2020 has been a year that has exposed many structural inequities in the systems we at Code for America are trying to change. We know that in order to build more equitable outcomes for the people that we serve, we must always be thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion in our workplace and in our work. As leaders in the space, we believe it is even more important to drive these conversations forward and push ourselves to always be thinking about how we foster a diverse and inclusive culture in civic tech and beyond.

Last week, we hosted an event in partnership with the U.S. Digital Service on how we can create spaces where we’re bringing everyone to the table. Panelists from Code for America, USDS, Coding It Forward, and Black Tech Unplugged came together to discuss how core values drive day-to-day actions that build a workplace culture, how to stay connected in our current remote work era, and how to make civic tech spaces more representative of the people they’re serving.

To hear insights about these topics and more, watch the video or read the transcript below.

Transcript

Jahvita Rastafari:

Good morning, everyone. As you all are filing in, feel free to drop where you're coming from in the chat so we can get a sense of where you all are. I know it's morning for some of us, afternoon for others. So, welcome, welcome, and we'll get started in a few minutes. I want to welcome you to Bringing Everyone to the Table: Fostering a Diverse and Inclusive Culture in Civic Tech. I'm going to start us off with a little bit of housekeeping.

Jahvita Rastafari:

Here we go. First, I'm going to start out with our code of conduct. This is something that applies to all Code for America gatherings, this one included, and we want to ensure that we foster a safe space, and my colleagues have dropped a link to our code of conduct in the chat. If you can't access it there, please feel free to follow this link. If there are any violations, please feel free to contact us directly at safespace@codeforamerica.org.

Jahvita Rastafari:

Then moving on to questions, we would love to hear from each and every one of you. So, please use the Q&A section to submit any questions, and we will do our best to answer as many as possible. Lastly, we want to continue the conversation with you. So, please share your thoughts about the panel, either during this event or after with us on Twitter, our handle is @codeforamerica, and you can also use the #CfASummit hashtag as well.

Jahvita Rastafari:

To kick this all off, we would love to get a sense of who's in the room. We're going to ask you first, what sector you're coming from, and then we're going to move on to a second poll, just getting a feel for whether you work in civic tech now, aspire to work in civic tech or have worked in civic tech in the past.

Jahvita Rastafari:

All right, we're getting the poll warmed up. There we go. It keeps switching. All right. Looks like we have a good mix of government, nonprofit and for profit, as well as volunteers. So, great to see you all in the room. Welcome. We're so glad you took your time out this morning to join us. All right. Looks like almost everyone has... Great. All right. I think we'll move into the next poll. All right, thank you all, it's great to have you all in the Zooms.

Jahvita Rastafari:

Now on to today's panel. We recognize that in order to build more equitable outcomes for the people that we serve, we must always be thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion in our workplace and in our work. Given the state of our country right now, and as leaders in the space, we believe it is even more important to drive these conversations forward and push ourselves to always be thinking about how we foster a diverse and inclusive culture in civic tech and beyond.

Jahvita Rastafari:

We're thrilled to have you all join us in this conversation and I would love to introduce you to our moderator, Deena McKay. Deena is the founder and host of the podcast, Black Tech Unplugged. Black Tech Unplugged is a podcast that highlights blacks who innovate and work in the tech industry. On the podcast, she features those working on the corporate side of the industry as well as tech entrepreneurs. Additionally, Deena is a fellow technologists speaker. But most importantly, today, she is our moderator for our conversation. Welcome, Deena, and thank you so much for joining us.

Deena McKay:

No problem. Thank you for the introduction, Jahvita. Hi, everyone. As Jahvita mentioned, my name is Deena McKay, my pronouns are she, her and hers, and I am the moderator for today's conversation around Fostering a Diverse and Inclusive Culture in Civic Tech. I do want to remind you of one housekeeping rule that Jahvita already mentioned. But I want to make sure that we're all aligned in regards to questions. If you have any questions for the panelists, or even myself, please send it in the Zoom chat. We're going to use the last 10 minutes of our conversation today to answer your questions.

Deena McKay:

To get started, today, I am joined by three amazing panelists and leaders from Code for America, US Digital Service and Coding It Forward. They're going to go into detail about how they got into the civic tech sector, as well as how their organizations are handling current issues such as COVID, and the racial injustices and disparities.

Deena McKay:

If you guys are excited and ready to get the conversation started, let me see you put, yes, in the Zoom chat right now. Awesome, I see some yeses coming through. Awesome. So, let's get started. We have three amazing individuals that are a part of this panel today, and I'm going to have them start off with an introduction. Let's start with Zeryn Sarpangal. She's the Chief Financial and People Officer for Code America. Zeryn, you can do an introduction of your role, and then also how you get into civic tech.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

Sure. Happy to, and good morning and good afternoon, everyone. I'm Zeryn Sarpangal, my pronouns are she, her. My journey into civic tech was a bit roundabout. I have always really been focused on working at mission driven organizations that enable social change. I was in the private sector prior to this working at a biopharmaceutical company, which was developing antibiotics for resistant bacteria, which is definitely a public health need.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

I saw the pros and cons of what it meant to be a for profit, publicly traded company when I was working on that public health mission. Was pretty excited to come to Code for America, because we're a nonprofit, and I really like the mix of both technology, which I think can have a huge impact on human life with government, which services and serves so many people in our country.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

For me, when they wanted a finance and people leader at Code for America and hired me, I felt like I hit the jackpot, and still feel that way year and a half into the role.

Deena McKay:

Great, thanks, Zeryn. Next up, I want to introduce Andrea Viza. She's the director of talent at the United States Digital Service. Andrea, care to introduce yourself?

Andrea Viza:

Hi, Deena. I'm Andrea Viza, I lead all of our talent and people initiatives at USDS, and I fell into civic tech, I started as a recruiter and really had a passion connecting with people, understanding their stories, and then helping them take that next step in their careers. After doing that for over four years, I found USDS from one of our current recruiters who's amazing and really aligned with the mission that just incorporated my love of recruiting on top of that.

Andrea Viza:

For the last year and a half, I've been leading our talent team here and really focusing on improving just the people experience here. Everything from talent management, our recruiting strategy, event strategy, data analytics, and also just that transition piece into their journey after USDS.

Deena McKay:

Great, thank you for your intro, and last but never least, we have Chris Kuang, co-founder and Director of Operations for Coding It Forward. Chris, tell the audience a little bit about yourself today.

Chris Kuang:

Yeah, thanks so much, Deena and so great to be here. My name is Chris Kuang, my pronouns are he, him and his and I work as one of the co-founders and as Director of Operations for Coding It Forward. My journey in civic tech, I think started in a class when I was still on undergraduate learning about the fantastic organizations; USDS, Code for America, I think one of the reasons I'm so excited to be here, and seeing that those two organizations weren't necessarily as reachable or accessible for young people.

Chris Kuang:

As someone who had an interest, a passion in technology, but also in public service and civic engagement, wanted to create a space where young people like me who are in college, or just out of it could find civic tech as an attractive opportunity.

Chris Kuang:

Came together with a couple of peers and launched Coding It Forward about three and a half years. Now, we're really just working to show young people that working in civic tech is a really fantastic place to be.

Deena McKay:

Chris, that is a great segue, because we're going to dive into some of those facts in regards to how to get people into the civic tech sector. To begin our conversation, we've been using the term civic tech a lot, right? I wanted to define civic tech. One thing that I found while doing some research was that Forbes said that there's technically no industry standard for the definition of civic tech. There's some broadly defined definitions out there, and it's thought of as technologies that are deployed to enhance the relationship between people and government by giving them more of a voice to participate in public decision making, and or to improve the delivery of services.

Deena McKay:

For the sake of today's conversation, I want to ask each of the panelists to take a moment and explain what civic tech is to you. Let's start with Zeryn.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

Sure, yeah. I think for me, and Deena, that definition you just shared, which I think already also references a lot, at the heart of it, that is what civic tech really is. At the heart of it, civic tech is about how, for me, you use technology, and deploy it in a thoughtful, respectful, dignified way so that people can have an experience with government services that is different and much better than sometimes how you think about traditional government services.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

Technology is at the heart of what has brought about a lot of great change in how people interact with various other services that we have right now, and we can bring that to government at the moment. For me, civic tech is pretty core to how we can equitably distribute services and make them a lot more accessible to people who are interacting with government and reach people who may have been marginalized in a way that we probably couldn't otherwise.

Deena McKay:

Great. Chris, what about from your perspective, what is civic tech?

Chris Kuang:

Yeah, definitely. I think Zeryn hit on a bunch of the big things, and the aspiration that interacting with government, receiving government services can be as efficient, enjoyable, even as many of the digital experiences that we have in our day to day lives. Whether it's ordering something off of Amazon or anything like that, there's no reason why getting access to social services or filing for unemployment should be any different.

Chris Kuang:

I think there's another element that I like to think about with civic tech is there's a lot of work that's being done, that might not be public facing, but working with the dedicated expert career civil servants who spent years if not decades, inside government, and working with them to make sure that they have the tools and modern software that they can use to do their jobs effectively, and ultimately, better serve everyday Americans. I think that's an important element as well.

Deena McKay:

Andrea, what about yourself?

Andrea Viza:

Definitely, I think reiterating on the points Zeryn and Chris made, but I would just say, focusing on the people. It could be the civil servants and the back end support, but then also the American citizens and improving their experience. It really is just the combination of government, technology, and then people all coming together.

Deena McKay:

Andrea, I love that you say people, because one of the things that I've experienced from talking to you all, but also from individuals I know who work in civic tech, the workplace environment, the reputation that it has, that everyone is friendly and welcoming, which as we know, might be a different reputation than some of the corporate counterparts that we experience. I want to dive into why is that? Why are the people so friendly and welcoming to the civic tech environments?

Andrea Viza:

I'll answer first. I think it's... At USDS, yes, it's a few things. One of our core values is, go where the work is. Not at this time, given everything, but we ask and require individuals to pick up and move to D.C. to join our cause. I think that camaraderie that comes about with that is that we're all in this together, we're all pushing to make a change together. It really builds this, crazy bond with your colleagues that you could work with just for six months, maybe a few years. But it feels like such a long time you've gone through so much together. But then I think I just like a higher level, everyone is so passionate about the work that they're doing, and creating a change, a positive change in the world, and just that it's infectious and welcoming and inviting. I don't know, everyone's just so great.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

I'll build on what Andrea just said, I think we attract really good, mission-oriented people, right? You get engineers who want to work in social good. We say, what we're trying to hire is really hire motivated change agents that want to have meaningful results. As a result, you're naturally going to attract people who care deeply about this work. That I think, has a lot to do with creating a friendly and welcoming culture. I think the other things around it is there is usually a really attentional focus on inclusion, which I'm sure we're going to get to in civic tech. But those things also create an environment where people feel welcomed in the work that they're doing, and really feel like they belong, and can contribute meaningfully.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

Similar to Andrea, one of our core values is empathy is our operating system. We look for people who have either a collaborative mindset, those that can put people at the center of the work that they're doing as you're hiring, and that leads into and bleeds into the culture that you're creating in the organization.

Chris Kuang:

I think just to chime in as someone that is still, I think, fairly new to civic tech, the warmth has always been something that has been so attractive. I think it is showing why the civic tech space has grown so much. Thinking about my peers who maybe are graduating from college, they have so many options, and no one is coming into civic tech because they're looking to strike get richer, or they're thinking that this is going to necessarily be the way for them to live that lifestyle, but they're doing it because they show up.

Chris Kuang:

I think they're doing it, feeling empowered by the people who are already in the space. I remember just having conversations with so many people, as a student saying, "Hey, I'm trying to learn about what civic tech is, I took one class and I really can't get enough." So many people were so willing to take time and grab coffee or to chat about their experiences. It made me feel so welcomed that so much of what we try to do at Coding It Forward is extend that we had an open door for our team, how can we extend that for so many more young people? I think that has just been one of the most fantastic parts of working in civic tech is people.

Deena McKay:

All of your responses were wonderful. From an organizational standpoint, one thing that every single one of you mentioned, was core values and how the core values helped to create that environment. One thing that I wanted to even take a step further into is, let's go into more details about how each of your organizations is taking that conscious approach. How are they building culture in your environments? We know that things have to start from the top down. But what are some of the things that are maybe even everyday things or long term things that are implemented within your culture to do that? Zeryn, why don't we start with you?

Zeryn Sarpangal:

Sure, I'm happy to do that. I think, to me and in our organization, culture is really a fabric of a lot of day to day actions that you take, and you have to be intentional about it. Starting with your values is useful around what does it really mean to bring empathy to life in the organization? But I think a couple of things that I want to say that we are trying to do as examples is as a way to foster an inclusive culture is one is like let's introduce ourselves and say your preferred pronouns. It's a small act, but I remember joining the organization and then feeling incredibly powerful and welcoming coming from an organization that didn't really necessarily even think about that. It just was a signal that I could express myself holistically into this group.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

That's one. We have a DEI committee and we've tried to be really intentional about how can we be inclusive in meetings? Can we send agendas ahead of time? Can we make sure different people are being note takers, right? Those minor things do foster a culture of inclusivity, or previously, when we weren't even all together, we would all Zoom in to our meetings, even if we were in the same room, because if there was one person that was remote, we didn't want them to feel left out, and that there was a conversation happening separately.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

We also have a culture committee and others in the organization that foster, how do we keep connected as team members together? It could be things like when we were all together, we would have tea or chai together at the office or food was very big in our organization, and different people would cook even in our little kitchen, or we would do a day of service, where it was a good way for us to come together. This year, we're doing it around voting and trying to do it remotely, to encourage people.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

The last thing I'd say is, how do you really celebrate successes and share connections through the organization? We have Weekly Wins every week, which is on Friday, where all of us get together, and it's a lovely way to really celebrate and acknowledge everything that's going on in the organization and create connections so people can see themselves in different elements of the work and the connectivity between it. I'd say, small things make a big difference with culture, and you can put some things together in place that foster it.

Chris Kuang:

I think for Coding It Forward, culture functions a little bit differently, just because we're a small organization, there's three of us who work full time, but we support big influxes of students in maybe 10 or 12 weeks cycles a couple of times a year. For us, when we're bringing a lot of people who don't know each other, they're coming from different colleges, different universities, how can you create culture in such a short period of time?

Chris Kuang:

I think for us, it really comes down to trading space and making sure that people feel welcome that this is a space that is theirs. We pride ourselves for being for young people, by young people. I think in civic tech, probably one of the things that we've heard from our fellows is that they don't necessarily have a space on their campuses or in their computer science departments to be having difficult conversations about technology. Whether it's ethics, whether it's how technology can be used as a tool to oppress, and making sure that we create space for fellows to have conversations with like-minded peers.

Chris Kuang:

I think what' Zeryn said about celebrating wins, and wanting to make sure that working government is hard, I think, especially if you're just in school. If you're struggling, but if you've gotten past a hurdle, making sure that you can celebrate that, making sure your fellow fellows can help you recognize the hard work that you're putting day in and day out are just, I think, two of the things that have really created a culture for us in a short period of time.

Andrea Viza:

Then, I'll just briefly add, I think USDS, we are positioned a little differently. Like I mentioned in the last answer, we have previously required everyone to move to D.C. Right now we are in a culture shift, how do we go from a completely in office environment, where we're engaging every day. My background is actually our office space where we used to just hang out and to being completely remote. That is something that we are iterating on with every new hire cohort. We've had a lot of new individuals join us during this time, which has been great, but how does that culture translate to new people joining us?

Andrea Viza:

We have our weekly staff meetings where we highlight wins, we have agency teams break down the work that they're doing, because some things are shorter term engagements, longer term engagements. Now, since we are so separate, how do we stay connected with the work and the people who we used to see every single day?

Andrea Viza:

I'll just say one of my favorite new pastimes, we've always had a kudos, which is like a celebration where you can anonymously recognize your colleagues. Now, it's become themed because of Zoom. That is something that's very entertaining and I think people come to really look forward to every week.

Deena McKay:

Andrea, you bring up a very, very important point, because let's talk about COVID a little bit. That's something that's affecting all of us. I want to just address in more detail how each of your organizations have shifted due to COVID. Obviously, there's still, everyone's working from home for the most part, but how has your organization shift, and what were some of the harshest ideas that you had to think about when you were making that shift? Let's start with Chris.

Chris Kuang:

Definitely. That's a great question, Deena. I think very similar to USDS, for a long time, Coding It Forward, really prided ourselves in a high touch, in person experience, very similar to go where the work is, being in the room with your users, whether they're residents or the federal employees that they would work with. Transitioning everyone remote, I think, recognizing that the infrastructure of government sometimes will move a little bit differently in making sure that we had all of our students had the technologies and the tools that they needed.

Chris Kuang:

Making sure that there was funding for if we needed folks to have laptop, hardware, software that they needed to contribute, making sure that they had that. I think one thing also in responding is looking forward now that colleges and universities across the country have had a litany of reopening plans. Some are in person, some are hybrid, many are still in a remote setting, we heard from so many young people in our network that they weren't necessarily looking forward to taking classes over Zoom.

Chris Kuang:

I think in this moment of national uncertainty with so much going on, they wanted a more direct, concrete way to serve and to make a difference. For the first time, in our short history, we were able to spin up a fall Fellowship Program, traditionally, we only bring students in over the summer. We'd heard from a couple of hundred students that this is something that they were really interested in, and wicked excited that we'll have 40 fellows starting with us in just under two weeks now working at Census and the National Institutes of Health, which are two agencies that have been in the news for very important reasons.

Chris Kuang:

I think moving very concretely to make sure that young people could meet the moment where it is. I just wanted to mention, lastly, we had a couple of students this summer, who were in other parts of health and human services, who were working on indirectly supporting the efforts to aggregate, disseminate information about COVID research and all of that. I think from a very concrete way, that was another way that our organization is able to respond.

Deena McKay:

That's awesome, Chris. Andrea, what about from your perspective?

Andrea Viza:

USDS, we, luckily have been able to support on board remotely, for almost 30 candidates since March, which is normally how many people we actually bring on board yearly. That's been amazing. Our agency teams have pivoted to remote onboarding experiences for all new hires, which has just been great, and everything's been running smoothly, which is something that has just helped us with our COVID response and how we sit within the White House.

Andrea Viza:

Where we're positioned, we're able to actually just go in and support a lot of different agencies across the board. I think most government agencies right now have some type of COVID response going on. Whenever we're selecting those projects, we really pivot back to what is the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people and the greatest amount of need, and figuring out, our personnel capacity and how we can help support that. But we do still have long term engagements going on at various agencies that still need coverage.

Andrea Viza:

It's a balance between those two, but I would say we've been able to grow during this time, and provide that USDS experience to individuals who might have taken a little bit longer to get here because they live across the country, and that logistically was a little bit more difficult to make happen.

Deena McKay:

Excellent, excellent. Zeryn, what about from your perspective?

Zeryn Sarpangal:

From my perspective, and I'll focus a bit on what we've done internally at the organization with a shift for COVID. As Chris and Andrea noted, we're also now all working remotely. Some of the things we did is how do we enable setup for people with remote? Provided a stipend, but also told people, take what you need, right? I think sometimes what's hard with people policies is how to be equitable, because people start from different baselines on it.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

We said, here's the baseline, and if you need more, just let us know. We did something similar, for just providing flexibility. Because everyone's navigating their own personal situations at a time. We're similar to Andrea, we're hiring a lot and our work has increased. We give people managers a customized list of the types of things that they could have conversations with their team members about, as a way to basically put in place things or adapt those things as things keep evolving for each of us on what do they need to be able to show up to work effectively?

Zeryn Sarpangal:

I think the basic premise that we have tried to do is, again, let's use empathy, and let's use that with our employees and see what's going to be needed for you in that moment. We always do engagement surveys, and we did more of those. We did pulse checks with people, just to see where people were in the moment. As a result of that, we put in some additional wellness benefits for people in the organization, including mental health benefits at this time. We just provided more training and support with managers on how to show up with people effectively. We increased our communication as senior leadership to staff because there wasn't that cohesiveness as you would get if you're just walking around or having a water cooler chat.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

We also like mid-year, we amended our performance review process. We made it strengths-based only because it was at a moment where people were already navigating a lot of turmoil in their lives. We're like, let's focus on strengths, and how could we leverage that?

Zeryn Sarpangal:

One of my favorite things we've done, though, is, one of our traditions when new hires were coming on, because we're onboarding a bunch of new hires remotely as well, is, we used to give them a schwag, like our track jacket, a water bottle, or socks when they started, and you would get that in person at weekly wins. Now, there's a Photoshop slide of them getting that exact same thing when they start, which is just a lovely way to create some levity but also a connection to how we were before, which has been super. But let's find those moments that allow you to feel connected still as a team, but keep the people who you're working with in mind, and everyone's going through something different.

Deena McKay:

That is great. First of all, congratulations to all of you in your organizations for being able to adapt during the COVID times. It hasn't been easy for everyone. One thing that I've wanted to point out and highlight is that one, the whole thing with mental health during this time period, it's so great to see organizations helping individuals with their mental health, and another aspect is also helping them get the access that they need.

Deena McKay:

We take Wi-Fi and having internet for granted. A lot of areas, a lot of people don't have access to internet, they don't have a laptop. Being able to provide for your employees and individuals is very important, and kudos to all of you for that. I want to shift it a little bit because we're talking about COVID from an employee perspective. But now I want to talk about it from an organization and output perspective. Because we're all still working from home, and basically in quarantine, I do want to ask, how have your organization's been serving people, or I would call your clients during this time? Chris, can we start with you? Oh, go ahead. Go ahead.

Andrea Viza:

The government is not remote friendly, and slowly, they're becoming remote friendly. Like I mentioned, I'll only speak from our people, HR perspective, but our partners have really gone above and beyond to ensure that... I know that my previous example of just our new hires are just having a great experience, they're able to obtain all of their assets remotely, promptly before their first day, all of these things that sometimes did not happen in person, which is crazy.

Andrea Viza:

It's just warming to me that we're actually almost able to provide a better experience remotely right now for all of our new hires, versus in person. That's just my quick take on that.

Chris Kuang:

Yeah, I'm happy to talk to... I think I mentioned a little bit about how some of our fellows and folks related to Coding It Forward have addressed it outwardly. I think more inward, I wanted to recognize a couple of other organizations that I know folks in Coding It Forward or fellows have been engaged with, that have been serving people in COVID times as we've seen state unemployment portals crashing under the weight of folks trying to file for unemployment, for example. It's organizations and efforts like the United States Digital Response, it's an all volunteer effort that is bringing technologists in to partner with governments at any level; local, state, county, federal, to make sure that they have the talent at the end of the day to process test results, to do contact tracing to support absentee registration and voting.

Chris Kuang:

I think wanted to make sure that we threw that out there is another organization that is doing really important work around technology as related to COVID.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

Thanks. From our side, some of our programs have expanded dramatically during these times. For example, GetCalFresh, which is our program that allows people to get food assistance in California saw volumes that were four times what we would normally have seen, because the need just increased pretty dramatically, unfortunately, given COVID. We've definitely been increasing a lot of our programs around the safety net. That's like GetCalFresh. We have a program called GetYourRefund, which also allowed people to get their stimulus checks, as well as the EITC tax credits.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

All of those have seen significant increases. We took on a new program called Pandemic-EBT, which allowed people to get food credits or food assistance, especially when kids were no longer in school. So, the school lunches that you would normally get and when schools start shutting down, those did not exist anymore.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

I think one of the things that has kept a lot of us motivated is you definitely see the need for an organization like ours or others in the ecosystem, to really support people where they need it at the moment. Then also, our Brigade volunteers, which they're 90 chapters across the country around have also done some tremendous work in showing up in their communities in serving local needs, at this time, which has been really gratifying to see as well. Deena, I think you're muted.

Chris Kuang:

You may have to hit... There you go.

Deena McKay:

Can you hear me now? Good. I was just saying thank you all for your perspectives on from a COVID perspective as you want to shift gears to another issue that has been taking us in 2020, and that's the racial justice situations that has occurred. As we all know, it's just some main examples are justice for Breonna Taylor, and the murder of George Floyd, and race has been a forefront issue in our lives. Not only in our lives, but also in the workplace.

Deena McKay:

Not only are individuals calling for more diversity in the workplace, but companies and organizations are doubling down on their diversity initiatives and goals. I want to ask each of you to provide the audience with specific initiatives that your organization has taken in regards to diversity. I know that's a tough question. Andrea, do you want to start?

Andrea Viza:

Yeah, sure. This is something that we feel very passionately about at USDS. Just a few different things that we are tackling around this. We actually have in house recruiters, and I would say about half of them focus just on reaching out to different groups. So, minority groups, ethnicities, all of those different types of things.

Andrea Viza:

The bulk of individuals that come into USDS are referrals. That is such an important piece, is that outreach, and spreading that word of mouth. Then also, we are attending conferences that focus on underrepresented groups. AfroTech, Lesbians Who Tech, and last week, we participated in Black is Tech. Those are just to name a few.

Andrea Viza:

Like I said, it's just getting the word out there because I did not know what civic tech was, I didn't know what a software engineer was because my family... My dad is an immigrant, he didn't go to college, how would I know what that is? Until I fell into this space and became aware, I had no idea. Really building that brand awareness is so important.

Andrea Viza:

I will say, like you mentioned right now is a little bit of a difficult time. Right now, I would say USDS, we have a lot of efforts and putting a lot of effort and initiatives behind this, but we're not doing the best in that diversity and inclusion space. I think, owning that, and really just making it publicly known, and then just striving to be better is something that we're doing every single day.

Chris Kuang:

To follow Andrea, I think very similarly, our goal at Coding It Forward every year is to recruit fellowship classes and cohorts that strongly represent and look like the people that they're serving. At the end of the day, that's all the folks, everyone who lives in the United States. Making sure that there is that representation, I think, has continuously been our North Star, since we founded Coding It Forward back in 2017.

Chris Kuang:

In terms of outreach, we recognize that awareness of civic tech is low just across the board. But I think there are definitely differential levels of that across different groups. In our recruiting every recycle, we are very focused on making sure that we're reaching out to students across the country, and that we're targeting affinity groups, and that we're reaching at specifically the groups like the National Society for Black Engineers, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers out in STEM, Women in Computer Science to make sure that they can see the work that we're doing at Coding It Forward, and the mission, and why it is that civic tech is so important.

Chris Kuang:

One thing that we've been trying to do more recently is to take a look at our recruitment and our application steps and understand at each stage, are there elements of unconscious bias that we can eliminate, and making sure that our review and our selection process is as objective as possible and screening out any potential for things to creep in there.

Chris Kuang:

Then I think from a diversity standpoint, in another perspective, one thing in recruiting students that we're really cognizant of is socio-economic status, and access as well. Making sure that we're reaching out to not just universities like Harvard where I graduated, but public institutions, colleges that are not on maybe the east, or west codes, and maybe are more in the Midwest or in the south. Those are two other elements that are really important to us to make sure that the movement that we're building is as representative as it can be. As Andrea mentioned, we recognize there's still work to be done, but it's worth that we're deeply committed too.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

I echo a lot of what Chris and Andrea said. Diversity and representation is incredibly important at Code for America, and inclusion is also really important. It's just as important when we should definitely look at our hiring pipeline. We also have done a lot to make sure we are getting people into the pipeline from a hiring process that are representative. What happens once somebody is in that hiring process, and once they've joined the organization, what happens then as well, it's also incredibly important.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

Similar to Chris, I think we've done a lot around looking at our hiring process to see how that could be as equitable as possible. One of the things that we have put in place as of a few years ago, is the Rooney Rule, basically, which is, whenever somebody comes on site, or the panel that comes on site, is there at least one candidate in that pool that furthers us towards our diversity goals as an organization? Which is important.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

We also think through just... I say always, measure what matters to you in this. One of the things that I've been proud of is, we look at our engagement survey, which I've talked about also pretty deeply and look at it with a breakdown of race and gender to see if there are any disparities that are being created in people's experiences. In performance reviews and promotions, and salary increases, we do retros on demographic data to see if we've unintentionally created inequities in our processing system.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

I think those are the types of things that we're doing across the board. Then I think there's an element of also just the support that you provide to employees who come into your organization. We have one thing for us, we have an employee resource group called Earthtones, which is for people of color, which also at times allows people to find a sense of community as things at times continue to be heavy in the world and in our lives.

Deena McKay:

Then you've brought up a very great point around measurement. I just want to take a second and have us all Zoom out for a second and just think of tech in general. In general, we obviously know that companies aren't releasing their diversity numbers, and no one wants to show them and doesn't want to share. I do want to just circle back around measurement, and Zeryn, let's start with you around what are you measuring, and if there's any diversity and inclusion reporting that your organization does?

Zeryn Sarpangal:

Yeah, we do have a report, it's on our website, that we share related to our diversity statistics. It looks at race, gender, intersectionality, as well as a breakdown between by department and by leadership, what does that look like?

Zeryn Sarpangal:

Then we also... That gets put out on an annual-ish basis, but we also do a report out to our board on a quarterly basis, which includes all of those numbers, and monthly, we look at it as a leadership team. The other stat that we look at internally, which we haven't published, as much as people who have lived experience with some of the work that we do, that's also pretty important to us as we think about what diversity looks like in creating products that and programs that really do serve the people who are impacted by them. So, the lived experience is also something we try to recruit for, and also look at from a measurement standpoint.

Andrea Viza:

Since 2018, USDS has been reporting diversity data. Some years, it's better than others. But one thing that I'm very proud of is that our organization is represented 50% female, as well as our leadership. But going into that, being a government organization, there are some challenges there. The government only recognizes two genders, the government only recognizes about a handful of ethnicities and two races, and that is not how we identify ourselves. That is not how Americans identify themselves.

Andrea Viza:

Our diversity report is also on our website at the bottom, at our footer, newly updated. So, you're able to access that. But, as we were going through and collecting this information this year, it really came to us, this is not who we are, but this is all the information we have. Right now, we're in the midst of reassessing and collecting demographic information from our employees in a safe way, and private way that we can accurately report out in what USDSers look like and who we are.

Andrea Viza:

That's something that's really exciting, and really tackles the issues that we face. I know that there was a comment in the chat around the census, and what they recognize and all of those things. We're doing some work on our end to end, and we'll see what ripple effects come out of that, and what one of those potentially could be pay inequalities and things like that. It's exciting, hard. But like I said, it's just making that information readily available and tackling the hard problems.

Chris Kuang:

For us at Coding It Forward, I will say that we have not reported diversity data in the past. It's something that we're actually very much in the process of doing right now. I'm hoping that in the next week or two, that we'll be able to follow in the footsteps of Code for America, USDS, two organizations that we look up to, and being able to share information about not just our fellows because that is public, we can show everyone who's participating in our programs, but more of that pipeline, and that funnel and making sure that the funnel is representative, not just at the top and at the bottom, but at every stage along the way.

Chris Kuang:

Making sure that we're measuring that and we have that data. That is something that we're looking forward to sharing and I think even more looking forward to improving what is depicted in the report.

Deena McKay:

Great, great information, everyone. It is time to shift gears a little bit because there are a lot of great questions that are coming from our conversation today. Since we're still on the conversation around workplace and inclusion in the environment, I saw a great question from Amy who wanted to talk about retention at your organizations as well as burnout and silos are common in government, and land on tech resources heavily. Can some of you or all of you speak to that a little bit?

Andrea Viza:

Burnout is something that does happen, especially I think, as we're sitting at home and working more than ever. I think it goes back to some things both Zeryn and Chris mentioned, but just focusing on the people and really emphasizing, take a step back, find the boundaries in your life, and really make sure that you are creating space for work, and then space for personal lives.

Andrea Viza:

At USDS, since COVID, has happened, we actually have seen a decrease in individuals leaving our organization. I think that comes to a lot of different reasons because of economic situations, and also, there's a lot of good work to be done. We try to provide a supportive environment, especially at this difficult time. Come to work, bring as much as you can, but also, make sure your family is first, your personal health is first. Really emphasizing that weekly, daily, hourly, whatever is needed is something that we really push. I feel like there is still that burnout, but really focusing on the people to make sure that they're taking care of themselves to prevent that.

Deena McKay:

All right, we only have about five or six more minutes left. So, I want to ask, because there are additional questions. Another question, I'm a white PhD level researcher at a Policy Research Institute, I welcome giving coffee and having informational interviews anytime I connect with folks earlier in their career. However, I'm disproportionately reached by folks whose backgrounds and identities are already well represented in the policy space. What are ways that his institution and himself can intentionally work to broaden the range of contacts to help foster connections and sometimes hire folks from underrepresented groups?

Chris Kuang:

In thinking about, I think, folks early in their career, it's really hard to understand the network aspect. You reach out to people you know, people who are in spaces. To the questioner, I would say, be intentional about reaching out to a couple of universities with programs that might have demographics that look different than your institution. Reaching out and saying, "Hey, I want to be a resource. Here's my contact information." Sometimes even that seems straightforward. But as a student, and you don't know really where to turn, and then someone reaches out and makes themselves available, it removes that first barrier that would say, "Hey, I don't know who to start with."

Chris Kuang:

I think that would be something I've seen a lot of great things on social media, where people maybe tweet and say, "Hey, this is what my expertise is, and I really would love to chat with folks from this background." Either, "Here's my email, here's a link to a calendar there where you can sign up for 15, 20 minutes." Just putting that out there, and having people share that with their communities, I think, have been two ways that I've seen personally be fairly successful.

Deena McKay:

I think too, just to add on to what Chris mentioned, is that you have to meet people where they are. Just make sure you're going out to those communities and those environments for the people that you're seeking, you have to put yourself out there and also meet them. I think that's another tidbit of advice. Another question we have from the audience is what's the most exciting thing about jumping into civic tech?

Deena McKay:

Before I have you guys answer, everyone, just a reminder, if you do have questions, put it in the Q&A, so that I can see them and make sure they're answered. Again, a question right now is what's the most exciting thing about jumping into civic tech?

Zeryn Sarpangal:

I can take that to start. I think it's like you know you're working to make a difference pretty concretely and make a difference in the lives of many people. When you see civic tech work incredibly well, you can see the positive impact that it has, and unfortunately, also with the pandemic, you can see the need in some of those areas pretty acutely. I think that is frankly, the most exciting thing is the mission and being able to work with some amazing people who care about that incredibly deeply.

Chris Kuang:

To maybe piggyback off of Zeryn, I think one thing that we've talked around but maybe not mentioned explicitly is just how human centered civic tech is and making sure that people are always... For me, one of my favorite memories in civic tech is just sitting down and actually talking to the people that would use or engage with something that I was building and being a part of, and seeing, whether it's their eyes light up, it's like this is much better than the status quo, this is something that would make a meaningful difference.

Chris Kuang:

I think engaging this someone on a person to person level reminds you how deep an impact civic tech can have, and it's easy sometimes to just get lost in the abstract, oh, I'm going to build this or that, but understanding who's on the other side of that.

Andrea Viza:

Yeah. Then I would just add, because both of those are great points, just the amazing people you meet, and the different experiences they bring to the table. Just, I'm so fascinated by my colleagues, by the people, I've been able to just meet and chat with by joining USDS, it's just amazing, and everyone is super passionate about what they do and sharing their stories, which is great.

Deena McKay:

Thank you guys, we have two more questions. First one, my grandson is 10, how do I inspire him and his fellow students to solve difficult problem situations they will encounter into the future?

Andrea Viza:

Get them involved in videos, TED Talks, chats. I've witnessed some really cool competitions of young kids implementing technology, and things like that. I think that's so inspiring. I always think back, what would I be doing if I started that young?

Zeryn Sarpangal:

I think I would add, let's find connection spots for them. I was also thinking, we have a Brigade volunteer network that I know. We had a National Day of Civic Hacking that just happen where people could do tear downs. My daughter who's seven, just joined me for parts of it, and was really interested in figuring out what all of that meant, right? I think there are opportunities through volunteer chapters, et cetera, to get them a smattering of what that could look like, that could be pretty amazing.

Chris Kuang:

I think training a mindset, one thing that we've seen a lot of is that children actually do really well if that applies to civic tech is the notion of asking why and asking why multiple times? It might be annoying, but really helping them drill down into what some of those problems are, and how to get them thinking about how that works.

Chris Kuang:

One thing that I will say, maybe not directly related, but I love every time you can go to the polls, and you see parents who are bringing their children with them into the voting booth and the act of voting and instilling early how important that is in our civic processes are to solving a lot of the problems that we're facing. The big election in November, now might be a great time for them to see democracy in action as well.

Deena McKay:

All right, we have one more question, and we have to make it quick. Let's say, under one minute. Change is hard for everyone, including the government. How do you work to make incremental change without losing sight of complete digital transformation? Who wants to take that one?

Zeryn Sarpangal:

I'll take it. I think that change is hard and change is not impossible, right? That's what is important to note is, I think what we have to remember is people who work in government, are also inspired to make a difference in the lives of their public constituents. That's what it is. One of the things that we feel like we do is help enable how you can do that in an effective way. Sometimes those changes are incremental. Sometimes you're taking not just like, here's how you do it, but also help us help you figure out how to do that yourself. Those gradual little moments actually do add up to something big. But always remembering that the people who are working on it have good intentions to do that.

Chris Kuang:

I think as Zeryn mentioned, momentum is so important. Little changes snowball in the government and you can see the results with good work. Moving in the positive direction not wanting perfect to be the enemy of good, I think are all the tenants that I've seen.

Zeryn Sarpangal:

Great and that is a great note to end on. Thank you all from a panelist perspective for everything that you provided to the audience today. Jahvita, I'm going to pass it back to you.

Jahvita Rastafari:

Thank you, everyone for joining us today. I just wanted to... To wrap things up, we would love for you all to stay in touch, and the ways that you can do that are by visiting our blog where you can take a look at our work follow along. You can also feel free, you can always donate, that is always welcomed. You can do that at codeforamerica.org/donate. You can check out our other events, we have a ton of great events that we host on a monthly basis. We always enjoy talking to each and every one of you.

Jahvita Rastafari:

You can always follow us on Twitter. With that, I just want to say thank you all for joining this discussion. Thank you, Deena for being an amazing moderator, and thank you to all of our amazing hosts.... Or our panelists and just remember that we'll post the recording on our YouTube channel, and you can find us on all of these other channels as well. I hope you all have a wonderful rest of your day. Thank you for joining and we will talk to you all soon.

 

Tags:   Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion