought after now is because they are creative, iterative, resourceful when there are not a lot of resources, and able to work within constraints, that’s the whole point about social innovation design.
For Gina, what makes DSI great is the people. “My cohort was the best in the world! Such different backgrounds and skill sets, and they all came with an open mind, no expectations. At DSI, you’re always in a roomful of people who care deeply about fixing things – it’s a very safe space to have openness, debate, discussion, and sometimes disagreements. You’re forced to be collaborative, make use of each other, and learn about each other’s strengths, and having the space to do that is an amazing opportunity.”