Growing the Civic Tech Movement

Brigade Congress 2018, and what’s next for the Code for America Brigade network

By Jill Bjers, Jason Hibbets

Members of the Code for America National Advisory Council

Code for America National Advisory Council members from 2017 and 2018. And two random people in the hotel lobby.

Last month, more than 150 Code for America Brigade members from across the country gathered in Charlotte, NC for our annual Brigade Congress. What is Brigade Congress, you may ask? Brigade Congress is a gathering of leaders in the civic tech community. With 78 Code for America Brigades established across the United States, this annual gathering is a chance for us to come together to learn, share, and grow our movement. With a network like ours, with thousands of volunteers spread across the country, the opportunity to have an in-person convening is invaluable. Many thanks to the sponsors that make the conference possible.

In its inaugural year, 2017, Brigade Congress was held in Philadelphia, PA — the site of the First Continental Congress, and an appropriate place for our historical first meeting. This year, we gathered in North Carolina, home to seven Code for America Brigades. We came together to share success stories, learn from each other, and get updates on programs and projects that involve the Brigades.

The energy in Charlotte was amazing, and the mood was collaborative and infectious. Every time Brigade leaders get together it feels like a family reunion. We are all volunteers, we are all trying to advance the civic tech movement, and we have such a tremendous opportunity to learn from each other and grow as individual leaders.

Attending Brigade Congress is always inspiring. It’s energizing, and it’s rejuvenating. Whether you’re a Brigade veteran on the verge of burnout or brand new to the movement, attending an event like this gets your juices flowing, your ideas sparking and inspires you to bring back important, refreshing lessons to your community.

Brigade Congress Highlights

Every aspect of Brigade Congress planning is a collaboration with Code for America staff, the National Advisory Council, and the Steering Committee, which consisted of Brigade members. These teams plan content that will create a weekend of training and inspiration. Because we span the country, it is important to be in intentional about how we spend our in-person time together. A combination of community building and sharing knowledge is essential to growing our movement.

Jen Pahlka addresses Brigade Congress

On top of being able to convene and network in person, we also had the chance to hear from incredibly inspiring speakers. Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka spoke about Brigade projects throughout the network that are lifting our shared values into action, and we also heard from Code for America staff about their work. We were given an inspiring welcome to Charlotte by City Council Member Braxton Winston, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement who decided to run for local office to make change happen. We had Kimberlee Archie, the City of Asheville’s first-ever Equity and Inclusion Manager, share her insights into what those principles and practices mean for the civic tech network. Zack Exley, who has many years of experience in both politics and tech, gave an engaging presentation about community organizing. And Mike Watson, a mindful leadership expert, reminded us that while we are saving the world we should take time to care for ourselves and each other.

A lightning talk from Laura Biediger

We also heard from Brigade members from across the country, who gave “lightning talks” on the work they’ve been doing since last year’s Congress. Lightning talks are a great way to share success stories, inspire new ideas, and challenge our community. Topics included immigrant power of attorney, cross-Brigade collaboration, and easy wins for accessibility. We also held breakout sessions that served as deep dives into topics important to our community. These ranged from disaster recovery efforts to redeploying the CourtBot app across different states to building an Agile team. And on the last day, Sunday, we participated in a half-day unconference.

Using the unconference format, our last day was left open to give Brigade members space to put forward topics they want to discuss. With a lot of great ideas, the voting was tight but we had discussions about retaining volunteers lead by Erin Denton (Code for Orlando), civic tech for small cities lead by John Stephens (Code for Durham), a lively conversation around how tech is not neutral lead by Ramy Kim (Open Oakland) and Andrew Schrock (Long Beach), and so much more.

Deciding on unconference topics

Lastly, we got to roll up our sleeves and participate in some hands-on training sessions. Brigade members are all volunteers with varied day jobs, both in and outside tech, so yes, we all gave up a weekend to work on stuff that matters. Code for America staff members led sessions on stakeholder mapping, user research, and their work with the justice system. Brigade members took the lead too, with sessions on creating logic models by Carlos Moreno (Code for Tulsa), non-traditional community engagement by Cyrus Sethna (Code for DC). Laura Biediger (Code for Durham) tapped into her day job with a session about “ask a govie.”

What Comes Next?

For leaders like us, the connections, the feedback, and the relationships we form at Brigade Congress are invaluable. As members of the National Advisory Council (NAC), we are eager for raw feedback and advice on how we can serve the network better, and we’re always looking for ways to advance and improve our community.

Election framework feedback

With that said, we got some great feedback during the event on the NAC election process and we urge community members to help lead this movement and to consider running in the next National Advisory Council election coming up in early 2019. January 14, 2019, will be the first day to file for the election and the election will be held from February 18–27, 2019. More information and details will be shared through the Brigade leadership updates.

We learned there is a thirst to figure out better ways for Brigades to work more collaboratively on cross-Brigade projects. We are eager to figure out the best way for Brigade Action Teams to be successful. Be on the lookout for a workshop in December 2018 to explore this in more detail.

The opportunities for the civic tech community are endless. The potential to positively change government and our local communities our staring us in the face. It’s our time to take action and form strategic partnerships. No one is coming to save us, it’s up to us.

No one is coming; it’s up to us.