Digital Citizenship

By Glenn Brown, Chief Digital Officer, Obama Foundation

In March last year, President Obama appeared at South by Southwest Interactive with a specific mission:

The reason I’m here really is to recruit all of you. It’s to say to you as I’m about to leave office, how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems that we’re facing today. Because, I’ve said this before, I said this at the State of the Union, the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen.

Sitting in the audience, I took President Obama’s challenge to heart, perhaps a tad literally. Maybe because the event took place barely a mile from where I grew up. Maybe because, like much of the audience, I’d become a little spellbound by the more technical, economic, and recreational aspects of digital life, sometimes at the cost of the bigger picture. Maybe because the public discourse of even early 2016 — within and across parties, whether online or on-air — was beginning to resemble a modern remake of Network.

Whatever the case, I started consulting for the Obama Foundation, President and Mrs. Obama’s mission “to train the next generation of leadership,” just a few months later. Earlier this year, I joined the team full-time as Chief Digital Officer. And now, I want to tell you a little bit about what we’re up to. (And, full disclosure: to recruit you, too.)

We’re building a team. Think of it like a cross between a start-up and a creative agency for citizenship. In-house, that will mean an all-star team of makers: creative, editorial, and technical. We will make media, prototype technology, and build relationships with people wherever they spend time online. We’ll help scale the Foundation’s leadership programs and keep you up-to-date on the progress of the Obama Presidential Center’s construction on the South Side of Chicago and its activities around the world.

But we’ll also learn by doing. About what’s broken with digital media, and what’s working. About why life online has taken a turn toward silos and self, instead of public exchange and real connections. About how platforms and media producers, as well as users and audiences, can help boost the signal and reduce the noise. We’ll highlight stuff that works and study things that don’t.

Like any good digital project, we won’t go it alone. Already, our digital team extends well beyond our own walls: to partners (like Storycorps and Blue State Digital, to name just two), friends (like the curators of our “Hometown” Spotify playlist), innumerable Obama alumni (along with plenty of non-political folks), and all kinds of orgs (universities, start-ups, corporations, NGOs) who have been on the field of civic-minded tech and media for years. And, most important, to the people around the world who have shared feedback and stories on our website, social media, and email. We want to give anyone in the world a way to get involved, at whatever level of commitment you’re up for. That’s the whole idea.

Like I said, this is a recruitment pitch. You don’t have to take it as literally as I did, though you’re encouraged to. Add your voice. Send us your wildest ideas, or your simplest. We are just getting started.

We look forward to hearing from you and to telling you more about our work, our team, and our partnerships in follow-up posts.



P.S.: I’m also happy to report that I will be staying involved with two other organizations that care a lot about the health of our tech-media lives: The Texas Tribune, as a board member, and Betaworks, as a venture fellow. Big thanks to the Tribune’s Evan Smith (who, as it happens, hosted President Obama at SXSW last year), and Betaworks’ John Borthwick for their inspiration on these very issues.

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