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Remembering Jake Brewer

Our friend and former colleague Jake Brewer died this weekend. He was riding to raise funds to beat cancer when he lost control of his bike and was hit by a car. Many of us in the Code for America community are mourning his loss, which is certainly personal, but is also a deep sense of loss for someone who has done so much for the vision of government that works for the people and by the people. We are mourning all that he had yet to do. He was 34.

Photo credit: Charlotte Hill

Jake was the Director of Communications for the Sunlight Foundation and a beacon of inspiration when Tim O’Reilly and I and others were working on the Gov 2.0 Summit. Jake and his colleagues at Sunlight, most notably Clay Johnson, were (to me) at the time, some of the only voices reaching out the technology community and asking them to pay attention to what was going on with their government, particularly in DC. They came to our Web 2.0 conference in 2008, when San Francisco was in one of its periodic frenzies of startups and commerce and recruiting. They asked developers to put down their term sheets for a minute and help open legislative data for all 50 states. Some ignored them, some helped, but it made a bunch of us pay attention.

Sunlight then helped get Code for America off the ground, and Jake came to work with us that first year, on a project we did to help veterans find jobs that matched their skills. He was so proud to wear his Code for America track jacket, and so beloved by the team he guided from DC, who were delighted to find someone both so operationally astute and savvy in the ways of Federal government but also so genuine, caring, and at ease in the world of tech. Jake served as an informal advisor, cheerleader, connector, and champion in all his subsequent work, including most recently, the tour of duty he’d just begun in the office where I spent a year, the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House.

These are the facts of Jake Brewer’s contributions to Code for America.  Who he was is a much more powerful story, and told so well over the past few days by other friends of Code for America, including Micah Sifry (read his post here) and Clay Johnson.  Clay says what I would have said so much better than I would have said it.  So here it is:

Of course Jake Brewer died riding a bicycle fighting somebody else’s cancer. Jake was always fighting somebody else’s cancer. Whether it was the cancer of corruption or pollution or the cancer of apathy, or the cancer of actual cancer that kills you, Jake Brewer was always fighting our cancers for us. That’s the kind of guy he was.

I used to think Jake was my sidekick. That he was the Robin to my Batman. Here’s the thing, though: for a sidekick, Jake got around. He was also MK’s sidekick, and Michael A. Bassik’s sidekick, and Jose Antonio Vargas’ sidekick. And Ben Rattray’s sidekick, and Michael Silberman’s sidekick, and Jennifer Pahlka’s sidekick, and heck, most recently, the President’s sidekick. And he was probably your sidekick too.

That guy was no Dick Grayson. Jake Brewer moonlighted with Batman after Superman went to sleep. Oh and on the weekends? He fights other people’s cancer. Sorry Batman, but Jake Brewer was the real deal.

That was Jake’s superpower: Jake could change the definition of what’s possible. He made you believe you could accomplish more. That the challenges you faced weren’t that big a deal. In Washington, where the line between cynicism and pragmatism is ever-so-blurry, Jake Brewer understood something we all missed: pragmatism is negotiable. He could see the best in anybody, bring it out, and help show that to the world.

That’s the definition of an inspiration, a hero and a legend. And it’s terrible that his two children have to go trade a father in for a legend, but the legend of Jake Brewer isn’t a bad one to grow up with.

The Legend of Jake Brewer starts with love. That boy knew he was loved, especially by his mom and his dad. Lori and Tom Brewer, you guys should write a book on parenting and it should be required reading for anyone seeking a parenting license because you created three admirable children. Thank you.

It’s easy to sound trite about love, but seriously this guy was nothing but love. Me and Ben Clark used to play a game where we tried to get Jake drunk and then get him to say mean things about, well, anyone. It was the losing-est, most expensive game I have ever played.

But it wasn’t just the broad love of humanity that Jake had. I was there when MK met him. Right then, from the start it was unquestionable that Jake was smitten and in love. And I could see it in his eyes. That was that. Jake had met the love of his life. You could see that fire in his eyes at that moment, and you saw it 4 years and one and three quarters kids later. In every photograph ever taken of them, have you ever seen two people enjoying each other as much as MK and Jake?

MK, Georgia, Mini-brew, Lori, Tom, Britt Reynolds, Chelsea Brewer and Drew: you are loved, you are loved, you. are. loved.

That foundation of love is really what made him a super-hero. He felt secure in knowing that he was loved, and as a result, felt an obligation to make the world a better place for others. Jake believed that everyone — every single person in the world — was worthy of his love. Especially the people he disagreed with. He liked them the most.

Knowing Jake’s friends there are going to be lots of calls-to-actions and causes to support in his wake — again, this guy was everywhere and everything to a lot of people — but I know one thing Jake would *want* right now is for all of us to give up and get along.

I think if he could ask us to do anything meaningful right now, it’d be to be more thoughtful. You don’t have to dedicate your life to fighting other people’s cancer or be a superhero, but if you want to honor Jake Brewer, find someone you disagree with, BRING OUT THE BEST in them, and work on something amazing, together.

One of the Code for America fellows Jake worked most closely with was Ryan Resella, part of our very first cohort. Ryan’s words also speak to the remarkable person he was.

Late Saturday night, I had heard the news of Jake’s passing and I was in absolute shock. It was heartbreaking. I’ve shared many memories with Jake over the past few years. I first met Jake in 2011 while I was a Code for America Fellow. We worked together on creating a Veteran’s job platform, a way to solve the President’s call for action for lowering the Veteran unemployment rate. The project was a large one to take on, the technology piece was difficult and the chance of failing was high. But during this time is when I really got to know Jake. There were long hours that we spent together working on this project, but his constant positive attitude and encouragement always kept us moving forward.

I can remember a few months after the Code for America fellowship ended, I always thought that the project we worked on was a failure. But in Jake Brewer fashion, he said to me you’re going to look back on this in a couple of of years and realize that it’s not a failure we did some important things. The result was a standard for job sites to show that the job had Veteran Preference.

At the 2011 Code for America Summit, Jake pulled me a side to go on a walk with him.  We walked around Yerba Buena park for a while. He knew the 11 month fellowship was ending and wanted to make sure that I landed a good job afterwards. He said he would do whatever he for that to happen. Jake was always looking out for the best for people. Ultimately, I would join the Code for America Staff in 2011 as the Technical Lead.

In 2011 when I won the Knight Foundation Apps for Community contest he sent this tweet congratulating me on the win. This is us in 2012 with the 2nd Lady of the United States when she visited the Code for America office.  One of my favorite moments that we spent together.

Jake really enjoyed spending time with the Fellows when he got the chance. He would talk to many of them when visiting the Code for America office and was always interested in their work and passions.

The loss of Jake Brewer has hit me hard as it has others in our community. Jake was my friend, we shared so many common interests like photography, cycling and our passion to just try and make things better. Jake was also my mentor. For some reason he always knew what was best for me. He constantly looked out for me, trusted me and believed in me. Every hard decision I’ve had to make in the last couple years Jake was the first person I talked to about it. There’s so many more words I can say about Jake Brewer, but I’ll leave it at this. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to know him he was my friend and mentor will be missed by all.

We will miss you, Jake. Thanks for all you brought to Code for America and to our lives.