When you hear the term “civic tech,” your mind may immediately jump to maps, apps, and hackathons. And while those are an important part of the work of this movement, they’re far from the full picture. At this year’s Code for America Summit, Veronica Young of Code for America’s Network Team and Zach Antoyan, co-captain of Code for Fresno, took the mainstage to explain just how diverse the skillsets of the Brigade Network are.

“If we're going to start restoring faith in our institutions, we need everyone to show up to help with the tools that they already have.”

Broadly speaking, the Code for America Brigade Network is made up of groups of volunteers that meet regularly to build or help build digital tools for the public good in their communities. But that doesn’t mean these meetings are rooms full of engineers and designers, hunched down over their laptops working on code. People in technical roles are an invaluable part of the equation, but so are the community organizers who identify the community needs in the first place, as well as the government representatives that help communicate with local agencies.

“You don't have to be a technologist to be a part of this broad civic tech movement.”

Veronica and Zach gave a sample of the many different kinds of projects Brigades undertake to solve problems in their communities. But the real power of the Brigade Network is not in the individual projects that are undertaken, but in the ways that people power fulfills the promise of our democracy. That a group of engaged community members choose to volunteer their free time in service of a mission to improve how government delivers services to residents is a testament to people power, and helps restore faith in our institutions.

To hear Veronica and Zach’s presentation in full, watch the video or read the transcript below.

Transcript

Meredith Horowski:

Hello, everyone. I'm Meredith Horowskiki. I'm the senior director of the Brigade Network at Code for America. Thank you all so much for being here to tackle what I think is one of the most pressing challenges of our generation, and that's how to restore faith in our public institutions to meet the scale of the crisis that we are in today, and to live up to the promise of our democracy. It's a massive undertaking, so I'm so thrilled to introduce you to two of the people who are helping to lead that charge: Veronica Young and Zachary Antoyan.

Meredith Horowski:

Wait, I'm not done yet. Veronica is a program manager at Code for America, where she's a master at supporting our distributed network of 25,000 volunteers who are bringing the Code for America vision to life across the country. Zachary works for assembly member Joaquin Arambula and he brings some thoroughly non-technical experience to start Code for Fresno and has kicked off some incredible projects in the process, which he'll tell you about. Please join me in welcoming Veronica and Zach.

Zachary Antoyan:

Thank you, Veronica. If you're unfamiliar with the Brigade Network, broadly, we are volunteer groups of community members with a bunch of different sets of skills, who meet consistently to build or help build digital tools for the public good. Designers help government websites become easier to use and understand. Community organizers identify community needs. Government representatives help communicate with local agencies.

Zachary Antoyan:

Since 2012, Brigades and the Brigadeers have used those skills to drive change across the country, from Alaska to Florida, Texas to Maine, Minnesota to Hawaii. Overall, there are 76 Brigades working in cities big and small.

Veronica Young:

So, what is it the Brigades do? Brigades work on projects to help their local communities, often working with local government partners and local community organizations. You may know us through some of our work like CourtBot, which has helped communities throughout the United States navigate the criminal justice system, or you may know us from our famous hackathons. But the idea that we're just a group of techies is a little bit misunderstood.

Veronica Young:

We do a lot of our work and have a lot of impact in the work that we do through our non-technical work that requires very little to no technical skills. This is us; almost one third of Brigade members identify as non-techies, or don't work in technical roles.

Zachary Antoyan:

So, as mentioned, I'm one of the co-captains at the recently formed Code for Fresno in the heart of California. I don't have a background in tech or design. I studied political science and philosophy, so when I left college, I was twice as unemployable. But through a stroke of luck and an interest in engaging in the Fresno community, I found myself working in a legislative office of the 31st Assembly district, where for the last couple of years, I've been working as a liaison between the state government, the constituents that live in the district, and state agencies.

Zachary Antoyan:

It's my job to help constituents navigate the state bureaucracy and connect the with local resources, sort of like a bureaucratic maze runner. So, to some extent, I'm in the trenches of bureaucracy, and that gives me this on-the-ground experience with constituent frustrations. That experience was a driver for getting Code for Fresno off the ground, and it continuously informs and supports the work we do at Code for Fresno in trying to lower the institutional barriers to government services.

Zachary Antoyan:

In fact, our most recent event this last Sunday was something of a response to the issue that I hear about from constituents on a near daily basis regarding a particular agency. Spoiler alert, it's the DMV. We designed these DMV website user feedback sessions that are happening at Brigades across California. The cool thing about these sessions is that they require very little technical experience to participate in, and they're really good for introducing people to the broader civic tech movement. Code for Fresno is always looking for ways to engage people of all backgrounds and experiences, and since myself and my co-captain Isa don't have backgrounds in tech from the get-go, Code for Fresno was interested in engaging the non-tech residents and giving them ways to contribute to the cause.

Veronica Young:

One of the projects that requires little to no technical experience actually comes from Open Oakland, which is the local Brigade chapter here in Oakland, California. By now, you're familiar with the work of Clear My Record and the first version of Clear My Record was actually just a simple form that you would fill out, almost like a survey, with accompanying documentation in order to apply for record clearance.

Veronica Young:

So, one of the librarians at the Oakland Public Library reached out to Open Oakland and asked them whether they'd be able to help community members and their neighbors navigate through this form in order to apply for record clearance. So now, once a month, members of Open Oakland go to the Oakland Public Library and help their community members walk through the process of Clear My Record. All you have to do to volunteer is commit to a few hours a month and go through training in order to learn how to fill out the form. To date, Open Oakland-ers have contributed over 50 volunteer hours to their local community members to help them walk through this record clearance form.

Zachary Antoyan:

So, continuing along that low-tech, civic tech vein, a common issue for families and children during the summer is access to food, considering that while on summer break, lunches and breakfasts aren't provided by schools as they are during the school year. In response, Code for Tulsa developed Food4Thought in partnership with Hunger Free Oklahoma, which shows families places around the city to find meals. Around the state, actually, sorry.

Zachary Antoyan:

The application is mobile friendly, an important element, and was not only easy to build, but is also easy to update as it relies mostly on data collection and Google spreadsheet information. Data collection and community outreach are common needs in Brigade projects, and are ideal areas for volunteers that are not coding savvy. This is yet another example of how non-tech volunteers can play critical roles.

Veronica Young:

By now, you're wondering, how can you get involved or what can you do to support this work?

Zachary Antoyan:

Oh, goodness. I know a lot of you work in government ... Where did it go? I know a lot of you work in government agencies or government adjacent roles, and there are a lot of ways for you guys to get involved, and they should be up there, but the first way is that you can see if there's a Brigade near you at brigade.codeforamerica.org. If there is one near you, great. Join it, please. If not, consider starting one. Code for America staff is fantastic in this regard. Code for Fresno, the support that Code for Fresno has received over the last couple of months has made the literal difference. And finally, Brigade members and volunteers and leaders are always looking for support from local agencies, government representatives, as well as willing to partner on local projects. You don't have to be a technologist to be a part of this broad civic tech movement, and if we're going to start restoring faith in our institutions, we need everyone to show up to help with the tools that they already have. I hope you'll join us. Thank you.

Veronica Young:

Thank you.

 

Tags:   Brigade Network