Alumni Q&A: Dan Kass

Dan Kass is pictured. (Courtesy Dan Kass)

The Alumni Series aims to create a diverse collection of experiences at Tufts through highlighting notable alumni.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dan Kass received his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Tufts in 2013 and is currently the co-founder and executive director of JustFix.nyc. The Daily spoke with Dan on his experiences at Tufts and his path after graduation.

Tufts Daily (TD): What was your pathway to Tufts, and why did you decide to attend?

Dan Kass (DK): So I’m actually from a pretty rural place in upstate New York, and ironically enough, my high school guidance counselor actually didn’t know what Tufts was. I had heard about it from … some friends of mine that I went to summer camp with. I was really interested in being in a more populated place and I didn’t want to have a college experience directly in the city, so Tufts seemed like a good balance. What I was really looking for was a pretty well-rounded … liberal arts experience. I went in for a pretty technical degree, but even from the beginning, I was … just looking for something that felt like I was learning from different areas and different subjects and getting to meet people who are so many different things. I visited for a weekend once as a pre-frosh and had a really wonderful time. I was like, “Okay, cool, I want to go here.”

TD: What did you study at Tufts?

DK: I was a computer science (CS) major.

TD: Did you always plan on studying computer science?

DK: Not entirely. I like to say that I was a CS major before it became a big deal. My graduating class was like 20 or 30 people. It’s crazy that CS is a bigger program than [international relations] right now. I had done a little bit of coding before I got to college, and I thought it was just really engaging. I like doing the problem solving, and it felt very creative in that you can use the things that you can build, so there’s a lot of creative opportunity. I started in the School of Engineering, then within my first semester transferred to the School of … Arts [and Sciences] because you can major in CS in either school. It seemed way more important [to go] back to originally getting to take classes outside of my CS degree like sociology, art and design classes, as well as multimedia studies, which was my minor. These were classes that really could inform the technical parts of my education but gave me a larger perspective. That’s really what influenced the certain things that I’ve done with my CS degree after Tufts.

TD: In what ways was the computer science department different when you were at Tufts?

DK: I think they were just starting to have certain capacity issues. But you know, computer science was much more theoretical, and I’m sure that the classes now are much more tailored to some sort of job preparation. We had some really great courses on things like web development and web engineering, but that wasn’t a core part of the curriculum in the way that it is now.

TD: What were some memorable classes or professors that you had at Tufts?

DK: One of my favorite classes and one that I got to be a TA for was through the data visualization class that was taught by Remco Chang … It was so influential to me because my interests in terms of CS were about the human-computer interaction side and thinking about how we create user interfaces — how we can display data and really translate the technical into the visual. My advisor was a guy named Ben Hescott. He was one of the biggest reasons why I went to the Tufts. He was a CS professor that really … understood the broader context of not just the technical profession but really how it plays out on a larger human level perspective that I still think about sometimes in the work that I do.

TD: What were some non-academic activities that you were part of at Tufts?

DK: The biggest non-academic thing I got to do at Tufts was the community [in general]. It was at Tufts that I got a sort of stronger perspective on social justice and political causes. That is the most important thing that I … bring to my day-to-day life at the moment. I was at Tufts while the Occupy movement was happening and a lot of people got involved in Occupy Boston. These were all just really important learning experiences on what organizing looks like, what social justice looks like and how to align the personal values and ethics that you have into a larger sense of your community and the work that you’re doing. So that is, to me, the most important thing that I took away from my experience. I was [also] involved with a program at Tufts called Lift, which was sort of doing volunteer social work and getting to work with folks who lived in Medford. That was very instrumental to the work that I do now. On a more fun side … just a lot of nature trips, hiking and camping to Maine and New Hampshire and just going to Fells on a random day.

TD: What were some other social causes that were big at Tufts during your time there?

DK: One of the biggest ones was the divestment campaign, where I got to work a little bit on some of the research. It was about how the Tufts endowment fund had investments in oil and defense companies. I think folks who were really engaged in doing climate change work were working really hard to pressure the administration. Though I wasn’t involved with this directly, we also had a number of sit-ins in terms of getting the Africana Studies program more legitimacy and more recognition within Tufts as well.

TD: What are some of the most memorable moments you had at Tufts?

DK: I was really, really fortunate that I had a really strong, tight-knit community of folks. I am still in almost-daily contact with some of them, even today. That’s what defined my perspective on doing social work and it’s what has really driven me in a career perspective. But when I think back on moments at Tufts, it’s also … house concerts and camping trips and the conversations that we’d have that, in many ways, are a core part of me. It’s been a long time since I was in school, but those memories really plant seeds in the things that continue to be important to you, the choices you make in your life and in your work and your relationships.

TD: What did you do after graduating from Tufts?

DK: I felt just a huge disconnect between the kinds of conversation I had with my friends and Tufts who might have been sociology majors or American studies majors and the types of job opportunities I had with a CS degree. It didn’t feel good to not be focusing on these really, really crucial problems that folks are facing across the gamut of social and economic and political justice. So I worked for several years as a freelance software engineer working at a number of different companies. I worked for media companies like Time Inc., as well as Spotify. At the same time, on nights and weekends, I was really involved in a number of grassroots organizing groups in the city and learning about how data housing policy worked. I was really just looking for opportunities to contribute with the skills that I had.

TD: What do you do now?

DK: So in 2015, I got invited into this fellowship program called the Blue Ridge Labs Fellowship program that is specifically dedicated to folks who have backgrounds in tech and design to work on issues faced by everyday New Yorkers. This was where I met my two other co-founders, and we … took these very informal sorts of projects and we developed it into JustFix.nyc as an organization. JustFix.nyc is a technology-based nonprofit. We’re an independent 501(c)(3), and we have a staff of about eight people. We primarily build technology to serve both tenants as well as community organizers in doing anti-displacement work here in the city. New York is a major urban area that is experiencing a lot of gentrification and displacement, and it happens on a very individual level through things like landlord harassment where tenants are forced to struggle with inadequate living situations and discrimination. A lot of these tenant communities are working-class communities [with nonnative English speakers], people of color — we are in a moment of crisis. The work that we do is developing really easy-to-use tools that help tenants be more informed of their rights, understand the process they need to fight back and take action while also looking at things form a larger systemic change perspective. We’re using this data on a larger scale to reform things like policy, campaign organization and legal cases, as well as a lot of media work. We’ve served over 15,000 New Yorkers in the past two years.

TD: Have you had any thoughts about expanding JustFix.nyc to areas around college campuses for college students?

DK: There is something that plays out with academic institutions in a number of places. In New York, we have Columbia, which owns a lot of real estate around its campuses, and there can be a lot of tension between the local residents, especially as the university growing. I think that any academic institution, especially a progressive one, has a responsibility to the communities that it’s a part of to support, maintain and uplift these communities and make sure that they’re giving back. Tufts does get so much from being in a place like Somerville and Medford, so I think there’s a lot of responsibility there. Our key focus is the folks that are most in need of our services but we do see a lot of potential use for college students, especially college students who might also themselves be first-generation or immigrants that don’t have a big support structure behind them to know how to secure safe and reliable housing in a way that allows them to just focus on their studies and succeed in school. It’s not a primary focus but it’s definitely there.

TD: What is one piece of advice you have for incoming first-years at Tufts?

DK: Find your community. Try to meet as many people studying different things as possible. When I was a CS major, I had friends in the CS department, but most of my friends were studying a lot of different things. It’s so important and so influential to me and the work that I do now, how I translate computer science into all these other areas. And also, just really enjoy the creative capacity that you have at school. It’s just so hard to find when you’re out in the world and having to support yourself. You really do have the opportunity to start projects, and to really think more abstractly, and you should take advantage of that because it’s something that you really miss when you’re on the grind and having to pay rent and do all sorts of stuff.

TD: What is one piece of advice you have for seniors at Tufts?

DK: For seniors entering the world, I think the thing that I wish I could have told myself is to just breathe and take your time. You’re not going to find your … dream job off the bat. It’s going to be a process and there’s going to be a journey, but the more that you can really identify and continue to develop your own personal values and ethics and understand what really drives you, the easier it is to make decisions on that pathway. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to kind of do things that might be completely random and not in line with your career goals and anything like that, because every new job or experience that you have is going to teach you something of great value.


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