Striving for better: Diversity in Civic Tech

There are many parts of my life where I’m really comfortable. I love talking about justice and social struggles, love talking about race, the reality of inequality and what it does to our society, human trafficking/sex slavery and the push back I get from pro-sex workers that this even matters. I’m also comfortable talking about diversity, the lack of it and how the tech sector and others need to ditch the status quo and it’s unjust implications. What I haven’t loved, haven’t been comfortable with, is people being critical of and even attacking an organization I‘ve led and helped built over the past two years. I’m uncomfortable because, despite some unloving offenses, those complaining have been largely right.

Most civic hack nights in Oakland’s city hall sees a wonderful balance of males and females all working on tech, engagement and design challenges to make our city a better place. Some weeks the balance shifts to more men, other weeks it’s female dominated. And I feel like this is something worth celebrating, being glad about. We’ve made real efforts to make sure men and women are included, encouraged to lead projects (not just do design- an early trend we identified and tackled) and to be part of our formative leadership team in strong numbers. But despite this one good thing, this rare gender balance in a tech sector full of macho bullshit, we’re still not doing enough, but we’re about to change that.

We’re way too white.

I’d love to deny it, but it’s real. Despite our co-founders being white and latino, and guys, our leadership team and our general membership is very much mismatched with the demographics of the city we serve. We’ve spent much of 2014 talking, listening, growing and building as an organization, and despite the intentions, despite the genuine desire for a fully inclusive organization, it hasn’t just happened. So we’re stepping up on this area. We say we’re lean, we’re adaptive, well that has to apply to all facets of our organization.

We declare a value of building with, not for (the people we seek to serve), and to us that also means that “us” must be all of us, not just those who’ve chosen to walk through the doors and get involved. So what are we doing? For starters, we’re making an intentional push for diversity in our leadership recruitment (about to launch). And we’re putting our money where our mouth is. We don’t have much funding yet, but in our first serious investment from Code for America, our main expense is a fantastic consulting firm who we’ve hired to help us develop strategies to ensure that our leadership, our advisory board and our membership becomes as diverse as our city.

We’ve asked our new partner to take on a layer of screening that will result in a more diverse candidate pool for us to pick from, and to work with us to do targeted outreach to local leaders who could play a role in our organization- people from a broader pool than our current reach generates. We’ve seen this as necessary- if the same group of people ask their friends to participate, we don’t stand a good chance of succeeding, of building a diverse leadership team. If our foundation isn’t solid, it won’t matter how good our apps are, we’ll never be “of the people, for the people” to get all patriotic and shit like that. While this partnership is our first big step, it won’t be our last, we know there’s a lot more hard work to do on this front.

As we roll into this brave new world of awkward moments and honest conversations about how we will get to who we want to be, I’m very proud of our current team and their efforts to move in this direction, to accept we’re not as diverse as we want nor as pro-active as we need to be. But we’re all prepared to do this, to learn, to be humbled and to grow, with the added strength, insights and trust that a really Oaklandish team will give us.

My invitation to others is twofold — join us, especially if you want to be part of something great, and also encourage us and give us constructive criticism along the way, but also forgive us if we’re not perfect, if we make mistakes. We give a shit. We are not cool with the status quo. We need you to help make this better.

My White House blog for Champions of Change

This is my official blog post for the White House website as part of the Champions of Change award I received at the White House today!

** Cross posted from: http://www.whitehouse.gov/champions/blog

I’m an immigrant. I may not look like it, but I came to the USA for love and I’ve grown to seriously love this country in spite of its flaws. I’ve been blessed to work for a social justice organization (Urban Strategies Council) in Oakland, California, and have loved serving the city and its residents.  I’ve devoted myself to helping make data-driven decisions a reality but have realized the parallel need for more civic engagement on behalf of our city and our residents. I’m also a tech geek and have benefited from proximity to the amazing people of the Bay Area tech community.

Despite all the great efforts of many community-based organizations and government agencies, we haven’t made much of a dent in poverty and inequity in the Bay Area. My reaction to this failure is that we must do things differently and do them better if we want to see social change. A big piece of this change is that our cities must become more open, more engaged, and more agile.  At the core of so much failure is the way we strategically use (or don’t use) data and technology in local government.

Being part of the civic innovation community has been an amazing and humbling experience. It has taught me that there are always others with ideas as good or better than my own. The diverse members of OpenOakland, our volunteer organization that I co-founded with Eddie Tejeda in 2012, represent a broad group of technologists, activists, researchers, designers, and residents who believe that our city can and must be better. We’re working to build better interfaces to government that make interaction with government simple and painless. We’re leading the way with effective public-private partnerships and with collaborations that gently move our government to a more accessible, more agile, future.

Great work has been done in other cities to make governments more open and  effective and I’ve shamelessly sought to bring those great practices home to Oakland. I’m not the most creative person in the world. I’ve been called an innovator but really I just find great solutions that others have invented and apply them to our local problems. This is the heart of civic hacking for me: building new solutions and processes to replace broken ones, sharing our lessons and our successes and allowing others to benefit from our knowledge, failures, and shared technology.  The way open-source technology is created lends itself incredibly well to the way we recreate our cities — openly, collaboratively, and for the good of all.

Through OpenOakland we’ve begun work reshaping civic engagement through our CityCamp Oakland and supported civic hacking efforts with our Open Data Day and Code for Oakland Hackathons. More recently we held an incredible collaborative event called ReWrite Oakland as part of the National Day of Civic Hacking where over 70 people worked together to build something new and creative for our city.  We’re also publishing open data for our community and we meet every week for hack nights- hacking to improve our government and our democracy from inside city hall!

I’m proud to be part of the Code For America family and to have such a strong network of leaders and doers across the country who are working to transform government to be truly by the people, for the people. We need to restore trust in government and respect for public service — to create a strong platform on which to build our future. I think we’re slowly moving the needle on this in Oakland.

Here’s some White House ceremony cheesiness from today…

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What has Technology done for Equity lately?

George Packer recently published a fantastic piece on the inward focus of the Silicon Valley tech world.  It wasn’t enjoyable to read, more frustrating and angering over the ignorance around what the tech sector is doing to drive inequality in our country and how the tech boom has accelerated the push-out of middle class people from San Francisco. I do love me some ultra geekery and love my gadgets, but I also know that those things are not changing the world like some of us think they are.

I was struck by this line:

It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.

I’ve maintained a foot in both the social justice and the tech camps for many years now and have used this to drive the direction for our work in OpenOakland just like in my work at Urban Strategies Council.  I don’t buy solutionism and I don’t at all see OpenOakland as operating with such a mindset- we are not even close to drinking this kool aid.  I can see a future in which Oakland is a city that embraces the opportunities that cutting edge tech represents but also a city that nurtures it’s current residents and provides opportunities for our children to participate broadly in the new creative industry job boom.

There is one approach that has been adopted by FWD.us and SF.Citi that seems to have moved quickly from a tech organizing on issues that matter to society broadly into self serving protectionism with a push for policies and immigration reform to make it easier for tech companies to profit and to source foreign skilled labor to fuel the innovation workforce.  This is not a future I want to see bleeding over into Oakland.  It’s a future that blindly disregards the fact that our school systems are not producing a pipeline of young people of color who are ready for and interested in the tech/creative sector, but instead seeks short term, easy solutions to the massive labor shortage in the internet sector.  The actions of Mitch & Frieda Kapor and the new Kapor Center reflect the soul and spirit of Oakland- identify areas of opportunity that can result in a culture shift in the tech sector and a new energizing of young people of color to gain the skills and exposure needed to succeed in this sector.  Instead of focusing on short term profitability, think about how the structural inequities in our country can be changed to benefit our entire country, not just some Valley start-ups.

We are trying to demonstrate a better way forward with OpenOakland too.  We see the lack of accessibility and openness of local government as a barrier to active citizen engagement and a limiting factor in the attraction and sustaining of local businesses.  We see the need to reform how government acquires and implements technology as a root issue that must change in order for our governments to truly act as a platform to support strong, healthy cities and are working to change this in our city.  We are focused on civic technology that changes things for the better and solves real issues across the city. 

To put this in perspective let me lay out some of our work and the other work to come out of the Oaktown civic hacking efforts in the past two years:

  • OpenbudgetOakland.org – a site that allows all residents to understand their city budget in context for the first time ever. So clear and understandable that city officials were surprised at the numbers themselves.
  • Txt2Wrk – An app from the first Code for Oakland that helped connect reentry population to local jobs using a feature phone.
  • Councilmatic – almost ready to launch! This app tackles the single biggest barrier to residents being more engaged in their civic process- the impossibility of finding out what City Council is doing!
  • EarlyOakland.com – a simple way to help parents find free and low cost early child care and education
  • CityCamp Oakland – the first every unconference in Oakland that connected city officials with residents and technologists and smooth the path to more open government in future.
  • Oakland Answers – a collaboratively built city FAQ website that helps people find city information as easily as google lets you find street directions. Open source tech built by the people, for the people.

What we’re seeing is that technology can be used for good, it can be transformational, if you care about that.  We don’t want Oakland to end up being an eastern suburb of San Francisco, we want our city to further develop its own tech culture and to leverage the talent we have for the benefit of our city. I’ve been humbled and blown away by the generosity and community love that our OpenOakland crew have shown in this first year of our existence.  We have ~120 people signed up and 30 Oaklanders show up in city hall on a weekly basis- to work on projects where better tech can transform our city, our government and our communities. 

If you feel like doing A/B testing of email and web page design is not perhaps the most you can do with your skills and you love Oakland, you can join us and help make our city even better!  We need more help, we’re moving forward on our digital divide assessment, broad community engagement and much more- not just technology solutionism. That means there is a role for you to contribute and a place where people who dig open government and engaged communities can work and innovate together.  Come by one Tuesday night or just share your ideas with us!

Also read the full, excellent, rather long piece by George Packer on the New Yorker here.