Last Friday, the Huffington Post published an article about Clay Johnson, who was involved with Code for America as part of our training for fellows for the first four years, and a speaker at the Summit the first year. He was also part of the team at the Sunlight Foundation that gave Code for America its second-ever grant and agreed to serve as our fiscal sponsor until we got our own 501(c)(3). The article describes multiple accounts of abuse of women by Clay, which Clay largely does not dispute. Current Code for America staffer Erie Meyer is one of the brave women who spoke to the reporter and whose experience from 2013 is shared in this piece.
The article naturally raised questions among our community over his relationship with Code for America, and what I knew about him and his behavior both in that capacity and during my time as Deputy Chief Technology Officer at the White House. While I was at the White House, I did hear about an incident with Clay that crossed the line. The report that I heard came to light in the context of him being considered for a high-level position in federal government. Based on my experience with both Clay and the person who shared the report of his behavior, I and another person involved considered the report credible, and withdrew his name from consideration for the position. That seemed an appropriate response to what I’d heard; I had no idea there was this much more to the story. That report was early spring 2014. We did not have Clay back to our fellows orientation after that. I responded to questions from former Code for America fellows and a former Presidential Innovation Fellow about this on Facebook and Twitter, and you can read both of those threads here and here .
In the few days since the article, I have also heard from a few former fellows, mostly female, about their own negative experiences during their fellowship years and beyond, including sexual harassment and racism. One of the stories involved Clay, but the opportunity for reflection about past hostile circumstances surfaced another story as well. Tiffani Bell, a 2014 fellow, shared on Twitter that another fellow insulted her on the basis of her race, and while it appears she reported it to staff, it was never escalated and the other fellow was not held accountable for his words. That behavior should never have occurred, but when it did, the Code for America team had a responsibility to take action, and we failed. Tiffani deserved better. I am grateful she brought this to light again, and sorry that it took multiple tries. That is not the organization we want to be, and we must face that things like this have happened. Our job now is to do the work to do better.
I am happy to share that we have, for some time, been on a journey toward the organization that we must be if we are to fulfill our vision. Certainly, we have greater knowledge today (though likely still incomplete) about offenders like Clay and the fellow who insulted Tiffani, and can take action not to expose our community to their predation. But we also know that the goal of diversity and inclusion requires proactive, not just defensive or retroactive action, and that it is not just the way we contribute to greater equity in the tech sector — it is essential to our ability to fulfill our mission. As I wrote in a letter to staff last year: “ Our relationship to diversity is in fact determined by our vision and our mission . When we chose to take on this ridiculously ambitious goal of making the American government work for people as it should, we chose to serve all Americans in their glorious diversity. We can’t do that well if we live in a monoculture.” And we can’t do that if we don’t communicate and enforce norms and expectations that make Code for America a safe place for women, people of color, and other marginalized people. AsTiffani said on Twitter this week:
Code for America can’t really be ‘for America’ if it’s not inclusive. The work is too important.
We have openly grappled with the shortcomings and unintended consequences of the original model of the fellowship for many years. The fellowship and all who participated in it created enormous value and fundamentally changed the narrative around government; we should all be proud of that. But it also relied on an organizational structure that was very light on traditional management, making it sometimes hard to support fellows through difficult experiences and to hold people accountable. There were many ways the culture of the fellowship was special and wonderful, but we knew at the time it was also imperfect, and as we learn of the experiences of folks like Tiffani and others, the ones who were silenced, ignored, or insufficiently addressed, we gain a deeper understanding of the downsides of not only the organizational structures we started with but the lack of safeguards.
We have made structural changes over time to address these and other concerns about the model. Starting in 2014, we began organizing our fellows project into focus areas, in part so that we could provide a dedicated manager to smaller groups of teams and increase our support of fellows and create greater accountability for them on all levels, including upholding our norms and values. We subsequently put greater emphasis on our long-term projects like GetCalFresh, ClearMyRecord, and ClientComm, which are staffed with more traditional teams with clear reporting lines. And ultimately, we ended the first version of the fellowship, relaunching it this year as a function of the Brigades for greater sustainability in the cities that will host the projects.
We’ve also added capabilities and safeguards that help build an intentional culture and hold each of us accountable to the organization’s values. We have had a robust human resources function for some time, one that not only includes a full-time manager, but also includes external resources from our benefits provider for employees to call on in times of crisis or to file a complaint. We’re working with Nicole Sanchez from Vaya Consulting on diversity and inclusion, and in 2017, we officially launched an org-wide D&I initiative, with the full awareness that having an initiative just is part of a larger body of work. In addition to providing ongoing training and opportunities to expand our own organizational vision of what an inclusive environment looks like, the Diversity and Inclusion initiative also tracks race and ethnicity, gender, and mission-relevant experience across all teams. These are some of the ways we have been putting our values into action, and they continue.
We’ve long had a Code of Conduct that covers Code for America Brigades and events, but in recent years we’ve given much more thought and resources to making the Code of Conduct more effective though active enforcement and support for Brigade Captains. Michael Bishop of Code for Tampa Bay chimed in on Twitter with a perspective I think many in the Brigade community share: “I recently brought attention to issues I observed with someone & the Code of Conduct at the local brigade level. It was addressed quickly & professionally to the satisfaction of those affected.” I am immensely proud of and grateful to the National Advisory Council and the internal Brigade team, particularly Erie Meyer and Christopher Whitaker, for doing whatever it took to make Code of Conduct enforcement a top priority no matter what else was going on. That’s what our community has needed, and the community has led the way.
Organizations must change if we are to rid our movement of the kinds of behaviors that push valued contributors away. Ours is changing, and for the better. Tiffani has my deepest apologies for what happened to her while she was here, as of course does anyone who was affected by Clay’s bullying or sexual harassment. If any others from our community had similar experiences with others, we’d like to know. Please reach out directly, or if you would like to remain anonymous, you can speak securely and confidentially to Nicole Sanchez by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org . I believe our community can be proud of not only the culture that’s evolving at Code for America, but also the impact we’re having.
Speaking of our impact, to learn more about what we’ve been doing, please come to the Summit at the end of this month. Among over fifty breakout sessions and a few dozen amazing keynote talks, there is a session on “Ending the Harassment Among Us,” led by Travis Moore with panelists including Jess Ladd from Callisto and others, a talk on diversity and inclusion in the workplace by Nicole Sanchez, and a networking reception for people of color.
Over the years, the voices of our community have been heard, and the organization is improving so that we can better pursue the mission to which we are all devoted. The community of Code for America matters. We need a cohesive, trusted and trusting community if we are to make government work for all Americans, and I encourage everyone to engage honestly, openly, and supportively in service of this powerful community. Because the mission needs you now more than ever.