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ASU IT event aims to empower communities: Those we serve and those we belong to

Woman standing on a stage speaking to a crowd of people seated at tables.

UTO's Chief Culture Officer Christine Whitney Sanchez kicks off Empower with a message about the importance of community. Photo by Mike Sanchez/UTO

May 31, 2022

As society evolves, so do the technologies that serve us. Today, technology impacts the way that we think, learn, grow and communicate — and, in doing so, has transformed our sense of community. Take, for example, the role that technology has played during the pandemic. Online learning and remote working are just two major areas that have affected Arizona State University and the way that we interact with one another.

And as technology continues to transform our interactions, we must prioritize the human impact for the individual and the community. 

That was the premise for this year’s Empower, ASU’s IT professional community event, which focused on “empowering the communities we serve.” Tied directly to ASU’s design aspiration of transforming society, this means that ASU works to catalyze social change by being connected to social needs.

“We are empowered by a shared purpose – having a real sense of how we want to work together and how we want to treat each other,” UTO Chief Culture Officer Christine Whitney Sanchez said during her opening remarks. 

Over the course of the week, ASU teams went into the community to volunteer with local organizations. Then, over 500 team members convened on Wednesday, May 18, to discuss, connect ideas and reflect on key themes related to the intersection of technology, human impact and community.

Starting local, thinking global

Throughout the full week of Empower, ASU IT community members volunteered with organizations that have missions to better the lives of Arizonans. Areas of support were food donations, technology access for seniors and more. 

One such project included hosting workshops with senior residents. There, ASU IT professionals partnered with local seniors to create online grocery shopping accounts. Together, they set up an account and got to shopping using the $10 gift certificate provided to each resident. Seniors also got to ask tech questions about their devices.

“It was powerful to see our teams use their skills in the local community, like working with senior residents to better navigate their devices for real-world tasks," said Breanna Smith, event coordinator for Empower. "In doing so, our impact reaches beyond UTO, beyond ASU and into the communities we live and serve."

In addition to local volunteer opportunities, ASU’s IT community is advancing a series of initiatives that serve the broader Arizona community.  

During Empower, ASU Chief Information Officer Lev Gonick took the stage to share examples of this work in action, starting with the Digital Equity Initiative. In partnership with Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions' Maryvale One Square Mile Initiative, ASU’s IT community is helping to bring high-speed, reliable internet access to local families in Phoenix through the use of millimeter wave technology. 

Continuing to advance success for the entire ASU community

Gonick also shared projects like the university’s use of chatbots to enhance students’ interactions when, for instance, seeking financial aid information. He announced the T4 Leadership Academy, which cultivates IT leaders who are globally engaged and locally attuned to the role of technology for social benefit and invested in designing the intergenerational workforce of the future.

Then a panel of six ASU, industry and local leaders took the stage to expand upon the theme of community, diving into their shared and unique experiences across the workforce. 

Neal Lester, founding director of Project Humanities at ASU, challenged participants to disrupt the notion of “the community” and realize that there are many communities around the world in which we can feel included and part of. He explained that he came to that realization when he saw places where he was included, but felt excluded or invisible.

“So, community is when I felt and knew that I was connected and being heard and being seen,” said Lester.

With a greater and more diverse definition of community shared by the panelists, teams were primed to tackle eight IT areas to transform society. Spanning digital trust, communications, data architecture and learning technologies, the topics focused on:

  • Fostering a cohesive environment and way of working that enables understanding, belonging and attracting new talent
  • Unsiloing and leveraging data to inform journeys for all learners, faculty, researchers and staff.
  • Advancing digital equity to ensure all learners can connect with one another and ASU resources.
  • Leading with privacy and security by design, while supporting agency and reducing risk.
  • Financial planning that identifies enterprise-level spending, creates allocations for enterprise initiatives and empowers unit-level decision-making.
  • Supporting all learners, faculty, researchers and staff with digital tools while advancing the next learning realms.
  • Accelerating cloud computing and other practices to bolster ASU’s research abilities and standing.
  • Optimizing how ASU designs, delivers and supports technical services across all learners, faculty, researchers and staff.

Panelist and ASU Chief Research Information Officer Sean Dudley contextualized the development of helpful technology within these spheres at the university.

“For those of us who are proficient in technology, we can lose sight of some of the basics, which can truly be transformative for people,” Dudley said, adding that innovation must be human-centered and not just for the sake of technical improvements.

For example, as Debbie Esparza, chief executive officer of YMCA Metropolitan Phoenix, put it in regards to YWCA’s “Meals on Wheels” program, “there was an assumption seniors couldn’t access technology.” But that assumption was wrong, and new technology interfaces have been implemented as a result.

Coming together to uplift the ASU IT community

When it comes to creating a sense of community for ASU’s IT professionals, it’s about creating an environment where all feel empowered.

“We are intentional about the way that we designed the (ASU IT) community, the way we actionalize and operationalize the community, and find ways to sustain the community,” Gonick said. 

The Empower event turns this notion into action for the ASU IT community. 

Teams spent the second half of the day connecting with colleagues and developing new ideas around the eight focus areas during World Cafe-style discussions. The World Cafe Method pulls from integrated design principles that make discussion simple and effective for large group conversations. 

“It was an excellent opportunity to engage with so many amazing colleagues across our community,” said Eddie Garcia, director of law information technology for the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU. “I truly enjoyed this humanizing and thought-provoking event.”

Serving and belonging to communities

For the past five years, the University Technology Office has hosted the annual event to give Sun Devils time to foster a stronger sense of community amongst the university’s IT network. This fifth Empower emphasized that connection, as more than 500 Sun Devils joined together last week at the Student Pavilion on Tempe campus. 

When asked what community means to them, ASU’s IT professionals used words like belonging, equality, respect, happiness, connection and kindness. By exploring IT themes through the lens of human impact, teams were able to build connections and more closely collaborate to better serve the ASU community and beyond.


Special thanks to the leadership panels: 

  • Rudy Bellavia, managing director and chief of staff, Office of Business and Finance, ASU.
  • Diana Bowman, professor, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, ASU.
  • Angela Daniels, senior program manager, Slack for Good.
  • Sean Dudley, chief research information officer, ASU.
  • Debbie Esparza, chief executive officer, YMCA Metropolitan Phoenix.
  • Neal Lester, founding director of Project Humanities, ASU.

And to community partners:

  • Feeding America. 
  • NourishPHX.
  • St. Mary’s Food Bank.
  • Tempe Community Action Agency.
  • United Sound.

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