The Search Engine for Social Services – Selina Sosa (POY 29)

The Search Engine for Social Services - Selina Sosa (POY 29)

Selina Sosa directs Community Outreach at Aunt Bertha, the Texas B Corp offering a search engine for social services. Listen as she shares their mission.

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Episode Summary

  • Selina Sosa handles Community Outreach for Aunt Bertha, a company that is building a search engine for social services.
  • Part of the challenge with connecting service providers and seekers is that providers often don’t have time to update their information and seekers don’t always know what’s available. Aunt Bertha is looking to improve this experience for everyone involved.
  • Selina comes from a tech background, and she wanted to find work in the space that makes a difference. She’s confident she’s found that with Aunt Bertha.

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Transcript

This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.

Monologue by Josh Morgan

Selina Sosa is the Director of Community Outreach at Aunt Bertha, a B Corporation based in Austin, Texas. Aunt Bertha’s major product is a search engine for social services, which is available for free at their website. The search allows anyone, or at least Americans at this point, to find free or low-cost resources that are available to them across all sorts of categories. They’ve put together a massive database of service providers, and the idea is to reduce complication among those in need of help. Selina is Aunt Bertha’s first community outreach director, and she’s looking to get the word out about this super important service. I talked with her about Aunt Bertha’s mission and about her role in making it a reality.

I’m Josh Morgan. My conversation with Selina is coming up next on The Plural of You, the podcast about people helping people.

This is Episode 29. You can follow along if you’d like at pluralofyou.org/029.

I’d like to share a story that I came across while reading for this episode. I found it in a textbook titled Therapy, Culture, and Spirituality, and it was contributed by a counselor named Jeni Boyd. Just for context, the Ojibwe are a group native to the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada.

“An Ojibwe chief was advancing in years and, to his eldest son, appeared too weak to continue leading the tribe. He challenged his father, who agreed that, if his son could move a large rock at the entrance to the reservation, he should indeed become the new chief. The son strained and heaved but could not budge the massive stone. His father looked on and commented, ‘You’re not using all of your strength.’

Irritated by his father’s disdain, the son again struggled, his muscles quivering with the effort. Once again, the rock was unmoved. His father quietly repeated, ‘You’re not using all of your strength.’ Now angry, the son attempted to move the stone for a third time. Sweat dripped from every pore and his head began to swim with the dizziness of fatigue.

His father stood by patiently and calmly said, ‘Son, you’re not using all of your strength—you haven’t asked me to help.’ Together, they moved the stone.”

Boyd writes that she uses this story with clients in her counseling work who feel that asking for any sort of help is a sign of weakness. She also says that the story illustrates how help can come from unexpected sources.

Something I haven’t considered much with what I’m doing on The Plural of You is that, in many countries, maybe including the one you’re listening from, many people are taught to reject help. I started this podcast to encourage positive social forces like trust and compassion, but I’ve forgotten that seeking help can make many of us uncomfortable and can hinder these positive forces.

In the process of learning what social groups we belong to in society, we learn to identify with how these groups relate to other social groups. Different groups have different advantages and disadvantages, of course, depending on what’s being evaluated, and we generally pick up values here and there for why those disparities exist, some more accurate than others. These values get attached to code words that our culture applies to these groups—like poor, sick, lonely, dangerous, and on and on. Groups in need are often characterized like this in an unfair and dehumanizing way. In many cases, the individuals lumped into these groups may not represent the values attributed to them at all, but the labels stick anyway. The rejection of those values can be part of why the people who need help don’t seek help.

It’s tough to pin down exactly where today’s notion of help as a sign of weakness came from, but it probably emerged during the Industrial Revolution or, if you want to go controversial, probably with rise of the Protestant ethic, which tied a person’s character and strength to how hard they worked. We can see this in stereotypes about people in need today, as our culture is quick to suggest that, for example, those in poverty are poor because they refuse to work—despite studies that show those in poverty are just as hard working, if not harder working, than everybody else.

I read a fascinating book not long ago by historian Scott Standage [correction from “Tom”] titled Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. Standage details how the language and the ideals of business overtook American culture in the 19th century, pushing men in particular to become more ambitious and self-reliant. According to Standage, a failure in hard work or personal salesmanship became a failure of character, and retreating to others for aid was identified as a sign of submission and helplessness. He provided accounts from journals, letters, and sadly suicide notes to demonstrate the point.

All that historical baggage aside, there are those today who are still humble enough to concede when they need help. The problem in my experience is that those seeking help often don’t know where to find it, or they get discouraged because they don’t know what’s required from them to receive it. That’s where Aunt Bertha is hoping to make a difference, and I think Selina is going to play a big part in connecting providers and seekers going forward.

Something I want to be more mindful of with The Plural of You is this notion that accepting help is a sign of weakness. I don’t know how yet, but it would be nice to put this idea to rest. Yeah, it’s nice to feel like you and I have all the answers, but we don’t—at least I don’t. The next time you or someone else you know run into something you can’t solve alone, remember the story of the chief and his son, and how they were stronger together. Also, see if the search at auntbertha.com can help. Here’s Selina Sosa, the Director of Community Outreach at Aunt Bertha, to talk about it.

Interview with Selina Sosa

JM: Tell me about Aunt Bertha. What’s the purpose behind the organization?

SS: Aunt Bertha is a mission-driven organization that’s powering auntbertha.com. We’re a B Corporation that provides an online resource of free and reduced-cost social programs and services that can help people in need with things like food, housing, transportation, medication, job training, legal services, a number of things across ten different categories. We like to think of it as a search engine for social services with a few tools and additional functionality layered in.

JM: I’m familiar with the concept of a B Corporation, but I’m not sure how that’s different from a nonprofit. Are you able to explain that?

SS: I’ve heard it said that a B Corp is to business what fair trade certification is to coffee or USDA organic certification is to milk. It’s for nonprofit companies. They’re certified by nonprofit B Lab to meet rigourous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Today, I think there’s about 1,500-1,600 certified B Corps across 42 countries, in over 120 different industries, working together towards one unifying goal: to redefine success in business.

JM: Nice. I wasn’t aware there was a certifying body that handled that.

Are you familiar with the story of how Aunt Bertha got started?

SS: I am. Our founder, Erine Gray, he found himself in a bit of a difficult situation at an early age. His mother had contracted encephalitis, and he found himself legally responsible for his mother at a very young age. I think he was 19. He realized first-hand how difficult it is to not only find programs and services that can help you when you’re in need, but also to connect with those programs and services and get help. He struggled through that for several years.

He went off to college and took a job working for a governmental organization, I believe in Health and Human Services. He got to see it from a different perspective. He realized there were a number of areas that could use improvement.

JM: Who is Aunt Bertha? What is the concept behind that character?

SS: It’s sort of a play on words. She’s picking up where Uncle Sam leaves off. Some people look at her as the caring aunt that you can go with anything. She’s always willing to help you. That’s how that came about.

JM: Are you aware if it’s based on a real person at all?

SS: Our founder, Erine Gray, his mother looked exactly like this. They didn’t use her name; they used Aunt Bertha.

JM: I tend to say Aunt Bertha [pronounced like “haunt”]. Is that okay? [laughs]

SS: Oh, sure! Yeah. It just depends on what part of the country you’re from, right? If I’m speaking to people in New York or on the East Coast, I always say Aunt [like “haunt”]. When speaking to people in the South, I often say Aunt [like “ant”].

JM: Alright, I was just clarifying that.

For those who aren’t familiar, who may be hearing about Aunt Bertha for the first time, how does the process work of using the website?

SS: You go to any browser, you type in auntbertha.com, and you plug in a ZIP code. With that ZIP code, it will render all the programs and services that are available to someone within that ZIP code. That would include governmental programs and charitable organizations that provide programs. That would also include not just local programs and services but also countywide programs and services, statewide and even national programs, if available.

JM: How do you find service providers to list on the website? Is there some way they populate automatically or do they enter their information?

SS: There’s a couple of different ways that happens. Our biggest focus is the data, so that’s our biggest investment. We have a team of 28 people that maintain the data. Their whole day is populating programs and services, defining them and then populating them in the system, then maintaining that data over time. We go through I think twice a year and make sure that the links are still working, the phone numbers are still correct, making sure the information is still correct. Sometimes programs don’t get funded, new ones come on, so we go through and make sure that’s all clean and up to date.

Secondly, if you’re aware of a program that’s not listed, there’s a little link where you can suggest a program. You can plug in the information. The team will take a look at it and, if it meets our criteria, populate that program.

JM: How did you get involved with Aunt Bertha?

SS: I had been working in the technology space for several years here in Austin, really focused on money and my version of the American Dream. Something tragic happened in my family and we suffered a devastating loss. I completely lost my focus.

Something in me just changed. I woke up one morning and decided that, for me, it would no longer be about me or wealth accumulation. I decided from that point forward, if it didn’t mean anything, if any task before me wasn’t of importance, I didn’t want to do it.

I started looking for a job in the nonprofit sector. My husband panicked [laughs] because we have all of these bills. He was like, “Wait a minute. What are you doing?” He understood and supported me in this. I started looking for a job in the nonprofit sector, and I ran across Aunt Bertha. I realized it was a place I could continue working in technology but still make the world a little bit better place. I knew it was a perfect fit.

JM: What is your role in Aunt Bertha?

SS: My role is I oversee Community Outreach for Aunt Bertha. This is a brand new role because we’re a small little startup that has grown exponentially in the last few years—I think we’re going on five years old right now. I’m the first to step into this role.

My main focus is to get the word out, making sure that people are aware of this valuable resource, sharing how to best leverage the platform based on their needs, then gathering information about ways we as a company can further support their efforts.

JM: How long have you been in this role?

SS: I would say two months now. It’s brand spanking new.

A lot of what I do is I spend time identifying people and organizations within the community that we should be talking to. I look for nonprofit groups that are providing programs and services to help others. I speak to a lot of social workers, caseworkers, librarians, in some cases local government agencies, and of course charitable organizations.

JM: What’s a typical day like for you? I know it’s only been two months so far. [laughs] What have you done so far?

SS: [laughs] I have spent a lot of time identifying the groups that I should be speaking with. I often set up trainings or overviews like Lunch and Learns, other events where I can provide information about how to best leverage the search, how to use the tools that are available for those that are doing this on a daily basis, and showing people how to accomplish more for less in their day-to-day.

JM: I know you’ve only been on for two months so far, but have you come across any stories of how the Aunt Bertha service has helped maybe service providers or even clients? Have you heard stories that you’re fond of?

SS: We get letters and calls almost every day from people that we’ve helped. We get letters from agency providers as well as clients, thanking us for what we do. We’ve got a lot of stories.

One specific story that comes to mind is a woman who found herself in a domestic abuse situation. She was so thankful because she was able to get in and find resources that she wasn’t aware of. She had tried to get into a shelter, but they were all full. She was able to get onto the Aunt Bertha website and find some resources that could help her not only get out of that situation but also get on her feet. She wrote us and now she’s in California, in a completely different state. She’s in school studying to become a nurse. She was able to get some legal issues handled. Everything that she has done to improve her situation was brought to her attention through the Aunt Bertha website.

JM: That’s so cool.

SS: Yes. She was very, very thankful. She’s one of our biggest advocates now, I think. [laughs]

JM: In your experience maybe with surveys or the like, how do most people find out about Aunt Bertha at this point?

SS: We have a number of clients. I think the word is spreading quickly now. We have a lot of clients in the healthcare space.

JM: I could see that.

SS: Yeah. We have a white-label version of Aunt Bertha that a number of organizations are using, including Blue Cross Blue Shield, AARP, and a number of other groups. People are finding out about the search, although they may not recognize it as Aunt Bertha. They might recognize it as a partner’s website. I think the word is spreading because there’s no cost associated with using it for most people. When you’re doing something good, word travels quickly.

JM: It seems like there are so many different projects out there and there are people who want to help other people. It seems a major issue is that a lot of times these programs or projects exist but the people that might be helped by them, there’s a disconnect. In your experience, why do you think that is?

SS: From what I can tell, clients needs always outnumber available resources. Current processes are not usually good for the seeker, nor for the helper. One of the problems is that people that are in helping roles are often too busy to stop and try to create a better experience for those seeking their services.

Consider the person who needs help from a local agency. In order to be considered, she needs to show up in person, maybe fill out an application. She arranges for child care, she takes off of work, she catches two buses to get down there only to find out they’re closed, they’re out of funding, or she doesn’t qualify. That’s frustrating. Maybe [a guy is] using prepaid minutes on his cellphone. He calls a provider only to find out he’s number 28 in the queue.

I think it’s tough on the client side and the provider side. What usually ends up happening is the seeker gives up. We’re working to make it easier for both the seekers and the helpers in the process of finding and connecting. More to come on that.

We’re learning a lot every single day on ways we can add value and building that into the product.

JM: What kinds of objectives do you have in mind to help expedite that process?

SS: One of my main objectives is to listen, to listen to the organizations that I’m talking with, to find out exactly how they’re doing it today, what could make it better; then working to get that information back to the product team so we’re not just building something and saying, “Here, go try it and use it.” We’re actually building something based on the feedback we’re getting from the people who are in the trenches doing this every day.

JM: Are there common problems among the people you’ve spoken with so far—the providers, I should say?

SS: A lot of what I hear is that a lot of people have Rolodexes and folders of programs and services that they keep at their desks or in their heads. They’re aware of what’s around locally but a lot of times they’re not familiar with programs that could also be helpful that might be outside of their local area. I think there’s a problem of keeping that information up to date. It’s easy to make a list of programs and services that you can go to, your go-to list, but keeping that data current is a huge challenge for a lot of people.

One other thing that I hear a lot is [about] having the ability to share that information among their team. For example, you might have some caseworkers or social workers that are senior within the organization. They’re familiar with the programs and services that are responsive and often able to help, but the newer team members aren’t always privy to that. It’s difficult to share that information within the group.

JM: Does anyone at Aunt Bertha ever work directly with people in need, like clients, or is it more confined to working with service providers?

SS: We don’t directly work with—we call them seekers. We don’t necessarily work with them one-on-one. We do get some inquiries here and there.

JM: I guess that’s what I was wondering, if there was a feedback channel where people ask specific questions they can’t find on their own.

SS: We have a place on the website where people can contact us. We do get a number of inquiries here and there. I think for the most part we’re working with those that are providing the services so that they can get the word out. We do want—I take that back, with the libraries. For example, I’ll get the information, maybe some collateral to the libraries so they can hand it out to the people that come in.

We’re trying to work closely with those groups that can help us further our mission, but we’re also open to talking with individuals, if they come to us.

JM: So far, is there something you’ve identified that maybe listeners could do to either help Aunt Bertha in your mission or maybe even the seekers, as you call them?

SS: Sure! I think checking out the site at auntbertha.com, getting the word out, is one great way to help us. Another might be encouraging agency providers of these programs and services to claim their program listings. They can do things like edit and change their program information in real time, indicate capacity, do things like digitize their application or their intake form—things that would make it easier not only for themselves to maybe lower high call and email volumes but also to help those in need more easily connect with them.

JM: We kind of covered that, but maybe in your role, is there anything we can do to help get the word out and build community around Aunt Bertha?

SS: I would welcome the opportunity to provide training or anything that would be helpful in getting people to use the products and services that are available within the platform. I do set up some trainings here and there and webinars, et cetera. I’d be thrilled to have that go out to others that would be interested in learning more so that we can reach out to a number of people through the Web.

JM: When you talk about training, what would be involved in something like that?

SS: I take people through the platform, talk about the differences between how the search happens, what they see when they plug in a ZIP code. Sometimes results may seem kind of random if you’re not familiar with how the search is happening.

For example, the programs that are closest to the center of that ZIP code will render first, so you might type in your ZIP code and see a program out of Washington, DC, and you’re in California. That might seem a bit random. When you understand that first it’s pulling in the local programs and then the national programs, once people understand that then they can navigate a little bit easier.

We talk about how the search happens and some of the tools that are available by logging in. Anyone can go in and create a login. That opens up the additional functionality to manage folders, do things like save favorites, print out an entire list of programs rather than one at a time, et cetera.

JM: Oh, I didn’t know that was available. That’d be handy.

Again, I know you’ve only been there two months, but you were looking for work to make a difference. Do you feel like you found that in your current role?

SS: Absolutely. On the client side, I see it making a difference. We know that 40 percent of a person’s health outcome can be attributed to social and economic factors. By addressing these issues, these social determinants of health, people are staying out of the hospital. They’re improving their lives.

A lot of times we hear about it more from the providing agencies than we do from the clients, but I feel like a lot of it is like the butterfly effect. We know that it’s helping, although we don’t always get to see the direct results of it. I do feel like I have found my calling. [laughs]

JM: [laughs] That’s good to hear. I’m glad to hear that.

If we wanted to keep up with Aunt Bertha’s work away from auntbertha.com, where would be the best place to do that?

SS: You can go to auntbertha.com. You can sign up for the newsletter, if you’d like. We only send out news you can use. We promise never to bug you with things that aren’t relevant. We’re working closely with another organization that will help us with the webinars and the additional events that we plan to sponsor. By signing up at the website, you’ll be the first to know what’s next.

JM: One last question: is there an effective way you’ve found to maybe get the word out more? That repeats what we’ve already talked about.

SS: We do have some little postcards that I often send out or leave people to hand out. I just dropped a stack of them at the public library. That’s one great way to let people know: hand them a postcard. If there’s an agency provider that’s listening and would like to be able to pass that information along so that people can do searches on their own, I’m happy to forward those along. We have them in English and in Spanish.

They can contact me. I’d be happy to provide an overview.

JM: What would be the best way to contact you?

SS: You can email me at ssosa at auntbertha.com, or there’s a contact form on our website.

JM: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to talk about?

SS: I can’t think of anything except that together we make a difference. As you mentioned, it’s a bit of a broken process in trying to find and navigate programs and services that can help you when you’re in need. If we work together, I think that we can make that better for both the providing agencies as well as the seekers in need.

I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.

JM: Yeah, you too! I wish you the best of luck in this new position. It sounds like a good fit for you.

SS: Alright. Thanks, Josh.

JM: Take care. Have a good day.

SS: You, too.

Conclusion by Josh Morgan

What did you think of this episode? Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter at pluralofyou and let me know, or contact me via the website at pluralofyou.org. You can also check the website to find show notes, past episodes, or to get involved in lots of helpful causes.

The Plural of You is produced by me, Josh Morgan, in snowy Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Seriously, I’m recording this in the spring and it’s snowing a little outside—weird. Mike Martinez created the music.

If you’d like to have the next episode sent to you automatically, visit pluralofyou.org/subscribe to subscribe to the podcast. If you’re a regular listener, please consider leaving a review for The Plural of You in iTunes or telling a friend about it.

If you liked my talk with Selina, check out Episode 1 with Jimmy Chen. Jimmy and his team in Brooklyn built an app to make applying for food stamps easier in the United States. They’ve also released another app that allows users to track their EBT balances from their smartphones. You can find my talk with Jimmy at pluralofyou.org/001.

In closing, here’s a homework assignment.

Tell someone you know about auntbertha.com. I’m a big believer in this service and I hope you are, too. We can help it catch on. The next time you’re speaking with someone in a service agency or with someone in need—not just poverty, but mental health, legal assistance, anything—give them the link to Aunt Bertha. Just like the lady from California that Selina described, you’ll never know the difference it could make in someone else’s life.

That’s all for now. Thanks for helping.