The Tech Resistance Awakens
Silicon Valley employees are emerging as a potent group of anti-Trump activists. Can they make a difference?
The morning after Trump’s immigration ban, Jessica Alter was jogging by San Francisco’s Crissy Field. She’s done so for years, through all her time building a service for entrepreneurs called FounderDating, which she later sold. Yet during that Saturday’s run, she was was thinking about the ban, and then about her grandma, a Belgian Jew who had lived out the Holocaust in Antwerp under the guise of fake papers and a fake name. Alter worried that normalizing the Muslim ban would lead to normalizing the next chip away at civil liberties, and the next after that. Suddenly, she stopped in her tracks, and dashed off a text to another tech recruiter friend:
I have an idea.
The text popped up on Peter Kazanjy’s iPhone (founder of TalentBin, acquired by Monster) as he strolled through the streets of Portland, up from the Bay Area for a babymoon with his wife. It was a brief break from brooding about what it would mean for their kid to be born into Trump times. He dashed back:
Alter kicked off a product brainstorm session because, well, that’s what Silicon Valley types do:
The next day, Alter launched a Google form to test the “supply side” (recruiter speak for the workers), calling it the Tech for Campaigns Project. Blasted out through email and Facebook networks, the survey got re-shared, and eventually circulated through internal listservs at Twitter, Airbnb, Pinterest, and Netflix, Kazanjy says. It stated: “The basic idea here is that, in addition to money, our skilled time can be even more valuable and help ensure outcomes we believe in.”
In two days, 500 people had signed up. In a week, that grew to 900— ranging from engineers to C-suite executives. Eighty percent of them had said they were willing to volunteer a few hours a week over a series of months. Five percent said they’d be willing to volunteer for an entire year.
Then there was this:
Alter, between startups, had briefly volunteered on Clinton’s digital team at its Brooklyn headquarters. But Kazanjy counts himself among that red piece of the pie — those who previously had believed that politics felt distant, “kind of a little dirty, and maybe beneath them.” During the presidential race, he did all the usual Silicon Valley things: He donated to Clinton, stayed informed, and beamed out his opinions on social media. You know, kind of a slacktivist. Not anymore: “I think people are realizing there’s an opportunity cost associated with not participating,” he says.
“The time to be aloof has gone away.”
In the groundswell of progressive resistance in the first weeks of Trump’s presidency—with the Women’s March rivaling the largest protests of the Vietnam War — the workers of Silicon Valley have also passed a historic inflection point. They are finally breaking through the broad-strokes stereotype of pampered, politically unengaged workers who preferred to better the world through products than through policy and political office. “There’s guilt in that maybe I’ve retreated too much into this bubble and didn’t poke my head out,” says Matt Martin, who used to keep a well-read blog about Minnesota politics, but let his political nature take a back seat once he moved to techlandia. Only after Trump’s win did he take stock of what he’d lost: “Are you really moving the needle, are you really doing whatever you can to push the nation forward? The answer is plainly, no.” After the election, he started a secret Facebook group called Technologists for Progress for industry folks to bat around ideas.
Many techies are joining the resistance in the traditional mode—marching, taking Sharpies to protest posters, entertaining the thought of actually running for office. They’re discovering, for the first time, the political value of that most analog, age-old show of discontent: enormous protests beamed on the news right into a White House that cares so much about optics and popularity. Yet the newcomers are also realizing they bring a valuable toolkit to this fight: tech and marketing skills coupled with that impatient startup mentality of expecting to scale impact, and wanting to find the most efficient route to do so. When Alter and Kazanjy sent out their survey, they struck a nerve: Bay Area tech workers had woken up to progressive politics, and they had skills and energy to burn.
To test the demand, Alter contacted candidates across the country, asking if tech workers could help local, state, and even federal candidates who are running without the slick tech operation of a presidential campaign. The candidates sounded jazzed. She brought in a third friend, Ian Ferguson (cofounder of Kitchit, the in-home private chef service) to build the site, and voila: A little more than a week after Alter sent that first text, the group launched what will become a two-sided market website, a way for progressive and centrist campaigns to find willing and ready techie volunteers.
How did this happen? For the last eight years, the Bay Area tech scene has acted the same as many mainstream Democrats, coasting on Obama’s optimism while the country’s politics and statehouses slid red. Only after Trump’s win did the left-leaning industry wrestle with the fact that its platforms had only served to tell polarized voters what they wanted to hear. The techies had toiled away dutifully on those networks at picture-perfect campuses, but all it took was some Macedonian teens and trolls to show valley coders that their algorithms weren’t so much neutral as naive.
Now, after much dithering in the days after the election, the tech titans are springing to life. In response to Trump’s ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Sergey Brin and Sundar Pichai co-led Google’s own protests. Travis Kalanick pulled out of Trump’s business advisory council, and, this week, 127 tech companies filed court papers against the ban.
Though the actions of giant companies and the likes of Zuck, Travis, and Sergei make the biggest splash, it’s tech employees that are demonstrating the real force of will. At Facebook, it was an insurgent group of motivated employees that first took on the network’s fake news problem. Sure, the #DeleteUber campaign hurt — but it was also an army of angry staffers that prompted Kalanick to duck out of the advisory council. IBM’s Ginni Rometty remains on the council, but she can’t be unaware of the 1,840 IBM workers and supporters who have signed a petition against her Trump glad-handing. And it was a group of rank-and-file tech workers that launched the neveragain.tech petition, publicly refusing to use their companies’ data troves to help construct any Muslim registry.
“I’m really convinced that this” — the employees on the inside — “is the only lever of power we have against [the big companies],” says Maciej Ceglowski, who created the group behind the petition—Bay Area Tech Solidarity—and is the founder of Pinboard.
The big companies have a lot at stake. They’re afraid of losing their hard-won employees — not only the ones on H-1B visas, but also the ones who can easily skip to the next leafy campus that’s more aligned with their values. Indeed, a product lead from Nest and a front-end engineer at Optimizely have organized a full-scale walk-out in Palo Alto next month, for “workers of companies that have either supported Trump, sat back and said nothing, or have been too worried about their stock price to say anything.” More than 1,300 have RSVPed on the Facebook event page, which warns, “They may hold the stock, but WE hold the power of their share price!”
That’s just during office hours. Off the clock, tech workers are taking volunteer gigs, bootstrapping sites with names like SwingLeft and 5calls.org and Calls For Change. They are showing up at those first marches, with babies and signs in tow — some are even venturing into their district’s Young Democrats meetings. A product manager at GoDaddy reports that her Lean In Circle (one of the scattered hive cells of professional women discussing how to get ahead) is debating what part its members can play in the resistance. A DropBox infrastructure engineer told me he built the website for 100 Days of Action, on which Bay Area artists could post daily resistance events, like a call for women to menstruate onto plywood boards in a public collective action to defy Trump’s anti-women barbs.
When I jumped in a Lyft to hunt down the #GooglersUnite march in San Francisco last week, the driver chuckled, observing, “It’s like a protest of the elite! It’s almost trendy to take action.” He’s not the only one wondering whether these protestors with iPhones and six-figure salaries are in it for the long haul. “Usually it’s, you have nothing to lose but your chains, but these people don’t see themselves in chains — at least not by their employer,” says Democratic strategist Jim Ross. As one protesting Googler tweeted about last week’s on-campus demonstration:
It’s one thing for Googlers to oppose a ban that affects a colleague sitting a few desks over. It’s another thing entirely to stand up to Trump and Republican moves on bigger-picture issues like climate change, or cuts that likely won’t affect them, such as scaling back insurance coverage for women’s health.
Silicon Valley was long known as socially liberal but often fiscally conservative, and with a heavy strain of libertarianism. More than 30 percent of voters under 40 in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, in the heart of the valley, are decline-to-state independent voters. The area’s politicos are now wondering whether a Trump presidency will shift those numbers. Barry Barnes, a Silicon Valley political strategist, is curious whether more young voters will head to the polls in midterm elections or ascribe to the party system. “For many years they haven’t particularly associated with one party or another,” Barnes says of the young tech workers. “From the state level, [California is] deep blue, but Silicon Valley has been represented by moderate Republicans before.”
After 25 years in Bay Area politics, strategist Ross was amazed at the number of people who showed up at the Women’s March, with many tech workers driving from as far as Cupertino to join. “In Silicon Valley, people have always been engaged, but not really focused,” he says. “In my work, you’ll run into a lot of people in tech. They’ll give money at an event, or be online and monitor stuff [at a campaign office or candidate forum]. But I think Trump is radicalizing people in the tech community: He’s giving them a motivation to walk in a protest.”
Some long-time activists are putting aside their where-were-you-before? grievances and rolling with the new allies. “Yes, there are people of privilege being radicalized for the first time in their lives,” says Malkia Cyril, the director of the Oakland-based Center for Media Justice and a longtime Black Lives Matter activist who grew up the daughter of Black Panthers. As a class war has raged in San Francisco in recent years, these well-compensated workers were more likely to be the target of protests than the protestors themselves. “Let’s be real: these are often the same individuals gentrifying our communities,” Cyril says. “While it’s uncomfortable, we have to look deeper to build a more lasting solidarity. We’ll welcome you and all people who want to see justice with open arms. We have to. The thing that is equally important to having a clear ideology of the problem, is to have the numbers to win the solutions — and we don’t have them without this growing base of people who care about justice.”
“It’s not good enough to say, where have you been?” she adds. “It should be: Welcome, we’re glad you’re here now.”
On an early February night inside the Soma headquarters of Code for America — Silicon Valley’s spiritual capital of civic tech — another San Francisco ritual was getting turned on its head by Trump. The event had all the trappings of your typical networking/recruitment session: wine on tap, fancy hors d’oeuvres on trays, “Ask me about _____” name tags stuck on shirts. Yet this meeting drew an unusual standing-room-only crowd of 220 people (with 103 waitlisted). Instead of the optimism that often surrounds Code for America events, this one had a note of alarmed urgency.
Executive director Jennifer Pahlka, who’d worked as US deputy chief technology officer under Obama, greeted the room: “I think you’re all probably feeling a little bit like I am…I would like to continue to be able to sleep at night. It’s a challenge these days.” She was followed by the city of San Francisco’s chief data officer, who made her pitch to the group by saying she, too, was “devastated” the morning after the election, but that “if you’re willing to tolerate some bullshit for a few years and make the world a better place, join the city!” Her entreaty reaped hearty clapping and woo-wooing.
The night was a response to the emails that had been dropping into Code for America staffers’ inboxes in the prior weeks, all variations of:
Since the election, like perhaps a lot of people, I’ve become extremely motivated to work in politics, activism, or journalism, to fight for progressive values and honesty and transparency in government and combat the incoming administration.
A marketer at the event told me every conversation she’s having in San Francisco has changed. “It just feels a little empty to be like, ‘How are you doing at work? How are those projects going?’ It’s like, ‘Our world may be falling apart, how are we going to deal with it?!’”
Some companies are dealing with it by pivoting in a more political direction. Meetup’s CEO Scott Heiferman was impressed by how #TheResistance group from San Francisco was able to mobilize an airport protest against the immigration ban in a matter of hours. Last week, he suggested that the whole New York-based company come up with ideas to spur that sort of mobilization going forward, and nearly the entire company dropped what it had been doing to create #resist Meetups for 1,000 cities. “As a company we’ve never been not neutral,” Heiferman told me over the phone. “It’s a big deal for us to out ourselves in this way. We felt this was a right thing to do.”
But all this energy only matters if it lasts. And as techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote recently, it’s become so easy to organize given the digital tools at hand that the historic numbers of Women’s March attendees may be less impressive than they seem — it used to be that corralling the masses demanded much more effort from many legions of organizers. The Women’s March itself has had the same concern, and as a result is planning 10 actions in 100 days to keep the movement steaming ahead.
That’s also why Ceglowski, the Bay Area Tech Solidarity founder, said he tried to build longevity right into the design of his group. First off, people must email or Signal message him to find out where the in-person meetings are — weeding out the slacktivists. “It takes an effort to show up somewhere rather than click a button,” he told me. “That’s why I’m inflicting intentional misery upon people.” Meeting in person also forges bonds that can be called upon on short notice for quick action — like getting tech support to the recent airport demonstrations, he says.
Ceglowski realizes that both he and most members are first-time activists. So the first meeting of his group offered crash courses on fundraising, the realities of government (“Government is very slow!” the minutes read), and life under authoritarian rule. He’s also been cold-calling local nonprofit leaders to have them share wisdom with his group. One of them was Jennifer Friedenbach, the director of the Coalition on Homelessness. She offers the newcomers to social movements some advice: “One thing that happens with young people is they think change will happen immediately, and get really disappointed when there’s not immediate change. So one organizing strategy is to shoot both high and low: Get smaller victories to sustain the group as you’re chipping away at what you want to do. If you want to solve homelessness, start with getting a 100-unit building, or 100-bed shelter built along the way.”
You know — set an incremental goal, move fast, iterate.
That’s the world Katie Miserany was familiar with when she posted her idea on Matt Martin’s Technologists for Progress Facebook page. She wanted to recruit volunteers to create what has now become Calls for Change, a one-button tool to call one’s congressional leaders about women’s issues, in response to to the intel that Washington pays more attention to phone calls than anything online. Miserany, who works by day as a marketer at Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization, says building the product was “my comfort zone.” Less comfortable was walking into the Peninsula Young Democrats meeting in December, and, a month later, running for delegate. (She lost by a few votes.) In all this sudden and unexpected political activity, Miserany has discovered what so many are finding: the silver lining of Trump’s win for progressives.
“Frankly,” Miserany tells me over the phone, “I don’t think I’d be doing any of this had Hillary won.” Once you’ve tasted the political junkie life, there may be no turning back.