Civic Tech, #MeToo and Toxic Ecosystems: Invest in What Comes Next

I am sharing some brief thoughts, reflections and recommendations in advance to Code for America’s 2018 Summit where I am participating in the workshop Ending the Harassment Among Us. It is important for me to distinguish that while there are some overlaps, for a myriad of reasons, I generally do not consider my work to be part of the broader civic technology space. I refer to myself as a human rights technologist because my work applies a justice framework, because movements have principles for a reason and because I believe in baseline moral operating principles. If you have not already realized, you will likely come to understand these seemingly baseline standards are not usually upheld in civic tech ecosystem and in my observations, it has created, upheld and reinforced entrenchments of the opposite standards. This preamble is meant to say, a few have noted their surprise at my participation and you are right to be surprised: the Code for America summit is not my usual scene, and I am only joining this panel and workshop at the invitation of my friend whom I trust and respect.

A few have also asked me for thoughts and recommendations on what should come next, how certain organizations, leaders and funders should address a problem that seems so large, complicated and pervasive. They are right to ask me this, my expertise on this subject is informed from leadership in the trenches; in 2012, I started a political fund focused on driving resources to support survivors of sexualized violence (and have a calendar reminder set to send Todd Akin a muffin basket every year for the inspiration!). In 2015, I co-created Shine Squad with Tracy Van Slyke, Deanna Zandt and Jeanne Brooks and conducted the first baseline data survey to measure the expansiveness of harassment in movement spaces and articulate needs from impacted individuals. I know how to build, scale and resource resilient organizations and teams. I have supported, guided and advised numerous reporters, editors and media outlets on how to cover sexual violence with compassion (reporters: here are thoughtful remarks from Amanda Hess on this subject). But what I am most proud of is supporting, guiding and advising survivors through their decisions to share or not share their stories. Some in this #MeToo moment and others long before there was a movement to support their voices and leadership (note: here is another great resource for those considering publicly sharing their story).

While these people are right to ask someone like me what should come next, repeating myself is one of my least favorite things to do, working for free is not in my values system and re-explaining in this context is an exhausting labor that is not my actual paid job. So this post is in the interest of helping me do less of that and in hopes these ideas will help seed some solutions for a space people for whom I care for are invested in.

Have a values system. Put a stake in the ground

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

The urgency of these conversations about abuse, harassment, sexual violence and workplace toxicity in the civic tech ecosystem are in light of the brave leadership from women who spoke on and off the record for this Huffington Post article detailing Clay Johnson’s decades long notorious patterns of abuse, sexual violence, bullying and harassment; targeting women, lesser-powered individuals across Democratic political campaigns, political tech startups, progressive think tanks and civic tech organizations.

I say Johnson’s misconduct “came to light” and was not “discovered” because the article unpacks in excruciating detail, just how much people knew yet said or did nothing to intervene, stop or block his behavior. Leaders from the Howard Dean campaign, Sunlight Foundation, Blue State Digital, Personal Democracy Forum and more knew and did nothing and go on to have influential careers and platforms. At this point, complicity from all levels of leadership across a wide array of organizations in enabling this violence and directly placing women and lesser-powered individuals in harm is indisputable fact.

Yet when secrets like these get dragged out of the shadows and into the light there is always a Captain Renault “I’m shocked! SHOCKED!” moment.

Organizations like Sunlight and Personal Democracy Forum put out requisite, buck-passing statements where each begrudgingly admit mistakes were made yet reframe the institutionalized culture of harassment and fear they perpetuated as a one-time problem. But that spin job is not reflective to reality. One of the dynamics the Huffington Post article highlights is how complicity culture is reinforced across systems. Especially in small echo chambers like civic tech, where the funders are few and scarcity reigns supreme, there is a calculus that is run and cost that is paid when speaking out. Leaders at Personal Democracy Forum, Sunlight, Code for America and other organizations ran the formulas and not only did not opt to protect women and lesser-powered individuals but also continued to publicly and privately champion Clay Johnson and others just like him. This created an entrenched culture of fear of which we are only beginning to see the depths.

So for these brave truths from leaders to come to light and for so many to exclaim sentiments like “This is not who we are” is an extreme dissonance from reality and undermining to these leaders lived experiences.

Civic tech: this is who you are.

Now who would you like to become?

Life is a process of being and becoming. Civic tech is in a moment of being and becoming. It is undermining to hear these brave truths only to protest “This is not who we are”.

It is productive to create space to ask why it took this for truths to come to light, to interrogate enabling patterns of dysfunction, to interrogate the enablers themselves, to create and articulate the values and principles civic tech stands for now.

The open data and civic tech ecosystem has never met an open letter it did not love. I am surprised to not have come across one about this #MeToo moment in civic tech. This is an opportunity to put a stake in the ground and say these are our values.

Now just who will you choose to be?

This is a process. Invest in culture change.

The cast of enablers in this ecosystem have reframed the narrative on harassment and misconduct to be focused on one bad actor and by extension, have surfaced a menu of piecemeal one-time solutions.

As I unpacked above, this is issue is far from a single bad actor from a long time ago. Another reason I am writing this post focused on seeding solutions, is that the solutions I’ve seen offered are one dimensional, often focused on trainings or codes of conduct.

This is not a one-time problem that calls for a one-time solution. This is multi-dimensional, structural and systemic. It requires an investment in multiple solutions and approaches.

Solutions should reflect a continuum and impacted individuals should be given multiple opportunities across the continuum to inform interventions and solutions through different methods with considerations given for safety and security. Leaders in civic tech should take signals from brave leaders and share a narrative that reflects humanity-centered process to culture change rather than band-aid approaches to single bad actors.

Funders have a role in this as well. The cast of enablers in civic tech also play dual roles as gatekeepers, tastemakers and kingmakers. In the tiny nerdy world of civic tech, that is power. This power has repeatedly been abused by enablers to signal who is in and who is not, it has provided a long runway to run from accountability and perpetuated a culture of fear. Funders must take a moment to evaluate who, in this dysfunctional ecosystem, they take signals from and why. Funders must interrogate themselves and explore whether they are unintentionally amplifying biases and lending power to enablers in this ecosystem.

There is a role for everyone to play, from funders to hackers to impacted leaders, when solutions exist across a continuum. When you are signing up to create inclusive ecosystems where all individuals can benefit equitably, you are signing up for a process.

Reverse the whisper network. Explicitly invest in leaders with integrity.

Photo by rob walsh on Unsplash

Repeatedly, I refer to survivors as leaders because I believe survivorship is leadership. I believe to not call such resourceful resilience leadership to be a form of erasure and byproduct of shame culture. But I say leadership specifically in the civic tech context because I am truly astonished at the number of leaders I have met in civic tech, who described to me truly horrendous experiences of violence and harassment and yet stay working in civic tech.


A few years ago, I observed the perfect example of this phenomena when I dropped by Transparency Camp. As already stated, this is not my usual scene, but a friend was in town for it and had promised to make me a piece of art so I sat in the back of the convening hall catching up with other friends while my pal doodled in the corner creating my commissioned artwork.

A very smart and funny young woman I had never met before joined us at the table and soon was telling hilarious jokes and cracking us all up. I remember asking through laugh-tears, “How have we never met before?” and this young woman looked to my friend at the table. They exchanged A Look. My friend said, “It’s okay, you can tell her,” and this very smart and funny young woman goes, “We never met because [REDACTED] broke me,” and goes on to describe horrendous abuse she went through during her tenure at a civic tech organization. I will never forget meeting her. I will never forget observing two people who trusted one another signal trust in me through A Look. I will never forget living the whisper network in action.

And I will never forget being stunned that even after all that, after being harassed out of her role, after her life was disrupted because enablers reinforced a culture of harassment, after all of that SHE IS STILL STILL STILL LEADING TRAILBLAZING INSPIRING WORK IN THIS SECTOR. She didn’t leave! She is still here! I remember listening, with my jaw hanging open, her describe scaling critically necessary work and marveling.

There are leaders in our midst creating a way out of no way. This fortune is not by accident. The most resourceful, resilient, solutions-minded leaders are informed through lived experiences.

Let’s create some resources for these leaders. Let’s reverse the whisper network.

Civic tech organizations and funders who have placed a stake in the ground on their values and committed to a continual process of culture change should create a fellowship program to invest directly to the leadership of those who were/are impacted by harassment, abuse, sexual violence and culture of fear.

No one survives experiences like these alone. In toxic environments, people seek safety in small numbers. It takes support. It takes a team. It takes organizing. It takes resourcefulness. Then and now, the people who emerge from the other side of harassment, abuse and toxic workplace environments are stronger leaders than any of the individuals who sit at the power centers of the civic tech world. Let us make this distinction explicit. Impacted leaders are much more than a rigid dichotomy of strength and resilience. This fellowship should be awarded to individuals not for their marginalization or for being good allies, but for living the values the civic tech community aspires to hold for itself, for leading in a leadership vacuum, for being the true civic innovators this ecosystem should exist to support.

I repeatedly refer to this as violence because it is a violence. When someone is injured by such a violence, there is a necessary recovery period but many never make it back to the starting line again. That is how systems of oppressions work. Some never get to bounce back, some are beat out of thriving. The fact that so many individuals in civic tech come out on the other side of such violence to remain in this ecosystem and contribute meaningful work into the field is a testament to so much.

So let us refashion the whisper network and instead of using it as a signal of who to trust, use it to direct resources dedicated to elevating impacted leaders and those who support and protect impacted leaders.

Much like open letters, it is my observation that there is not a vague fellowship the civic tech sector would not love. There should be a fellowship for personal leadership. There should be a diverse, intersectional committee, an invite-only nomination process and there should be dedicated financial grants of a minimum of $15,000 leaders can use to invest in their personal leadership. For models on what this could look like, see the Gerbode Fellowship or BHSI Fellowship. While the use cases for those are different, the operating model of giving direct financial support to innovative leaders applies here.

Restructure power

In the item above, I recommended the civic tech ecosystem create and financially resource a fellowship to invest in the personal leadership of innovators the civic tech ecosystem should exist to support.

To restructure power, I recommend those same fellows form a cohort and receive leadership, governance and development training and be pipelined into board roles at civic tech organizations. I also recommend they serve as advisory councils for funders seeking sounding boards and diverse perspectives on funding opportunities in the civic tech ecosystem. This advisory council can work in tandem with civic tech funders to conceptualize and imagine what something like an inclusion rider could look like in the civic tech sector.

So many of the failings were accelerated and amplified by leadership failures at all levels of organizations, including the board levels. Many members of the cast of enablers in the civic tech ecosystem either hold or held board seats or paid and unpaid advisory roles at organizations. They remain, then and now, merrily failing in a circle.

If civic tech is committed to meeting this reckoning and truly serving the needs of the communities it purports to serve, the face of leadership within civic tech must change. It is time to restructure power. But in order to not perpetuate systems of oppression, set up lesser-powered individuals to not fail or fall off a glass cliff, restructuring power must be done in a thoughtful and methodical manner. It must be resourced financially. It must be intentional. Accountability is care.


Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

We all have a lot to learn about how apologies work.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Whitney Phillips, academic and author of This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, for research I was conducting and she said something in our conversation that stuck with me and I think could provide some learnings for the civic tech space. For context, I asked her about what to do with journalists who during the 2016 campaign cycle either knowingly or unknowingly reinforced racism, bigotry or harassment with their reporting. Phillips said one of the things these journalists need to do, once they have recognized their role in perpetuating harm, is to practice atonement, to state explicitly their role, the damage (intended or unintended) and the impact. She articulated this as a necessary step to reckoning and to growth. At the time, I did not know what Phillips meant by that word (English is my third language) and I knew atonement is something that could mean different things to different people. So I looked up the definition:

to atone: to make amends : to provide or serve as reparation or compensation for something bad or unwelcome

Given the intertwined cast of enablers, the long list of impacted individuals and the porous talent pool between civic tech, open data and political campaigns; it is difficult to find and follow the threads, the relationships, the complicated, compacted traumas. The absence of leadership is expanded into an absence of apology, where actors are specifically apologizing for a very specific thing (‘We should have never hired him.’ or ‘We should have had a code of conduct’) and not for their broader responsibility as leaders who enabled a problematic culture in the first place.

It is interesting Sunlight is communicating a distance from Clay Johnson now, yet for years referred to him with the honorific “Labs Director emeritus”. It is interesting John Wonderlich who, as described in the Huffington Post article, was so alarmed by what he heard, he reported Clay Johnson to his boss (who did nothing), continued to work at Sunlight for years — and now runs the entire organization. I think it is fascinating Personal Democracy Forum’s statement qualifies Clay Johnson’s harassment then as unreported as if burdening individuals with ambiguous reporting channels is distinct and separate from a culture of fear and harassment.

Accountability is a literal providing an account of your actions. Not a rationalization or an excuse, but a deeply honest explanation that is based in fully taking responsibility for your in/actions and the impact of your in/actions. Apology calls for responsibility, an offer to meaningfully address the harm and to make the space to explore what possibile healing could look like. To quote Tarana Burke, “Apologies are not the work. They precede the work.”

And so I offer these solutions knowing, based on what I have observed so far, that there is still much work to be done. I offer thanks to leaders who shared their brave truths and gratitude to those who continue to work to make this space worthy of the immense talent it continues to attract.

To recap:

  1. Build a values framework into the civic tech ecosystem.
  2. Invest in the process of culture change, provide solutions across a continuum.
  3. Explicitly invest and elevate leaders from community who truly reflect and represent the values of civic tech sector. Resource a fellowship.
  4. Pipeline leadership into board roles at civic tech institutions. Resource their training and development. Create direct working partnership lines between these leaders and civic tech funders. Change the face of power.
  5. Apologize.

Good luck.

Sabrina Hersi Issa is an award-winning human rights technologist and CEO of Be Bold Media. She leads global research and analysis for philanthropy through Vanguard, a donor engagement program, organizes Rights x Tech, a gathering for technologists and activists, runs Survivor Fund, a political fund dedicated to supporting the rights of survivors of sexualized violence. She presently serves as a Venture Partner at Jump Canon.