May 29: Pre-Summit
I arrived in California early enough that I was able to attend Open Oakland’s pre-summit kickoff event at Oakland City Hall. I had boarded a plane at 7am EST that morning so I was the human equivalent of a melted twizzler by 6pm PST, but was still aware enough to know that it was a great event. As far as welcome committees go, Open Oakland really set the bar high. They fed us amazing tamales, had us do some ice breakers, and then their project teams gathered to hack away. Everyone I met from Open Oakland that night spoke really enthusiastically about their work and more importantly, they commanded a room really well, which is something I know I’m always working on getting better at. All in all, big hat tip to Open Oakland.
May 30: Brigade Day
I love the brigade network and can’t say enough about the time I got to spend with them. These are the most passionate, scrappy, forward-thinking, and impact-driven leaders I know. Brigade day was no exception. It was great to see those I met at this past fall’s Brigade Congress that we held in Philly and catch up on the work they’re doing in their home cities. As events co-lead, I’m also always interested in hearing the types of events they’re holding within their own brigades and how they structure them - it’s an excellent opportunity for that.
The event itself was also an great chance to address issues both currently and eternally relevant to the Code for America community - ie. the code of conduct. “Accountability is a Form of Care” is a must-hear for every single person that was in the room and I’m so grateful we were fortunate enough to have Laurenellen walk us through the intricacies of keeping our CfA communities safer for everyone.
It’s also always a great time to talk about ways to improve our relationships with the communities we serve and I’m excited to continue to build on the ideas we discussed in the second half of Brigade Day. Simple tricks go a long way in community building, and hearing what works from people with community organizing experience was invaluable.
I have to echo Charlie a bit here in appreciating the brigade network and also Laurenellen’s workshops. I wish I had actually had a bit more time to get to know people from the other brigades. A lot of the day was taken up by workshops and lightning talks—which were great and valuable, but I could’ve used more socializing among the network. My guess is that’s what Brigade Congress is for and I’ll get what I’m looking for there, in the fall. Of the lightning talks, all of which were great, I have to say I really enjoyed the presentation, “Civic Island” from Emma Burnett (Code for Maine, NAC). Emma talked about the unique challenges that come with scaling civic tech down to small towns. I also got a big kick out of “Civic Tech: The Peace Corp for Nerds” from Cyrus Sethna (Open Uptown, USDS).
Laurenellen’s workshops were both great. I have to admit my favorite was the one Charlie already mentioned, “Accountability is a Form of Care.” Laurenellen had us do a bit of roleplaying to try out some bystander intervention tactics they told us about. That was awkward at first, but ended up being really great. My group found tons of things to talk about from just a small roleplaying scenario where someone was using hack night as a speed dating scene (not cool, and unfortunately not uncommon). Laurenellen made the information sheet from this workshop available online so if you want to read more, you can check it out for yourself here.
To risk getting soppy for a second here, I never planned on becoming co-director of Code for Philly, and the title of leader is still one I wear awkwardly. I’m going to do my best to be a leader this community can be proud of, and part of that has to involve making Code for Philly more diverse—more reflective of the city and communities we purport to serve. It’s going to take a lot of working on both myself and our community to make it happen but I really want to make our events a safer space for everyone.
We capped off brigade day by having brigade captains/directors put their brigade’s stickers on a large map.
I immediately panicked when I realized I’d be responsible for this and said to Charlie, “I guess we need to do this?”
Charlie replied, “WE? They said brigade CAPTAINS.”
Thanks, Charlie. You troll. Anyway, my initial anxiety aside, it turned out okay (apologies to Code for Newark for the blatant territory infringement, I blame betaNYC, their stickers are HUGE).
May 31 and June 1: Summit
The two days of summit are admittedly self-promoting but I love it nonetheless. I thought the lineup of speakers were fascinating. Seeing someone as experienced as David Plouffe talk was a great treat. I liked the diverse yet relevant content that skateboarder Rodney Mullen provided to the talks - you wouldn’t think a professional skateboarder would have a lot to say in front of a room of civic techies but it really worked. Another surprise favorite was Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Obama. Her experience is so unique and I love her embrace of civic tech as someone who hasn’t had much experience with it until more recently.
Delivery-driven government is a core value of CfA and one that we don’t get exposure to much in the trench work of our individual brigades, but I love how summit is a great opportunity to learn more about the work CfA does throughout the year transforming all levels of government and government services.
For the case studies that they presented, I’m always a sucker for the emergency response civic tech - such as the examples of applications created in response to the hurricanes that impacted Puerto Rico and Florida. Those are obviously the most sensational examples, but I also have great appreciation for the work that’s done making access to government services easier, like implementing simple and mobile friendly service applications. Something as obvious as that can go such a long way.
My favorite breakout (what summit calls their smaller panels) was hosted by our very own Dawn McDougall and had Philly’s Tim Wiz on the panel. It was a great selection of government members and civic tech leadership talking about ways to bring closer together brigades and governments in the areas we live. The experience of those on the panel gave us in the audience incredible insights into how to successfully develop brigade-government relationships in a way that those without their knowledge could not. It also very thoroughly addressed a concern many of the people in the room shared: how do you work with a government that doesn’t want to work with you?
I missed a lot of the Main Stage talks because I was doing a lot of networking (a fancy professional way of saying I couldn’t stop talking).
One Main Stage presenter I did see was Louise Downe of UK.gov. I want to tell you I sat through their presentation like a calm human being and not a total civic tech fangirl, but boy would that be a horrible lie.
When I started as a fellow with the City of Philadelphia, my first day of on-boarding involved looking at the work other cities and governments were doing. I know I must’ve looked at what teams in Boston and New York had accomplished, but I really remember inhaling everything on UK.gov. Their articles on how they figured out the taxonomy of UK.gov is possibly my favorite thing ever. Getting to see Louise talk was amazing. You can see their talk yourself here and join me in geeking out.
Charlie stole my favorite breakout. I have to say, I really liked getting to hear from different cities with robust brigades about the city-brigade relationship, when it worked, when it didn’t, and ideas on how to improve it. Also, as someone who has seen her fair share of panels and how easily they can turn into “two people on a panel of six people take up entirely too much time and space” I was really impressed with the moderating job Dawn did.
On the second day of summit I volunteered in the CfA brigade lounge, where brigade volunteers could hang out and people who wanted to know more about brigades could ask questions. I volunteered not knowing exactly what the job would entail, only that it involved a free t-shirt and lording over a table of brigade stickers, and it ended up being a really valuable experience. I met even more brigade people and had the chance to talk to summit attendees about brigades and Code for Philly. It was great practice for me in talking about our community and our projects. I met one summit attendee who used to work at google. I talked to him about the brigade network, showed him a few of Code for Philly’s current projects, and by the time he left the lounge I’d convinced him to check out one of the bay area brigades.
I have to take a moment and say that Charlie and I lucked out in having Dawn and Chris at summit with us. They were there in their roles as National Advisory Council members, but they were always ready with advice if Charlie and I needed them. Dawn took every available opportunity to point me towards someone she felt I would enjoy talking to, and she was always right, without fail. Chris made sure we were watered and fed and more importantly, had access to ping pong.
Summit was a wonderful opportunity to get to know our fellow brigade volunteers from across the country and nerd out, hard, about civic tech. It can be easy to focus on our own brigade and forget that there are people all across the country working towards the same goals. It was a much needed reinforcement that we are part of something bigger. We came back to Pennsylvania a little exhausted, but more ready than ever to get back to work at Code for Philly.
Let’s build with and not for, let’s give a damn about each other, and let’s see where all that takes us.